Strategy 2 The Word of God Session 3 Exegesis – What the Bible says

Exegesis 1 – Understanding God’s Word to ‘them’

The need to understand this applies to each of us, whether we know it or not. We all have an exegetical view of the Bible which drives our hermeneutic. Or, in plain English, we all have a way of understanding the Bible, which influences our way interpreting it (especially in our daily lives). Even if we claim that we don’t understand the Bible, that will influence how we apply anything we hear and/or read from the Bible. Even the atheist has an exegetical approach – he doesn’t believe it so ignores it, or he may think it is beautiful literature and leave it at that.

Exegesis = understanding what the text says – literally: reading out of the text, as opposed to reading into the text, eisegesis – not good! Typically in a grammatical/historic sense – i.e. what the text meant to the original hearers – God’s Word to them

Hermeneutics = the art/science of biblical interpretation i.e. God’s Word to us here and now But before we get into that, we need to ask:

Why is Exegesis important?

Take a text out of context and you are left with a con! David’s Tent movement – bad exegesis, linking two words which are similar in English but which have totally different meanings in the original; (also betrays an understanding of Scripture which applies to the church OT promises made to Israel?)

Firstly, it’s important because the Bible itself instructs us “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by God, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) ‘Correctly handles’ means not pulling together unrelated texts in order to prop up some non-Biblical position, but accurately handling it, which is what this session is about.

For this we need a growing knowledge of the Word of God, and especially of the God of the Word! Peter says, “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18), which comes primarily through the Word of God – “Search the Scriptures … for these are they that speak of Me “ (John 5:39) and by the Spirit of God – He “will lead you into all truth” (John 16:12)

We also need an understanding of the Bible’s overall content and its setting, history and geography. There are also clearly established principles of interpreting the Bible and we ignore these at our peril! Peter also says that “Paul’s letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (and he was an apostle!), which can be misinterpreted and destroy people – both the interpreter and those they would teach.

The Bible is a powerful book – it contains God’s will expressed in words, and when God speaks, things happen. So we must handle it with care and respect, like you would a box of fireworks.

Schools of interpretation

Two main schools, name after the very early groupings in the church:

  • Antiochian – literal, historical/grammatical – says what it means and means what it says
    • Apostolic influence up until the third century after which it declined, and only recovered with the Reformation when people started reading the Bible for themselves
  • Alexandrian – allegorical – need to find the hidden meanings behind the text
    • Philosophical influence – starting mid second century and dominating after third, resulting in the Dark Ages when the Bible was a closed book to the laity

Historical/existential – Unlocking the Bible David Pawson see p861. The whole of the book is an example of this dual approach. David Pawson first gives the background and setting of the book and then unpacks the message of the book. What he does at a book-level, we need to do at any level

Why do we need to interpret the Bible?

After all “Do all things without grumbling or complaining” is pretty clear! Problem is not in understanding it but in obeying it, putting it into practice! And there’s a feeling that often preachers make things more difficult to understand, not less so, when they dig around in the text and ‘muddy the waters’. Then there’s all sorts of strange ideas around, all of which claim to have Biblical authority, e.g. snake handling amongst the Appalachians (see Mark 16:18).

Why can’t we just read what is says and leave it at that? Two problems

  1. You, the Reader – inbuilt bias or pre-suppositions
  2. The nature of Scripture – eternally relevant but rooted in a particular time and culture
  1. The Reader – inbuilt bias or pre-suppositions

We all tend to assume that our understanding is what the writer meant, but we all bring to any text all that we are, our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas, e.g. words like church, flesh.

The translation we use also affects our understanding – we’ll look at this in the next session, but words used in the translation may help or hinder us; they may make the writer’s meaning clearer or more obscure.

Differences between denominations also arise from different understandings, e.g. baptism by immersion or infant baptism, the eternal security of believers or the possibility of losing one’s salvation – all argued for and against with great conviction as based on the ‘plain’ meaning of bible texts, and often the same texts.

Sometimes we make a text or passage say what we want it to mean rather than what it actually says, e.g. 3 John 2 beloved of the prosperity gospel teachers.

The answer to bad interpretation is not no interpretation but good interpretation, mediated by Holy Spirit enlightened common sense.

  • The nature of Scripture – eternally relevant but rooted in a particular time and culture

Historically, the Church has understood the nature of Scripture much the same as it has understood the person of Christ – at the same time, both human and divine. “The Bible is the Word of God given in human words in history.”

