Exegesis. What in the world is that anyway? Is it something only pastors or Bible study leaders have to think about? Is it something too difficult for the average person? The answer to the previous two questions is a resounding no! Exegesis is the process of learning how to interpret the Bible rightly. And this is something that every Christian can and should pursue. Michael Gorman graduated from Princeton and wrote a rather long and academic-sounding book on the ins and outs of exegesis. But he made sure to remind his readers that exegesis is not only for the elite. In fact, in the very first chapter, he boiled the whole process down to only two simple questions: “What?” and “So what?”1 What does the Bible say, and what difference does it make in my life?
With that perspective, exegesis begins to look doable after all! Not only is it doable, but it is also commanded by God. In Deuteronomy 11:18, God instructed the Israelites to keep His word in their hearts and souls, and He wants us to do the same. After all, although God used human authors, Scripture is ultimately God’s Word (1 Pet 1:21). We want to make sure to get it right! Many people try to use Scripture to prove their own ideas, and in doing so, they distort what the Bible says. As a result, they believe and teach untrue things about God. This is why good exegesis is so important! As one author put it, somewhat humorously, we should “hold onto the biblical text like a rider in a rodeo holds onto a bull.”2 Below are three tips to help us read our Bibles correctly.
Ask Questions About the Text
When you meet someone for the first time, do you dive right in with the most controversial topic you can think of? I hope not! You probably gather basic information about the person—their name, job, hobbies—before moving on to deeper conversations. Asking about these simple details is crucial if you want to strengthen your friendship. It is the same way when you approach a passage of Scripture. Those who want to truly know the Bible “must learn to love to ask questions.”3 When you begin with basic questions, you lay a strong foundation for biblical knowledge.
To start off, use one or more of the five W’s—Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Who wrote this passage, and to whom did he write (you may have to check the beginning of the book to find out)? If the passage is a story, what events or actions are taking place? When in the story does this happen? Do you know where the author (or the character in the story) was? Why was the author talking about this—is he trying to fix a problem, give a command, or offer encouragement? As you begin to ask these questions and find the answers, more questions may come to mind. Make sure to keep a journal so you can track your journey of discovery!
Check the Context
The context of a passage is its setting—the verses that come just before it and just after it. Imagine the biblical text you are studying is a pane of glass; the context is the window frame holding that glass in place. Without a solid frame, the glass would fall and shatter in seconds! We do not often think about it, but context is important for every part of life. For instance, if you walked up to your friends and heard one say to the other, “My husband picked up the TV and threw it out the window,” you might be pretty horrified… until you figured out that she was describing a dream she had the night before. Because you did not know the correct context at first, you misinterpreted her statement.
The same thing happens when we read Bible verses and completely ignore the verses surrounding them. This is one of the quickest ways to misunderstand the Bible!4 If we want to see through the window, we have to make sure we have a strong frame holding it up. Checking the context does not have to take long. Just skim the rest of the chapter, or look over the chapters before and after your passage. Make sure you understand which topic the author is addressing. This will go a long way in helping you guard against error.
Apply the Text
Last but not least, the final step of exegesis should always be application. Once we learn what the Bible has to say, we need to think deeply about what that means for our lives. We need to ask, “So what? What difference does this make for me?” Without this important step, all other efforts to study the Bible are useless. Knowing everything, there is to know about a book written thousands of years ago will not do us much good. But seeking to understand a special communication so that we can have a relationship with the sender will make all the difference in our lives. We seek to know the Bible, so we can know God and be like Him.
The Bible does not always tell us exactly what to do. It is, however, perfectly able to equip us “for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17). The Bible gives us all the knowledge we need about God and all the knowledge we need about ourselves to be a disciple of Jesus! Also, God has given Christians the Holy Spirit to guide them as they read. So instead of trying to find a verse that tells us exactly what to say to our kids or exactly how to manage social media wisely, we should look for principles that guide our decisions. Our question should be, “What kind of person does this text urge its readers to become?”5 How does the text help us become more like Jesus?
Whatever else we get out of the Bible verse we are reading (and there is plenty of gold to get), this should always be the first and the last question we ask. It should always be our most prominent goal and our deepest desire. The Bible shows us how to follow in the footsteps of our Savior! This is the answer to every “What?” and “So what?” you will ever ask.
1. Gorman, Michael. Elements of Biblical Exegesis: A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2009, p. 27.
2. Plummer, Robert. Forty Questions About Interpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids, Kregel Publications, 2010, p. 105.
3. Gorman, p. 11.
4. Plummer, p. 104
5. Gorman, p. 164, emphasis added.
All Scripture quotations are taken from the ESV.