July 2013

The Work of Interpretation-pt.3

This final piece in this little series is meant to help someone who has done the above steps of word work and sentence (syntax) work to now work on the historical information necessary in order to really understand a verse/passage when everything is pulled together.

Our church just finished studying our Lord’s entrance into the Temple during His first months of ministry. He walked in and, upon seeing the sellers and their wares, makes a rope from other ropes laying around. He then begins to drive people out, threatening them with harm (John 2:13-22). In studying this event, I had to do a lot of historical research. I wanted to understand what Jesus saw as He entered the Temple and why that catalyzed His zeal. I found out, through the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and a Jewish scholar turned Christian, Alfred Edersheim, that since the Old Testament never taught a person to exchange their blemished animal for an “unblemished” one, then these sellers and money-changers in the Temple, lead by the High Priest Anna himself, were simply running a very deceptive and lucrative scam meant to secure relationship with Rome and fatten Annas’ pocketbook. If found that Annas was known for his extortion and the priests were known for their use of force to gather “tithes” for the Temple. Once having understood all of this, the entire passage came alive. Then, comparing that with God’s original design for the Temple, a place where God would dwell and men could approach Him in fellowship, it even made me upset!

Therefore, since the Scripture was written in real language in real time with real people, we have to understand the historical setting of the passages we are studying. Most sound commentaries make use of extensive historical works. Some don’t. If the Bible is treated as only devotional material meant to simply make you think ‘happy thoughts’ to get you through the day, then a person who does that simply does not understand the Bible, no matter what they say.

When coming to a passage ask yourself:

  • About whom is the passage speaking?
  • Where did he/she live?
  • Were they at war with anyone?
  • What was it like living there?
  • What year(s) are represented in the text?
  • What age is the person being talked about?
  • Is he/she married?
  • Are they believers?

There are many questions that should be asked of a passage. These are  just a few. When you are able to reconstruct the passage historically, you will be able to assess the meaning of the passage better.

For instance, Paul wrote in Colossians 1:15:

 

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

 

When did Paul write that? Who were the Colossians? Where did they live? Why would they need to know that Jesus is the invisible God and the firstborn of all creation? Were they a Roman colony?

Many times, questions like these can be answered from reading the book many times over. From the book we learn that Colossae is a location on the map (1:2). The audience of the letter were saints and faithful at that (1:2). However, it would appear that they needed ongoing teaching from the Apostle Paul concerning the person and nature of Jesus Christ, since that takes up the bulk of the letter. It would also appear that they were being taught some erroneous doctrine from somewhere and that may have been what caused Paul to write this letter in the first place (2:8, 18; 3:1-4). It would also appear that Paul wrote this letter from prison (4:10). That would help us to date the letter. If we could learn when Paul was in prison, we could then know when he wrote this letter.

Much of the historical setting can be ascertained from the letter itself. However, the letter will not tell us the location of Colossae nor the population at the time, for example. One of the best places to turn at this point for information like that would be a Bible encyclopedia.

A Bible encyclopedia will give you information about many people, places, events, practices, cities, as well as a myriad of other information from scholars who have done the hard work of research. They will then collect that into a volume in encyclopedia fashion for your access. A Bible dictionary is similar to an encyclopedia as well. However, as you would guess, it deals with words and terms in the Bible that can be ascertained and read for understanding. Again, this is usually the fruit of the labors of able scholars. Having this information is necessary in order to comprehend the situation from which Paul is writing and to whom Paul is writing.

For example, if we look under the heading “prison” in The Harper’s Bible Dictionary (Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985, p. 824), we find out the condition from which Paul was writing. There is even further reference for more specific information at the end of the article that tells me to look under “Paul.” Also, in the same book, we find out a little more about Colossae (under the heading “Colossae,” p.175).

Conclusion:

Once you have done your “word-work,” “sentence-work,” “historical-work,” you can pull it all together. One note here, though, is that these things can take time and patience. But the discovery is worth it! Simply understanding this text is the goal. Once the text is clear, it is powerful. God works through the understanding of the text. We do not need to add to it, or remove anything from it. It stands on its own.