As God’s Word, it has eternal relevance, speaks to all humankind, in every age and every culture. But, as human words in history, each book is conditioned by the language, time and culture in which it was originally written.

If it was only one or the other, the task would be a lot simpler! As human words only, all we have to do is look at the historical setting. If God’s Word only, it can be viewed as a series of divine imperatives – propositions to be believed and imperatives to be obeyed. But it’s not laid out like that! It might be easier for us if it was, but God, in His wisdom, has spoken His eternal truths in particular circumstances and events of human history – which gives us hope that these same words will speak again and again in our history as they have done throughout history.

So there’s a tension between these two elements. The fact that the Bible does have a human side is an encouragement, but also a challenge, and the reason we need to interpret. Two points:

  • God chose almost every kind of communication: narrative, history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of all kinds, poetry of all kinds, proverbs, prophecies, oracles, riddles, drama, biography, parables, letters, sermons and apocalypses. Handout? We need to understand something about these genres and in what way they might apply to us, e.g. dietary laws
    • The Bible was written down over at 1500 year period, in different cultures, addressed to the people of the time – “God’s word to us” was first of all “God’s word to them”. They would understand it relevant to their circumstances.

John Stott has written: “In order to apprehend Jesus Christ in His fullness, it is essential to understand the setting within which God offers Him to us. God gave Christ to the world in a specific geographical, historical and theological context.” (Understanding the Bible)

Mind the gap!

Our first job, then, is to try and understand the original context. But there are some significant gaps between us and the Bible in the three aspects that John Stott mentions.

The History Gap

Every Scripture must be understood in its historical setting, so we can grasp the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. Do we wonder why ‘tax collectors’ were so frowned on and Jesus was frowned on for associating with them? Or why Jesus had such harsh words for the people who were the keenest to live godly lives?

Find out about the historical setting of the first century – Roman rule of the then-known world, occupation of Israel, Jewish culture at the time. A good Bible dictionary will help with this.

Importance of the historical context is described in the book I recommended How to Read the Bible for all its worth pp 131- 134, as the first task of exegesis. The link will take you to the book on Amazon, but while there you might also search for “How to read the Bible book by book”, which shows how to apply the principles to each book, and also “How to choose a translation for all its worth” which I mention later on. All three books by Gordon Fee, with either Douglas Stuart or Mark Strauss.

The Culture Gap

The greatest difference between our age and Bible times is that there was no Middle ClassI Then you were either poor or rich – nothing in between. I think there’s a huge culture gap between people of my generation and ‘the younger generation’ (as I expect my parents did when I was younger! Although I wasn’t aware of the gap at the time). How much greater is the gap between our technological age and the first century?

Why, for example, did Jesus say to the disciples, when sending them out on their first mission, “Do not greet anyone on the road”? It doesn’t take long to say ‘Hello’, but we can do that in our culture – greet and pass on. In their culture (and other cultures today, e.g. Africa), it would entail a long conversation – Where are you going, where are you from, what’s your name, how’s your family. Complete strangers would have the sort of conversations we would only have with old friends. So that would be a hindrance to the disciples’ mission. There is a sense of urgency!

Or why were the Pharisees so incensed by a woman washing Jesus’ feet? And how did she get to His feet anyway? The social context and seating arrangements for meals in the first century will give greater understanding and show the great challenge that Jesus’ approach to women was for his contemporaries – and give an answer to the claims that the Bible puts women down!

There were also lots of philosophies around in the cultures of the Bible world – none of them, other than the Hebraic, based on the Judeo-Christian ethic that we have grown up with! Our world is rapidly becoming the same. Understanding how the statements in the Bible were calculated to challenge those philosophies will help us in our modern setting.

For example, Jesus always raised the matter of the resurrection of the dead when dealing with the Sadducees, as any question they asked arose from their fundamental error that ‘there is no resurrection’ (Matt. 22:23), based on ignorance of the “Scriptures and the power of God”. Paul tackled the Athenians on their ignorance, rather than debate them on their areas of learning (Acts 17:22-23).

The Language Gap

Literary context – second task of exegesis How to Read p134 ff

The Bible uses a rich variety of language, reflecting the style of the individual writers, and the different types of writing – poetry, history, etc. As you might expect, the poetic books (mainly OT – there are snatches of poetry in NT but not whole books) are full of picture language – metaphors and analogies. The prophetic scriptures (Revelation in NT) also use different figures speech and symbolism. This reflects the attempts of the human mind to describe the indescribable. Other parts are more straightforward.

