Hearing God's Truth
A Beginner’s Guide to Studying the Scriptures
The following address was delivered at the "Word of Life" conference held in Anaheim, California, in May, 1993. It has been revised and expanded, but retains some features of its original oral form. The original audience was Anglican, and this is reflected in the text at a few points.
I. Getting Our Bearings
THE BIBLE is the most exciting book in the world. In it the God of the universe speaks to us in terms we can understand. In it He tells us the truth about both Himself and ourselves, and this truth sets us free. Here, and here alone, is the story of how God in Jesus Christ put away all our sins and offers us true Life. Here we have God’s own wisdom for understanding life and how to live it. Here is the Good News that He offers His own Spirit to live within us and enable us to live an abundant life of love, holiness, peace, and integrity that is impossible on our own. What could be more exciting than a call to share in God’s own eternal Life in Christ?
Nevertheless, the idea of studying the Bible bores or intimidates many folk. We get world news as it happens. Breakthroughs in science seem to revolutionize some field of study every week. We get all the information and entertainment we need from television and movies; indeed, more than we need. We experience rapid change in almost every area of our lives. An ancient, foreign book like the Bible seems so out of place here. But for those who recognize this book for what it is, for those who really believe that this book is the Word of God, it has an interest unlike that of anything else on earth. Here we have a collection of writings from a variety of writers living in many different times and places — yet all moved by the one Spirit of God to reveal to us the truth about Himself and His creation. The Bible may not seem as stimulating as "late-breaking" television news, but it is not boring. If we find the Word of God boring, the fault lies with our receiver rather than with the station.
The fact that the Bible is not modern and easily accessible intimidates many people. The very fact that it is a book intimidates some. Many go to the Bible wanting to hear God’s voice, but all they find are seemingly endless genealogies and lists of laws and long speeches and arguments they can’t follow. Even if they make it to more congenial parts, like the Gospels, they find the stories are still obviously from a foreign culture in an ancient time. Many of us naturally wonder: How can we expect to understand this book without a degree in ancient history, the ability to read six ancient languages, and eight hours a day to spend in study?
And yet the amazing truth has been proved over and over again in the life of the Church that a person of little or no education can gain a profound understanding of the Bible. With the right attitude of heart and the right approach to the text such a person can hear the voice of God loud and clear. Not that such a person can understand everything in the Bible. The greatest saints and the most diligent scholars have not plumbed the depths of this book. It contains puzzles that defy solution and riches that are inexhaustible. As Saint Gregory the Great said, this book is like a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim.
Many of the Bible’s treasures are laying right on the surface, to be picked up just by walking by. Others are deep underground and can only be minded by those willing to work hard. In what follows I will describe a few of the main ways to mine the Scriptures, and conclude with some suggestions for getting started digging beneath the surface.
Two Approaches to the Bible
How then are we to study the Bible? How does a modern person understand a book written in an ancient, foreign culture? How does one study a book that is both divine and human? We need to learn methods used to study other ancient literature because the Bible is literature, but also some methods that are only used to study the Bible, because only the Bible is the Word of God. The first set of methods I will call the historical approach, the second the organic approach.
On one level the Bible is an ancient text, speaking from its own time and place to us who hear it in our own time and place. Modern study of the Bible has emphasized the wide distance between us and the Bible. It has concentrated on what we might call the historical study of the text, by focusing on what the Bible meant to its original authors and audience. For such study we do indeed need the help of historians. Fortunately, such help is available in abundance, for laity as well as scholars. Most modern commentaries, for example, provide such information. I will describe some of the many helps available to you at the end of this paper.
On a deeper level, however, there is no distance between us and the Bible. Both we and the text are part of God’s covenant with His people and owe our existence to the one Holy Spirit. God worked through the distinctive cultures and characters of the individuals He used in giving His Word so that it would be His Word to all generations. The Bible forms what one scholar called "The Great Code," though it is a code any one can crack. There is an intricate web of connections and allusions as earlier texts are echoed in later ones and the whole is found to be unified in its central reference point, Jesus Christ. Accordingly, another form of study, what I call the organic approach, understands each text as a part of the great code which is Scripture itself.