From all of this information we understand that Paul, the apostle, is writing to the church in Colossae, a Roman town in Asia Minor, near to the towns of Laodicea and Ephesus. The prison in which Paul was at this point, most likely, was during his first imprisonment and it was a more relaxed imprisonment than his second, final, imprisonment. His final imprisonment was final because he was beheaded while there. Thus, he would have been in prison under different, more stringent, circumstances. Paul’s first imprisonment would have ended around 62 AD. Thus, this letter, written while in his 2 year imprisonment, or confinement, would have been written in 61 AD, or so. While in Prison, Paul received word from Epaphras that the church loved the truth and was committed to love (1:3-9). However, it appears that he also heard of the influence of myths, Jewish traditions, and the like promoted by some and distorting the truth about the nature of Jesus Christ. Concerned, Paul writes to them and gives the letter to Epaphras, along with Tychicus and Onesimus (Philemon 1-10). They are to read this letter, and send it on to other churches. In our verse, 1:15, we see that Paul further explains that Jesus Christ is God. In fact, He is the “image,” or “pattern,” of the true God. Thus, Christ represents a God whom no one can see. In fact, Jesus is actually His Son, as the OT speaks of Him (Psalm 2:7). This Son of God is the firstborn of all creation. That is, He, like the OT laws of the firstborn, is preeminent. He is the heir of all things and receives all things from His Father. With this information, we are able to appreciate, even adore, Christ more. This is fantastic, and seemingly incredible, truth. A Man, as He appears, is the heir of all things. And yet, this Heir, died for His inheritance. This assaults the idea that He is an angel, or a created man. He is none other than the eternal Son of God and, as such, He is God. Only God can accurately represent God. 

I realize that this is a simplistic little series that takes time to learn and perfect. However, because of the reality of inerrancy, we are bound by this method of study. We study the Scripture the way it was given-real people, in real time, with real language.

The Work of Interpretation-pt. 2

 

In the last post we embarked upon the interpretation of Colossians 1:15 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Because of the reality of inerrancy, we have to be convinced that every word in Scripture has meaning and once we understand this meaning, as intended by the author, we understand the Scripture and have uncovered truth. This process of discovery is work. Some might object thinking that it lacks a certain spirituality to approach the Scripture this way. However, since this is the way the Scripture was given, real words, real people, in real history, with real language, this kind of work is no more or less spiritual than the act of giving it. If God gave His Word in this fashion, then this is method that we employ to learn it. It really is a pretty simple concept.

 

We took the time to make a chart and fill it in as below:

 

Word

Meaning

Notes

Miscellaneous

He is he is this is referring to a description of the subject, “He.” Refers to “beloved Son” of v. 13.
the image representation/pattern not simply kind of looks like, but exact picture See Hebrews 1:1-3
of with reference to tells me of whom he is the image.
the invisible cannot be seen/we do not see the description of
God God/Father Cannot be the same Person God is invisible.
the firstborn the one born first/the preeminent one The Son is not the first one born. Cain is. must refer to preeminence.
of with reference to
all every/completely
creation everything that is made This must refer to everything in Genesis 1-2.

 

We have found that every word, or phrase (including the article “the” in some places) has a meaning. Our next step, in this post, is to relate each word to the other. This process is called the “Syntactical Step.” Syntax describes how each word relates to the other. Let me illustrate:

“Bill hit the ball” is very different than, “The ball hit Bill.” Each sentence contains the same content. However, because of the relationship of the words, each sentence conveys a very different meaning. This kind of thing is syntax. It is the way that words relate to one another and is crucial to understanding any document, especially the Bible. People do this step automatically all the time. You cannot carry on a conversation with a person without doing this. It is not as if this understanding is odd, or extraneous to conversation. It isn’t. It is the very heart of conversation, in any language.

So, what does the syntax step look like? There are a couple of ways to work through this step. They both involve an outline of sorts. Again, we are dealing with a fixed text, so there isn’t anything unique and original to the reader that we have to concern ourselves with. The passage means what it means apart from the influence of the reader, or audience. It means what it means as determined by the author, not the reader. To confuse this is to subject the Scripture to the “What does this passage mean to you?” syndrome.

Going back to Colossians 1:15, we can outline it in one of two ways. The first is called  a block diagram and it would look something like this:

He is

the image

of the invisible God,

the firstborn

of all creation.