But there is still a gap to be bridged – the difficulty of accurately translating from the original language. The subtleties of Hebrew (OT) and Greek (NT) do not always easily translate into English, and sometimes a number of different words in the original are translated by a single English word, which can mask the original writer’s meaning. For example, the word ‘love’ is used to translate a number of different Greek words, based on 4 root words:

  • Storge – love as between members of a family
  • Eros – romantic and sexual love (derived:- erotic)
  • Phileo – fondness, the affection of friendship, kindness (derived:- philanthropy)
  • Agape – a distinctly Christian word (the Greeks had the word but apparently didn’t really understand it!), coined by the NT writers to describe the self-giving love of God, which is the model for Christian love

Words based on the last two are the only ones that are found in the NT and the shades of meaning can be found contrasted in John 21 – completely lost in English!

Jesus “Peter, do you love me with the self-giving love of God?” (agape) Peter couldn’t rise to that. He replied “I love You like a friend”

This exchange is repeated

Then the 3rd Time Jesus “Do you love me like a friend?” – Peter was grieved

Also, words only have meaning in sentences, e.g. key (to a door, or a situation) or bear (noun or verb). So context is all important. More on this later.

The Geography Gap

Bible events took place in a particular geographical setting. This is much more relevant for the OT, but understanding the geography of Israel and where Jesus was in the NT story, will help us understand the different reactions of people. He was more popular in the north, and much less so in the South.

These were separated by Samaria, which the Jews would not travel through and had long detour via Jericho and up the Jordan valley (a route still used today). So the passage ‘He had to go through Samaria’ takes on a new significance – He had an appointment with a needy Samaritan woman at the well st Sychar!

Knowing where Paul’s journeys took him, also gives background information, e.g. the Macedonian call took him into Europe for the first time.

Exegesis 2 – Hearing God’s Word to them

Once we have attempted to ‘bridge the gaps; we need to try to hear the words as the original hearers heard them – God’s Word to them ‘then and there’. This will ensure we don’t go off in flights of fancy of our own making!

Not just the ‘difficult bits’ but what looks fairly clear– avoid all appearance of evil – to do with prophecies in the church not buying communion wine! (but maybe there’s a principle there)

There are three rules for this:

Context, context, context!

  1. Historical context

Get a good Bible dictionary. Find out the occasion and purpose of each book, e.g. knowing that Corinth was a depraved city with all kinds of idolatry involving sexual practices helps us to understand some of the references Paul makes; knowing that Philippi was a colony of Rome (and what that meant at the time) opens up Phil 3:20

  • Literary context

The crucial task in exegesis – words only have meanings in sentences (e.g. key or bear), and in the Bible, sentences mostly only have clear meaning in relation to other sentences in the same context.

Most important question you can ever ask is “What’s the point?” What is the author saying and why is he saying it right here? Follow the train of thought – the Bible is not given to us as a dictionary of quotations or proof texts!

A Bible with paragraphs is very helpful here as it shows the passages of connected thoughts (at least, connected from the translator’s viewpoint, as the original text had no paragraphs – nor chapters and verses for that matter). Also one that recognises different literary genres, so you know whether you are reading prose or poetry

We also need to take account of figures of speech – proverbs, similes, metaphors, irony. Come back to this in a moment.

  • The content of the text itself

This has to do with meanings of words, grammatical structure, historical items like ‘a sabbath days journey, denarius. Or when Paul says in 2 Cor 5:16 “even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer”, you should want to know who is according ‘to the flesh’ – Christ or the one knowing Him? (It is ‘we’ who know Him no longer ‘from a worldly point of view’ e.g. my misunderstanding cutting us off from Christ’s earthly life to support a specific dispensational viewpoint). Also explains other verses in the immediate context.

This is where other helps will come in, especially commentaries – but only last, after we have done our homework, so we are better equipped to know if the commentator has an axe to grind!


  • Hebraic vs Greek thought

Background to NT is OT, and first century culture not 21st century culture.

Old Testament

The first century Jewish listeners were well-versed in the OT. If we don’t know the OT, lots of allusions pass us by and we can miss the point of what is being said, or mis-understand it. For example, the whole book of Hebrews is rooted in the day of Atonement festival covered in Leviticus 17; you need to be familiar with books like Daniel and Ezekiel in the OT to make any sense of Revelation (or even Matt. 24/Luke 21)

Isn’t it interesting? I’ve just mentioned the 4 books of the Bible which most people would consider the most difficult books. That’s probably because of the type of literature that they are, but also because you have to think pictorially and our Greek-influenced education has taught us to think in straight lines. Even this setting has more to do with Greek thinking rather than Hebrew – a teacher standing up in front of a group of students rather than a teacher living with and discussing with his students.