Most scholars today only use the historical approach, whereas the authors of the New Testament and the teachers of the ancient Church emphasized the organic, without losing the historical. They valued the historical approach because they believed God both works in history and speaks to His people through history, instruction, poetry, and command; the plain sense of the text was fundamental for them. They valued the organic approach because they believed the events in history and the messages God gave were all interconnected and part of a larger whole. Thus, throughout the Church’s life both approaches have been valued, as I believe they should be today as well.
In what follows I will begin with the historical approach and then bring in the organic. I will illustrate what I am saying about both approaches from a sample passage, Matthew 4:1-11, one of the accounts of our Lord’s temptation by Satan in the wilderness.
The Crucial Starting Point
For Christians, whatever approach they use, the most important step in studying the Bible must be taken right at the outset. Since we accept this text as the Word of God, we should consciously seek God’s guidance as we come to His oracle to hear His voice. If we are seeking communication with God and not just knowledge of a book, our spiritual disposition is of the utmost importance. Our Lord says that the Father actually hides things from the wise and understanding but reveals them to babes (cf. Matthew 11:25-27). We should handle the things of God, including the Holy Scriptures, prayerfully, with humility and blessed submissiveness.
So, as we now prepare to sit under the Word, let us pray. "Heavenly Father, we give you thanks for giving us the Holy Scriptures to reveal yourself and your truth to us. Send your Holy Spirit upon us, that the same One who inspired the authors of the Bible may now guide our study of it. We pray that we may cast upon you anything that would keep us from hearing your Word. Reveal to us any sin that would harden our heart and enable us to repent of it this moment. [If any sin comes immediately to mind then deal with it now at the foot of the Cross, repenting of it and giving thanks for the cleansing blood flowing from Jesus’ side by which all of our sins were taken away.] We also cast upon you our burdens that would distract us, our cares and anxieties. [If anything is pressing upon your mind then commend it to the Father’s care and ask for His peace which passes understanding.] We ask that we may handle this text with the reverence it deserves. Reveal something of the truth and beauty of your Son to us. May we each receive that which we need for our pilgrimage this day. Give us this day our daily bread. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Our Sample Text
We now take up the sacred text. Our sample text will be Matthew 4:1-11, taken from the Revised Standard Version. (Verse numbers are in parentheses, footnote numbers in brackets.)
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (2) And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. (3) And the tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." (4) But he answered, "It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’" (5) Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, (6) and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’" (7) Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’" (8) Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; (9) and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." (10) Then Jesus said to him, "Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’" (11) Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.
 Genesis 3:1-5; 2 Cor. 11:3; James 1:13.
 Exodus 16:35; 34:28; Deuteronomy 8:1-5; 1 Kings 19:8.
 Matthew 3:17; cf. Psalm 2:7.
 Deuteronomy 8:3.
 Psalm 91:11,12.
 Deuteronomy 6:16.
 Deuteronomy 6:13.
 James 4:7.
 Hebrews 1:14.
II. First Approach: The Historical
Genres in the Text
WE NOW begin our study. The crucial skill involved in any study is careful observation. To do this well takes attention and patience — and practice. The more careful the observation the more reliable and profound the results. The most important tools for careful observation are paper and pen, since taking notes helps most of us better concentrate and remember.
We must begin by finding the genre of our passage, that is, whether it is narrative, logical discourse, poetry, or some combination of the three. This is a determination you can usually make by simple observation, though there are also more specific genres within these three which a book such as Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, by Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard (see the Appendix below) will help you recognize and understand.
Finding the genre is very important because different types of literature get their message across in different ways.
Logical discourse, such as this paper, tries to offer a coherent line of thought in which each part is connected to the rest in some logical order.
Narrative may contain logical discourse, but its meaning will mainly be a matter of plot, conversation, and character.
Poetry usually weaves together images and textured language to make its point. Logical discourse or narrative may certainly include imagery, but it plays a more dominant role in poetry, while poetry may have no logical discourse or narrative at all.
Thus, knowing the genre helps us know how to receive the text’s meaning, by telling us how the text itself is intended by its author to speak to us. Since our sample text is a narrative, we will look for what is conveyed through the action, dialogue, and character development.
Gathering Our First Observations
We begin to observe by discovering the basic content of the text. For this we can use the simple questions: who, when, where, what, and how. Again, you might write down the answers.
Who is involved? Jesus, Satan, the angels.
When does the story take place? At the outset of His ministry, just after His baptism and just before He begins to preach, call disciples, and heal folk.
