Is Exegesis your middle name? Or does the thought of using an exegetical method to interpret Scriptures sends chills down your spine? According to Henry Blackaby, coauthor of Encounters with God: Transforming Your Bible Study, everyone is an exegete. In the excerpt below, Henry and his sons Melvin and Norman aim to remove that “fear factor” to help you realize that anyone can do exegesis and use study Bibles as the foundation for reading God’s Word. Get ready for a brand new experience with your Bible!
Exegesis: Receiving the Message
“Exegesis” is a term used to describe the careful study of Scripture to discover the original and intended meaning of a text. Everyone is an exegete; some are good and some are bad. You have probably heard someone say, “back in those days. . .” or “what Jesus really meant was. . .” Those sayings are an exegetical analysis of a text. The speaker is trying to overcome the gaps between an ancient text and modern understandings. Exegesis is utilized when trying to describe why we don’t greet with a “holy kiss” (1 Peter 5:14) or welcome guests into our homes by washing their feet (John 13:14). It explains why we don’t literally pluck out our right eye or cut off our right hand if they cause us to sin (Matthew 5:29-30).
Exegesis interprets the shocking words of Jesus that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Exegesis brings meaning to symbolic language that makes no sense.
Consider the bizarre description of Jesus by the apostle John, and try to picture what this would literally look like:
His head and hair were white as wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength (Revelation 1:14-16).
As you can see, exegesis is needed to understand the Word of God in all its fullness.
Exegesis: Watch Your Step
There are many pitfalls, however, that poor exegetes can fall into as they mishandle the Word of God. People have a tendency to explain away anything they don’t like as “culture bound” or in some way irrelevant to modern society. They can take a word in Scripture and project a contemporary meaning onto it that is inappropriate for its original use. They can take a text that is “descriptive” of a historical event and make it a “prescriptive” command for Christians to follow today. They can take a statement out of context and draw all kinds of ridiculous conclusions.
Let’s consider a couple of examples of poor exegesis to give you a feel for the pitfalls.
Example of Bad Exegesis #1: Out of Context
Philippians 4:13 is a statement that has been greatly misused. Paul made a wonderful declaration, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Taken out of context, however, one could draw some far-fetched conclusions about what Christ will help us do. Can you claim this promise to help you be a super star athlete? Will He give you business savvy to become extremely wealthy? Or perhaps fulfill your lifelong dream to fly to the moon?
“All things” must be qualified, or it becomes a license to do anything in the name of Christ. Obviously, Christ will not strengthen you to do something outside of His will.
This verse is often used out of self-centered ambition and not out of the desire to obey Christ. Looking at the context of this verse, we see that Paul was actually talking about being content in all circumstances. Paul had known life in abundance, but he had also endured hunger and suffered through great need. Yet Christ had given him strength for all circumstances, and his relationship with Christ had brought contentment.
Example of Bad Exegeis #2: Word Studies Gone Wrong
An improper use of word studies can also lead to conclusions that are misleading. In Romans 1:16, Paul wrote: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” In this verse, the word “power” is a translation from the Greek word dunamis. You can easily see it in the English word “dynamite,” which has the same etymological roots. There are many preachers who have stirred up the crowds by declaring that the gospel is “dynamite” of God for salvation. The problem, however, is that our picture of dynamite is forced back into time and put into Paul’s mouth–something he had no intention of saying. Paul neither had a concept of dynamite as we now know it, nor would he had used it if he had known it. Dynamite destroys, blows things up, breaks things apart, and can even be used to take life.
The gospel, however, does the opposite. Paul is expressing the fact that the gospel brings wholeness and gives new life. Which has more power: that which takes life, or that which gives life? A proper exegesis of this passage would stay true to the original intent and resist pushing a meaning beyond its natural bounds for dramatic effect.
Exegesis: Just Start Walking
The best way to master the Bible is just to start your study of it. Clearly, not everyone will be an expert in exegesis, but some helpful tools will allow anybody to dig into the Scriptures and find abundant and relevant truth. An “expert” is one who is diligent to master the biblical languages, Jewish and Hellenist backgrounds, ancient manuscript variations, and broader background information of the ancient world. But you, too, can do good exegesis even if you don’t have access to such tools. You can develop your own skills and learn to utilize the results of “expert” research for your own purposes (this is where a good study Bible becomes useful).
You can be a good exegete who understands what God was saying to the original audience and discern its timeless truth for today. The key to good exegesis is to read the Bible carefully and thoughtfully. You will need to ask some questions of yourself and the text if you want to discover what God is saying through human authors. This process may seem rigid at first, but it will become very natural as you develop good habits in reading the Bible. There are additional chapters in our book, Encounters with God: Transforming Your Bible Study, that will explain this in detail.
Join the Conversation
What are your favorite Bible study methods? Do you read your Bible with a pencil or highlighter in hand? Do you write notes in your Bible’s margins or keep a separate Bible study journal? Or do you use the note-taking functions of the Bible on your electronic device? We’d love to hear your responses to any of these questions in our comments section below.