A Practical Guide to Hermeneutics

Principles & Techniques of Bible Interpretation

This online workbook guides you through a step-by-step process for understanding and interpreting four Biblical literary types (genres): Old Testament narratives, the prophets, the Gospels, and New Testament epistles. This systematic approach to the text is called the inductive method.

Each page will bring you to a worksheet with this step-by-step process outlined and explained. You'll also find examples from Scripture. In some cases you can listen to audio explaining the process. It is our prayer that as you explore the Bible in this systematic way, God will broaden your understanding of His word, deepen your faith, and equip you for a life of effective Scripture-based ministry. Please feel free to contact me with your feedback: LeffelJ@xenos.org.

God's Revelation through the Bible: He has spoken!

Christianity is a revealed faith—God has spoken directly to mankind, and has revealed His character, His purpose in history, and His plan for redeeming and restoring man to a relationship with Him. We don’t have to imagine or surmise what God is like or what He asks of us. Instead we can have confidence in the truth that God Himself has made known to us, because it comes directly from Him.

The Bible is one of God’s primary vehicles of revealing Himself. Through it He will show us statements of fact (See Luke 1:1-4), wisdom (See Heb. 5:14, 1 Cor. 2:14, Ps. 1, 119), and even personal insight—God speaking to us and our situation through the Holy Spirit (Heb. 4:12; Deut. 8:3; 1 Pet. 2:2; Ps. 119:105, 169; 2 Tim. 3:16). Since the Bible represents God’s communication to us, we have a sacred responsibility to guard it as a precious treasure (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14). We are to accurately interpret and teach it (2 Tim. 2:15), protect it against those who distort its meaning (1 Tim. 6:20- 21; 2 Tim. 1:13-14), and regularly use it to encourage other members of the Body of Christ (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19; 2 Tim. 4:1-4).

Jim Leffel explains the inductive method, an approach to studying the Bible that aims to get at the Biblical author's original intended meaning (22 min. audio).

The purpose of Biblical interpretation—hermeneutics—is to discover the author’s intended meaning. This can be difficult because language can be ambiguous, but a student of Scripture is under obligation to work toward an accurate (though perhaps not exhaustive) understanding of the author’s original intent.

Biblical interpretation is a skill that you can develop with practice over time. Just as with learning a musical instrument or a new sport, you may feel clumsy or ill-equipped at first. But with sound technique and practice, you’ll become more proficient and capable. The reward of such effort is being able to see deeply into the mind of God, and fall more and more under His loving leadership.

The inductive method of Bible study offers a practical process for accurate interpretation. This method uses details of the text to arrive at the author’s intended meaning. It’s an approach used widely in both everyday problem solving and rigorous academic study, relying on common sense to give explanation for the observed data. The inductive method is in contrast with topical study—looking for answers to a particular doctrinal question—and with devotional study—looking at scripture for truth that speaks to current needs or interests.

The inductive method is rooted in two principles:

  • Scripture interprets scripture: The inductive approach looks to draw meaning from the text itself, rather than imposing meaning upon it. It relies on information gleaned from text. A careful student of the Bible will find a wealth of such information, with repeated themes, terms, and direct quotes of other scripture providing a commentary of sorts within the Bible itself. Such information includes:
    • Technical terms:  Words used by numerous biblical authors to convey the same idea or a growing theme in the scripture (e.g. “branch,” “Son,” “servant,” “Day of the Lord,” “Christ,” “kingdom,” “temple,” and “grace”).
    • Event repetition.  Reference to key events, especially in Israel’s history, that show a continuity and pattern of meaning over time (e.g. Exodus, creation, and wilderness wandering).  This is called motif—the meaning of the present or future is defined in terms of a past event.
    • Direct quotes or allusions.  Almost every biblical writer quotes or alludes to other biblical texts.  Careful analysis will show how a later author understood earlier texts, thus shedding light on both the scripture cited and the passage in which the citation occurs.
    • Promises and covenants.  No other point of repetition demonstrates the unity of the Bible more explicitly than promises and covenants.  Key promises God makes are cited or alluded to in every book of the Bible.
  • Your interpretation is held up to three standards of proof—sometimes called the “grammatical historical method”—which will either give you confidence or skepticism about your take on a passage.
    • Adequacy:  Is your interpretation complete? Does it explain all of the details of the text? Are all subordinate points meaningfully related to the main point?
    • Consistency.  Does your interpretation agree with external facts? Has the interpretation effectively considered current cultural customs?  Is the interpretation consistent with historical events to which the text refers?  What does the text state or imply about nature?
    • Coherence. Given the context and the rest of Scripture, does your interpretation make sense?  Does it harmonize with other related scriptures?  Does it include an appropriate understanding of literary context and genre, word meaning, and sentence structure?  What is the basic argument of the text?

Hermeneutics - Old Testament Narrative

Overview of the Old Testament Narrative Genre

Much of the Old Testament scripture is considered narrative—stories told by a narrator, with elements of dialog. Included in the works of narrative are the books of Genesis through Esther as well as major portions of the prophetic books. Proper interpretation and application of Old Testament narrative is built on the principle that such scripture is historical, theological and literary in nature.

Old Testament Narrative as History

  • In contrast with a nationalistic myth, Old Testament narrative is a truthful recording of history, with the goal of revealing and glorifying God. This principle is supported for several reasons:
    • These narratives are cited in both the Old and New Testament as being history
    • Requiring archaeological confirmation of an Old Testament event in order to consider it historic is not a standard applied to other historic accounts.
    • Old Testament narratives employ a literary style that is distinctly different from the mythology written by other cultures of this time
  • In contrast with the non-existent animistic deities worshipped by people the Old Testament times, one of the key goals of Old Testament narrative is to demonstrate the God of Israel as an actual God, existing and moving in history (See I Kings 18; Isaiah 40:18-24; 46:1-11.)
  • In contrast with other ancient cultures’ concepts of time—that time is just an endless turning of season to season—the view of Old Testament narratives is that time is linear and history progresses through a meaningful and coherent drama toward an end. Without this notion of linear time, concepts like “progress” or “meaning” or “purpose” are irrational.

Old Testament Narrative as Theology

  • Old Testament narratives are not just stories. They are historic accounts deliberately told to demonstrate God's faithfulness to His promises and His sovereignty over human history.
  • Old Testament narratives are inter-related, progressing accounts of God’s purpose for history and how He intends to accomplish it. As the narratives tell what happened (the context for God’s revelation), they also indicate why it matters (the purpose of history).

Old Testament Narrative as Literature

The theology of a given narrative provides the literary center of the work—its main point. Narrative accounts are selective and purposeful—events and characters are to be understood in relation to the main theological point of the narrative. A proper understanding of the main point depends on an understanding of the narrative’s place in the rest of Scripture, much as a play’s different acts should be understood in the context of the rest of the play.

Three important devices are used in Old Testament narratives to show God progressively revealing Himself and His plan of salvation through the course of time. Understanding these devices and looking for them within Old Testament narratives will greatly enhance your ability to see the main point and properly apply it.

  • Markers: Often the main point of an Old Testament narrative—its meaning—can be found in key theological statements called markers. These are the primary points God is communicating or the primary ways he is working—they “mark” out eras of Old Testament history. A proper understanding of a given narrative will depend on an understanding of what marker God is working through.
    Markers include:
    • Blessings: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” Genesis 1:28
    • Covenants: the Law of Moses (Exodus 20ff) and the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31)
    • Promises: unconditional statements of God’s intent. God’s promises to Abraham and David serve as the literary center of meaning for many Old Testament narratives:
      • The Abrahamic promise serves as the center of the narrative from Genesis through Joshua. It starts with God’s blessing on Abraham, continues with the forming of a people (Gen. 15-Ex. 19) and the ruling of a people (Ex. 20-40, Leviticus, & Deuteronomy), and the inheriting of the land (Joshua).
      • The Davidic promise serves as the center of the narrative from Judges through 2 Chronicles. It covers the preparation for the monarchy (Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel), God’s blessing on David (2 Samuel 7-24/1 Chron. 17-29), God’s faithfulness to Solomon (1 Kings 1-11/2 Chron. 1-9) and God’s faithfulness to David’s line (1 Kings 12-2 Kings 25/2 Chron. 10-36)
  • Links: Along with the markers are links, which serve as transitions from one marker to another. Links demonstrate that God has not changed His mind about how He will move in human history or suddenly switched to a different plan of salvation. Instead links show that He is progressively revealing and accomplishing His plan—that the markers are “linked” together to form a chain of eventual salvation for mankind. Links show the purposefulness and cohesiveness of God’s work.
    Some examples:
    • God “remembers” his covenant (a marker) with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex. 2:23-25; 6:5) and orchestrates the Exodus (a new marker).
    • God tells Joshua that He will be with him just as He was with Moses (the Exodus marker). This comes as God begins a new marker—the conquest of the land, which fulfills a promise made to Abraham.
  • Motifs or thematic paradigms: Certain themes regularly surface throughout the telling of God’s plan of salvation—from the beginning of Genesis through the end of Revelations. These themes are:
    • Regeneration: the creation of new life out of chaos and lifelessness. Consider the creation story in Genesis and Jesus’ offer to be re-born spiritually.
    • Reconciliation: God attaching Himself to people. Consider God’s promise to Abraham to create a unique covenant people and Jesus’ death providing reconciliation with God through his death on the cross—the New Covenant.
    • Redemption: God rescuing people from bondage. Consider the Exodus and salvation through Jesus providing people the opportunity to have freedom from the bondage of sin.

These themes come up again and again because God is progressively fulfilling His goal of rescuing man from spiritual death, enslavement to sin, purposelessness, and alienation. Old Testament narratives use these themes to show an incomplete fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation, which is then “filled” by Jesus, but will be completely and ultimately fulfilled at history’s end. Looking for these themes will greatly help your ability to see the main point of an Old Testament narrative and its place in God’s overall message of grace and salvation for people.

Narrative Overview

In reading a narrative, jot down your observations about where the action is happening, key people referenced and anything that describes the circumstances surrounding the narrative. Jim Leffel explains this step in more detailSummarize the following elements.

Historical Situation

Investigate the general circumstances God’s people are facing at the time. Some helpful reference books:

  • J.D. Douglas, ed., New Bible Dictionary
  • John H. Walton, IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
  • D.J. Wiseman, ed., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
  • Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History
  • There are also free online references as well.

Main Themes

Main themes, the theological emphasis of the narrative, are implied or sometimes explicitly given by the author. As you read, look for these hints to the main theme:

  • Theological markers: A promise, covenant or blessing. E.g.: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen. 1:28); the Law of Moses (Ex. 20ff); the New Covenant (Jer. 31); The Abrahamic promise (Gen. 12:1-3); the Davidic promise (2 Sam. 7).
  • Summary statements: Statements that draw conclusions about the events of the narrative. They provide an outline or overview of the events. E.g.: Judges 2:6-23, which draws the conclusion that the judges era was a dismal failure, illustrated by the cycle of apostasy among leaders, and pointing the need for a monarch.
  • Theological links: Links are statements or events that serve as transitions from one marker to another. Links show that these markers are not random ways that God works in human history, but are instead "linked" together to form God's overall plan of salvation for mankind. E.g.: God tells Joshua that He will be with him just as He was with Moses (the Exodus marker). This comes as God begins a new marker--the conquest of the land, which fulfills a promise made to Abraham.
  • Repeated phrases: For example, the “sins of Jeroboam,” used in II Kings 3:3; 10:29; 13:2; 13:11; 14:24; 15:9, 18,28; 17:21

Context in the Old Testament Story

How does this narrative fit in with the overall flow of Old Testament history? What in general could be said about these times that helps our understanding about why this particular story matters? We often see God’s purpose in a given narrative by better understanding its place in salvation history. See chart below for an overview of the major eras in Old Testament history:

  Date Book(s) Historical Events Key Theological Markers
Pre-history   Genesis 1-11
  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Flood
  • Babel scattering 
  • Creation blessing
  • Adam Covenant
  • Seed blessing
  • Shem blessing
Patriarchal Era 2160-1876 B.C Genesis 12-50
  • Call of Abraham
  • Four generations from Abraham
  • Covenant with Abraham: Heirs
  • and Land
  • Judah blessing
Egyptian Captivity and Exodus 1876-1446 B. C. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  • Moses
  • Plagues
  • Exodus
  • Law
  • Wanderings
  • God remembers and redeems: Mosaic Law & nation of priests
  • Substitutionary Atonement
Conquest and Judges 1406-1050 B. C. Joshua, Judges, and Ruth
  • Canaan conquered
  • Cycle of apostasy
  • Fulfillment of land promise
  • Chaos without  king
United Monarchy 1050-931 B. C. 1, 2 Samuel; 1 Kings 1—11; 1 Chronicles—2 Chronicles 9; Wisdom Lit.
  • Saul, David and Solomon
  • Israel’s “Golden Age”
  • Covenant with David: eternal kingdom and eternal dynasty
  • Judah blessing
Divided Monarchy 931-586 B. C. 1 Kings 12—2 Kings; 2 Chron. 10—36; Hosea, Micah, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah 1—26
  • Division of Israel from Judah
  • Conquest of Israel (722 BC) and Judah (586 BC)

Prophets predict God’s temporal judgment and future promise:

  • Davidic King
  • Day of the Lord
  • Servant of the Lord
Exile and Resettlement 586-400 B.C. Jeremiah 27—52, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Malachi, Zechariah, Haggai,
  • Judah in Babylon for 70 years
  • God restores a remnant in Judah; rebuilds Jerusalem
  • New Covenant
  • Revelation of the future of human history
  • Triumph of God’s kingdom

Passage Study - Step 1

Examine the structure of the overall narrative, breaking it down into the individual "scenes" for further study.

After identifying the main themes in the overview, it's time to break the story down into the units that make it a complete account. Think of narratives as multiple act plays. This step involves identifying the acts of the play or scenes in the story. When the narrative shifts location, changes time, or introduces new people, that's the signal that a new scene has begun.

Here is an example of a breakdown of the "scenes" found in the narrative of Abraham:

Gen. 12:1-3 Promise of blessing to Abraham, a nation, all humanity while Abram is still in Ur.
Gen. 12:7 Reaffirming the land blessing as Abraham travels to Canaan.
Gen. 13:14-17 After Abraham redeems Lot from Sodom
Gen. 15:4-7 Clarification: From your own body will the promised son come.
Gen. 15:13-21 Promise becomes a unilateral Covenant—notice land dimensions
Gen. 16:10 Ishmael is blessed as a son of Abraham
Gen. 17:2-8 Abram becomes Abraham; circumcision is the sign of covenant.
Gen. 17:16 Sarah is to be blessed
Gen. 17:19-21 Isaac to be born; God will establish His covenant with Isaac.
Gen. 18:18-19 Purpose of the promise: legacy of justice and righteousness
Gen. 21:12 Isaac is the son of covenant, not Ishmael.
Gen. 22:17-18 Reaffirming the covenant after Abraham’s obedience at Mt. Moriah.
Gen. 24:7 Covenant in context of Rebekah and Isaac’s marriage.
Gen. 26:24 Reassurance to Isaac under threat.
Gen. 32:9 & 12 Jacob’s prayer for safety as the son of covenant
Gen. 35:11-12 God blesses Jacob (deceiver) now called Israel (strives with God).

Jim Leffel defines an Old Testament narrative and how to break down larger passages into these smaller units for study.

