Five Bird-dogging Questions for Biblical Exposition
Five Bird-dogging Questions for Biblical Exposition
How asking the right questions produces a wealth of relevant material for the sermon
To preach with relevance, I suggest you become a commentator on the text. If you develop a method of Bible study in which you work through five great questions, you will put yourself under the text and see how it affects preaching.
The five great questions that make up a commentary are the technical questions, the historical questions, the content-theological questions, the contemporary questions, and the discipleship questions. Bible study is a journey in the text from the technical to the discipleship issues.
The technical questions are those that establish the text. The first half of Bible study is to establish the text. What do the words mean? What is the syntax? What is actually being said? Don't worry about what the meaning is now. Be sure you understand what's being said. What do the words mean individually, linguistically. If you develop a birddog interest in establishing the text, if you can develop a fascination for vocabulary, a fascination for words, a fascination for the way the sentence is put together, you will have advanced tremendously your ability to do an exposition on this text.
C. S. Lewis says, "When I inquire what helps I have had in this matter of doing literary criticism, I seem to discover a somewhat unexpected result. Evaluative critics come at the bottom of the list for me." That is to say, when I read the evaluative critics of Dante or Paradise Lost, they're at the bottom of the list of help to me. Lewis says, "At the top of the list for me comes 'dry as dust.'" That's his coined phrase, and here's what he means by "dry as dust." "Obviously I have owed and I must continue to owe far more to editors, textual critics, commentators and lexographers than to anyone else."
What's a lexographer? That's your theological dictionary of the New Testament, your Arndt-Gingrich lexicon, your Moulton and Milligan. "Find out what the author actually wrote and what the hard words meant and what the allusions were to, and you have done far more for me than a hundred new interpretations or assessments could ever do."
Lewis felt you should never bypass this technical work. I realize that's hard work. You've got to keep your Greek and Hebrew up. It will pay off as you do the hard work of establishing the text for yourself. I say to Bible students, "Stretch out at least five current translations on every text, because every translation of the text is an attempt to grapple with what the words mean." And as different words or different organizations of the sentence appear, you can see different textual critics struggle with what the words mean. Even that will give you a clue as to what Lewis calls "a hard word." If you can get that hard word, it will be an important clue that could be the basis of a great sermon, because you may be at the fulcrum point in the development of the text.
There are two types of historical questions.
Historical material within the material itself
If you develop a historical curiosity within the material it will reap many benefits. If you see any name, pursue it. I was studying about Paul's two-year trial at Caesarea before Antonius Felix, the Roman governor from 5260 A.D., and Luke has a one-liner with regard to Felix that captured my imagination. For two years, Felix kept Paul in his prison at Caesarea and kept having him up to talk to him, "hoping to receive some money from Paul." Ah, but Paul never paid him off. Luke, the historian that he is, is always understated. For instance, Luke just mentions that Felix's wife was "Drusilla, a Jewess." Well, actually she's the daughter of Herod Agrippa I, and had been married to another man. Felix stole her by seduction and by the use of his great power as a governor. That was such a scandal that Josephus goes into detail about how he lost all the respect of the Jews.
Josephus said Felix was so cruel that the number of people crucified under Felix was incalculable. In 60 A.D. Felix was fired by a direct order from Seneca himself, who was prime minister under Nero, for corruption, the very thing Luke notes. For two years he kept Paul rotting in this prison, though Paul's a Roman citizen and has made an appeal to Caesar, and for two years he sits in Felix's prison at Caesarea because Felix knew Paul had brought a large amount of money down to Jerusalem. He had taken an offering through all the Greek churches for the Jews.
It's a tribute to Paul that he sits there and rots. By historical study, you know what Paul is up against.
Historical questions behind the material
Scholars call this form criticism. Now, form criticism has dangers when it becomes arrogant, but form criticism rightly handled can be useful. Form criticism tries to understand the setting in the church that produces the documents.
In John 1:118, John has a marvelous song to the Word. "In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God, all things were made through him." But three times he interrupts the song to say: Oh, by the way, John the Baptist is not the Messiah. Then he goes back to the song.
The historical question within the material says, Who is John the Baptist? Obviously you have to study that. But the form critical question says, Why does John interrupt his song three times to tell us that John the Baptist is not the Christ?
Maybe there's a great controversy. Maybe some people do think John the Baptist is Messiah. Actually we know that from the New Testament. In Luke 3, Luke says some were wondering whether John was the Messiah. Is there still a debate going on about John the Baptist when John writes this book from Ephesus? And of course we know there was. From Acts we know it was at Ephesus where Paul met the people who knew about John the Baptist and not about Christ.
I want to get you inside the text just for the sake of the text, because when that happens you're going to end up with so many things to talk about that you're going to have no problem preaching a sermon. In fact, when you get inside the text, the biggest problem in preaching is the narrowing process.
With this question we are now beginning to move out of the first century. We now ask, What does it mean? That's a big transition, a dangerous one too. That's why it's important you answer the first two questions first. Once you say, I think it means this, you're a theologian, good or bad. You have to be a theologian to stay under the text, because the text demands it. I have to come to some judgment as to what it means, not only what it says. And when I do that, I'm at the content-theological core of a commentary.
There are two sorts of contemporary issues.
Contemporary within its own setting
I now bring the material into collision with other worldviews around it.
For example, after you study John the Baptist, his theology, and his sermons, you could ask, I wonder how what John the Baptist is expecting collides with what Jesus is doing? When I try to understand that collision, I'm doing the contemporary question. We know a collision did occur because in Luke 7 John says, "Are you the Messiah? Or shall we look for somebody else?"
The contemporary question asks, How would this teaching collide with the Pharisee movement? Or how does it collide with the Sadducees or the Essenes or the Romans or the Greeks? And of course the more you study and develop a curiosity at this level, the better you can do this job.
Contemporary down through the centuries
Now that I know what this text means, how does it collide with other worldviews down through the generations? For instance, as a sixteenth-century commentator, Calvin does a masterful job of bringing the text into collision with scholastic thought, Roman Catholic theological thought, Aquinas, and Augustine. That's the role of the theologian.
But as great a commentator as Calvin is, you see why we need new commentators in every generation. Because Calvin, as great as he is, doesn't grapple with Karl Marx with Eastern thought with Woody Allen's or Stephen Spielberg's movies, but you have to. The context keeps shifting.
In the discipleship question the commentator dares to ask, What does this text mean to me? Where am I under this text? Where is it rubbing me or challenging me? And then, of course, how does it speak to those who will hear me preach?
If you do this journey for its own sake, when you're finished you're going to have far too many things to say, and your job is going to be narrowing. Because of your study, you will be contemporary, and you will be relevant.