Chapter 62

The Rules of the Game

Seven steps to proper interpretation

Preachers today face a formidable challenge: how to communicate God's authoritative Word to the contemporary postmodern mindset. How can we preach in a way that minimizes the unspoken reply, "That's just your interpretation!" Such a statement reflects the popular notion that one interpretation is as good as another.

This, of course, has immense repercussions for biblical authority. Congregations must understand the authority for what we say comes not from our homiletical bag of tools, but from Scripture as God's inspired Word. Good preaching may be defined in many ways, but one thing is certain: There is no good preaching apart from good interpretation.

This article will use a baseball analogy to identify seven crucial hermeneutical principles for preparing sermons. In baseball, hitters proceed through seven stations to score a run. They begin in the dugout, move to the on-deck circle, then to the plate, first base, second base, third base, and finally home plate again to score.

The dugout: genre

From the dugout a player evaluates the playing field and the pitcher. Good hitters know what ballpark they are playing in: Is the infield grass or Astroturf? How far to the left and right field fence? Does the opposing pitcher rely on the fastball, curve ball, or change-up? For the preacher, the dugout position is recognizing the genre of the biblical text.

Genre means literary category. Written discourse falls into four basic genre: narrative, procedural, expository, and hortatory. Genesis is a narrative genre. It tells a story with characters, plot, rising tension, climax, and resolution. It follows a time sequence. Procedural discourse tells how to do something. For example, sections of Exodus and Leviticus give detailed instructions for constructing the tabernacle. Expository discourse explains. This is the dominant genre of New Testament Epistles, which are characterized not by chronology as in Genesis but by logical relations such as result, means, purpose, grounds, manner, consequence, contra expectation, summary, and a host of other communication relations that primarily explain. Hortatory discourse commands. It makes use of imperatives. Most New Testament Epistles combine hortatory and expository discourse. In fact, most Books of the Bible use more than one genre.

We must identify the genre of both the biblical Book and the preaching passage since the genre determines the "rules of the game." The principles for interpreting a narrative like Genesis would not be used in interpreting poetry like the Psalms or an Epistle like 1 John.

1 John is obviously a combination of expository and hortatory, explaining and exhorting. If I were preaching 1 John 2:1517, I should take note of the dominance of the imperative at the beginning: "Don't love the world." In any paragraph, an imperative verb carries more semantic weight than indicative verbs. Verbs are the load-bearing walls of a text, so the verb structure of any text is one of the keys to identifying its genre. The rest of the paragraph explains why we are commanded not to love the world.

It is also important to notice this is the first imperative in 1 John. Five paragraphs precede 1 John 2:1517, and all the verbs are in the indicative mood. For five paragraphs John has been explaining (giving exposition). Now in our text he exhorts. From a genre perspective, this means our paragraph is hortatory while the preceding five paragraphs were expositional.

In preaching on this text, the dominance of this imperative should influence the sermon outline.

On-deck circle: context

The second station for the batter is the on-deck circle, where we take a few practice swings, get a closer look at the pitcher, and watch the batter ahead of us in the lineup. For the preacher, the on-deck circle is context. Just as all good hitters know who precedes and follows them in the batting order, so good interpreters always pay attention to what occurs immediately before and after the preaching text.

For 1 John 2:1517, people often view the preceding paragraph (2:1214) as disconnected to what precedes and follows. The "children," "fathers," and "young men" of this paragraph are unusual Johannine ways of identifying the readers as believers since they are said to "know the Father (God)" and "the word of God abides in you." Actually the description of the believers given in 1214 serves as an introduction to the imperative in 2:15.

The paragraph that immediately follows 2:1517 begins with the word children and continues to identify the readers clearly as believers. Thus, if both preceding and following paragraphs are addressed to believers, it is likely from a contextual standpoint that 2:1517 addresses believers as well. This interpretation affects our sermon preparation. John was writing to Christians here and not to non-Christians. As we will soon see, this contextual connection helps us correctly interpret the somewhat opaque phrase "the love of the father" in verse 15b.

At bat: semantics

The issue "at bat" is semantics, the meaning of the text. Semantics is the study of meaning. The heart of interpretation is determining the meaning of the text. All texts have three kinds of meaning:

1. Referential meaning: that which is being talked about; the subject matter of a text
2. Situational meaning: information pertaining to the participants in a communication act (environment, social status, and so on)
3. Structural meaning: arrangement of the information in the text itself; the grammar and syntax of a text

The preacher should look at all three in the process of interpretation. What is 1 John 2:1517 about? What is the point, topic, or theme? Our paragraph is a command not to love the world along with two reasons given why we should not do so. This is its main point.

The situational meaning is not as prominent in expositional discourse and often has to be gleaned between the lines. We learn that whatever it means to "love the world," John is concerned that some of his readers are already doing so or are in danger of doing so. The text is a warning.

Structural meaning is what is most commonly focused on in the exegetical process: grammar and syntax. Structural meaning is encoded in words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and finally an entire discourse.

Take, for example, the first verb in the paragraph, the imperative "don't love the world." The present imperative with the negative can be translated "Stop loving the world!" Taking note of the fact that the verb is in the imperative mode and the present tense is significant for properly identifying the structural meaning of the entire paragraph.