  1. Examine Setting:
    1. Context: Briefly summarize scenes coming before and after
      Look at the content of passages before and after the one you are studying.  Briefly note the events and themes described, and think about how they might relate to the scene you are studying.
    2. Identify:
      • Who: Describe each person in the scene, noting characteristics that the narrator identifies. Where are they from? Are they friend or foe? Are they portrayed as a positive example or a cautionary example? The more you understand about the characters, the more vivid your understanding of the scene will be.
        Note: God can be a character in the scene as well, so note how He is characterized as well.
      • Where: Where is the action happening and is there any significance to that? Why are the characters where they are?
      • When: When does the narrative take place? What in general could be said about these times that helps our understanding about why this particular story matters? We often see God’s purpose in a given narrative by better understanding its place in salvation history. See chart below:
        Salvation History Through The Old Testament

    Era

    Date

    Book(s)

    Historical Events

    Key Theological Markers

    Prehistory   Genesis 1—11
    • Creation
    • Fall
    • Flood
    • Babel scattering
    • Creation blessing
    • Adam Covenant
    • Seed blessing
    • Shem blessing
    Patriarchal Era    2160—1876 B.C. Genesis 12—50
    • Call of Abraham
    • Four generations from Abraham
    • Covenant with Abraham
    • Heirs
    • Land
    • Judah blessing
    Egyptian Captivity and Exodus  1876—1446 B.C. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
    • Moses
    • Plagues
    • Exodus
    • Law
    • Wanderings
    • God remembers and redeems
    • Mosaic Law
    • Nation of priests
    • Sub. Atonement
    Conquest and Judges 1406—1050 Joshua, Judges, Ruth
    • Canaan conquered
    • Cycle of apostasy
    • Fulfillment of land promise
    • Chaos without king
    United Monarchy 1050—931 B.C. 1, 2 Samuel; 1 Kings 1—11; 1 Chronicles—2 Chronicles 9; Wisdom Lit.
    • Saul, David and Solomon
    • Israel’s “Golden Age”
    • Covenant with David:
    • Eternal kingdom
    • Eternal dynasty
    Divided Monarchy 931—586 B.C. 1 Kings 12—2 Kings; 2 Chron. 10—36; Hosea, Micah, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah 1—26
    • Division of Israel from Judah
    • Conquest of Israel (722 BC) and Judah (586 BC)
    Prophets predict God’s temporal judgment and future promise:
    • Davidic King
    • Day of the Lord
    • Servant of the Lord
    Exile and Resettlement 586—400 B.C. Jeremiah 27—52, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Malachi, Zechariah, Haggai,
    • Judah in Babylon for 70 years
    • God restores a remnant in Judah; rebuilds Jerusalem
    • New Covenant
    • Revelation of the future of human history
    • Triumph of God’s kingdom
  2. Examine plot and dialogue within the scene: In this step, you want to look carefully at how the author tells the story. Why does he include the elements of the story plot and dialogue that he does? What do you think he is trying to highlight through what he includes? What "point of view" is he communicating by the way he tells the story? For more details on this step see the links below.
    • Narration: What is the author communicating by the way he tells the story?
      What do we learn about the author's point of view and perspective of the characters and the situation, based on his narration--the way he tells the story? (Jim Leffel talks about the value of observing how the story is told.)
      As you study the narration, note the author's choice of space and tempo and editorial insertions:
      • Space and tempo refers to the author's emphasis on certain elements of the story, based on the amount of attention devoted to them in the narrative. The more "time" devoted to a particular aspect or event in a narrative, the more important it likely is to the author's overall point. Through this he is drawing the reader’s attention to what is important.  Note for instance in the creation narrative of Genesis 1 that the creative days leading to the creation of man move very quickly, but then the pace slows as the uniqueness of man is carefully described: the crown of creation.  So interpreters need to pay close attention to what is being emphasized through narrative slowing and events or dialogue expanding.
      • Editorial insertions refers to the way the author "frames" the story through statements to the reader. Look for meaningful introductions (see Genesis 1:1), meaningful conclusions or summaries (see Genesis 2:3), and statements that are clarifications, evaluations, or explanations (Genesis 6:6; 1 Samuel 21:6; Exodus 1:8).
    • Action and Dialogue: How does the plot of the narrative move forward? Look at the action described and the dialogue that is presented.  Almost all Old Testament narratives follow the pattern of a circumstance being introduced--perhaps a problem--then unfolding through a series of scenes, culminating in a climax or crisis, and then reaching resolution, e.g., the flood narrative (Genesis 6-9), Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), and Jacob and Esau (Genesis 32-33).
      As you look at the development of the plot and the dialogue, notice the narrator's description of how the events and dialogue shape the character's development. Describe what we’re told of the inner life, motivations, relative virtue, spiritual sensitivity, and relationship of the characters to the main point of the narrative.  Is the reader to be drawn to or repulsed by the characters?  How have the key characters been changed through the narrative? (see Gen. 32, 33).
    • Example of this Plot/Dialogue study:
      • Scene #1: 1:1-2
        Author's point of view in narration: "Nineveh is a great city, but wicked"
      • Scene #2: 1:3-16
        • Author's point of view in narration:
          • “But” (1:3)
          • “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” (1:3, 10)
          • downward direction (1:3, 5)
        • Action:
          • Jonah moves directly away from his calling, into self-imposed isolation in the bottom of the ship
          • Sailors become frightened, cast lots, find Jonah, confront Jonah, throw Jonah overboard; the storm ends; offer sacrifices to Jonah’s God
        • Dialogue:
          • "How can you sleep?—You must pray to your god, maybe he’ll hear us."
          • "I am a Hebrew, I fear the Lord of heaven who made the sea and dry land"
          • "How could you do this?"
          • "You must toss me into the sea"
      • Scene #3: 3: 1:17—2:9
        • Author's point of view in narration:
          • Jonah’s descent is complete (1:17;2:6)
          • A poetic prayer reflects a change in perspective
        • Action:
          • God appoints a fish to save Jonah—but he will fall to the depths for a while first
          • Jonah finally prays—for himself
        • Dialogue:
          • Jonah’s prayer:
            • A plea: “I called out of my distress”
            • A result: “You brought up my life from the pit”
            • A response: thanksgiving to God, whom Jonah remembered
            • Conclusion: Salvation is from the Lord
      • Scene #4: 2:10—3:9
        • Author's point of view in narration: a bit of ironic contrast between Jonah’s proclamation of judgment, without a call to repent, and the repentance of Nineveh
        • Action:
          • Jonah heeds God’s second “word” and goes to Nineveh
          • Jonah preaches while walking the wall of the city
          • The people and the king believe and repent, calling out to the Lord for mercy
        • Dialogue:
          • Interestingly, there is no dialogue, only Jonah preaching and the people responding.
          • Nineveh is to be overthrown in forty days
          • King’s decree: No eating or drinking; each are to repent of their wickedness
          • King’s plea: “Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw his anger and we may not perish”
      • Scene #5: 3:10—4:11
        • Author's point of view in narration: this is where the real climax and resolution of the story is—what it’s all been leading up to
        • Action:
          • God relents for Nineveh
          • Jonah is angry with God, wishing to die
          • Jonah builds a shelter from the sun at a place where he can see the city—will it be destroyed?
          • God provides, then destroys Jonah’s source of shade
          • God rebukes Jonah
        • Dialogue:
          • "I fled to Tarshish knowing you are slow to anger, abundant in loving kindness, relenting concerning calamity”
          • "Now take my life"
          • "God confronts, “Do you have reason to be angry?”—first about the city, then the plant
          • "Jonah twice says he is angry even to death"
          • "God concludes: You had compassion on the plant that came and went, but not for the great city of 120,000 lost people"
  3. Examine the author's purpose for including the scene in the narrative:
    • At this point we want to relate each scene to the narrative as a whole. What role does this scene play in the unfolding narrative? To answer that question we must identify the main point of the entire story.
    • Often the narrative's main point can be found in its closing verses--the plot's resolution. Before drawing a conclusion about the overall main point, make sure you consider each scene--is that main point is connected to your conclusions about these individual scenes?  The more diligence taken with this step, the more sound your interpretation will be.Below are commonly used literary devices Old Testament authors used to draw their readers' focus onto the main point of the narrative.
    • Summary statements:
      • Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” summarizes—and provides the main point—of the scene covered in Genesis 1:1-2:3
      • Ex. 7:2-5 serves as an outline for the general flow of the plagues that follow
        • vs. 2: "Let Israel go"
        • vs. 3: "Pharaoh's hard heart"
        • vs. 3, 4: "God will multiply signs and wonders..."
        • vs. 5: "...so that the Egyptians will know that Yahweh is the Lord"
    • Repetitions: Repetitions are usually purposeful and might take the form of:
      • Formulas: E. g.: 1 & 2 Kings--king is evaluated as to whether they did "evil" or "good" in the eyes of the Lord;
      • Words: “Give” in Joshua 1
      • Events that are repeated with different people and contexts, but with the same point or meaning--e.g. Joshua and Moses or Elijah and Elisha (I Kings 17 and II Kings 4)
    • God speaks: When God breaks into the narrative—either directly or through the words of a prophet—it is usually a vital statement of purpose. See I Sam. 13:13-14 and 15:22, 23
    • Promise or covenant: A “marker” or “link”, especially when repeated. For an explanation of markers and links, see Introduction to Studying Old Testament Narrative
    • Context: E.g. I Samuel 1:1-2:11 The length of the narrative about Hannah indicates importance. Her character in turn introduces Samuel, significant to the development of Old Testament salvation history.
    • Decisive or symbolic actions:
      • Judges 14-16: Samson’s dramatic destruction of the Canaanite temple
      • Is. 20:1-4: Isaiah's shame
      • Jer. 18:1-12: Jeremiah's lump of clay
    • Irony: E. g.  Judah in Gen. 37—the deceiver is deceived
    • "Moment of realization": E. g. Joseph’s announcement in Gen. 45:7, 8
    • Listen to an analysis of the “purpose clues” found in 1 Kings 17:1-24 by Xenos Christian Fellowship's Jim Leffel.
  4. Draw a conclusion about the main point of the overall narrative, identifying how each scene supports, illustrates or applies it: Often the narrative's main point can be found in its closing verses--the plot's resolution. Before drawing a conclusion about the overall main point, make sure you consider each scene--is that main point is connected to your conclusions about these individual scenes?  The more diligence taken with this step, the more sound your interpretation will be.

Example Structural Study: Jim Leffel of Xenos Christian Fellowship steps through an example of a structural study of the book of Jonah (31 min. audio).

Here are the notes from this study of Jonah, using the structure column of the inductive study worksheet:

Scene #1: 1:1-2

Setting

Plot and dialogue

Purpose clues

Context: Jonah is a complete narrative.

Identify:

Who: Jonah, son of Amittaim, a prophet commissioned to denounce Nineveh

Where: north of Jappa--Nineveh, the great city

When: 2 Kings 14:25--~780 BC

Narration:

“Point of view”: Nineveh is a great city, but wicked

 

 

Scene #2: 1:3-16

Setting

Plot and dialogue

Purpose clues

Who:

  • Jonah
  • the Lord
  • pagan sailors

Where:

  • Tarshish to board a ship
  • see map

When: immediately after being commissioned by the Lord

 

 

 

 

 

“Point of view”

  • “But” (1:3)
  • “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” (1:3, 10)
  • downward direction (1:3, 5)

Action:

  • Jonah moves directly away from his calling, into self-imposed isolation in the bottom of the ship
  • Sailors become frightened, cast lots, find Jonah, confront Jonah, throw Jonah overboard; the storm ends; offer sacrifices to Jonah’s God

Dialogue:

  • How can you sleep?—You must pray to your god, maybe he’ll hear us.
  • I am a Hebrew, I fear the Lord of heaven who made the sea and dry land
  • How could you do this!
  • You must toss me into the sea

 

Narrators point of view makes it clear that Jonah’s actions are totally wrong—something the narrative is illustrating:

  • Fleeing God’s presence
  • No concern for the sailors, even willing to be drowned before praying to God to intercede for them & sleeping through their crisis
  • Knowing that your god is the god of heaven, sea, and dry land, “How could you do this?” is biting commentary
  • Sailors, offering sacrifice is interesting

 

Scene #3: 3: 1:17—2:9

Setting

Plot and dialogue

Purpose clues

Who:

  • Jonah
  • the Lord
  • the fish

 

Where: In the belly of the fish, in the bottom of the sea

 

When: 3 days and nights (1:17)

 

 

 

“Point of view”

  • Jonah’s descent is complete (1:17;2:6)
  • a poetic prayer reflects a change in perspective

Action: God appoints a fish to save Jonah—but he will fall to the depths for a while first. Jonah finally prays—for himself

Dialogue: Jonah’s prayer:

  • A plea: “I called out of my distress”
  • A result: “You brought up my life from the pit”
  • A response: thanksgiving to God, whom Jonah remembered
  • Conclusion: Salvation is from the Lord

 

Jonah appears to have a genuine faith in God’s goodness and salvation, but it’s personal. How ironic that this great salvation is just for Jonah—no mention of the commission to Nineveh

 

 

Scene #4: 2:10—3:9

Setting

Plot and dialogue

Purpose clues

Who:

  • Jonah
  • the Lord
  • People of Nineveh
  • King of Nineveh

Where: Nineveh

When:

  • after the incident with the fish
  • Jonah’s second commission to Nineveh

 

 

 

 

“Point of view”

  • a bit of ironic contrast between Jonah’s proclamation of judgment, without a call to repent, and the repentance of Nineveh

Action: Jonah heeds God’s second “word” and goes to Nineveh. Jonah preaches while walking the wall of the city. The people and the king believe and repent, calling out to the Lord for mercy

Dialogue:

  • Interestingly, there is no dialogue, only Jonah preaching and the people responding.
  • Nineveh is to be overthrown in forty days
  • King’s decree: No eating or drinking; each are to repent of their wickedness
  • King’s plea: “Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw his anger and we may not perish”

 

Are we to recognize anything in the comparison between Jonah’s prayer and the King’s edict and prayer?

 

Scene #5: 3:10—4:11

Setting

Plot and dialogue

Purpose clues

Who:

  • Jonah
  • God

Where: East of the city

 

When: After the people repented

 

 

 

 

“Point of view”: This is where the real climax and resolution of the story is—what it’s all been leading up to

Action:

  • God relents for Nineveh
  • Jonah is angry with God, wishing to die
  • Jonah builds a shelter from the sun at a place where he can see the city—will it be destroyed?
  • God provides, then destroys Jonah’s source of shade
  • God rebukes Jonah

Dialogue:

  • I fled to Tarshish knowing you are “slow to anger, abundant in loving kindness, relenting concerning calamity”
  • Now take my life
  • God confronts, “Do you have reason to be angry?”—first about the city, then the plant
  • Jonah twice says he is angry even to death
  • God concludes: You had compassion on the plant that came and went, but not for the great city of 120,000 lost people

 

God’s closing statement sums up the whole narrative: Jonah cares more for a plant than a lost nation

State the main point and how the narrative supports, illustrates, or applies it

Rebuke: Jonah, representing Israel, has no concern for God’s plan for the nations and is less spiritually responsive than the gentiles to whom they are called:

  • Rejecting God’s commission to the nations by fleeing
  • No concern for the sailors in the storm
  • Disputing with God over the fate of Nineveh
  • Repulsive display of self-pity revealing Jonah’s heart

Passage Study - Step 2

Examine the historical and theological content of the narrative.

