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Digging Deeper to Find Pearls of Wisdom

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Ralph Sorter


            Whether it is for personal study or a presentation, every Bible student needs to approach the Word of God with respect and a healthy understanding of understanding what is written.  Perhaps these two stories will help instill those qualities.

            Billy Graham confesses that his hands often get clammy and his knees shake before he preaches.  That may not be what you would expect from the man who has preached the Gospel to more people than anyone else in history.  He admits, “Every time I stand before a crowd I feel so unworthy to preach the Gospel.  I feel fearful that I may say something or do something that may mislead someone, because I’m talking to eternal souls who have the possibility of living in heaven forever.”

            Then there’s the story of an old American Indian who attended a church service one Sunday morning.  The preacher’s message lacked real spiritual food, so he did a lot of shouting and pulpit pounding to cover up his lack of preparation.  In fact, as it is sometimes said, he “preached up quite a storm.”  After the service, someone asked the Indian who was a Christian, what he thought of the minister’s message.  Thinking for a moment, he summed up his opinion in six words.  “High wind.  Big thunder.  No rain.”

            Though it’s an awesome responsibility to lead others in discovery of the Word of God, when all is said and done, we should produce “rain” and offer to our hearers a cup of Living Water from the Fountain of Truth.  When we have done our homework, our discoveries should leave others blessed and refreshed.

            The process is called exegesis.  It means to determine what individual biblical authors intended when they wrote.  After that is done, we must work at the process of application, because we live in a world that is 2000 years removed from Jesus Christ and 4000 years removed from Abraham.  That second part of the process is called hermeneutics, the application of the meaning intended in the first century to our day. 

            Be prepared to be stretched, but also prepare yourself to practice new methods, or you will come away from your study with no new enlightenment.

Understanding Context

            In trying to understand the context of a passage, we are answering two questions: What was the author’s point? and What was he saying?  To do that we need an understanding of the time and culture of the writer; the political situation of that day, the cultural influences, their customs and beliefs.  Where do we go to find these answers?  Start with a Bible Dictionary or Bible Handbook.

            For instance, context means everything in 1 Timothy 2:9-10. “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments; but rather by means of good works, as befits women making a claim to godliness.”  If we did not understand context, we would have a lot of ladies disobeying Scripture in our churches.  Paul wrote this to ladies who were among the first converts, even some were former temple prostitutes to other gods.  So as to not give the wrong intention to outsiders looking at these new Christians, he asked the ladies not to confuse their image, and dress simply.  We are now long removed from towns riddled with temples to goddesses with temple prostitutes, so the application must be applied differently than a literal word for word.

            Like a pebble thrown in a pond has rippling rings, the passage you choose to study has a rippling affect from the verses proceeding it and those after it.

            Let’s practice understanding the context.  Listed below are some principles of context with some passage that follows.  Use the principle to interpret the context of the passage given.

Ø      Principle #1: Interpret single verses in light of their immediate context. 
Matt. 11:6  _______________________________________________________________

Ø      Principle #2: Interpret paragraphs and episodes in light of the paragraphs or events around them. 
Heb. 1:13-2:4  ____________________________________________________________

Ø      Principle #3: Try to determine why your text belongs precisely where it is and nowhere else. 
Rom. 9:6; 10:1  ___________________________________________________________

Ø      Principle #4: Look for thematic statements that introduce or interpret an entire section.  Matt. 24  ________________________________________________________________

Ø      Principle #5: Look for repeated words or phrases that emphasize the subject. 
Ps. 119  _________________________________________________________________

Ø      Principle #6: Locate the key verse in the purpose of its section and the whole body.    Ja.2:1-26  ________________________________________________________________


The above principles find the literal context, but our work is not done.  We must balance it with the historical context.  To find the historical context, look for the answers to these questions and then apply it to understand the passage given as an example.

·                    Who is the author and why is he writing? 
Galatians  ____________________________________________________________

·                    What is the need of the hour and what does he hope to accomplish by writing?
2 Timothy  ___________________________________________________________

·                    Who is reading and why? 
Ja. 1:1-2  _____________________________________________________________

·                    How do the readers live and think day by day? 
Mk. 2:1-12  ___________________________________________________________

·                    Are there any social customs that apply? 
Jn. 4:5-10  ____________________________________________________________

·                    Are there any religious customs that we need to know about? 
Jn. 4:19-24  ___________________________________________________________

·                    Are there any eating customs that would shed light? 
Matt. 20:20-28  ________________________________________________________

·                    Is there any significance in the clothing mentioned in the story? 
1 Ki. 19:15-19  _______________________________________________________

·                    Is there any animal husbandry practices that would enlighten?
Lk. 15:11-20 _________________________________________________________

            We have already learned a wealth of principles related to context, but there’s more.  We can gain even more insight looking at relationships between the author and the reader.  Were they old friends (Hebrew to Hebrew), strangers (Paul and the Romans), antagonists (Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel and most Israelites)?  We can reconstruct the relationship by examining how the author treats his readers.  Does he expect them to share his beliefs or resist them?  Does he expect his readers to greet his message by digging in their heels or by rejoicing?

            There are three broad types of relationships of readers to authors in the Bible.

¨      Accepting.  Authors may expect their readers to accept their message without reservation. 
(1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, 1 John)

¨      Ambivalent.  Here the readers don’t really listen to the author or give heed to the words.
(Ezek. 33:31-32)

¨      Rejecting.  There are a few books in which the message is so strong that the message is expected to get a negative response. We know there is tension when a writer has to defend his authority, answer challenging questions, or rebuke his readers sharply. 
(Jeremiah, Amos, Galatians, 2 Corinthians)

Analyzing the Story

            In a typical story you are introduced to a victim, a villain, a hero, in a setting that brings adventure followed by tension that reaches a climax and a resolution.  Sometimes there is a comment on the story that helps us interpret it.  Broadly speaking, biblical truth comes in stories, dramas, or discourses.  Discourses include letters, prophecies, proverbs, psalms, speeches, prayers, and visions. 