Where does the story take place? In the wilderness, on the pinnacle of the temple, on a very high mountain.
What takes place? Jesus was led, He fasted, He was tempted. The tempter spoke to Him, quoted Scripture to Him, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Jesus responded by quoting Scripture. Satan left and angels came.
How did the action take place? The way in which He experienced the leading of the Spirit and the tempting of the devil are not specified.
This basic list of observations will get us started. It will be expanded further as we proceed.
No matter what the genre and content of the passage, we need to understand the words used: What do they mean? What feelings are attached to them? Are they used literally or figuratively? So the next step is to study the particular words in our passage. List all the difficult, unusual, or confusing words in the passage and either look them up in a Bible dictionary and word study books (which I will mention later) or do your own word study by finding each word in a concordance and then looking up all the places it is used in the Bible, searching for clues to its meaning and usage in each passage.
We need to read carefully and not just assume we know what even common words mean. Take the word "tempted" in Matthew 4. We might pause over this word since it means to entice someone to sin. How can the Spirit help the Devil tempt the Lord? By using a concordance, a commentary, or even a good study Bible we can learn that the Greek word for "tempted" can also mean "to test." One tests in order to prove something’s worth, not to corrupt it. This enormous difference in meaning will change our understanding of this text. We will return to this idea later in our study.
Flow of Thought in the Passage
When we know what the genre is, what happened, and what the words mean (or at least what they may mean), we come to the more difficult task of figuring out the significance of the text. To do this we first study the flow of thought within our passage and then how it contributes to the flow of thought in the book.
In some of the epistles following the thought can be very difficult, since the argument can be very complicated. When that is the case we need to pay careful attention to any signals in the text that indicate how the author’s thought is developing. We should look at the conjunctions, for example. A "therefore" or a "thus" tells us we are about to be told the conclusions we should draw from what was just said. An "in order that" tells us that we are being told the purpose for what was just said. If you are rusty on such connections perhaps an English grammar book would be useful.
In our text, however, as in most narratives, the flow of thought is fairly simple. Jesus is led to the wilderness, He fasts, defeats the tempter three times, and is ministered to by angels. The story seems straightforward. However, as we do more digging we will find a significance in these events that is not obvious at first.
The Larger Flow of Thought and Themes
After we have studied the flow of thought in the passage itself, we next try to understand how our passage contributes to the flow of thought in the document as a whole and the development of its themes. We must understand it in its context. (This is what the organic approaches we shall discuss later try to do with the whole Bible, so you see how the two approaches complement each other.)
First, we need to look closely at what precedes our passage, trying to discover how the two passages are related to one another, especially thematically. The temptation occurs right after Jesus’ baptism, at which He heard God say, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). The first two temptations both begin, "If you are the Son of God," so comparing our passage with the preceding one gives us the clue that our passage has something to tell us about Jesus’ sonship.
With this clue from the context, we look more closely at our passage. The construction in the Greek here, as the reference tools will point out (even if you don’t know Greek), suggests that Jesus’ sonship is not being called into question, though it may look like that is exactly what Satan is doing. Rather, Satan grants that Jesus is the Son of God, but then tempts Him to act in ways contrary to His identity as the Son of God. We begin to see that the first two temptations, therefore, are about how Jesus will act as the Son of God. Will He turn stones to bread, that is, will He gratify His own desires? Will He leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, that is, act in spectacular ways that call attention to Himself? In the third temptation, Satan does not begin "If you are the Son of God," but offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world in exchange for bowing down to him. Again Jesus refuses the temptation to seek His own way and glory rather than God’s.
Examining the text with this general theme in mind we may discover other things that add to our understanding of it. For example, He meets each temptation with a quote from Scripture. In doing this He is exemplifying what He speaks of in His first citation, namely, living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (v. 4). Thus, God’s Word is Jesus’ nourishment, as the first response suggests. It is also His direction, for He will not tempt God, as the second response suggests. That is, He will not act from His own initiative, trying to test God by provoking Him to action. This theme comes to a climax in Jesus’ third response to Satan through Scripture: He worships and serves only God. Jesus’ loyalty to God is clearly portrayed. In His complete obedience to His Father, Jesus is acting out the Jewish idea of a good son. You can learn about such cultural assumptions in some of the reference tools mentioned below.