  1. Examine the historical and cultural context1: Identify customs, objects, events, and persons relevant to the story
    • Listen to Xenos Christian Fellowship's Jim Leffel explains the importance and goals of the historical and cultural context study.
    • Identify customs, objects, events, and persons relevant to the story: Research cultural and historical elements of the narrative. For example:
      • Ex. 6:6--the concept of redemption and "Go'el"--the redeemer
      • Gen. 15--the concept of a covenant and "cutting a contract," as used at the time
      • Ex. 7-12--the significance of the plagues of Eqypt, in light of the gods of Egypt. See K. A. Kitchen's " Plagues of Egypt" in New Bible Dictionary
  2. Examine the theology presented in the narrative: Identify and define key theological terms or concepts, particularly as they relate to our understanding of God. How does this narrative advance the ongoing revelation of God in history? What truths do we learn about God, man, sin, and other theological themes? See questions below for specific issues to look for within the narrative.
    • What does the narrative teach about God’s nature?
      • What elements of his character are being highlighted or expressed? What do you find striking in this description of God? What do you find comforting or clarifying about God in this scene? What challenges you about this depiction of God?
      • One thing to look at is the descriptive name used for God in the passage. It might be a term such as Rock, King, Judge, Shepherd, Father, living God, or First and Last. It also may be the particular Hebrew name used for God, which may highlight an aspect of His character.
        Some examples:

        El, Elohim God (plural of magnification)
        El-Shaddai God Almighty
        El Elyon Most High God
        Yahweh LORD, Lord (His proper name, God of the covenant)
        Yahweh Elohim Lord God
        Adonnai Lord
    • What does the narrative teach about the plan of salvation?
      What does the narrative teach about God’s program on earth? How does it define or advance our understanding of God's plan to rescue mankind?
      Look for:
      • References or allusions to blessings, promises, or covenants that sustain or advance God's plan of salvation
      • Contrasts between God and the deities and religious practices of Israel's neighbors
      • Signs that the narrative is an example of common salvation themes--redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation, etc. What terms are used to describe God's plan in the world?
    • What does the narrative teach about the human condition?
      How does the story describe or illustrate human sin? How does sin manifest itself? What is wrong with humanity? What does the scene tell you about what it looks like to respond to God in faith?
    • How does the narrative reflect or advance key theological themes in the Old Testament?
      • Are there clear references or allusions to other Biblical passages? Does that relate to the meaning of the narrative? As you consider this narrative in relation to the rest of the Old Testament (and New Testament) how does it add to the Biblical teaching of God, humanity, and salvation? Are there terms or words that are part of a broader vocabulary relating to theology? For instance, does the narrative relate God's promises to Israel? Does the narrative expand your understanding of God's plan to "bless" the nations through Abraham (Gen. 12:3)?
      • Is the narrative used in subsequent texts, and if so, how? E. g., after events of Ex. 17-- God providing water through the rock--there are subsequent references to this imagery, including Deut. 32 (Moses describes God Himself as the provision) and in the New Testament where Jesus is described as the source of living water (John 4), the rock on which to build (Mt. 7), etc. From this we see that God--Jesus--is not only the provider, but is the very provision Himself.

Content Study Example - Exodus 3

Identify and define key theological terms or concepts:

  • Burning bush on Mt. Horeb (3:1-2): Meeting God in the mountain is not uncommon in the OT. In cultural context, the mountains were the dwelling places of the gods. In the OT, God transcends the earth, but mountains are a common place for the human/divine connection: Eden (Ezek. 28:13,16, cf. Gen. 2:10—14), Horeb/Sinai (Exod. 3, 19, 34...), Jerusalem (2 Sam. 7). God is also identified with fire. “The Lord is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29).
  • Angel of the Lord (3:2, 4): See also 13:19; 23:20-23; 32:34. In context, the angel of the Lord and the Lord are the same.
  • Holiness of God (3:5). qados, hasid.
    • Related to “fire,” “sacred,” and “glory,” holiness is the separateness and utter uniqueness of God from all creation. In contrast to the “holiness” of the gods of the ancient world (Exod. 15:11), Yahweh is holy in an ethical sense. Holiness relates most closely with God’s righteousness, God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16).
    • God’s justice is necessary as a perfect moral Being: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
    • God’s righteousness, his essential holiness, also relates to mercy. Salvation and is always undeserved, but freely given (Isaiah 45:8; 46:13; 51:5).
    • Moral monotheism vs. ancient near east polytheism. Substantial implications exist for the concept of morality and social justice.
      • The purpose of man’s creation is conditioned by the general purpose of the universe. According to the Enuma Elish, the universe was created for the benefit of the gods... Even Babylon was built for the gods... man’s creation was conceived and executed not as an end it itself or as a natural sequel to the formation of the rest of the universe, but rather as an expedient to satisfy a group of discontented gods. Man’s purpose in life was to be the serves of the gods... --Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis
      • It is small wonder, therefore, that all polytheisms tend to be religions of the status quo, and that none of them has ever produced a thoroughgoing social revolution based upon a high concept of social justice... In the Bible, however, a state of tension exists between God and creation... A profound disharmony exists between the will of god and the existing social order. --G. Ernest Wright, The Old Testament Against Its Environment
  • God is not impassible (3:7, 9,16): God is affected by his creation. He has “seen the affliction of My people”; “the cry of the sons of Israel has come to Me;” “I am indeed concerned about you and what has been done to you in Egypt.”
  • God of promise:
    • Links to the Abrahamic Covenant (3:6-8, 16,17).
    • Promise to Moses also (3:12), the “sign” that God is indeed with Moses.
  • YHWH: God’s “memorial name” (3:14,15): Names in the Old Testament world reveal something of the person (e.g.: Jacob). While God is referred to by many names, his proper name is YHWH: I AM. That God would bring attention to this personal pronoun here as a “memorial name” is significant. It brings focus to the reader that this is a decisive, signature action of God—that he will be known by his redeeming his people from bondage! It is not that the name Yahweh was unknown to God’s people (Gen. 4:26), rather the character imbedded in the name was yet to be realized (Gen. 17:1). Now the reader is about to learn who Yahweh really is.
  • God’s sovereignty. God is the central actor in this narrative. God has acted in the past, is active in the present, and will act in the future.

Describe what the narrative teaches about the plan of salvation:

  • Abrahamic Covenant is in operation—blessing of nationhood and blessing to the world. What God promises, God will deliver.
  • Yet God chooses to effect his plan in history through people. Moses is called and commissioned by God for his appointed task. He has freedom. He makes mistakes. He objects. Yet, God will use this imperfect vessel for his purpose.

Describe what the narrative teaches about the human condition:

  • “Fear of the Lord” (3:6).
    • The utter humility of sinners before a holy God (see Isaiah 6:3—5). The expression “fear of the Lord” is used 124 times in the Old Testament. It relates to “amazement,” “awe,” and genuine “fear.”
    • Fear of the Lord guards the heart (Hebrews 11:27; Isaiah 8:12—14). Who you fear is who you serve. Indeed, the fear of the Lord produces persuasion (2 Cor. 5:11).
    • Fear of the Lord is the basis for wisdom (Prov. 1:7).
  • Total inadequacy for the task: The narrative section 3:11—4:17 focus on Moses’ objections to God’s commission based on his complete inadequacy for the task. God responds to each of the four objections:
    • “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (3:11). God responds, “I will be with you” and promises Moses a sign.
    • By what authority? Or in whose name am I going? (3:13). God responds by using his memorial name.
    • “What if they don’t believe me or listen to what I say?” (4:1). God will use even a common stick to arrest their attention.
    • “I have never been eloquent of speech” (4:10). God will provide Aaron.
  • God will allow his people to be subject to the historical realities they face: Receiving the promise land (3:8,17) will come through direct confrontation with Pharaoh (3:19,20).

Consider how the narrative reflects or advances key theological themes in the OT:

  • Advancing the Abrahamic Covenant: We have seen that the entire narrative is filled with reference to the Abrahamic Covenant. Fulfillment is coming!
  • Slavery and redemption: key biblical theme of salvation. This text is really crucial to the inter-textual hermeneutic.
    • 13 times Isaiah alone refers to God as the Redeemer. The exodus from Egypt is the paradigm, or model of redemption that will echo through Israel’s history and overflow into the New Testament. We have already seen that exodus is a central motif in biblical literature.

Notes:

1. Some books that will be helpful tools for this study are:

  • J.D. Douglas, ed., New Bible Dictionary
  • W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words
  • Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History
  • D.J. Wiseman, ed. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries

Passage Study - Step 3

Apply the content of the narrative.

How does the narrative instruct God’s people to be faithful to him? How can this be applied to our lives today?

What have the characters in the narrative learned about God or about being faithful to Him? Perhaps the characters offer a counter example, as in the case of Jonah. In what way might the main point of the text, and how the characters are related to it, apply to your situation? Is there a message for the church today?

Example Application Study - Reflections on the Song of Moses (Exodus 15)

About the text:

The Song of Moses comes immediately after the great deliverance from centuries of hardship in Egypt. Having seen the power of God to intervene in history, Israel finally “feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (14:31). The Song of Moses is a tribute to Yahweh and an opportunity for the people to join together with one voice in thanks to him. Even as we set our sights on the end of the story of salvation, the Song of Moses is on the lips of God’s people (Rev.15:3, 4).

The song reflects the past deliverance of Israel from the pharaoh (1-13), then sets its sights on the future victory and reign of God in the promised land (14-19). In this sense, God’s people are being called to live by faith between two certainties: what God has done in the past and what God declares he will do in the future.

About God:

  • The Lord is a warrior” (3 cf. Isaiah 47:4, “Lord of Hosts [armies]”). God’s victory over Pharaoh (1-10 cf. 14:14), nature (8), other gods (11 cf. 12:12), and Israel’s future enemies (14-16a). Enemies past are vanquished by his “right hand” (6,12); future enemies live in fear of his “arm” (16, cf. Josh. 2:10; 5:1; 9:9).
  • Who is like Yahweh?” (11 cf. Micah 7:18). His loving-kindness (12) is the basis for his action, his leadership. Majestic in holiness, or total uniqueness in a moral sense (11). When Moses asks God to reveal himself, graciousness and kindness are central (Ex. 34:6, 7).
  • Redeemer (13, 16). Nothing is more central to the meaning of Exodus than redemption. The exodus from Egypt and the “eternal memorial” of Passover are remembered in ritual and throughout the scripture as they find their fulfillment in Christ. Note that God, not Israel, secures release from captivity. Israel is only witness to and beneficiary of God’s redemption. This is a picture of grace. We have become God’s possession, purchased (16) by him. Israel is no longer Pharaoh’s slave, but God’s son (4:22).
  • The Lord shall reign forever and ever” (18). Yahweh is Israel’s King and Israel is his inheritance (17 cf. Eph. 1:18). The mountain of Yahweh’s inheritance may be a prophetic allusion to Zion or in a more generic sense of the imagery of the day, an expression of God’s presence with his people, often associated with mountains. Israel is the “sanctuary of the Lord” (17), meaning that God will dwell among his people. It’s a picture of God’s people thriving under their redeemer’s rule and his supernatural presence with them.

Personal Response (application):

  • True spirituality requires memory. “Remember” is used 200 times in the OT. To remember is to see things for what they are, leading to victorious acts of faith in God. Conversely, to forget is to become foolish and lapse into sin and unbelief. Memory also produces gratitude, which in turn orients believers to reality (note the contrast in Romans 1:21, 28). This lesson is at the heart of the teaching of wisdom in the Old Testament. See, for instance, Psalm 78.
  • “My strength and salvation” (2). Are God’s power and mercy sufficient? See also Romans 8:14-17, 31-39. Where are we turning for strength? How would we know if we were operating out of self-righteousness rather than grace?
  • There is an emotional dimension that can’t be overlooked. The Song of Moses is a song—to be sung together in a corporate act of gratitude and praise. Good news is to be met with an outpouring of praise (Isaiah 54:1; Psalm 98:1-3). What directs our life and passions? C.S. Lewis has a helpful discussion in Reflection On The Psalms.

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Hermeneutics - Prophets

Prophets were active throughout the Old Testament, serving as God’s mouthpiece, both “forth-telling”—describing the current state of affairs—and “fore-telling”—describing events, judgments and blessings that were to come, cited and applied in the New Testament, with application even today.

Overview of the Prophets Genre

Prophets received their prophesy from directly from God (Ezek. 28:1—“the word of the Lord came to me...”), through dreams and interpretations (Daniel 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, & 10), or through visions and interpretations (Amos 8:1-3; Zech. 5:1-11).

Prophets were held to a strict standard of complete accuracy, thus distinguishing them and their prophesies from the false prophets of their time, and authenticating their words and their position as a prophet. See Isaiah 41:22-23, 26; 42:9: 43:9-10; 44:7- 8; 45:21; 46:10-11; and 48:5.

In Biblical history, most prophets are associated with the time of the divided monarchy through the resettlement, approximately 800 BC to 400 BC.

Characteristics of prophets as preachers to their contemporary culture:

  • Sensitive to evil: The society in which they spoke often had become accommodating of and callous to evil. Prophets sensitized people to their true spiritual state.
  • Confrontational of covenant violations, calling for social reform in areas such as:
    • Superficial and apostate religion. See Hosea 6:6; Isaiah 29:13; Jer. 2:8; 7:9-10
    • Materialism, a love of power, and the wisdom of the world. See Jer. 9:23-24
    • Social injustice. See Isaiah 10:2
  • Often heavily burdened by their calling, suffering in their role:
  • Threatened and rejected by people, as a sign of their response to God. See Jer. 26:7-15
  • Martyred. See Heb. 11:37
  • Despairing. See Jer. 20:14-18
  • Not selective in whom they guided or denounced, serving an important role in guiding kings. See 2 Kings 19
  • Were often personally affected by their visions, experiencing horror from bleak predictions of judgments and intense joy from visions of God’s glory and salvation. They were not detached receivers and communicators of God’s word to people.
  • See Micah 2:8; Isaiah 20
  • In the book of Hosea, Hosea’s marriage to the unfaithful Gomer served as a picture of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, including the following elements:
    • Reason for marriage (1:2)
    • Names of the children (1:3-9)
    • Unfaithful and unknowing Gomer (2:1-13)
    • Hosea pursues and redeems his wife (2:14-3:5)
    • The children are redeemed (1:10-11; 2:1, 23)
  • Represented the humiliation of the people.

For more on this topic see Abraham Heschel's "What Manner of Man is the Prophet?" in The Prophets, Volume I.

Book Overview

Summarize the historical setting including biographical information about the prophet

What was the historic environment of the prophet? As you read through the book, jot down your observations about Israel, Judah, and the other nations. Who are the prophecies directed toward? Is Israel at a time of peace or war? Who are Israel's neighbors that relate to the prophet's message?

From the text and from reference books, glean as much as you can about:

  • The social position and tribe of the prophet and his family
  • The king of Israel or Judah ruling at that time. From this, look for the evaluation of this king in the narratives of Kings and Chronicles. Were they kings who did evil or who followed God?  This will provide a good sense of the spiritual, moral, and political climate of the time, and to which the prophet speaks.

For helpful information on the historical setting of a given prophet or king, see John Walton’s Chronology and Background Charts of the Old Testament.

Outline book by oracle, identifying significant and recurring themes and structure.

An oracle is a specific message from God. Prophetic books of the Bible are made up of carefully organized oracles of a prophet.

Oracles can be identified and delineated within a given book by looking for the following:

  • A change in the narrative context or subject:  the “who,” “where,” and “when.”
  • A change in the subject of the prophecy: e.g., from blessing to judgement, from Israel to other nations, etc.
  • A repeated introduction. A section of Scripture with repeated introduction should probably be considered part of the same oracle. E.g., “Thus says the Lord...”; “Then the Lord said to me...”; “The word of the Lord came to me...”; “Hear the word of the Lord...”; “The Lord showed me...”
  • Words designed to get a listener’s attention such as “Hear” or “Woe.”

