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.