Holistic vs segregated

The Hebrews saw life as one interconnected whole, service is worship, work is spiritual. The Greek way of thinking separated life into compartments, hence the spiritual/secular divide.

The Greeks saw physical life as essentially evil and wanted release from it into spiritual purity. Hence bodily resurrection was nonsense to them (Acts 17). The Biblical view is that salvation is body, soul and spirit and we are to pursue holiness here and now (1 Thess 5, Heb 12)

The Hebrews had an essentially linear view of history – moving towards a conclusion. Greeks had a vertical view, so we have to strive individually to move ‘up’. History is inconsequential (Unlocking p 891) or even circular

Cultural background

Matt:6:19-24 vv.19-21 are about treasures in heaven and v.24 is about serving god or mammon. So what have vv. 22-23 (eye being sound or evil) got to do with it? Just a random collection of Jesus’ sayings compiled by Matthew in no particular order? No – your eye being evil was a first-century Jewish proverb about being stingy with your money. (clearly pointed out in David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible and his New Testament commentary)

  • Story telling/parables

Most of the Bible is story telling – not history in the modern sense of the word. Although it is historically accurate, it doesn’t relate all the incidental details we would like to know, and mentions what to us are highly important nations and people, only in passing as they impinge on the point that the author is trying to make.

And that’s the point – the stories have a point to make, especially parables. Generally, only one point – not a mine of theological truths e.g. the 2 pennies in the Good Samaritan. Helps us to understand ‘difficult’ passages like the Unjust Steward – Jesus wasn’t condoning his abuse of his master’s goods, but making the point that we need to be focused on eternity

  • Figures of speech – see Handout (which also covers types of literature in the Bible and types of Hebraic teaching methods)

Tools for the Job

  1. A good translation

To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan ”A translator’s lot is not a happy one!” Literal or meaning- based? (NOT the same!) Word-for-word or paraphrase? Formal equivalence or functional equivalence?

E.g. ‘He opened His mouth and taught them saying’ is literal translation of Matt. 5:2 but not good English. A functional equivalent translation would be “He began to teach them” which is what the original readers would have understood the phrase to mean. An English example would be ‘never in a month of Sundays’ – translated into say, French, “jamais dans un mois de dimanches” doesn’t convey much meaning. In French, you would say: quand les poules auront des dents (lit.: when hens have teeth!)

Functionally equivalent ‘translations’ have the problem of bringing the translator’s viewpoint and doctrinal bias in (e,g, Gal. 6:16 ‘even’), but literal translations can obscure the meaning, due to the vagaries of language. So it’s probably a good idea to get at least one translation of each type, although there are some that attempt to chart a middle course.

Formal                                Middle ground                                 Functional                                 

NASB  KJV    RSV                NIV    JB     NEB                                GNT      LB 

             NKJV   NRSV ESV                                CEV                    NLT     Passion  Message

Paragraphs – flow of thought better than single verses (proof texts!)

Online resources – great for researching different translations, commentaries and loads more; you can find a Hebrew and Greek Interlinear app available from your App Store; and e-Sword a free Bible program with loads of translations, Strongs Dictionary and other resources

  • A good Bible dictionary

These come in two main forms – a dictionary of the words (English and/or original languages) with plain meanings and references (concordance) e.g. Strong’s, Young’s, or with a fuller explanation of the usage of the words, e.g. Vines

You can also get dictionaries that are more like an encyclopedia for research, but for regular use a Study Bible which incorporates the Bible text as well, all in one volume can be very useful. The notes are not as full but can be the springboard to further research and understanding.

  • Good commentaries

Where ‘good’ doesn’t mean that the author agrees with you!

Only after we have done our homework! If you start here, your thinking will be coloured and it can be difficult to hear what the text is actually saying – the prior interpretation you have received will focus your thoughts just on that application.

It’s also funny how it’s difficult to find comments on the bits you find difficult – it seems that the commentators also found them difficult and pass over them!

A one-volume-for-the-whole-Bible one can at best be only an overview, e.g. David Pawson’s “Unlocking the Bible” (I don’t agree with all his viewpoints, but I do respect his integrity and learning). They range from that to ones like William Barclay’s 17 volume Daily Study Bible (New Testament only).