Jim Leffel of Xenos Christian Fellowship steps through an examination of the oracles found in the book of Amos. (17 min. audio)

Example Outline

1:1 Introduction to the prophet (see 2 Kings 15:32-20:21; Jer. 26:18) “Who is like Yahweh?”
1:2-7 Judgment coming because of Samaria and Jerusalem’s idolatry.
1:8-16 Micah’s personal lament & shame for the people (contrast with 7:7-20)
2:1-5 Denunciation of the people’s corruption—the “day” is coming!
2:6-11 Denunciation of the people continued for their corruption.
3:1-4 Denunciation of the rulers of Judah & Israel.
3:5-7 Denunciation of the prophets who mislead the people.
3:8-12 Micah truly speaks for God: Judgment assured for all: rulers, priests, prophets, people for their superficial loyalty to God and evil.
4:1-5      Promise oracle “in the last days.”
4:6-8 Promise oracle “in that day.”
4:9-13 A call for Israel to act as God’s instrument of judgment against its enemies.
5:1-9 Promise oracle concerning God’s messiah from David’s home town.
5:10-15 Judgment is coming (“I will cut off...”) for ongoing idolatries.
6:1-5 Denunciation, God’s “case” against his people.
6:6-8  Micah’s plea to the people to repent for the charges for which they are guilty.
6:9-16 Judgment is coming—probably the siege of Jerusalem.
7:1-6 A woeful lament, denouncing common people, princes, judges, even within households are a man’s enemies—“your punishment will come.”
7:7-20 Micah’s personal response (remember where he started: with personal lament and shame). “But as for me, I will watch expectantly for the Lord” (7) by “bearing indignation” (9), “trusting in the Shepherd” (14), and considering the magnificence of God, with echoes of Exodus (18-20). 

Oracle Study - Step 1

Examine each oracle you've identified in the overview.

  1. Context
    1. What are the preceding & subsequent oracles?
      Look at the content of the oracles that come before and after the one you are studying. Briefly note the events and themes described, and think about how they might relate to the scene you are studying.
    2. Historical setting, introduction, explanatory statement or narrative context - Examine the setting for the oracle as much as possible, including:
      • Historical situation for Israel/Judah at the time. If they were under a king at the time, what do we know about that king? (look at the books of 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles) Were Israel/Judah under attack at the time--by whom and why? What relationship did the people have with God at the time?
      • Information on the prophet himself. What place did the prophet hold in society? What do we know about their life and personality?
      • What does the oracle say about the other nations or peoples?
  2. Identify
    1. Who: Characters - Describe each person in the oracle, noting characteristics that the narrator identifies. Where are they from? Are they friend or foe? Are they portrayed as a positive example or a cautionary example? The more you understand about the characters, the more vivid your understanding of the scene will be.
      Note: God can be a character in the oracle, so note how He is characterized as well.
    2. Where: Location - Where is the action happening and is there any significance to that? Why are the characters where they are?
    3. When: Time - When does the oracle take place? What in general could be said about these times that helps our understanding about why this particular oracle matters? What rulers are in place at the time, and are they seen as honorable or evil in the eyes of God?
    4. What kind of oracle?
      1. Denunciation - Denunciations are God’s way of reminding Israel that it lives under the terms of a bilateral covenant (“If...then”). God’s blessing is secured as Israel fulfills its obligation to obey the Law (Lev. 26:3). Failure to keep the covenant results in a “guilty” verdict (Lev. 26:14-16a). Nations opposing God’s covenant people and who act treacherously against them are also confronted by God.
        Sometimes denunciations are depicted as a criminal case God is presenting, prosecuting Israel and using its history of disobedience as His evidence (see Micah 1:2). Terms such as “woe,” “lament,” and “taunt” are commonly used.
        Examples: Hosea 1:1-9;  Amos 1:3a, 6, 9, 11, 13, 2:1, 4, 6-8;  Micah 1:2-5; 2:1,2;  Zephaniah 3:1-6
      2. Judgment - Judgment oracles describe God's plan to withdraw His protection from Israel them, allowing nations to rise up against them because Israel has violated the covenant.  Lev. 26:16b-39 stipulates the penalties: deportation, destruction, disease, death, disgrace.  Judgment oracles are conditional, leaving the door open to individual or national repentance (see Jer. 18:5-12).
        Judgment oracles often come after denunciations, and may be introduced with connective words such as "therefore" or "so" (Jer 25:8ff; Amos 1)
        Examples: Amos verses listed for denunciation. Also, Zephaniah 1:2-18;  Micah 5:10-15; 6:13-16.
      3. Blessing - Blessing oracles describe how God will remain faithful to His covenants. After a time of judgment, God will restore Israel to the land and continue the progress of salvation history (Lev. 26:40-46). The prophets envisioned a time of restoration of God’s people in the land and under His blessing.
        Blessing oracles often come after judgment oracles, and sometimes after a call to repent (Joel 2:12-17, 18-27).
        Examples: Amos 9:11-15; Jer. 16:14-15; 24:1-7
      4. Promise - Promise oracles depict God's plan--His promise of salvation--as being universal to all of mankind, even cosmic, and eternal. They describe how at the end of salvation history, God will rule personally through his Davidic king from Jerusalem. This will be a time of salvation, peace, and abundance for those who yield to God, and of judgment for those who resist His rule.
        Promise oracles are often combined with words of blessing. Look for breaks in the text introduced by words like "then," "and then," and "after this." (Joel 2:28)
        Example: Joel 2:28-32; Jer. 31:31-37; 23:3-8; Isaiah 9:6, 7
        For more on promise oracles and how they help our understanding of God's plan of salvation over history see Promise Oracles and the Plan of Salvation.
  3. Outline the Oracle
    1. What is the main point? - To draw out the main point, look for:
      • The repetition of key words that relate to the promises and stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant (the basis of Israel’s blessing and judgment) or the Abrahamic Covenant (promise oracles, describing how God will bless all nations). Often an oracle's main point will related to these concepts. See Amos 1 & 2.
      • Declarations of God's verdict on a situation or his plan for dealing with a situation. Often the oracle's details provide the basis for God's verdict or plan. See Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6.
      • Connective language, which often directs you to the main point such as: "Therefore," "thus," "so," "as a result," "consequently," "because," "for," "but," "since," "indeed." See Amos 4:12
      • The author interjecting his own thoughts, offering a concluding comment or summary statement. See Micah 4:5
      • Imperatives. The command to act is often the main point, with the rest of the oracle offering support for this imperative. See Amos 3:1; 4:1; 5:1
    2. How is the main point supported, illustrated, explained, or applied? - It is important to make sure each element of the oracle is indeed connected to whatever you conclude is the main point.  The more diligence taken with this step, the more sound your interpretation will be. What is the evidence supporting your conclusion about the main point? How is the main point illustrated?

Oracle outline step example

Micah 4:1-5: Promise Oracle

4:1 In the last days…

  • The mountain of God’s Temple will be established as the chief of the mountains.
  • the nations will stream to it

4:2 Nations will come and say,

  • “Let’s go to the mountain of the Lord to be taught his ways and walk in his paths.
  • From Zion will go forth the law, the word of the Lord in Jerusalem

4:3-5 God will judge between many peoples

  • Swords will be hammered into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks
  • Nation will not lift up sword against nation
  • Never again will they train for war
  • Each will sit under his vine and fig tree
  • No one will make them fear
  • For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

Main point: Though all the nations walk in the name of their god, we will walk in the name of the Lord forever and ever.

Micah 4:6-8: Promise Oracle

4:6 “In that day,” declares the Lord

  • I will bring together the lame, the outcasts, and afflicted

4:7-8

  • I will make the lame a remnant and the outcast a strong nation
  • The Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion now and forever
  • The former dominion of Jerusalem will come to you
  • The former dominion will come - The kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem

Micah 6:1-5: Denunciation Oracle

6:1 Announcement: “Hear now what the Lord is saying”

  • Plead your case before the mountains

6:2 Charge: “Listen to the indictment of the Lord”

The Lord has a case/dispute against his people

6:3-5 God speaks: What have I done to make you weary?

  • Exhibit A: I ransomed you from Egypt, house of slavery
  • Exhibit B: I led you through Moses and Aaron
  • Exhibit C: I provided guidance for you in Balak and Balaam - So that you might know the righteous acts of the Lord

Micah 6:6-8: Call to Repent

6:6a Micah’s Response: “With what shall I come to the Lord?

6:6b-8 Shall I come with burned offerings?

  • Does God really delight in these sacrifices?
  • Should I sacrifice my own first-born for my sin?

God has told man what is good and what he requires:

  • Do justice
  • Love kindness
  • Walk humbly with your God

Micah 6:9-16: Judgment Oracle

6:9 Announcement: “The voice of the Lord calling to the city:”

  • Hear, O tribe. Who has appointed its time?

6:10-16 The coming judgment of God:

  • Unjust measures and weights
  • Lies and deceit of the rich

So I will strike you down, making you sick

  • you will be hungry
  • you will live along side your own waste
  • you will save nothing
  • your agriculture will fail

You walk in the idolatry of Omri

  • Therefore, I will give you up for destruction

Micah 7:1-6: Denunciation Oracle—a lament

7:1 Micah again responds: “Woe is me!”

7:1-6 For…

  • Nothing is left to glean
  • The godly have perished, only evil ones remain
  • princes and judges ask for bribes
  • The best of them are like a briar or thorn
  • Do not trust your neighbor or friend
  • Your sons treat fathers with contempt
  • Daughters rise up against mothers…
  • A man’s enemies are in his own house

Micah 7:7-13; 14-20 Prophet as preacher: How do we respond?

7:7 Micah’s response: “But as for me…” (a contrast to the “woe is me” in 7:1—6)

I will watch for the Lord, wait for my salvation. My God will hear me.

7:8-13 Do not rejoice over me, my enemy

  • Though I am in darkness, the Lord is my light
  • I will bear God’s indignation, because I sinned
  • Until he pleads my case and executes my justice
    • He will bring me to the light and I will see his righteousness
    • Then my enemy will see and will be ashamed of taunting, “Where is the Lord your God?”
    • The walls will be built and boundary extended
    • The nations will come to us

7:14-17 Shepherd your people with your scepter

7:14, 15 Your flock you possess,

  • as in the long-past days, when you came out of Egypt
  • I will show you miracles

7:16, 17 Nations will see and be ashamed of their deeds

  • nations will be humbled

7:18-20 Who is Like God?

  • Pardoning iniquity
  • Passing over the rebellion of his possession
  • Whose anger does not last forever because he delights in unchanging love
  • He will again have compassion on us, casting away our sins to the depths of the sea
  • Who gives truth to Jacob, unchanging love to Abraham, which you sword to our forefathers from the days of old.

Oracle Study - Step 2

Step 2: Examine the historical and theological content within the oracle.

  1. Historical/Cultural: Explain ancient practices, people, objects, etc. that may bear on the text’s meaning - Using Biblical reference material such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other historic reference tools, note and explain cultural practices and the historic context of information found in the text.
    For example in Amos 1 and 2, who are the nations Amos addresses?
    Some helpful reference books include:
    • J.D. Douglas, ed., New Bible Dictionary
    • John H. Walton, IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
    • D.J. Wiseman, ed., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
    • Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History
      There are also free online references as well.
  2. Language
    1. Define key and repeated theological terms - What do these words mean? How commonly does this prophet use this word? How commonly do prophets in general use this word?
      For example in Amos 1 and 2 "transgression" appears eight times. What does this mean?
      Key theological terms often relate to God's unfolding plan of salvation. For instead, Isaiah 41-53 describes God's "servant." Who is the person? Is it Israel?
    2. How does the use of figurative language or imagery relate to the meaning of the oracle? Are they interpreted in the text or elsewhere? - Usually the text itself provides the meaning. For example, Daniel interprets his own dreams (Dan. 2:31-45). In other cases the meaning is clear from the way the imagery mirrors the historical situation to which the prophet speaks (Jer. 18:1-12; Amos 7:1-8:14)
  3. Theological - Look for what the oracle teachers about three key areas: salvation, God, and humanity. See questions below for specific issues to look for within the narrative.
    1. Salvation: What does the oracle teach about the progression of God’s plan for mankind? - How does this oracle relate to God’s plan of salvation?  How does it describe salvation? How does the oracle advance our understanding of God’s plan to rescue mankind?
    2. God: What does the oracle teach about God’s nature? - Who is God?  What is the name of God in the oracle?  How is God described or contrasted?  How is the description of God rooted in Old Testament narrative?
      As an example, see how Isaiah's description of God's greatness described in chapters 40-66 draws on terms and descriptions found in the Old Testament narrative:
      • “I am Yahweh your God”: (41:4,10,13; 42:6,8; 43:3,10; 45:5, 6, 18; 46:9; 48:12).
      • Yahweh is the creator:  (40:15,17,23-34; 42:5; 43:1-7; 66:22-24)
      • Yahweh is go’el, redeemer ("to redeem” used 26 times).
        • From bondage: (43:5-7; 45:13; 48:20; 60:15-22)
        • Spiritual redemption: (43:25; 44:22); Gentiles (45:20-23)
        • Land/Jerusalem:  (40:9, 10; 43:20; 44:26; 45:13)
      • Yahweh is Lord of history:
        • Called “King”: (41:21; 43:15; 44:6)
        • Sovereign over nations: (40:15, 17; 41:1-4; 43:3-14; 44:24-45:8; 47:5)
      • Discloses the future: 41:22-23,26; 42:9; 43:9,10; 44:7-8; 45:21; 46:10, 11; 48:5)
    3. Humanity: What does the oracle teach about human nature and the human situation? - How does the passage describe the human condition, in terms of failures, suffering, value and virtue?
      For instance, the prophets often denounce as "harlotry" (Hosea 1:2) Israel's idolatry. What does this mean?—rejecting God's covenant (Amos 4) and ignoring the needs of vulnerable people
  4. Unity: The Prophecy's Place in Scripture - In this step you examine how this prophecy fits in with the rest of Scripture, particularly the unfolding of God’s covenants and the overall plan of salvation.
    1. What kind of prophetic fulfillment is being used? - Is the prophecy to be fulfilled in terms of a time in history or in terms of a characteristic of the future? See further descriptions below.
      1. Prediction/fulfillment - This type of prophetic fulfillment happens at a point in history.  Its fulfillment can take 2 forms:
        • Direct prediction:  The prophecy is fulfilled by a specific person or event:
          • Isaiah 9:6-7: anticipated Davidic King Messiah
          • Isaiah 52:13ff: enigmatic "anonymous servant"
          • Daniel 2, 7, & 8: emergence of specific kingdoms
          • Micah 5:2:  birthplace of the eternal ruler
        • Multiple Reference Prediction: The prophecy is fulfilled at 2 different times, with a "gap" in between. It may be fulfilled in the short term, serving as a picture for a future fulfillment, or it may be a dramatic picture of the end of history, which provides a picture of a nearer term fulfillment that is to come. Here are some suggestions for picking up on these type of prophetic fulfillments:
          • Semantic clues: descriptions of a "then and then" fulfillment. See Joel 2:28.
          • Temporal clues: things that could not be true of the historical description at hand. Look at the verb tenses for clues. See Daniel 9:26.
          • Content clues: descriptions that relate to the universal and eternal rather than just covenant blessings on Israel. See Isaiah 19:1-15 & 16-25
      2. Motif or type fulfillment - Key events and institutions in the Old Testament have an underlying significance that look to the future. The clearest example of this is the sacrificial system in the Law, substituting an innocent on behalf of the guilty.
        This type of prophetic fulfillment is revealed not at a point in time, but as a quality or characteristic that develops in the future. An example is the concept of redemption, which is predicted in many prophetic oracles. We see Jesus' death and resurrection providing the opportunity for individuals to have their lives redeemed from slavery to sin and futility. The fulfillment of this comes at their point of conversion, but also through their lives, over time, as they allow God to redeem their life, in a practical sense, to freedom from sin's grip and to eternal usefulness.
    2. The oracle place in the Bible's inter-textual commentary - This term refers to the "commentary" provided within the Bible about its meaning. Biblical events and prophesies are often referred to in other portions of Scripture, and these references give us clues about the meaning and relevance of those events and prophecies. In this portion of study, consider how the prophecy you are studying contributes to the unity of the Bible as a whole.
      How does it inform theology? - How is the oracle rooted in the past, drawing upon what has already been revealed by God in history, up to that point?  See Jeremiah 23:1-8 and notice all the themes and historic events drawn upon in this passage.
      How does the prophecy relate to past revelation? How does the prophecy relate to future revelation? Note, for instance, as Jeremiah looks to the time of a future blessing, that it is connected with the Ark of the Covenant and with Jerusalem, the "throne of the Lord" (Jeremiah 3:15-17) . How do these references bring together the Bible's picture of salvation?