Two other structural signals are the conditional particle ean—if—which introduces a conditional clause, and the subordinating conjunction hoti—for—in verse 16a. The use of "if" introduces a reason for the command in 15a: Don't love the world because love for the world and love for the Father are incompatible; you can't love both at the same time. The "for" in verse 16a introduces a reason for the conditional statement given in verse 15b. The conditional statement in 15b serves as a reason for the command in 15a and the subordinating "for" clause of 16 serves as a reason for the reason given in 15b.

In a command-reason communication relationship, the command is always more important than the reason for the command. And the subordinate reason (16) is less important than what it modifies, which is the conditional clause in 15b.

When we get ready to outline the sermon, all of these aspects of structural meaning come into play.

First base: the big picture

A clean hit places the batter at first base. There we take into account that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Before we analyze in greater depth the bits and pieces of the text (its grammar, syntax, word meanings), we should not miss the forest for the trees. Interpretation should begin at the higher level of discourse, the paragraph, and work its way down to the lower levels: sentences, clauses, phrases, and words.

1 John 2:1517 is a paragraph composed of three sentences in Greek. The first sentence has an imperative: "don't love the world." It is followed by a conditional sentence that begins in verse 15b and ends in verse 16 (note the semicolon as punctuation at the end of verse 15 rather than a period in the Greek New Testament). This is followed by a third sentence that is verse 17.

What is the relationship of these three sentences? Since an imperative carries more semantic weight than an indicative, verse 15 is the dominant sentence in the paragraph and thus contains the topic or theme: don't love the world or anything in it. Each of the following two sentences provides a ground or reason for not loving the world.

First, one can't love the world and the Father at the same time (15b), and this is true because all that is in the world does not have its source from the Father (verse 16 is introduced by the subordinating conjunction hoti in Greek).

The next sentence, verse 17, provides a second ground or reason for the command in verse 15a: the impermanence of the world—it is passing away.

Thus, in the big picture, this text tells us not to love the world for two reasons: (1) the impossibility of loving the world and God at the same time, and (2) the impermanence of the world.

From this overall semantic structure, we can construct a basic outline for preaching this text. The outline can consist of one main point (verse 15a) and two sub-points (15b16) and (17).

Second base: grammar and syntax

At second base we carefully analyze the grammar and syntax of words, phrases, and clauses.

For example, what is the meaning of the prepositional phrase "the love of the Father" in verse 15? What kind of genitive is it: objective or subjective? The choice you make radically altars the meaning of the text. If it is objective, then the phrase means your love for the Father. If it is subjective, the meaning is the Father's love for me.

If it is subjective, the verse means: "If I love the world, the Father doesn't love me," which would probably indicate that John is saying a person who loves the world is not a Christian. On the other hand, if the former meaning is taken, then John is saying: "If I love the world, I can't love the Father at the same time."

Based on the overall structure of the passage, this latter interpretation seems more likely, and most commentators take it this way. In addition, based on the context of this paragraph, the preceding and following paragraphs, it would seem that John views the readers as Christians, as we saw above.

As this shows, the process of exegesis is not strictly linear in practice, but is actually multi-lateral. Each step in the process informs and is informed by the others. Whereas in baseball, you have to run the bases in order, in exegesis you generally move back and forth between them or touch more than one base at the same time.

Third base: words

Third base, the sixth station for the preacher, is the issue of the meaning and use of words in the text. The basic unit of meaning in language is the sentence not the word. Words mean what they mean in the context of a sentence.

Consider the word run. What does it mean? Is it the opposite of walk? What is the difference between a man running, my nose running, and the washing machine running? What about coming in second in the running, having a run in your stocking, running the pool table, leaving the faucet running, or running for office? According to the dictionary, there are approximately 80 possible meanings for the word run. The correct meaning is a combination of the root idea in the word plus its use in context.

In 1 John 2:1517, what does the word world mean? Does it refer to the world as the universe, or perhaps the world as planet earth? Does it refer to the world of people as in John 3:16? All of these are legitimate uses of the word, but none conveys the meaning in this passage. Here world is used in the sense of the organized world system that is hostile to God.

This is discovered through a combination of word study and context. We use the word in a similar way when we talk about the world of sports or the world of fashion.

Word studies of crucial words in the text are essential to proper hermeneutics.

Home plate: application

In baseball if you get to third base, you've done well, but if you are left on third base when the inning ends, you don't score a run. Home plate for the preacher is application, getting the meaning from the Bible to the people sitting in the pews in culturally relevant terms. Too often preaching does a good job of explaining the meaning of the text, but then fails to connect the text with the here and now of the listeners.

To apply 1 John 2:1517, the preacher must move beyond what has traditionally been viewed as "worldly," such as participating in certain kinds of activities like dancing or smoking, to John's broader purpose. A Christian can abstain from certain activities and still love the world.

Also, John's concept of "lust" (1 John 2:16, NASB) must be applied beyond the issue of sexual lust. The word includes that, but is much broader in scope, denoting any inordinate desire contrary to the will and Word of God, as a word study on the Greek epithumia demonstrates.

If we keep these seven steps in mind, those who hear us will recognize that our messages are based not merely on our interpretation or ideas, but that we are proclaiming the true message of Scripture.