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Interpreting the Bible Responsibly
Serious Bible Study Isn’t for Sissies
“scholars’ tasks are not for sissies.”
-Frederick W. Danker
Heiser, M. S. (2017).
The Bible Unfiltered: Approaching Scripture on Its Own Terms (p. 7).
Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.-
The goal of Bible study isn’t to get a spiritual buzz
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way.
Any student of Scripture who really believes the Bible is God’s message to humanity will be emotionally moved from time to time at the wonder of why and how God maintains a loving interest in us.
That’s normal for someone who really understands the spiritual implications of Scripture.
So I’m not suggesting emotional responses are antithetical to serious engagement with the Bible.
What I am suggesting, though, is that if you’re doing Bible study to feel a particular way, or get some spiritual high, then your Bible study is too self-focused.
Nowhere are we taught in the Bible to “search the Scriptures to feel a certain way.”
Ultimately, Scripture is about God—what he did, what he is doing, and what he will do—not about you.
You’ll never appreciate God’s story if your story—and solving your problems—is what you focus on when you study Scripture.
Comprehending God’s story can go a long way toward addressing your problems, but the reverse will never be true.
Serious Bible study that transcends self-therapy is about mastering the inspired text.
You either want that or you don’t.
If you do, you’ll be willing to put in the time and be willing to constantly reevaluate your work and your thinking.
Paying attention to detail and thinking clearly are not antithetical to loving Jesus
Early in my own spiritual journey, I was consumed with knowing Scripture.
I’d ask questions, listen to answers, and then follow up with more questions.
Sometimes it irritated people.
I recall several instances in church or home Bible studies where I was scolded about obsessing over the Bible.
After all, I was told, the real point of Bible study was learning about Jesus and how to follow him.
I disagreed then and I still do.
The answer to why women who had their periods were considered unclean (Lev 15:19–24), or what the Urim and Thummim were (Exod 28:30), or why some English translations of John 5 don’t include verse 4 in the chapter have nothing to do with Jesus.
The fact that they’re in the Bible means they’re just as inspired as any passage that is about Jesus.
Bible study is about learning what this thing we say is inspired actually means.
Knowing what all its parts mean will give us a deeper appreciation for the salvation history of God’s people, and the character of God.
Jesus is the core component of all that, but there’s a lot more to those things than the story of his life, death, and resurrection; his parables; and the Sermon on the Mount.
If that was all God wanted us to know, he’d have given us only the four gospels.
It’s pretty evident he had more in mind.
The Spirit’s guidance wasn’t intended to serve as a cheat sheet
Heiser, M. S. (2017).
The Bible Unfiltered: Approaching Scripture on Its Own Terms (p.
Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
If you’ve watched a baseball or football game on American television at some point, you no doubt have seen players either ask God for success or thank him for it.
Athletes today regularly do things like point to the heavens after crossing home plate or finding themselves in the end zone.
Some will bow in a short prayer.
It’s a nice sentiment and, for many, a testimony that transcends a token gesture.
But let’s be honest.
Unless that football player gets in shape and memorizes the playbook, all the pointing to heaven in the world isn’t going to lead to success.
You can say a short prayer on the mound or in the batter’s box, but unless you can hit the curveball, you’re going to fail—perhaps spectacularly.
It’s the same in Bible study.
All too often people who sincerely want the feeling of knowing Scripture aren’t willing to put in the time it takes to get there.
Instead, they’ll take short cuts and then expect the Spirit to take up the slack.
The assumption seems to be that the promise of the Spirit to guide us into truth means he’ll excuse a lack of effort and give us the answers we need.
The third person of the Trinity isn’t the boy sitting next to you in high school that lets you cheat off his exam.
Rather than substitute the Spirit for personal effort, ask the Spirit for insight to expose flawed thinking (your own and that of whomever you’re reading) when you’re engaged in Bible study.
The more of God’s word you’ve devoted attention to, the more the Spirit has to work with.
Getting Serious—and Being Honest—about Interpreting the Bible in Context
Anyone interested in Bible study, from the new believer to the biblical scholar, has heard (and maybe even said) that if you want to correctly interpret the Bible, you have to interpret it in context.
I’m certainly not going to disagree.
But I have a question: What does that mean?
Put another way, just what context are we talking about?
There are many contexts to which an interpreter needs to pay attention.
• Historical context situates a passage in a specific time period against the backdrop of certain events.
• Cultural context concerns the way people lived and how they thought about their lives and their world.
• Literary context focuses on how a given piece of biblical literature conforms (or not) to how the same type of literature was written during biblical times.
All of these are important—but they only flirt with the heart of the matter.
There’s a pretty clear element to this “context talk” that we’re missing.
It’s time to get a firm grasp on something obvious.
Believe it or not, it took years of study before I had it fixed in my head and my heart.
The Bible’s True Context
As Christians, whether consciously or otherwise, we’ve been trained to think that the history of Christianity is the true context for interpreting the Bible.
It isn’t.
That might be hard to hear, but Christian history and Christian thought is not the context of the biblical writers, and so it cannot be the correct context for interpreting what they wrote.
The proper context for interpreting the Bible is not the church fathers.
They lived a thousand years or more after most of the Old Testament was written.
Less than a half dozen of them could read Hebrew.
The New Testament period was a century or more removed from important early theologians like Irenaeus and Tertullian; Augustine, arguably the most famous early church figure, lived three hundred years after the conversion of Paul.
That’s more time than has elapsed since the founding of the United States.
Also, many church fathers worked primarily with the Old Testament translated into Greek, Latin, or Syriac versions, so a good bit of their exegesis is translation-driven.
Further, they were often responding to the intellectual issues of their own day when they wrote about Scripture, not looking back to the biblical context.
The farther down the timeline of history one moves, the greater the contextual gap becomes.
The context for interpreting the biblical text is not the Catholic Church.
It is not the rabbinic movements of Late Antiquity or the Middle Ages.
It is not the Reformation—the time of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or the Anabaptists.
It is not the time of the Puritans.
It is not evangelicalism in any of its flavors.
It is not the modern world at all.
So what is the proper context for interpreting the Bible?
Here’s the transparently obvious truth I was talking about: the proper context for interpreting the Bible is the context of the biblical writers—the context that produced the Bible.
Every other context is alien or at least secondary.
Bridging the Context Gap
The biblical text was produced by people living in the ancient Near East and around the Mediterranean between the second millennium BC and the first century AD.
To understand how biblical writers thought, we need to tap into that context.
We need to get the worldview of the ancient world, shared by the biblical writers, into our heads.
As certain as this observation is, there is a pervasive tendency in the believing Church to filter the Bible through creeds, confessions, and denominational preferences.
That’s not a bad thing.
It’s a human thing.
Creeds are useful for distilling important points of theology.
But they are far from the whole counsel of God, and even farther from the biblical world.
This is something to be aware of at all times.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not arguing that we should ignore our Christian forefathers.
I’m also not saying that we’re smarter.
They were prodigious intellects.
The problem isn’t their brain power—it’s that they were simply too removed from the world of the biblical writers and had little chance of bridging that gap.
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