Oracle Study - Step 3

Step 3: Apply the content within the oracle.

Identify the following:

  1. What was the prophet calling God’s people to?
    1. Repent - Often after the prophet has announced a time of judgement for Israel's rebellion, the offer to return to the Lord is given. See Joel 12:12-17.
    2. Hope - See Micah's confidence in God's faithfulness in Micah 7:7-9.
    3. Call to action - Trusting God means taking a stand on what God says through the prophet, regardless of current circumstances. See for instance, Isaiah 43:5--"Do not fear!"
  2. How does the oracle continue to instruct God’s people?

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Hermeneutics - Gospels

Overview of the Gospel Genre

The Gospels—the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are theological narratives emphasizing the actions and teachings of Jesus. Important distinctions about the Gospels that will aid your understanding of them:

  • The gospel accounts are selective, purposeful accounts of the life of Jesus. Each Gospel has a thesis the author is defending to a particular audience. For Luke and John, the theses are explicitly spelled out (see John 20:30-31 and Luke 1:1-4). While Matthew and Mark have no such clear statement, their core purposes can be inferred from the events and teachings they select, and from the editorial and structural perspective the author provides.
  • The gospel accounts are meant to persuade and equip the reader. They are not disinterested, neutral presentations of the facts, but instead are evangelical treatises. Through their course they develop arguments, based on evidence supporting their claims. For example, Matthew extensively uses the Old Testament as proof of the validity of Jesus’ teachings while Luke emphasizes historical accuracy and Jesus’ innocence by Roman legal standards.
  • The Gospels provided the early church with authoritative teaching against the backdrop of emerging heresy and other challenges faced by the early Christian church. Note the teachings on the dangers and rewards of discipleship in Mark and the emphasis on Christology in John.

Understanding How Jesus is Portrayed in the Gospels

Jesus as Rabbi: Clearly the Gospel authors and many who heard Jesus speak regarded him as a teacher—a rabbi—a term that in used 40 times in the Gospels (see Mt. 23:8 & 10:24-25). With that in mind, it’s helpful to be aware of common rabbinical figures of speech and how they were used to convey meaning to an audience at the time. When using one of these forms, typically a single general point is made, and the context is crucial for seeing the point.

Figure of Speech
Definition
Text
Overstatement/hyperbole Exaggeration to make a point Luke 14:26 &Mt. 5:29-30
Pun Play on words Mt. 23:23-24 (salma vs. samla) or Jn. 3:8 (spirit and wind)
Simile Comparison using like or as Mt. 10:16 & 12:40
Metaphor Comparison not using like, as Mark 8:15
Proverb Wise saying, aphorism Mt. 6:21 & 26:52
Riddle Puzzling story with a deeper meaning Mark 14:58 & Mt. 11:12
Paradox Statement that seems contradictory, but isn’t Mt. 5:1ff & 16:25
A fortiori “how much more… “ Mt. 7:9-11 & 10:25
Irony/sarcasm Unexpected result Mt. 16:2-3 & Luke 16:20
Question “Who do you say that I am?” or “Can a man have two masters?” Mark 8:27-32; 3:1-4; 9:50
Poetic parallelism Repetition used to advance, contrast thought of first line Mt. 7:7-8; Mark 9:37; Luke 16:10
Parable Extended metaphor with single meaning, or allegory Mt. 13 & Luke 15:4-10

Jesus as a Prophet: In addition to being regarded as a teacher, Jesus also is recognized throughout Gospel accounts as a prophet. See Mark 5:15; 8:28; 14:65; Luke 7:16; Mt. 21:11, 46. Notice how he is shown as one who shared the characteristics of the Old Testament prophets:

  • He performed prophetic signs and miracles. See Luke 17:16 & John 3:2
  • His message was inspired by the Holy Spirit. See Mt. 12:18 & Luke 4:16-30
  • He claimed a divine calling and message. See Luke 4:18, 10:21, & Mt. 5:21
  • As with Old Testament prophets, he was rejected. See Luke 13:33-34

Jesus as a Unique Authority: The Gospels attest to Jesus’ unique authority as a teacher and prophet:

  • His authority above the teachings of others, through his use of the phrase, “You have heard...but I say...” See Mt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, and 43-44. See also Mt. 7:28-29.
  • The testimony of John the Baptist—see John 3:31-36
  • Jesus’ use of “I AM” statements, indicating his claim to deity. See John 8 & 10.

Jesus’ use of “Parabolic Acts” as Teaching Devices: Many times the Gospels show Jesus making a point—teaching, in a sense—through an action instead of through a spoken teaching. Many times Jesus performed a miraculous sign not only as a simple act of mercy, but also to make a theological point about the nature of God, man, and God’s plan of salvation. He often employed actions that were symbolic of these theological points.

As you work to understand these deeper points, remember that Jesus’ actions were taken against the backdrop of Judaism of that time. He was a controversialist and his teachings were designed to inflame opposition to God and dramatically demonstrate God’s mercy. With that in mind, notice where, when, and for whom the action in a particular passage is performed. Ask yourself, “What is the significance of this demonstration, in this particular context, to Jesus’ original audience?”

Gospel Overview

  1. Outline the Gospel by each distinct section - Read the entire Gospel book, noting where the overall book breaks into passages suitable for more in-depth study. By reviewing the whole story each passage will make more sense by seeing how it relates to the total picture. Such an overview will also help you get to the Gospel’s primary purpose, argument and intended audience.
    • Look for the interplay between narrative and teaching.  For example, see how the book of Matthew lays out:
      Chapters 1-4 NARRATIVE: setting the stage for Jesus’ ministry
      Chapters 5-7 TEACHING: sermon on the mount
      Chapters 8-10:4 NARRATIVE: healings and calling the disciples
      Chapter 10:4-42 TEACHING: instructions on the disciple’s ministry
      Chapters 11-12 NARRATIVE: dialogues concerning John and the religious
      Chapter 13 TEACHING: Kingdom parables
      Chapters 14-17 NARRATIVE: Height of ministry in Galilee
      Chapter 18 TEACHING: greatness in the kingdom
      Chapter 19 NARRATIVE: dialogue/debate with Pharisees
      Chapters 19:28-20:16 TEACHING: working for the kingdom
      Chapter 20:17-21:27 NARRATIVE: triumphal entry
      Chapters 21:28-22:14 TEACHING: warning parables
      Chapters 22:15-46 NARRATIVE: confrontations with the religious
      Chapters 23-25 TEACHING: woes, laments, judgments, apocalypse
      Chapters 26-28 NARRATIVE: arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, commission
    • Look for section breaks according to theme. While much of the Gospel writings are chronological, authors may shuffle this order to accommodate a theme they are developing. See for example the thread of parables in Luke 15:1-32 and Matthew 13. See also Mark’s theme of Jesus’ messianic signs inciting religious authorities in Mark 2:1-3:6
    • Look for structural clues:
      • Changes in audience (even subtle changes--"Then he turned to his disciples and said..."), location, time, or subject.
      • Summary, transition, conclusion, and introductory statements. For example, Matthew includes summary statements for the preceding events in 4:23-25, 7:28-29, 8:17, and 8:27. These are good points at which to mark the end of a passage.
  2. Identify significant and recurring themes: why might the Gospel have been written?
    • From these significant and recurring themes, what can you conclude about the author’s primary reasons for writing the gospel and concerns he has for his intended audience?
    • The best way to spot the main themes is to look for repeated terms, repeated events, and relative space devoted.
      • Repeated terms:  Look for words that are technical or theological in nature such as “kingdom of God,” “fulfill,” “believe,” “life,” etc. By compiling a list of these words and summarizing them, you’ll see an emphasis emerge. It is also helpful to use a concordance to see how one author emphasizes a particular term more than another author. For example, John’s use of “believe” (71 occurrences, compared to only 32 in the 3 other Gospels combined); and “life” (62 occurrences)
      • Repeated events: For example, the repeated inclusion of controversies or miracles.
      • Relative space devoted: How much of the author’s work is devoted to particular times? Mark and John both spend a considerable part of their gospels on Jesus’ final week.

See Appendix A below for an example of a completed Gospel Overview.

Passage Study - Step 1

Step 1: Examine the structure of each passage you've identified in the overview

  1. Context
    1. What are the preceding & subsequent passages? - Note the events and themes of the passages that come before and after the one you are studying, and think about how they might relate to the passages you are studying. This gives you clues about your passage’s purpose.
      The Gospels often continue Jesus' teaching by showing it in action or, conversely, by following up Jesus' action with clarifying teaching. For example, Matthew concludes the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) with the observation "He was teaching them as one having authority" Then we see in Matthew 8 and 9 that Jesus demonstrates his authority in a series of miracles. An example of Jesus' actions setting up his teaching can be found in John 6, the feeding of the 5000. Jesus performs the miracle, then declares, "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35).
    2. Introduction or explanatory statement - Note if the author provides a introductory or explanatory statement within the passage that helps set up or summarize the passage.
      For example the Pharisees' question in Matthew 15:2, "Why do Jesus' disciples violate traditions by eating with ritually unwashed hands?" sets up Matthew 15:1-20.
      These editorial devices of the narrator help readers understand the dramatic moments and, therefore, the significance of Jesus' teaching or actions. For example, John 7:1 shows the great hostility toward Christ in Judea. So when Jesus arrives later in Judea, conflict is inevitable.
  2. Identify
    1. Who: Characters - Describe each person in the scene, noting characteristics that the narrator identifies. Where are they from? Are they friend or foe? Are they portrayed as a positive example or a cautionary example? The more you understand about the characters, the more vivid your understanding of the scene will be.
      Note: God can be a character in the passage as well, so note how He is characterized.
    2. Where: Location - Where is the action happening and is there any significance to that? Why are the characters where they are? Is the narrative taking place where controversy is likely? For example, John 4, where Jesus talks to a woman in Samaria.
    3. When: Time - When does the narrative take place? What in general could be said about these times that helps our understanding about why this particular story matters?
      The day of the week is obviously important. Is the narrative cast on the Sabbath? Why might that matter?
  3. Teaching or narrative
    1. Outline the flow of the narrative or teaching - It is helpful to break the passage down into “scenes.” For example in Matthew 15:21-28 there are 3 “scenes":
      • The woman’s request: vs. 21-22
      • Jesus’ exchange with his disciples: vs. 23-24
      • Jesus' exchange with the woman: vs. 25-28
        Each scene plays a role in forming the main point.
    2. What is the main point? - Tips for identifying the main point of the passage:
      • Look for summary, conclusion, or introductory statements, either given by the author (Luke 18:1; John 1:19, 2:11; 2:22) or as a conclusion placed in the mouth of a character (Mt. 8:27; 12:12).
      • Look for imperative (command) statements (Mt. 6:9; John3:7).
      • Repetition of a key term or concept (Mt. 8-9--emphasis on Jesus' authority to act; Luke 15--the value of lost things).
      • Context (Luke 18--Question of "Who then can be saved?" is answered by Jesus that "the things impossible for men are possible with God." This is followed by salvation coming to Bartimaeus and Zaccheus).
      • Connective words such as "thus," "therefore," "so," and "for this reason" indicate a conclusion (Mt. 10:16; 12:9-12).
      • The use of figures of speech such as irony (Mt. 8:22), parallelism (Mt. 9:12-13), a fortiori (Mt. 12:9-14), and the use of truly as an authoritative declaration of fact.
    3. How is the main point supported, illustrated, explained, or applied? - It is important to make sure each scene is connected to this main point.  The more diligence taken with this step, the more sound your interpretation will be. What is the evidence supporting your conclusion about the main point? How is the main point illustrated? Note Old Testament citations and illustrations, miracles that serve as signs, and connective words such as "because," "for," etc.

Structure Study Example - Matthew 15

Jim Leffel steps through examples of structural studies from Matthew 15 (20 min. audio).

Matthew 15:21-28 The Syrophoenician woman

Context: Why is this passage here?

  • Preceding narrative: confrontation with Pharisees over “defilement”
  • Following narrative: summary of healings, then 4000 fed
  • Narrative directed both to the pagan woman (in a pagan setting) and to the disciples
  • Mt. 15:21—28 extends the argument of the last interaction—that faith from the heart, not ritual cleansing from defilement, is what God seeks

Outline of narrative structure:

  • First scene: request of woman to Jesus (15:21-22)—sets up the drama
    • Who? Where? When?
    • Note the irony—Jesus leaves Israel after engaging Jerusalem’s religious elite over the nature of ritual cleanness, to pagan land. The Canaanite woman, unlike either the disciples or the religious authorities, recognizes Jesus’ true identity as “Son of David” (see also 9:27; 12:23—two prior uses of “Son of David”, both on lips of the unclean).
  • Second scene: exchange with disciples (15:23-24)—establishes the significance of the deliverance.
  • Jesus’ silence is met by the disciples’ request to send her away.
  • Jesus’ response is significant: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
    • The Son of David is Israel’s messiah in a unique way (see Jn. 4:22—26). But at the same time, Jesus has healed gentiles (8:5—13).
    • These points contribute to the dramatic exchange between the woman and Jesus.
  • To the woman’s repeated plea Jesus says, “It’s not good to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” I.e.—blessings go to Israel, not gentiles.
  • Woman does not contradict Jesus, but extends the saying to include the needs of her daughter—a true act of reverent faith.
  • Jesus, seeing her faith, grants her the request.
  • Third scene: exchange with the woman (15:25-28)—the sufficiency of faith in God’s mercy.

Structure summary: Context: challenge of internal vs. external cleanliness

  • Supporting Point #1: Ironic identification by “unclean” woman that Jesus is “Son of David”
  • Supporting Point #2: Messiah’s mission centers on the lost of Israel
  • Supporting Point #3: Woman pleas for inclusion in blessings of God to Israel
  • Main Point: God honors the greatness of woman’s faith (both persistence and content)—she is a strong antithesis to the rabbis’ tradition-based religion centering on purity and defilement

Matthew 15:1-20

Context: Why is this passage here?

  • Preceding passage: walking on the water—a challenge to Peter’s faith (compare with 9:27 where the emphasis is on Jesus’ unique authority)
  • Following passage: delivering the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and other healings—here is a woman who is certainly unclean Teaching is directed first to the Pharisees themselves (denunciation); then to the multitude; finally, to the disciples. Note that this is the only passage in this section in which all three audiences are involved.
  • Mt. 15:1-20 reveals the heart of the conflict in Jesus’ ministry: hypocritical elevation of the authority of tradition (preoccupation with ritual cleanliness over revelation in Christ and OT scripture)

Outline of narrative structure:

Introduction statement: Pharisees’ question (15:2): “Why do Jesus’ disciples violate traditions by eating with ritually unwashed hands?”

