[ 3 minutes to read ]How should we study the Bible?
We recently finished an expository study of Matthew’s Gospel. The whole series comprised 110 sermons from the text of the book. If you are interested, the sermons are being uploaded here.
Last Sunday we began our new expository study in 1 Corinthians. Exposition is the main course in our sermonic diet. It is the staple. This prompts the question: What is an expository study?
Let me start by acknowledging that exposition is defined differently throughout the Christian world. Rather than deal with all the different conceptions of the term, I want to clarify what we mean by the word. In an expository study, we study a whole book of the Bible beginning, middle, and end. We do approach the study of the Bible with deliberate and biblical assumptions which drive our interpretation of the text.
All truth is God’s truth and His truth is one. There are not as many truths as there are people in the room. We do not approach the study of the Bible by taking a consensus poll asking: What does this mean to me or you? No, the preaching moment is when we are to hear the voice of God through the expounding of the Word He has given us. We are not post-modern relativist. We do believe in authorial meaning in the text. When dealing with the sacred text, i.e. the Scriptures, the author is the Holy Spirit who used human penmen. So our goal is to understand the meaning He, the Holy Spirit, intends in the words He inspired.
We interpret the verses in a concentric pattern. We first consider the verse in the immediate context of the passage where it is found. This is a group of verses that are connected in thought. This is close to our modern conception of a paragraph. The fancy term is pericope. We next consider the verse in the broader context of the book. We then consider the verse in the broader context of the whole Bible. These are concentric, so there is no private interpretation of any verse or passage that does not fit within the larger circles. In arriving at concentric interpretation, some technical aspects such as grammar and usage of words and phrases is also vital.
God has chosen to reveal Himself through written word in time. The Bible does not exist in a vacuum. Therefore, the context of the writing of the book, i.e. author, time, place, circumstances, is important in understanding the meaning of the text. The Bible is also eternal and that means always-relevant in all times, cultures, etc. There is a danger of locking the Bible in a particular time and culture and thereby nullifying its requirements on those outside that time and culture. This is a pervasive error today, so it is worth a few words of explanation. It can be fleshed out with 1 Corinthians as an example.
In responding to the church’s questions and addressing some serious problems there, Paul wrote, under the inspiration of the Spirit, to the church at Corinth. The letter, or book, is very specific to them and therefore unique. However, he drew repeatedly from the Old Testament to apply principles to their situation. This is despite the fact that the church in Corinth was predominantly Gentile and not located in Palestine and surrounding areas. It was also the first century A.D. and the last words of the Old Testament had been written 400 years before this time. Paul did not see the Old Testament as irrelevant to them though.
1 Corinthians is an interesting book where the error of locking the Bible in a particular time and culture is clearly seen in those who handle it. The book contains some difficult passages for our modern culture, particularly in the sixth, eleventh, and fourteenth chapters. Many preachers and commentators explain hard passages away by locking them into first century Corinth and declaring their irrelevance today, despite the fact that that was not how Paul viewed the Old Testament in the very same book they are dismissing. This now brings us to the last consideration of exposition.
Having interpreted and explained the verses as previously described, an expository study will then apply those verses in the contemporary context. We do want to know how the Bible applies today, but we cannot start there in order to get there. The Corinthians had a problem in giving financially to the Lord’s work. One of the ways that Paul confronted this was to appeal the principle of the Old Testament law in not muzzling an ox that was treading out corn. He did also commend the example of the Macedonian churches, but he derived the principles from Scripture and therefore bound the responsibility before God by Scripture.
If many of our modern church-goers could be transported back to first century Corinth, their first response to Paul’s letter would be, “I live in the city. I don’t even own an ox. Boy is that Paul out of touch.”