We also learn about Satan. Jesus rejects Satan’s call to tempt God, but Satan himself is tempting the Son of God. We see Satan as one who is in rebellion against God and will even tempt His Son to subvert His purposes. We learn something of the nature of His temptations, for example that he often tempts us when we are weak. The contrast with Jesus as One who is loyal to God is very clear. This contrast highlights the primary theme of Jesus’ sonship.
Thus this passage describing the outset of Jesus’ ministry, understood in context, tells us something of what His divine sonship means. It means that He remains God-centered in rejection of self and Satan. At His baptism He was revealed to be God’s Son, and now throughout His temptation we see Him acting as God’s Son. His complete dependence on God is evident in each of His responses to Satan.
Just as we have tried to understand how our text is connected to what precedes it, so we should consider how it fits with what follows it. Read the rest of the book, noting similarities in plot, character, and dialogue, and when you find such a similarity compare the two passages to see how one illumines the other. For example, when a title from our passage like "Son of God" is used elsewhere (or when Jesus refers to God as His Father), stop a moment and ask how what our passage tells us about Jesus’ sonship is expressed in the later passage.
The insight that Jesus remains God-centered despite temptation is an important part of the story because Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is central to Matthew, as it is to all the Gospels, and the title recurs at critical points in the narrative (cf. 14:33; 16:16; 27:54). Jesus’ defeat of Satan will play an important role in the material that follows, for later in this chapter Jesus is seen healing all sorts of folks, including the demon-possessed. In the Temptation, before Jesus begins His ministry, we see that Jesus is stronger than Satan. This superiority is then publicly demonstrated in the rest of the Gospel.
Checking for Quotes
Thus, we find clues to the significance of a passage from the flow of thought or action within it and from its context. Another source of clues to its meaning is the presence of quotes from or references to other Scriptures. They will reveal further layers of significance. A good study Bible will list the quotations or references for you. Let’s look more closely at Jesus’ citations from Scripture in our passage and see why He chose them and what they tell us about Him.
Footnotes 4, 6, and 7 give the texts He quotes, all from two chapters of Deuteronomy. At this point we need to look up the texts and examine them in their contexts. Deuteronomy 5 tells of the giving of the Ten Commandments, followed in chapter 6 by the call to covenant faithfulness centered in God. Here we have the Shema, a central affirmation in Judaism, and a call to faithfulness to God’s Word: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
If we look at the larger context of the verses Jesus quotes from chapter 6, we see that they come just after this ringing call to faithfulness, in material that warns against idolatry and calls for obedience to God’s commandments. This is all emphasized by Moses as they are in the desert, about to enter the Promised Land. By looking up Jesus’ quotations, we are thus given the context for understanding Jesus in the desert: that He is living in obedience to these commands of God to Israel and rejecting idolatry.
The quote from Deuteronomy 8 about living by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth also comes from Moses’ preparation of the people to enter the Promised Land. He is drawing some lessons from their time of wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Just before the verse Jesus quotes, Moses says: "And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not" (Deuteronomy 8:2). And just after the verse Jesus quotes Moses says: "Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you" (Deuteronomy 8:5). So here in the context in Deuteronomy are the themes of desert, testing, and sonship that we find in Matthew as well.
Putting all this together we see the similarities and differences between the situation in Deuteronomy and that in Matthew. In both cases one whom God calls His Son (i.e., the People of Israel in Deuteronomy and Jesus in Matthew), is tested in the wilderness and is expected to live in single-minded obedience to God. But whereas Israel was stubborn and rebellious, Jesus is entirely faithful. The parallels between Jesus and Israel are also of major importance and are developed further in the Gospel.
Questions of History
One final aspect of our passage of concern in the historical approach is the question of history itself. Two questions are raised for us: "What actually happened?" and "Is this account consistent with the telling of the same story in the other Gospels?"
First, what actually happened? This narrative presents itself as an account of events that took place in a particular place at a particular time. Those who do not accept the existence of Satan or angels cannot accept it as historical. But even those like myself who believe such beings exist, and that this narrative refers to an event that actually happened, cannot be clear about what exactly took place. Did Jesus go physically to the holy city and to a high mountain? The vision He has on the mountain must be something other than physical sight, since there is no mountain from which one can see all the kingdoms of the world. It is possible, even likely, that the temptations took place spiritually while Jesus was in the wilderness.