  • Three scenes:
    • First scene (3-9)—addressing the Pharisees
      • Tradition invalidates the Law—rhetorical question v. 3
        • Example of corban and Law’s command to honor ones’ parents
      • Advocates of tradition are hypocrites
      • Indulging in heartless, vain worship (Isaiah 29:13)
    • Second scene (10-11)—addressing the multitudes
    • Defilement is the result of what comes out of a person, not what goes in
    • Parable of the uprooted plant—directed against Pharisees
    • Parable of the blind guides—directed against Pharisees
    • What goes in does not defile, but what’s in the heart—summary of 11, 17-19, “these things that defile” of v. 20a
    • Third scene (12-20)—addressing the disciples

Conclusion statement: the heart, not unwashed hands, defiles the man (v. 20)

Structure Summary: Passage in context of 14:22-33; 15:21-28

  • Introduction statement (15:2)—“why do Jesus’ disciples violate traditions by eating with ritually unwashed hands?”
    • Supporting Point #1: Pharisees’ question based on tradition that invalidates the Law—heresy
      • Corban case
    • Supporting Point #2: Pharisees’ focus on tradition indicates their hypocrisy
    • Heartless, vain worship described by Isaiah 29:13
    • Parables of denunciation directed to Pharisees with explanation to disciples
    • Supporting Point #3: Defilement is the result of what comes out, not what goes in
  • Conclusion statement (15:20) MAIN POINT—“[things of the heart] defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.”

Passage Study - Step 2

Step 2: Examine the historical and theological content within the passage

  1. Historical/Cultural: Explain cultural practices, people, objects, etc. that may bear on the text’s meaning - Two helpful books on this are Craig Keener’s IVP Bible Background Commentary and Robert Gundry’s Survey of the New Testament.
    Such understanding of the historical and cultural context will help your interpretation for a couple of reasons specific to the Gospel writings:
    • ​​Jesus' actions were often intended to teach truth to his audience. To determine that truth, it’s important to understand the backdrop of Judaism against which Jesus did these actions. Notice where, when, and for whom the action in a particular passage is performed. Ask yourself, “What is the significance of this demonstration, in this particular context, to Jesus’ original audience?
    • Notice the way people around Jesus react to his teachings. How did their cultural context feed an appropriate or inappropriate response to Jesus and his teachings? Since Jesus was likely teaching and acting in a way that would elicit these responses, these reactions give us good insight into the truth Jesus is conveying.
  2. Language: Define key words, including places, people, objects, actions, and theological terms - Note the cultural significance of certain words and how certain words are used in the Gospels and in the New Testament.
  3. Theological Content: What does the passage teach about key theological topics:
    1. Salvation - What does the passage teach about God’s program on earth? How does the passage define or advance our understanding of God's plan to rescue mankind?
      Ask, "in what way has the Kingdom of God come?" Almost every chapter describes the "life" Jesus offers. What does that life involve? And how is salvation tied directly to the Old Testament and to the sacrificial system?
    2. God - What does the passage teach about Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit? What do we learn about their nature and relationship?
      Gospel writers include substantial Christology in what they record of Jesus' teachings and actions. Be sure to identify in the text who Jesus is and what he offers his audience. Also, Jesus calls God his Father and calls upon his disciples to address God as Father too (Matt. 6:9).
    3. A life of discipleship - What does the passage teach about the sacrifices and benefits of a life of discipleship? One of the purposes of the Gospels is to teach the early church about what it means and looks like to follow Christ. Pay close attention to Jesus' instructions about following him, what it means to "believe," and the examples he sets for his disciples.
    4. The kingdom of God - What does the passage teach about the nature of the kingdom of God?
      For an explanation of this theological term and its importance see the section on the Kingdom of God in Appendix B - Identifying Theological Content in the Gospels
      See Appendix B for help on Identifying Theological Content in the Gospels

Examples of a structural and theological study applied to three primary forms of Gospel content:

  • Gospel discourse (Example below is Matthew 10:5-42)
    • Context:
      • Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as he sends them out on their mission (10:1-5; 11:1)
      • Instructions clearly are addressed to Jesus’ disciples
    • Structure of the text:
      • 5-15 The nature of the disciples' mission
        • vs. 5,6: Audience: the Jews (lost sheep of the house of Israel)
        • vs. 7: Message: “Kingdom of heaven is at hand”
        • vs. 8: Evidence: signs of the kingdom to be performed
        • vs. 9-15: Approach: prophetic, itinerant
      • 16-23 Be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves
        • vs. 16: Therefore: Be shrew as serpents and innocent as doves
        • vs. 17, 18: But: Beware of men who will take you to the courts, scourge you in the synagogues, and before Roman officials
          • as a testimony against them and the Gentiles
        • vs. 19, 20: But: Don’t be anxious
          • for God will speak through His Spirit
        • vs. 21, 22: And hatred and betrayal await
          • But: the one who endures will be saved in the end
        • vs. 23: But: flee to the next city when persecuted
          • Truly I say” you will not finish the task until the Son of Man comes
      • 24-33 Fear God, not men
        • vs. 24,25: Disciple is not above his teacher, nor slave, master
          • Enough that the disciple become as his teacher
          • If the head is called “Beelzebub”, how much more the members?
        • vs. 26,27: Thereforedo not fear them
          • Things hidden will be revealed
          • What is told in darkness, say in the light
        • vs. 28: And: do not fear them
          • who kill the body, but not the soul
        • Rather: fear Him
          • who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell
        • vs. 29-31: Thereforedo not fear
          • God cares for the sparrow of little value
          • God knows the very hairs on you head
          • You are of greater value than a sparrow
        • vs. 32,33: Therefore:
          • Confess me before men, I will confess you to Father
            • Deny me before men, I will deny you to the Father
      • 10:34-39 Paradoxical blessing of discipleship
        • vs. 34: I did not come to bring peace, but a sword
        • vs. 35, 36: For: Households in opposition (Micah 7:6)
        • vs. 37: He who loves family more than Me is not worthy of Me
        • vs. 38: And: he who does not take his cross to follow Me is not worthy of Me
        • vs. 39: He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it
      • 10:40-42 He who receives you receives a reward
        • vs. 40:
          • He who:
            • Receives you
              • Receives me
          • ​​He who:
            • Receives Me
              • Receives Him who sent Me
        • vs. 41:
          • He who:
            • Receives a prophet in the prophet’s name
            • Receives a prophet’s reward
          • He who:
            • Receives a righteous man in his name
            • Receives a righteous man’s reward
        • ​​vs. 42:
          • Who ever:
            • Gives cold water in disciple’s name
              • Truly I say: he shall not lose his reward
  • Gospel narrative
    • Scenes:
      • 1-11 Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
      • 12-17 Cleansing the Temple
      • 18-22 Cursing the Fig Tree
    • Context:
      • 20:17-28 Jesus’ disciples do not understand his mission, jockey for position in the kingdom
      • 20:29-34 Again, Jesus opens the eyes of the blind
      • 21:23-27 Religious authorities challenge Jesus
    • Matthew 21:1-11 Triumphal Entry
      • Context:
        • messianic mission again stated, but not understood by disciples
        • sight given to the blind (a sign)
        • unexpected cleansing, rather than dedicating, the temple
      • Setting:
        • approaching Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives
        • Jesus sends disciples to get a colt for his entry into Jerusalem
        • Jesus, disciples and multitudes are present
      • Dialogue/Story Development
        • Disciples get a colt for Jesus to sit on
        • Fulfilling Zech. 9:9
        • Multitude spread garments and branches before Jesus and reciting a messianic hymn to the Son of David
        • The city, in a stir, asks, “Who is this?”
        • Answer: “the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee” (Son of David)
      • Character Development
        • Clearly Jesus regards himself to be the Davidic messianic king and that his entry into Jerusalem uniquely fulfills scripture
        • Significance of character development must be seen in context of several scenes which are viewed together
        • Masses for the first (and only?) time recognize Jesus as the messiah
      • Main point: Jesus is the messiah, Son of David—all elements of the scene indicate this
      • Supporting points:
        • Entry into Jerusalem fulfills Zech. 9:9; “Branch of Yahweh”
        • Multitude recognize Jesus as “Son of David”
      • Theology - For the first time in his public ministry, Jesus intentionally sets himself forth as the awaited messiah, the “Son of David”. Yet, this fulfillment has much irony which was almost certainly lost on the original participants in this event. Jesus directly fulfills Zechariah 9:9, anticipating the messiah coming as king, bringing salvation to Jerusalem, and mounted humbly on a colt. Laying branches before the messiah symbolically connects the hope of messiah with the “Branch of David” (Jer. 23:5; Is. 11:1,2,10; Zech. 3:8-10). The crowd cites Psalm 118:25, 26. “Hosanna” means “Lord save us” (Ps. 118:25), followed by “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The whole text of Ps. 118:22-28 seems uniquely relevant and prophetic. It is a hymn sung at one of the key festivals of the Jews, probably Passover—which in context clearly has symbolic significance. So Jesus, the “rejected cornerstone” is to be the sacrifice bound to the altar.
    • ​Matthew 21:12-17 Cleansing the Temple
      • Context:
        • Triumphal entry, fulfilling scripture; Jesus accepts public acknowledgement that he is the messiah
        • Followed by the symbolic cursing of the fig tree
        • His authority will be challenged based, in part, on this event (21:23ff.)
      • Setting:
        • In Jerusalem at the temple
        • Blind and lame; priests and scribes; children
      • Dialogue/Story Development
        • Entering the temple, Jesus throws out moneychangers
        • Prophetic denunciation of the hypocrisy at the temple
        • Blind and lame at the temple healed
        • Crisis: Priests become indignant with Jesus’ healings and the children recognition that Jesus is the Son of David
        • Resolution: Accommodation of scripture to denounce the priests
        • Jesus retreats to Bethany for the night
      • Character Development
        • Note the sharp contrasts between the needy and innocent, and the priests
        • Rather than “anointing the holy place,” Jesus creates a scandal by in essence denouncing it.
      • Main point: Cleansing the temple for its true purpose, as a confrontation with the religious officials that misrepresent its purpose
      • Supporting points:
        • Cleansing the temple is in keeping with the tradition of prophetic denunciation such as in Isaiah’s day (v.13 cf. Jeremiah 7:11)
        • More signs from Jesus in healing the blind and lame (v.14)
        • Child’s faith again affirmed (v.15,16, cf. Psalm 8:2)
      • Theology - When the messiah comes, he is to anoint the temple (Dan. 9:24 and related passages). But in this scene, Jesus does not consecrate the temple, but confronts it for its hypocrisy. This event is another instance of confronting the religious who are far from the kingdom. The discussion in vs. 23-27 clearly draw importance on the issue of authority—an issue that pervades Jesus’ ministry. The children’s faith and the signs performed, again, demonstrate the truth of Jesus’ witness and the emptiness of Jewish formalistic religion.
    • Matthew 21:23-27 Cursing the Fig Tree
    • Context:
      • After cleansing the temple (21:12-17)
      • Jesus’ authority to be challenged (21:23-27)
    • Setting:
      • On the return to Jerusalem the next morning
      • Jesus is with his disciples
    • Dialogue/Story Development
      • Crisis: Jesus finds no fruit on the fig tree
      • Tree is cursed, no longer to bear fruit
      • Disciples marvel, “How did the tree wither at once?”
      • Jesus responds using figures of speech
      • Resolution: What you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive
    • Character Development
      • Jesus’ symbolic act of cursing the fig tree seems a fitting continuation of his cleansing the temple
      • Disciples focus on the miraculous nature of the event rather than its symbolic importance
    • Main point: Jesus’ disciples called to a true, effective faith (v.22)
    • Supporting points:
      • Contrast of Israel’s failed faith—the symbolic imagery of the fig tree
      • Israel (the fig tree) is condemned to fruitlessness
    • Theology - Fig tree as Israel (in context of previous scene; also Hosea 9:10; Jeremiah 8:13 use the same imagery in relation to Israel, and the latter, in relation to God’s judgment of the nation). Israel was to bear the fruit of being God’s unique covenant people. They failed to obey God’s law and did not live as a witness of God to the watching world. So Jesus pronounces judgment on Israel and shifts his attention to his disciples, who will carry on the work of the kingdom. Effect of believing prayer rooted in true belief, not ritual.
  • Gospel extended dialogue
    • Extended dialogue is a very common technique in the gospels. Interpreters will want to pay close attention to the flow of conversation, looking for how Jesus develops theology in the context of conversation. Extended dialogue is different than narrative in that it is much longer than a simple narrative and focuses almost entirely on Jesus making a claim, then clarifying its meaning in the context of uncomprehending disciples or hostile religious authorities.
      Here is an example for John 8:12-59:
      8:12-20
      Verses   Structure
      12 Claim “I am the light of the world”
      12 Consequence
      • He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life
      13 Objection If you bear witness to yourself, your witness is not true (admissible)
      14-18 Response My witness is true:
      • Based on where I came from and where I am going
      • I am not alone in my judgment (witness),
        • For He who sent Me also bears witness of Me, who sent Me
      • Principle: law states that the testimony of 2 witnesses is sufficient
      • I and the Father bear witness
      19a Objection “Where is your father?”
      19b Response You know neither Me nor My Father
      • If you knew Me, you would know My Father also
      20 Summary statement by John No one seized Him
      • because his hour had not yet come

      8:21-30

      Verses   Structure
      21 Claim I go away
      • you will seek Me, but die in your sins
      • where I am going you cannot come (note the thought of “where I am from and go” from vs. 14)
      22 Response “He isn’t going to kill himself is he?”
      23, 24 Claim You are from below, I am from above
      • you are from this world
      • I am not from this world
      • Therefore, you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am He
      25 Question Who are you?
      26 Question What have I been saying all along?
      • I have many things to say and to judge concerning you
      • But he who sent me is true
      • What I have heard from Him I speak to the world
      27 Editorial insertion They did not realize He was speaking about the Father
      28, 29 Claim When you lift up the Son of Man
      • You will know that I am He
      • And do nothing on My own initiative
      • But I speak what the Father taught Me

      He who sent me is with Me

      • He did not leave Me alone
      • For I do what pleases him
      30 Summary Many believed as he spoke these things

      8:31-47

      31, 32 Claim If you abide in My word
      • then you are truly My disciples
      • and you shall know the truth
      • and the truth will make you free
      33 Question How do you say, “You shall become free?”
      • We are Abraham’s offspring
      • And we have never been enslaved by anyone
      34-38 Response Everyone who sins is the slave of sin
      • A slave does not remain in the house forever
      • The son remains in the house forever
      • Therefore, if the Son makes you free
        • You are free indeed

      I know you are Abraham’s offspring

      • Yet, you seek to kill Me
        • Because My word has no place in you

      I speak the things I have seen with My Father

      • Therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father
      39a Rejoinder Abraham is our father
      39b-41a Response to rejoinder If you are Abraham’s children
      • Do the deeds of Abraham
      • But you are seeking to kill Me
        • A man who told you the truth
          • Which I heard from God
      • Abraham did not do this
      41b Assertion We were not born of fornication (unlike Jesus)We have one Father, God
      42-47 Rejoinder If God were your Father, you would love Me
      • For I proceeded from God,
      • For I have not come on My initiative
      • but His initiative

      Why do you not understand what I say?

      • Because you cannot hear My word

      You are of your father the devil and you want to do the desires of your father

      • He was a murderer from the beginning
      • He does not stand in the truth
        • Because there is no truth in him
        • Whenever he lies he speaks from his own nature
          • For he is a liar
          • and the father of lies

      You do not believe me

      • because I speak the truth

      Who convicts me of sin?

      • If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me?
      • He who is of God hears God’s word
        • For this reason you do not hear them,
        • Because you are not of God

      8:48-59

      48 Claim You are a Samaritan and have a demon
      49-51 Rejoinder  Claim I do not have a demon
      • But I honor My Father
      • And you dishonor Me

      I do not seek my own glory

      • Only One seeks and judges

      I tell you truly

      • If anyone keeps My word
      • He shall never die
      52, 53 Response to rejoinder   Question Now we know you have a demon
      • Abraham and the prophets died
      • And you say, “If anyone keeps My word, he will never die”

      Surely you are not greater than our father Abraham or the prophets who died?Who do you say you are?

