Interpreting the Text

My Study Process

This is part 4 in a series on my personal process of studying the Bible (read part 3).

Interpreting the text is by far the most fun for me. But I only begin this process once I’ve done my due diligence at getting the background and context of the book and read it many times over.

Since I am a student of Biblical Greek, I begin with translating the text from the original language. This helps me work on my Greek as well as get to the richness that is so often lost in the English text. It also helps me slow down and meditate on what I’m studying.

Translating the text is getting easier for me, but it still will take me a good 15-20 minutes to every few verses depending on their complexity and length. This is easier for me when I’m studying Paul’s letters since he tends to reuse words quite often. Other books, like James, have been slow getting through. What I do is first transliterate the words in English letters. Then, if it is a verb (since Greek is a verb driven language), I note which tense it is in. Next, I translate all of the words into their appropriate English counterparts. Finally, I write the verse into a translation that reads best for me keeping what sort of nuances that are possible to carry over even if it means that write extra parenthetical statements. Before settling with the translation, I compare it with other translations to see how well I did and make any corrections necessary.

The translation process usually sets my mind on the subject of the passage and sometimes causes me to expand or contract the passage to be sure that I’m getting a full complete thought from the author in order to spend some time studying. Too many thoughts tend to cause me to miss some of the details. On the other hand, not having enough thought will cause me to misunderstand the meaning and not get the bigger picture.

Now, I interpret and take notes. I don’t usually use my own translation to interpret since I would have a hard time keeping it accessible like a published Bible. Plus, I like to use something that other people have and is more popular in case I have to teach it or just discuss with it others. My translation is just something I use to help remind me of word meanings and ways they are used.

Now that I know the words and their meanings and how they are stated in the text, I need to find out how they relate to each other and what they mean by what they say. This is just as fun as translating. In fact, I get together with some other Bible students periodically and do this together using a practice called Bible Arcing. This is a way of diagramming the flow of thought in the Biblical text. I have a rather primitive way of doing this on my own.

Diagramming helps me get the pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and other things in the correct perspective. For example, a verse might introduce Paul, Timothy, Titus and the church in one verse. Then, in the following verses, pronouns are used like he, me, them, you. These pronouns have caused some people to slip up in the meaning, so I usually assign the actual nouns or names to these in order to break the passage down into a core set of statements. I do the same for all words where this is appropriate. This is important because when a statement is made that requires an obedient response, we need to know who it refers to and what it is saying to do and when and how often. These are all things that we must know in order to walk away with a good interpretation.

My diagrams usually end up like a big mess of words, circles, arrows and lines pointing every which way so that I can visualize the correlating points. And, as thoughts flow from one to the next, I indent like a bulleted list. More than often, I’ll go through a few papers before I have it cleanly illustrated.

Consider Titus 1:1-3. It is one of Paul’s typical run-on sentences where he nearly teaches an entire theological lesson in parenthesis. Reading the verse without slowing down and diagramming can really cause you to miss so much. Here is the passage:

“Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior.”

Here, Paul is introducing himself so that the recipient, Titus, knows who sent the letter to him. It is only the first part of a salutation! A quick read through this and your notes might look like this:

Paul is writing the letter. He calls himself an apostle of God for the christians and one who is there to preach the gospel.

However, after diagramming the text, so much more is found. Here are a few things. Paul calls himself a “servant of God” which is really the phrase “slave of God.” On the other hand, he is an “apostle or ambassador of Jesus.” Here is an important truth just in these few words. Paul is both a slave and a leader. In one sense, he is bound to God to do and perform how God pleases and without any regard to his own will and life.  In another sense, he is one put in authority of the church and a representative to them on behalf of Jesus Christ.

Here is another truth that might have escaped you. Both his service and his leadership is for the sake (or for the benefit) of God’s elect. His service is in reference to their “faith” and their “knowledge of the truth” which go accompany “godliness, in hope of eternal life.” Paul’s service is to build up the faith and knowledge of God’s chosen people by giving them the gospel. This is quite interesting because he is not making reference to those who believe but those who God called to believe. In fact, there is no distinguishing between the saved and the sinners not yet saved. However, sinners who are not called to believe are not part of Paul’s ministry. This is one specific service and an interesting take on ministry! See how I diagrammed the text below:

Another way to help me get to the meaning of the text is to drop all of the parenthetical and descriptive statements. Notice how the above phrase about eternal life reads, “which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word.” If we strip the text of its various nuances, we might have, “which God promised and manifested in his word.” Granted, we need the rest of the sentence in order to get the full thought. But, by getting to the core of the sentence, we have given ourselves an idea of subject matter and point. Paul is basically saying that the eternal life was first promised and then revealed to man in his word and through preaching.

There is yet another way to diagram passages. The prior one works great with the New Testament epistles best. With narratives, however, there is a different way that I diagram. I do this by breaking up stories and scenes into parts. Then taking the parts and breaking them up in to smaller parts. And then doing it again until they are as small as they can be. As I breaking the parts, I’m writing a one sentence summary of the part. The smaller part summaries should always support the larger part summary. This is how I know that I’m getting it correct.

Diagramming poetic texts like the Psalms is done a little differently although all of these ways will work. I tend to find the parallels, synonyms and patterns. This is how poetry is written. The language is usually not explicitly literal. More than often, words and phrases are used to give a variety of thought on a single idea. There are also words used to carry a particular rhythm. Consider the passage that refers to God as the “Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6). This, by no means, implies that God has a King. There is no one above God. Rather, this is figurative language. In the same passage, it says that “the government shall be on his shoulder.” Again, the government is not actually on top of his upper back sitting and ruling.

My diagrams morph from text to text. I tend to adapt to however the text is written in order that I am able to uncover all of the riches that are tucked away in the passage. I dig and dig until I can find nothing else. Afterward, I pull up a Word processor on my computer or a notebook from my shelf and write everything that this text is teaching as well as how I found what I did. The key here is to stay within the author’s intentions and not pour into his writing something I want it to say. This is a very dangerous thing to do because my next step is to put it all into practice.

Posted by Jacob Abshire on May 28th, 2010 - 9:00 am
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