The point of this kind of diagram is to show the relationship of the concepts involved in the verse. “He is” starts us off as the One about whom we are speaking. We see that the verb, “is,” tells us that the “He” is being described here. So, what do we know about “He”? Well, He is 1) the image, 2) the firstborn. We have more information as well that help us to understand image and firstborn. The “image” is described as that of the “invisible God.” From our Lexical table above, we see that it means a representation and it describes something that is an exact replica. So, “He” is the image of the God who is invisible. This is a difficult concept because it is saying that “He” represents Someone we cannot see.

He is also the “firstborn.” Firstborn as it relates to what? He is the firstborn as it relates to all creation. This is not to say that He is the first one born in the world. That was Cain (Genesis 4:1). It must mean something else. All creation does not mean only people. It also describes the universe and all that it contains, as well as the earth and all it contains. “Firstborn,” as we see from our chart above, can also refer to importance, or preeminence. That makes better sense here.

Notice that I began by identifying the phrase “He is.” I did this in order to show that Paul is writing about “He,” whoever “He” is. From verse 13, we know that we are speaking of the beloved Son. Next, using the article “the” as a starting point, I started this phrase on a new line. I did that for both phrases using “the” and in line with one another to show that there are two of those phrases that describe “He.” Next, below the “the” phrases, I found that Paul uses the word “of” and I put those below and a little to the right of the “the” phrases. These are descriptions of the “the” phrases, which in turn describe “He” in the first part of the verse.

Another way to show these relationships, and is a little more technical, is called a sentence diagram. A sentence diagram identifies the subjects, verbs, direct objects, modifiers, participles, etc… and puts them into a framework of line and groups in order to show the syntax graphically.

It is important to know your grammar. You should be able to recognize the nouns and verbs. A noun is a person, or place, or thing, or concept. A verb is what something does, or is. The person, or thing, doing the action of the verb is the subject of the verb. The person, or thing, receiving the action of the verb is the direct object. For example, “Bill hit the ball” would be broken down into the parts:

 

Bill= noun, subject (he is the one who hit the ball).

Hit=verb (it is an action that Bill did).

The ball=direct object (it is what Bill hit).

If the sentence reflected the other way around, “The ball hit Bill,” it would look like this:

 

The ball=subject

Hit=verb

Bill=the direct object.

 

Therefore, when we come to Colossians 1:15, we need to begin identifying the subjects, verbs, and direct objects, if there are any. There also are parts of speech that explain, or describe, these nouns and verbs as well. We have to include those also. Why do we have to know this? Because these categories are what make up the relationships between the words in the verse. And these words and their relationships are what convey meaning. And we are after the meaning of the text. Colossians 1:15 would look like this:

 

Line Diagram

 

Line Diagram

A person can make the lines with pencil, ruler, and notebook. Or, as I do, you can purchase a program that helps with that. I simply identify the parts of speech and plug them in and that goes a long way to cause me to understand what the writer is saying.

I need to make one comment concerning those who believe that all this is unnecessary. I realize that this is a far cry from the ways most people study their Bibles. However, given the far-reaching biblical illiteracy, it would appear that some real work in the text is necessary. I would have to say, respectfully, that those who don’t want to take the time to learn how to study the Word are lazy at heart and are not willing to do the work necessary to “handle accurately the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Christians are called to be studiers. We are, by definition, students of God’s Word. The word “disciple” means “learner.” Therefore, we should always do what we can to learn the most we can of the Word of our God. What I am describing in these posts is a study method that has proven itself time and again in understanding the text, for myself and men of God throughout the ages. Granted, I am always doing these things in the original languages of the Old and New Testaments. However, even in a good translation, and the above steps laid out here, the meaning of the text is made readily available. You cannot get to the gold without digging:

 

Proverbs 2:1–6

 

1 My son, if you will receive my words

And treasure my commandments within you,

2 Make your ear attentive to wisdom,

Incline your heart to understanding;

3 For if you cry for discernment,

Lift your voice for understanding;

4 If you seek her as silver

And search for her as for hidden treasures;

5 Then you will discern the fear of the Lord

And discover the knowledge of God.

6 For the Lord gives wisdom;

From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.

 

Now, at this point, having our definitions of the words and the relationships between the words, we can begin pulling the verse together in the way the author meant us to.

We will do that step on the next post.

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