      54-56 Response       Claim If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing
      • The Father glorifies Me
      • Of whom you say, “He is our God”

      And you have not come to know God

      • But I know Him
      • And if I say I don’t I will be a liar like you
      • But I know God
      • and keep his word

      Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day and he saw it and was glad

      57 Question How could you have seen Abraham since you’re not yet 50?
      58 Response I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I AM
      59 Narrator summary They picked up stones to throw at Jesus, but he hid and went out of the temple

Passage Study - Step 3

Step 3: Apply the content within the passage

Is there a response to Jesus in the passage?

  • What do we learn about what faith in Christ looks like?
  • What do we learn about the decision to follow Christ or what it means to live as his disciple.
  • How is unbelief--rejection of or hostility toward Christ--characterized?

Appendix A - Overview Step Example (John)

PASSAGE TYPE CONTENT
1:1—5 Prologue Jesus as the “Word”
1:6—8 Prologue Role of John the Baptist
1:9—13 Prologue Jesus is light of the world
1:14—18 Prologue Mystery of the incarnation
1:19—28 Narrative Testimony of John the Baptist
1:29—34 Narrative John’s witness of Jesus
1:35—42 Narrative Early disciples called
1:43—51 Narrative More disciples called
2:1—10 Narrative Wedding at Cana
2:11 Summary First sign in Galilee: Disciples believe
2:12—21 Narrative Cleansing the temple
2:22—25 Summary After resurrection, disciples believed scripture; many believed based on signs
3:1—21 Narrative Challenge to Nicodemus
3:22—36 Narrative John challenges his disciples
4:1—6 Narration Jesus must go through Samaria
4:7—38 Narrative Woman at the well
4:39—42 Summary Many believed, having heard themselves
4:43—45 Summary Galileeans receive Jesus
4:46—53 Narrative Nobleman’s son healed
4:54 Summary Jesus’ second sign in Galilee
5:1—9 Narrative Healing lame man at Bethesda
5:9b—17 Narrative Controversy over the Sabbath
5:18 Summary Jews seeking to kill Jesus over teaching
5:19—29 Short discourse Believe the Son for eternal life
5:30—47 Short discourse Four witnesses to Christ
6:1,2 Summary Multitudes followed because of signs
6:3—14 Narrative Feeding the 5,000
6:15 Summary Jesus withdraws
6:16—21 Narrative Jesus walks on water
6:22—25 Narration Multitude seeks Jesus
6:26—40 Narrative extended dialogue “I am the bread of life”
6:41—51 Narrative extended dialogue “I am the bread of life”
6:52—58 Narrative extended dialogue Eternal life through Jesus’ blood & flesh
6:59 Summary Jesus spoke this in the synagogue
6:60—65 Narrative Spirit gives life
6:66—71 Narrative Peter’s confession; betrayal foretold
7:1 Summary Jesus refuses to go to Jerusalem
7:2—9 Narrative Jesus rejects his brothers’ reasoning
7:10—13 Narration Jesus goes to Passover secretly
7:14—24 Narrative Jesus speaks at the temple
7:25—36 Narrative Jesus is from the Father, many believe
7:37—44 Narrative Multitudes divided; a call to believe
7:45—53 Narrative Controversy among the Pharisees
8:1—11 Narrative Woman caught in adultery
8:12—20 Narrative extended dialogue “I am the light of the world”
8:21—29 Narrative extended dialogue You must believe or die in your sins
8:30 Summary Many believed
8:31—47 Narrative extended dialogue “I am from my Father”
8:48—59 Narrative extended dialogue “If you keep my word, you will not die”
9:1—12 Narrative Healing blind man; “I am light of the world”
9:13—34 Narrative Division over healing on the Sabbath
9:35—41 Narrative extended dialogue Call to healed man to believe
10:1—5 Short discourse Beginning of “shepherd” teaching
10:6 Summary Jesus’ teaching not understood
10:7—18 Short discourse “I am the good shepherd”
10:19—21 Summary Division arises over Jesus
10:22—30 Narrative extended dialogue Jesus gives eternal life
10:31—38 Narrative extended dialogue A call to believe
10:39 Summary Pharisees seek Jesus, but he escapes
10:40—42 Summary Many believed
11:1—44 Narrative Raising Lazarus, a sign for belief
11:45, 46 Summary Many believed, others fled to Pharisees
11:47—53 Narrative Plot to kill Jesus
11:54—57 Narrative Pharisees waiting to seize Jesus
12:1—8 Narrative Mary anoints Jesus
12:9—11 Summary Multitude came to see Jesus and Lazarus, many believed; chief priests seek to kill Lazarus also
12:12—19 Narrative Triumphal entry into Jerusalem
12:20—36 Narrative, extended dialogue Prediction of Jesus’ death; call to believe
12:37—43 Summary Many did not believe, fulfilling Is. 53; 6; others including some rulers believed secretly
12:44—50 Discourse Believe in Jesus for eternal life
13:1—11 Narrative Jesus washes his disciples’ feet
13:12—20 Short discourse Serve one another
13:21—30 Narrative Betrayal foretold
13:31—35 Short discourse Love one another
13:36—38 Narrative Peter’s denial foretold
14:1—15 Narrative, extended dialogue “Show us the Father”; a call to believe
14:16—31 Discourse The Spirit and His ministry
15:1—11 Discourse Vine and branches
15:12—27 Discourse The command to love
16:1—15 Discourse Promise of the Holy Spirit
16:16—22 Discourse Jesus to return to the Father
16:23—28 Discourse Ask with belief in Jesus’ name
16:29—33 Narrative “I have overcome the world”
17:1—26 Discourse “High Priestly Prayer”
18:1—11 Narrative Betrayal and arrest of Jesus
18:12—14 Narrative Jesus sent to Annas
18:15—18 Narrative Peter’s denial
18:19—24 Narrative Jesus before Annas
18:25—27 Narrative Peter’s second denial
18:28—40 Narrative Jesus before Pilate
19:1—16 Narrative Pilate delivers Jesus to crowd, crucifixion
19:17—22 Narrative Cross inscription and controversy
19:23—30 Narrative Jesus crucified
19:31—34 Narrative Jesus’ legs not broken
19:35—37 Summary John’s testimony and OT prophetic testimony intended to provide basis for readers to believe
19:38—42 Narrative Jesus’ burial
20:1—10 Narrative Empty tomb
20:11—18 Narrative Mary sees Jesus, announces resurrection
20:19—29 Narrative Jesus reveals himself to disciples; Thomas
20:30, 31 Summary Signs included in this gospel intended to lead to belief and life in Jesus
21:1—11 Narrative Great catch of fish at Sea of Galilee
21:21—23 Narrative Peter restored
21:24, 25 Summary John’s witness is true and selective

Appendix B - Identifying Theological Content in the Gospels

The four Gospel books in the Bible offer a rich supply of theological content including truth about God, discipleship, and the nature of salvation and man. In drawing out these theological points, it is helpful to look for content related to three central areas: the use of the Old Testament in the Gospels, the nature of the kingdom of God, and God’s fatherhood.

The Use of the Old Testament in the Gospels

The Gospels contain many references to the Old Testament, including direct quotes, references to Old Testament narratives, and connections to Old Testament prophesy. When studying passages containing these references, it’s essential to first determine the meaning of the Old Testament narrative or prophesy to which the Gospel account refers. From there, look at the way the Gospel authors employ the Old Testament writings. This will give you clues as to the meaning and truth being conveyed in the Gospel passage:

  • Use of the Old Testament language and citations as colloquial expressions: Old Testament expressions and imagery were a significant part of simple cultural references used by people at the time. For example the imagery of a tree used in Matthew 13:32 would have easily been recognized by the people of the time as being a reference to God’s provision. Such a reference didn’t hold a deep theological or prophetic meaning, but instead was just a simple cultural expression, rooted in the Old Testament.
  • Allusions: Many times the Gospels indirectly use Old Testament material to bring out the tone or nature of a particular situation. For example, Jesus’ words in Mark 14:34 conjure up the language of Psalm 42 & 43, thus giving us a sense of the emotion and meaning of his words.
  • Application or accommodation of an Old Testament principle: Sometimes an Old Testament principle is applied in the New Testament in a fresh way, in a fresh context that takes it a step beyond its original use but is still in keeping with its original principle. For example when Jesus talks to the unbelieving crowd in Matthew 15:5ff, he is not saying that they are somehow completing a prophesy—instead he is noting how they are like the people Isaiah describes in the Old Testament passage cited.
  • The Old Testament is cited as a way of capturing an opponent’s point of view. See Jesus’ use of the Old Testament in Matthew 5:21-22; 27-28; 31-32; 33-34; 38-39; and 43-44.
  • Direct Old Testament prophesy fulfillment: Many times the Old Testament is referenced to show that the New Testament—specifically Jesus—fulfills the explicit intended meaning of an Old Testament author. For example, in Luke 4:18-21, Jesus claims that he is fulfilling the Messianic prophesy given in Isaiah 61:1-2. See also Matthew 8:16-17 and Luke 22:37 (Is. 53), Matthew 1:22-23 (Is. 7:14), and Acts 2:16-21 (Joel 2:28-32).
  • New Testament fulfillment of Old Testament passages that are not explicitly tied to an Old Testament passage, but which implicitly carry the meaning found in the New Testament. Under this category, Old Testament prophesies, themes, and motifs find their completion—they are brought to fullness—not in an event, but in the person of Jesus. See Matthew 5:17, Luke 18:31-33, and Luke 24:44. See also John 4, where Jesus offers himself as “living water,” water being a theme in the Old Testament of God’s provision.

The Nature of the Kingdom of God

The concept of the kingdom of God is woven throughout the Gospel accounts, frequently referenced by Jesus.

  • His use of the term is rooted in Old Testament teachings and concepts:
    • God is a king over his people: See Exodus 15:18, Numbers 23:21, and Isaiah 43:15. See also passages referencing the “Day of the Lord” (e.g. Joel 2-3), which is seen as God breaking in on history to establish His rule.
    • God is the earth’s king: Portrayed as both a current king (2 Kings 19:15, Isa. 6:5, Jer. 46:18) and a future king (Isa. 24:23, 33:22, 52:7, Zeph. 3:15, Zech. 14:9)
    • God’s rule is David’s rule: 1 Chron. 28:5; 2 Chron. 9:8; 13:8; Ezek. 34:23,24)
  • Jewish people of Jesus’ time had an apocalyptic outlook of the kingdom of God, expecting a radical, overpowering, in-breaking of God on earth. They regarded the “present” age as being evil, and anticipated a future time of blessing for God’s people and judgment for His enemies. There was a sense of being a “wall” between these two times—the present time belonging to Satan and the future time belonging to God. This perspective led to moral and ethical passivity, with a focus on individual efforts to fulfill the law.
  • In contrast, Jesus taught that there was a very real fulfillment of the kingdom of God at the present time, though it had not yet been brought to full consummation. He was ushering in a messianic rule, and while not apparent in a geo-political sense, it was a conquering of the age of evil nonetheless. Jesus offered that there were “kingdom blessings” available to those who put themselves under the authority of the messianic rule:
  • People were invited to enter into the kingdom: Matthew 25: 34, 46
  • The kingdom is a gift (Luke 12:32) of salvation (Mark 10:17-30) to be sought and received (Mt. 7:7, 13:44-46, 6:33), even to outsiders (Mt. 8:11-13).
  • The kingdom included eternal life (Mt. 25:46, Mark 9:43) and the “joy of the Lord” (Mt. 25:21, 23)
  • The kingdom offered resurrection at the end of the age (Luke 20:34-36)
  • Evils are purged in the kingdom (Mt. 25:34,46)
  • By entering into the kingdom, fellowship with God is restored (Mt. 22:1-14; 25:1-12)
  • The kingdom includes unexpected reversals—those who would seem to be in it are not, and those who would seem to be out are in (Matthew 5:1—12)
  • These “reversals” are also seen in Jesus’ teachings on the nature of discipleship (Mark 8:35; 10:43-45)
  • The kingdom of God is portrayed as a mysterythat is seen easily and given freely to those who have a willing heart, but is kept hidden from those who are not humble before God (Matthew 13:10-17)

The Fatherhood of God

In the Gospels, father is the most common way Jesus refers to God. It is used over 100 times in John and 65 times in the other Gospels. Note its use in Matthew 5-7, and the implications for relating to God and being His disciple:

  • Your Father knows you fully (therefore trust in Him)—Matthew 6:26 & 6:32
  • Your Father accepts you unconditionally (therefore give others unconditional love)—Matthew 5:44-45 & 6:14
  • Your Father fully cares for you and delights in you (therefore relate to Him in a way that reflects His great love and care for you)—Matthew 6:8 & 7:11

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Hermeneutics - Epistles

Overview of the Epistles Genre

The Epistles are a set of letters found in the New Testament written by early church apostles to individuals or to churches. They are a favorite genre of Biblical study because they offer a rich trove of theology, as well as practical instruction for Christians and churches.

Through these letters the authors sought to clarify doctrine and its proper application, a very necessary task given the polytheistic Greco-Roman world view the culture in which the early church was growing. Many times the arguments advanced are an effort to clarify Christian doctrine against the cultural grain. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul admits these arguments may seem foolish to people of the time, but they are based on God’s revelation in history.

It’s helpful to understand the cultural point of view in order to understand the logic and arguments being put forth by the authors. Often the epistle authors write with three major viewpoints in mind:

  1. Greek Dualism
    This philosophy taught that reality is divided into the spiritual and physical. Humans are spirits encased—or enslaved—in a physical body. The authors of the epistles advanced both doctrinal and practical arguments against dualism:
    • Doctrinal arguments against dualism:
      • Dualism conflicts with several attributes of Jesus including his full humanity (1 John 1:1, 4:1-2 & John 1:14), full deity (Col. 2:9 & Heb. 1:3), and the fact that he experienced bodily resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-17).
      • Dualism conflicts with the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Christians (1 Cor. 15:12, 18, 19, 50-58)
      • Dualism conflicts with the singular authority of Christ to forgive sins and rule creation since forgiveness was based on a blood-shedding atoning sacrifice, and Jesus’ right to rule is based on his sacrifice (Col. 1:15-20).
    • Practical arguments against dualism:
      • The philosophy of dualism often led to pervasive license within the culture. If humans were spirits trapped within a body, and the physical world was separated from the spiritual world, then the physical could be indulged without it harming the spiritual. Paul uses Christian doctrine to argue against this in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and 6:12-20.
      • Conversely, the philosophy of dualism also led to asceticism. If the physical realm trapped and imprisoned the spiritual, then one might be able to escape this prison by radical self-denial. See Paul’s argument against this in Colossians 2:20-23.
  2. Spiritual Illumination by Mystical Experience
    The Roman culture embraced mystery religions from Asia, offering “secret” knowledge and mystical awareness—revelation—to those willing to follow its often-bombastic rituals. In contrast, Christianity was emerging with the offer of revelation through the observance and study of God’s movement in history and His communication of truth.
    • Doctrinal arguments against mystical revelation advanced by epistle authors:
      • God offers objective revelation, in the face of the tendency toward “gnosis” and false teachings (1 Tim. 6:20-21, Col. 2:8-9, 2 Cor. 10:3-5)
      • Spiritual revelation is based on historic fact (1 Cor. 15:1-10; see also Luke 1:1-4)
    • Practical arguments against mystical revelation advanced by epistle authors:
      • Group gatherings were to be orderly, in contrast with the chaotic rituals of the mystics (1 Cor. 11:20-22; 14:6-19)
      • They were to stress faithfulness to the Word of God above experience. (Rom. 12:1-2)
  3. Cyclical View of History
    The Roman culture regarded man’s existence as being in an endless cycle, with both history and nature on an endless and unchanging loop. There was no sense of ultimate purpose or destiny to human history, and no sense of progression in history. This stands against the epistle’s argument for the importance of God’s revelation of salvation over time (1 Thes. 4:13-5:11), and the hope that Christians can derive from knowing there is a beginning (Gen. 1:1), a meaningful sequence of events, and a final culmination.