The best I can do is to give some criteria for evaluating a commentary (from “How to Read the Bible for all its worth” pp. 266-267). You are basically looking at a commentary to help in your exegesis – what did the original author say and mean? – rather than hermeneutical (what it means to us – next week)

  1. Does the commentary discuss all possible meanings for a verse/passage (particularly the ‘difficult’ ones!), evaluate them and give reasons for the author’s own choice. If he/she is dogmatically stating that his/her opinion is the only one, then there may be some bias!
    1. Is it based on the original Hebrew/Greek text or on an English translation? If based on English, does the author evidence knowledge of the original languages?
    1. Does it give historical and other background information?
    1. Does it give information for further research?

This applies especially to Internet articles – usually just promoting a particular viewpoint, often opinion pieces and not thoroughly researched! Extreme caution required!!

Worked examples

  • The Underlying Text

Mark 1:41 indignant in a few translations, compassion is the majority – why? Have these few translations captured something that most, if not all other translations have missed? Or is there an agenda in operation? Compare with other Gospel records Matt. 8:1-4; Luke 5:12-16 – don’t help as they leave out the phrase entirely!

So we need to look at the underlying text:

σπλαγχνισθεις (“being compassionate”) – vast majority of Greek texts and witnesses

variant reading:

οργισθεις (“being angry”) – mainly Codex Bezae (4th cent.), but also very early witnesses, like the Diatessaron and Latin versions (3rd & 4th cents.)

Most scholars believe this to be a significant textual dilemma because the variant is such an obviously difficult reading, while “being compassionate” has such exceedingly strong documentation.

The argument runs as thus:

If σπλαγχνισθεις (“being compassionate”) had originally been in the text, why would any scribe want to change it to οργισθεις (“being angry”)? Thus, οργισθεις must have been original, which was then changed to σπλαγχνισθεις. But we must remember that the scribe who wrote οργισθεις was the scribe of Codex Bezae.  This scribe (or a predecessor) was a literary editor who had a propensity for making significant changes in the text. At this point, he may have decided to make Jesus angry with the leper for wanting a miracle—in keeping with the tone of voice Jesus used in 1:43 when he sternly warned the leper. But this was not a warning about seeking a miracle; it was a warning about keeping the miracle a secret so as to protect Jesus’ identity.

Therefore, it would have to be said that, though it is possible Mark wrote οργισθεις, nearly all the documents line up against this. This is not to say that Jesus never got angry or exasperated with people; he did (see Mark 7:34; 9:19; John 11:33, 38). It simply seems unwise to take the testimony of Codex Bezae in this instance when good arguments can be made against it, according to both external and internal criteria.

It is also possible that the similar Aramaic words for “to have pity” (ethraḥam) and “to be enraged” (ethraʿem) may have been confused during translation into Greek.

What was the writer’s intention; remember the point is to know God, what does this verse tell us about Jesus? How do the different readings relate to other Scriptures? Did Jesus ever get indignant or angry with someone seeking help? What about Matt. 11:28-30? Isa. 42:3?

  • Hebrew Culture and Scripture

Matt. 6:19-24 What has “your eyes being good or bad” got to do with treasures in heaven, and God and Mammon? David Stern Complete Jewish Bible points out that this has to do with nbeing generous or stingy:

Prov. 22:9 – good eye = generous; Prov. 23:6 – evil eye – miser

  • Grammar

Matt. 7:7-8 Ask, Seek, Knock. Whole ministries based on misunderstanding these verses! We don’t always get what we want however persistently we pray for it. So what did Jesus mean? We understand from the order of the words in the Greek, and the verb tenses used, that He was stressing that if you want to receive, you must ask, and so on. It’s an encouragement to pray – receiving is conditional on asking, not that we can get anything we want as long as we are persistent. Jesus is encouraging a sense of dependency of our Father, not seeing Him as some divine slot machine from which we can get what we want if put in the magic coin ‘faith’ or ‘persistency’.

See “Notes on Ask, Seek, Knock

  • Greek Culture

Col. 2:14 Handwriting (legal bond) of ordinances (dogma – decrees)

King James Bible
Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;

New King James Version
having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

Law of Moses? Eph. 2:15

New American Standard Bible
having canceled the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

English Standard Version
by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

Amplified Bible
having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of legal demands [which were in force] against us and which were hostile to us. And this certificate He has set aside and completely removed by nailing it to the cross.

Bill of sale, or promissory note – an I.O.U. or bond or mortgage deed, recording the details of the debt and the terms of payment. On full payment, the word tetelestai was written across it and it was nailed in a prominent place to show the debt was paid!