            To understand the story, ask why the speaker told the story or gave his speech.  Discover what the issues of the hour were and what did they say about them.  And finally, find out what the speaker wanted his hearers to think or do.  In speeches or stories there is a point the author wants us to understand.  Your job is to find the main point. 

            When looking at the characters, look for at least one believer, one unbeliever, and one undecided individual or group. 

ü      Expect the Bible to show or tell the traits of each character. 

ü      Compare the thoughts, words, and deeds of a character.

ü      Be prepared to revise your estimate of a character.

ü      Rely upon the dialogue to expose the character of the individual or group.

ü      When you find the crisis and resolution of the story, you usually find the main point as well.

ü      Look for repeated words or ideas.

ü      Remember that biblical stories provide very few details, so what details you do get make a difference.  Whole truth comes in whispers, not shouts.

            Now that we have paid attention to the details of the story, how do we apply it?  Two main principles stand out here.

v     First, what does the drama or story show us about the life God blesses or judges?  In other words, is there any activity here that we should imitate or avoid?  Is there a cause and effect relationship?

v     Second, what does this passage reveal about God and His ways with mankind?  God does not treat all people the same way at all times; He does not even treat the same person the same way at all times.

            Use the above principles to outline the story in Luke 5:17-26 or Gen. 22 or Acts 10.

1.      Setting  ___________________________________________________________________

2.      Characters  ________________________________________________________________

3.      Problem develops ___________________________________________________________

4.      Conflict begins _____________________________________________________________

5.      Problem escalates ___________________________________________________________

6.      Crisis _____________________________________________________________________

7.      Resolution _________________________________________________________________

8.      Following action ____________________________________________________________

Digging Beneath the Surface

            So far we have looked at what is on the surface of the passage or story.  To dig further most of us must rely upon the wealth of knowledge in scholars who have written some very helpful books and tools.

            Begin by using cross references to find related passages.  Cross references point to texts with both verbal and conceptual similarities.  Sometimes they will lead you to texts that share the same word, but not the same meaning.

            Next scan a concordance after you have found the main theme or a repeated word that is important.  For best results, use a concordance that is of the same version of the Bible you are studying.  Read selectively; do not try to look up every passage where the word appears.  Look up other words that have similar meaning.  For example, when studying money as a false god, look at words such as riches or possessions.  Synonyms can offer an advantage here also. 

            It helps to know your families of other books in the Bible when tracing a thought, word, or story.  Here are the families of books:

§         The books of Moses:  Genesis to Deuteronomy

§         The historical books:  Joshua to Esther

§         The wisdom books:  Job to the Songs of Solomon

§         The prophetic books:  Isaiah to Malachi

§         The Gospels:  Matthew to John

§         History:  Acts

§         Epistles:  Romans to Jude

§         Prophecy:  Revelation

            For in-depth study, read an article in a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia.  There will be more information here than what you may want to present in a lesson, but scan it to find the jewels that relate most to the story and give understanding to little details.

            As a final step, consult a commentary or a handbook on biblical theology.  Never start here.  Authors of such books have already formulated their own theology and it will come through on every page.  Discover principles and details on your own and develop your own theology as you understand the Scriptures.  Be open to different points of views, but just because someone has a few degree letters following their name doesn’t mean they have the last word on a subject.  Read with an examining eye and mind.

Finding the Theme

            Themes come up as we read through Scripture.  Some Bibles have themes stated at beginning of chapters or paragraphs.  But not all of those headings are accurate.  Here are some principles for locating themes in scriptures.

q       Some themes recur in almost every passage.  Every text says something about the nature of God and mankind.  All address our fallen condition and God’s remedy.

q       Themes often begin with a problem. 

q       Some themes emerge only when we read large blocks of Scripture.

q       Some themes emerge through rereading.


            List some themes worth developing a lesson from the following passages.

·        Matthew 18:21-35 __________________________________________________________

·        1 Samuel 17 _______________________________________________________________

·        Romans 12:1-2 _____________________________________________________________

The Challenge of Application

            Our most important work is not finished until we have formulated a good, solid application of the lesson for our listeners.  Application must relate to our daily walk.  If we leave application to our listener, they will never move one foot.  Doctrine by itself profits nothing.  If we don’t apply the passage, our pupils will stop listening.

            Sound application often comes from restating truths and removing common obstacles to obedience.

            The great challenge of application is to bridge the gap between the cultures of the Bible and our current culture.  Here are the steps we must go through to make sound applications.

1.      Determine the original meaning.

2.      Find the principle.

3.      Apply the principle to a similar situation today.

4.      Where possible, verify your conclusions by comparing them to other Scriptures.

5.      Every passage reveals something about the fallen nature of man.  Find it.

6.      Every passage reveals something about the redemptive nature of God’s plan of salvation.  Emphasize it.

            List the basic obligations found in Gal. 6:2-5, then list ways people resist obeying the command to bear one another’s burdens, and finally make some concise points of application.

·        Obligations _________________________________________________________________



·        Resistance _________________________________________________________________



·        Application _________________________________________________________________



            Find the points that relate to the fallen nature of man and the redemptive nature of God in Genesis 22:1-18.

·        Fallen nature of man _________________________________________________________

·        God’s redemptive nature ______________________________________________________


            The apostle Paul challenges us to become skilled workers in the Word, who correctly handle the Word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15).  I pray that you read God’s Word and study it well.  Then as you meditate on it, may you find comfort, challenge, and direction, both for yourself and those you teach.  May you prove to be, as Jesus says, a light for the world!

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