Epistle Overview

Read the entire epistle and identify:

  • Author, audience and others referred to in the letter - Look within the epistle itself for information about the author, audience, and other people mentioned in the letter.
  • The main themes of the letter - When identifying the main themes look for:
    • Repeated terms or phrases
    • Statements of purpose within the epistle—sometimes the author will say something like “I am writing to you for this purpose...”—e.g. 2 Peter 3:1
    • The relative “space” given by the author to a particular point—if he devotes more time to a point.
  • The purpose for the letter—Why do you think it was written?
    From your overview study, come up with an overall purpose for the letter—why it was written. Consider the original audience as well as the main themes you identified. This purpose should take into account most if not all of the main themes. This will help ensure your understanding of individual passages is rooted in the author’s original intent.

Overview Step Example

Author, audience, and others mentioned:

Author Audience Third Parties
  • 1:1 Paul an apostle of Christ by God’s command
  • 1:13—16 former blasphemer, persecutor who acted ignorantly; foremost of sinners
  • 1:20 involved in church discipline in Ephesus (?)
  • 2:7 appointed an apostle, teacher to the Gentiles
  • 3:14,15 desires to come to Ephesus, but may be delayed
  • 1:2 Timothy, Paul’s true child in the faith
  • 1:3 In Ephesus at Paul’s urging to instruct
  • 1:18 entrusted to fight the good fight, in accordance with prophecies made about him
  • 3:1ff (5:22) appoint worthy elders and deacons
  • 4:12 young
  • 5:23 drink wine for frequent stomach and other ailments
  • 6:12 called to eternal life, made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses
  • 1:3,4 teachers of strange doctrine centering on speculations and genealogies
  • 1:6,7 teachers of fruitless discussion, making ignorant and confident claims about the Law
  • 1:20 Hymenaeus and Alexander’s faith is shipwrecked, and Paul delivered them to Satan to learn not to blaspheme
  • 2:9ff women not adorning themselves properly, or acting properly in meetings (?)
  • 6:3—10 false teachers who seek profit from their message
  • 6:17 some are rich and having moral problems associated with wealth
  • 6:20,21 some have left the faith pursuing what is falsely called “knowledge”

 

Main Themes:

Proper conduct in the body of Christ (3:15)

  • Prayer for state officials (2:1,2)
  • Appropriate roles for women (2:9—15)
  • Character of elders and deacons (3:2—13)
  • Proper conduct in relationships in the church (5:1—16)
  • Treatment of elders (5:17—21)
  • Slave/master relationships (6:1,2)

Instructing those in error (1:3; 6:17,18)

  • Love is goal of instruction (1:5)
  • Countering speculation and distortions of Law (1:3—7)
  • Public reading of scripture and teaching (4:13)
  • Oppose the teaching falsely called “knowledge” (6:20)
  • Maintaining sound principle (3:1,15; 4:6,11,16; 5:7,21; 6:2,17,18)

Character of a worker (4:6,12)

  • Self discipline (4:7—12)
  • Progress in the Word (4:14—16)
  • Relating to those older (5:1)
  • Flee pursuit of wealth, pursue righteousness… (6:11)
  • Guard what has been entrusted (6:14,20)

Summary: Considering the audience and main themes, why was this book written?

Paul, the apostle, writes to the younger Timothy encouraging him personally, and focusing his attention on the key issues threatening the church in Ephesus.

Passage Study - Step 1

Step 1: Examine the structure of each paragraph within the epistle

  1. Outline the epistle by paragraph
    Read the entire epistle, noting where the overall book breaks into passages suitable for more in-depth study. By reviewing the entire epistle, you'll be able to make more sense of each passage by seeing how they relate to the total picture. Such an overview will also help you get to the epistle’s primary purpose, argument and intended audience.
    Remember that paragraph identification is helpful to understand the flow of the letter, but isn't an exact science. The apostolic authors did not use paragraphs (or verses) when they wrote their letters.
    Here is an example of how different Bible translations and authors have divided the paragraphs for 1 Timothy 1:
     NASB   NIV   RSV   NEB   JND Kelly   Wuest   Leffel 
    1-2 1-2 1-2 1-2 1-2 1-2 1-2
    3-17 3-7 3-7 3-4 3-11 3-4 3-7 
          5-7   5-11  
      8-11 8-11 8-11     8-11
      12-14 12-17 12-14 12-17 12-17 12-17
      15-17   15-17      
    18-20 18-20 18-20 18-20 18-20 18-20 18-20 
  2. Paragraph Diagram: Outline the individual paragraph's structure - Your goal here is to identify the main and supporting points the author is making.
    • What is the main point of the preceding & subsequent paragraphs?
      Note the themes and logic of the passages that come before and after the one you are studying. This provides the context of the passage you are studying, and gives you clues about your passage’s purpose.
    • What is the main point of this paragraph? - Tips for finding the main point of a given passage—look for:
      • Connective words that indicate the author is drawing a conclusion such as “therefore...” and “so then...”
      • Statements of general principle or evaluation. (1 Cor. 8:1—“Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies”)
      • Imperatives—commands (1 Cor. 7:10—“The wife should not leave her husband”)
      • Independent clauses (1 Cor. 1:4—“I thank my God always concerning you”)
      • Repeated terms (1 Cor. 13—“love")
    • How is the main point supported, illustrated, or explained? Tips for finding supporting points in a given passage:
      • Look for connective words:
        • “Because” or “such as”—often they justify or give reason for the main point. (Rom. 5:6)
        • "But,” “however,” or “if”—often they offer a contrast to the main point, or qualify it. (Phil. 2:17)
        • “That” or “so that”—often they apply the main point or show its results (Col. 3:12)
      • Look for examples of a general principle: (1 Cor. 9:24)
      • Look for indicatives—statements of truth that motivate and inform imperatives (commands) (Gal. 5:17)
      • Look for dependent clauses that qualify or clarify the main point (Phil. 3:20-21—“...from which we eagerly wait for a Savior who will transform the body of your humble state into conformity with the body of His glory..."

Paragraphy Diagram Example - 1 Corinthians 1:4-9

"I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you in Christ, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."

Main point:  "I thank my God always concern in you..." (independent clause)

Supporting points:

Why for the grace given to you in Christ
Result that in everything you were enriched in Him
How in all speech and knowledge as Christ’s testimony was confirmed in you
Result so that you do no lack any gift
Result awaiting the revelation of Christ
Qualification who will confirm you to the end
How blameless
When in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ
Why God is faithful
How through His calling into fellowship with His Son Jesus our Lord

Structure summary:  Paul is thankful to God concerning the Corinthians:

Reason #1: God’s grace in Christ

  • enriching in speech and knowledge
  • not lacking in any gift
  • awaiting the revelation of Christ who will confirm you to the end blameless in the day of the Lord

Reason #2: God is faithful

  • through His calling into fellowship with Christ

Passage Study - Step 2

  1. Historical/Cultural: Explain Roman and Jewish cultural practices, people, objects, etc. that may bear on the text’s meaning. (See Appendix A on The Epistles in Greco-Roman Times)
  2. Theological - What truths do we learn about God, man, salvation, discipleship, etc. through this passage? See specific questions below:
    1. What does the passage teach about key theological topics?
      1. God’s plan of salvation on earth
        What does the passage teach about God’s program on earth? How does the passage define or advance our understanding of God's plan to rescue mankind?
        Pay close attention to terms used to describe salvation. For instance, "redemption," "regeneration," "sanctified," etc. What do these words mean? See a Bible dictionary. How do these terms relate to the rest of Scripture?
      2. Jesus and his nature
        What does the passage teach about Jesus, including his nature and his relationship with God, the Holy Spirit, the church, and others?
        Remember that New Testament letters were written to clarify misunderstandings about who Jesus is and what he came to accomplish.
      3. A life of discipleship or the church
        What does the passage teach about the sacrifices and benefits of a life of discipleship? What does it teach about the nature of the church and its mission?
      4. Other doctrinal points found in the passage
    2. What language is used to describe this theology?
      Identify words or phrases that are intended to convey truth about God, man, salvation, and discipleship. Understand how the words were used and understood by the original audience. For example in 1 Tim. 1:12-17, Paul uses the terms “king eternal” and “glory”—terms that indicate a sovereign ruler, worthy of being bestowed honor because of his superiority. Understanding the meaning of terms like this greatly helps inform your understanding of the passage.

Content Study Example - 1 Timothy 1:12-17

A Prayer of Paul

Main point: Begins and ends with praising God (v. 12, 17)

  • The Lord is indeed worthy of our praise!  The main point focuses on the absolute “otherness” of Christ, as eternal, invisible, and immortal.  Yet, at the same time, He is our King and Lord—he relates to us in history and personally.
  • Note the details of word study on “King” and “glory”
  • Gratitude is the only appropriate, sane, response to genuine understanding of the greatness of Christ.

Supporting Point #1: We praise him because he gives us strength (v. 12)

  • Note that we operate on the basis of the power of the invisible, eternal, immortal King.  (that’s why we can “do all things”  Phil. 4:13)
  • Specifically, His strength is evident in:
  • Putting us in his service—no one is qualified to be God’s servant, yet what a privilege it is.
  • In his eternal being, he has more grace and mercy than I have sin

Supporting Point #2: We praise him because of his redemptive power (v. 15)

  • An a fortiori argument—if Christ can save Paul, he can save anyone!
  • The Judge of the universe is patient—note the repeated formula of the O.T., as Jonah said, “for I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2). 

Conclusion: If we understand the depth of our sin, as Paul did so keenly, we will be driven by gratitude and thanks to Christ

Passage Study - Step 3

Step 3: Apply the content within the passage

  1. What was the original audience to do with this message?
  2. How might you apply this to yourself or your church?

Application Study Example - 1 Timothy 1:12-17

As Paul encourages Timothy in the next paragraph to “fight the good fight”, it is crucial for him to know why and how.  This prayer of Paul’s supplies it for him:

  • Gratitude motivated: How extraordinary is Christ’s salvation, that we have not only forgiveness, but the honor to be pressed into the service of the King!
  • Divinely empowered: It is Christ who strengthens us.  Timothy was all too aware of his fear and anxiety.
  • Drawing focus to the Lord—in contrast to the human speculation characteristic of the religion practiced by so many in Ephesus—and U. S.

Appendix A - The Epistles in Greco-Roman Times

The epistles were written in the context of a Greco-Roman world view, and many times the arguments advanced are an effort to clarify Christian doctrine against the cultural grain. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul admits these arguments may seem foolish to people of the time, but they are based on God’s revelation in history.

It’s helpful to understand the cultural point of view in order to understand the logic and arguments being put forth by the authors. Often the epistle authors write with three major viewpoints in mind:

  1. Greek Dualism
    This philosophy taught that reality is divided into the spiritual and physical. Humans are spirits encased—or enslaved—in a physical body. The authors of the epistles advanced both doctrinal and practical arguments against dualism:
    • Doctrinal arguments against dualism:
      • Dualism conflicts with several attributes of Jesus including his full humanity (1 John 1:1, 4:1-2 & John 1:14), full deity (Col. 2:9 & Heb. 1:3), and the fact that he experienced bodily resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:1-17).
      • Dualism conflicts with the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Christians (1 Cor. 15:12, 18, 19, 50-58)
      • Dualism conflicts with the singular authority of Christ to forgive sins and rule creation since forgiveness was based on a blood-shedding atoning sacrifice, and Jesus’ right to rule is based on his sacrifice (Col. 1:15-20).
    • Practical arguments against dualism:
      • The philosophy of dualism often led to pervasive license within the culture. If humans were spirits trapped within a body, and the physical world was separated from the spiritual world, then the physical could be indulged without it harming the spiritual. Paul uses Christian doctrine to argue against this in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and 6:12-20.
      • Conversely, the philosophy of dualism also led to asceticism. If the physical realm trapped and imprisoned the spiritual, then one might be able to escape this prison by radical self-denial. See Paul’s argument against this in Colossians 2:20-23.
  2. Spiritual Illumination by Mystical Experience
    The Roman culture embraced mystery religions from Asia, offering “secret” knowledge and mystical awareness—revelation—to those willing to follow its often-bombastic rituals. In contrast, Christianity was emerging with the offer of revelation through the observance and study of God’s movement in history and His communication of truth.
    • Doctrinal arguments against mystical revelation advanced by epistle authors:
      • God offers objective revelation, in the face of the tendency toward “gnosis” and false teachings (1 Tim. 6:20-21, Col. 2:8-9, 2 Cor. 10:3-5)
      • Spiritual revelation is based on historic fact (1 Cor. 15:1-10; see also Luke 1:1-4)
    • Practical arguments against mystical revelation advanced by epistle authors:
      • Group gatherings were to be orderly, in contrast with the chaotic rituals of the mystics (1 Cor. 11:20-22; 14:6-19)
      • They were to stress faithfulness to the Word of God above experience. (Rom. 12:1-2)
  3. Cyclical View of History
    The Roman culture regarded man’s existence as being in an endless cycle, with both history and nature on an endless and unchanging loop. There was no sense of ultimate purpose or destiny to human history, and no sense of progression in history. This stands against the epistle’s argument for the importance of God’s revelation of salvation over time (1 Thes. 4:13-5:11), and the hope that Christians can derive from knowing there is a beginning (Gen. 1:1), a meaningful sequence of events, and a final culmination.

Christian Ethics in the Context of Greco-Roman Culture

The Christian world view stood in stark contrast with the popular views of basic social structures of the time, including slavery, religion, family, and government. As such, Christianity became a driving force of social transformation in these arenas. This heart of this ethos is summed up in Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11. For more on this topic, see John Howard Yoder’s book The Politics of Jesus.

  • Slavery: Slavery was widespread in the Greco-Roman culture, with slaves outnumbering the free. Though the culture promoted a sharp divide between slaves and the rest of society, the Christian was to see every person as a brother and an equal. Slavery is addressed throughout the epistles: slave status in the church (Philemon 8-21); freedom is to be valued (1 Cor. 7:20-24); relationship and attitude between slave and master (Eph. 6:5-9); and the condemnation of slavery (1 Tim 1:10—cf. Ex 21:16; Philemon 8).
  • Jews and Gentiles: The epistle authors also challenged the divide between the Jews and Gentiles of the time, calling on them to unite as Christians and regard each other as brothers (Gal. 3:28). They were to practically care for each others’ needs (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8-9). They were also given instructions on cultural and religious practices, in light of their new status as Christians, including the status of circumcision (Gal. 1:6-9; 5:2-4) and eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:1-13). The authors were helping the new Christians understand what practices were controlled by doctrine and what were controlled by cultural norms.
  • Family: Cultural practices dictated a much higher status for men over women, which played out in family life at the time. Women and children were to be subservient. The new Christian ethics of equality and community challenged this, calling for a mutual submission and respect. Ephesians 5:21-33 places the primary burden of responsibility in the family on the man to love and care for his wife and children.
  • Government: Paul promoted an ethic of subordination and respect for the government, even when the government seemed unreasonable (1 Tim. 2:1-3; Rom. 12:14-13:7).

IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament by Craig Keener is a great verse-by-verse resouce on how the text is rooted in Jewish and Roman cultural practices and beliefs.

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