“Exegesis” is a technical term for interpretation of a text. It’s about serious interpretation–doing your best to get past what you want it to mean, or what you’ve always assumed it means, or what you’ve been told it means, getting through to figure out what the author actually meant. The nutshell definition is “drawing meaning out of a text”.
It’s the opposite of “eisegesis”, which means “reading meaning into a text”. (Calling someone’s interpretation “eisegesis” is basically polite, scholarly trash talk. Any time I read something like, “That’s really more eisegetical than exegetical,” I imagine the target of the comment saying, “Oh no you di-int! Snap!”)
An in-depth exegesis involves looking at the context of the individual verse or passage, at the flow of thought, at the details of the language, at the original audience, at the historical context, and at the other writings of the author (if there are any). That’s the best way to get the most confidence that you’re understanding the fullest meaning of what the text was intended to say.
But…Well, all that makes it sound very complicated, very involved, and much too difficult for anyone who can’t read the Greek text and translate it on the fly. But it’s not. It doesn’t have to be. Don’t get me wrong, some passages really are very challenging, even for the brightest minds with the best resources and the strongest education. But most of the Bible isn’t like that. To get the fullest meaning, it may take practice and a lot of effort–but there are very simple ways to study the Bible that will help you understand quite a lot.
There’s a simple, easy rule of exegesis–one you’ll find yourself using all the time, one that’s widely useful, one that will prevent you from making most of the easy mistakes of interpretation.
That rule is, “Never read a Bible verse.”
Er, say what? Never read a Bible verse? Is that right? Well, yes. The point is, never read a single verse. I get this little proverb from Greg Koukl, who has a wonderful article by that title, as well as a small $1 booklet you can order to give as a gift or to use in a Bible study. (The entire Stand To Reason website is a great resource.) The article only takes a few minutes to read, and it’s well worth the time–he provides several examples where that simple rule makes a big difference. Here’s an excerpt expanding on the rule:
First, ignore the verse numbers and try to get the big picture. Then begin to narrow your focus. It’s not very hard or time consuming. It takes only a few moments and a little observation of the text.
Begin with the broad context of the book. What type of literature is it history, poetry, proverb? What is the passage about in general? What idea is being developed?
Stand back from the verse and look for breaks in the narrative that identify major units of thought. Ask, “What in this paragraph or group of paragraphs gives any clue to the meaning of the verse?”
There’s a reason this little exercise is so important. Words have different meanings in different contexts (that’s what makes puns work). When we consider a verse in isolation, one meaning may occur to us. But how do we know it’s the right one? Help won’t come from the dictionary. Dictionaries only complicate the issue, giving us more choices, not fewer. Help must come from somewhere else close by: the surrounding paragraph.
With the larger context now in view, you can narrow your focus and speculate on the meaning of the verse itself. Sum it up in your own words.
Finally and this is critical see if your paraphrase makes sense when inserted in the passage. Does it dovetail naturally with the bigger picture?
Where Two Or Three Are Gathered
I’ll give my own example. Take Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
It’s a familiar verse, right? I’ve heard it at many a Bible study or prayer meeting or church service. It’s about how when we gather together, God’s presence is among us, in a real, deep, experiential sense. It’s an encouragement that we’re not alone in this world, that God walks with us–right? Isn’t that what it means?
Well…Let’s try that paraphrase trick. The common interpretation would go something like, “For wherever there’s more than one believer, you don’t need to feel alone. You don’t need to feel like you’re on your own in this world; I’m with you.” I’ll quote Matthew 18:15-22, replacing verse 20 with that paraphrase (I’ll put it in bold.)
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For wherever there’s more than one believer, you don’t need to feel alone. You don’t need to feel like you’re on your own in this world; I’m with you.”
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
Er…That doesn’t make much sense, does it? It doesn’t fit. The passage is about how to handle it when a fellow Christian sins against you–first confront him by yourself, then bring others with you, then take it before the whole church. If he still won’t repent, then you excommunicate him. Then Jesus says something about the authority of the church: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” The next sentence verse 20, “where two or three are gathered”. Then verse 21 says more about when a brother wrongs you.
So, it seems that “there I am among them” has to do with Jesus’ authority, in the context of church discipline.
If the common interpretation were correct, we would expect to see Jesus preparing to leave the disciples–either getting ready to be crucified, or teaching the disciples after the Resurrection and before the Transfiguration. We would expect to see something about the presence of God being a comfort, or maybe about how the church is in the world but not of it. But our paraphrase just doesn’t fit with the actual context.
(Another rule that would help in this situation is one my youth pastor used to say: “What’s the ‘therefore’ there for?” That applies to all connecting words, such as “but”, “thus”, and “for”. If you see one of those words, you need to go back and follow the thought forward. See how it fits together. So if you connect “For where two or three are gathered” back to verse 19, you can see that Jesus is still talking about the authority of church discipline.)
I almost feel bad pointing this out, because I’m sure that it’s the favorite verse of at least one person reading this article. It’s almost like I’m taking something away from you. But if we truly love and cherish the word of God, how can we do anything but our best to understand the messages He intended for us? How can we approach His word any other way?
What’s more, I’m not removing the truth that God is with us in Christ Jesus. That truth does not depend on Matthew 18:20–one of Jesus’ very names is Emmanuel, God With Us.
And this isn’t a matter of just being right for the sake of being right. God’s word is practical and profitable. Getting this straight can lead us into more truths, wonderful truths. For one, the common interpretation presents the very odd idea that if you’re not gathered with another believer, then Jesus isn’t there with you in the same way–a less comforting notion than most people are intending when they quote it. For another, how is it that God is with us now? When Jesus was preparing to leave His disciples, He told them that He would send the Comforter in His place–the Holy Spirit. In John 16, He talked about what the Holy Spirit would do. From there, we could go to Paul’s letters to learn more about being filled with the Spirit, and walking by the Spirit instead of by the flesh. We can seek out all that God has revealed to us about the ministry of the Spirit–the Minister who is fully available to us, every moment of every day. Understanding the ministry of the Spirit means understanding the way God works in our lives. It means knowing God more fully, and seeing Him more clearly.
So, to sum up these tremendously beneficial rules for understanding God’s word:
- Never read a Bible verse.
- Read a few verses before and after to get an idea of the flow of thought and the topic being discussed.
- Put the verse in your own words.
- Reread the passage, replacing the verse with your paraphrase. Does it make sense? If not, keep digging in.
We need to be willing to think twice about the Bible–to look again at passages we think we already know, to dig in and see if it really says what we think it does.
And we can take joy in the fact that there is always something more to learn about God, His word, His will, His kingdom, and His plan for the world and for our lives. There is always something deeper and higher and more wondrous than we already know.