We are not told exactly how the temptations took place. Is this a problem? Look back at our reading of the passage, and I think you will see that while it is important for us to believe that Jesus was tempted, it does not matter whether Jesus was transported to a mountain or saw a vision as if he were on a mountain. If it were important for us to know such details, God would have made them clear.
Second, is this account consistent with the telling of the same story in the other Gospels? Further questions about the historical reliability of the text are raised when we compare it with those in the other Gospels. In Luke the order of the last two temptations is reversed, so Jesus ends up in the Temple rather than on the mountain. The fact that the Temple is a chief focal point for Luke, both in the Gospel and in Acts, suggests he changed the order to emphasize the Temple.
A careful comparison of the Gospels in general reveals, in fact, that they did not have the same concern with chronological details that we do. This might seem to be a problem in a document that claims to be history. But it simply means that, while the authors of the Bible were very concerned with history, they did not write it like late twentieth century North Americans. Since God could have postponed the Incarnation until camcorders were invented, it appears that the level of accuracy we would like to have is not necessary for God’s purposes.
While the differences in detail between the various accounts raises such questions for us, the fact that we have multiple accounts for some material in the Bible is a great blessing. It is very helpful to compare parallel accounts where we have them. The Gospels are the chief example, but there are others, such as Kings and Chronicles, and Ephesians and Colossians. Such parallel accounts give us more than one angle of vision on an event or topic. This is a great blessing because each account offers its own details and insight. We should seek to harmonize such multiple accounts, but we should not insist that every detail fit together neatly. Harmonization should not be homogenization, for then we would lose the distinct contribution of each account.
Thus, even a brief study using the methods of the historical approach reveals a little of the significance of our text and take you a little deeper into God’s truth. As I said above, this is a study anyone can undertake, if you have the patience to peel away the layers of God’s truth. By following the steps I’ve described, you can find out what the passage is saying, discover its place in the overall flow of Matthew, and learn what it teaches about Jesus’ sonship and His defeat of Satan.
III. Second Approach: The Organic
WHILE much more could be said about the historical approach, I will move on now to the organic. Many who value the historical approach either reject or simply do not use the organic approach. But there is more than one form of the organic approach, and some forms are more compatible with the historical approach than others. The two most important to our study of Scripture are Biblical theology and typology. Another is allegory, which is good for devotional reading but not very helpful for understanding the message of the Scriptures. After describing all three types of organic approach, we will use biblical theology and typology to better understand the Bible, again using Matthew 4:1-11 as a sample text.
Biblical Theology is a comprehensive discipline that focuses on the themes of Scripture expressed in the terms used in Scripture, rather than those of philosophy or systematic theology. For our purposes I will over-simplify matters and refer to Biblical theology primarily as the study of themes in the Bible. It tries to put a passage in context, not only of its book but of the Bible as a whole. To put it another way, it tries to find how a particular text contributes to the Great Code. This is the form of organic study most acceptable to those who focus on the historical meaning.
The focus of Scripture is on Christ and the formation of a covenant community. Because the Bible gives an account of God’s creation and redemption of humanity and His plans for the whole of the universe, patterns repeat and themes develop slowly as new aspects emerge from diverse settings. His activity forms patterns as intricate and beautiful as those we find in nature. And the study of the patterns in Scripture is as demanding as the study of the patterns in nature. So in the organic study of Biblical theology we ask: Where does the passage fit in the big picture? How does it express a pattern of God’s activity? What is taught about the covenant People that God has formed in Christ? Are there parallels here between Israel and the Church? What echoes of other texts are heard here as a part of the Great Code? The answers to such questions come from increased familiarity with the Bible as a whole, but also through paying attention to the cross references found in good study Bibles.
As you seek these larger patterns and themes of Scripture there are certain guidelines to follow. First, as I have already mentioned, it is very important that we not homogenize Scripture. There is in the Scriptures a unity reflecting and revealing the mind of their Divine Author, but there is also striking diversity. Some would say the scriptures are not just diverse, but outright contradictory. I believe, on the basis of responsible interpretation, that there is no substantive contradiction in the Bible and that it forms a consistent whole. But in a concern to support the integrity of Scripture we must not ignore the diversity that is actually present. When we find our passage contributing to a particular theme or pattern we should allow it to make its own distinct contribution and not try to make it fit a unity of our own invention.
The contribution of the various authors to a particular pattern or theme are like the different notes in a chord. We must let each note have its own sound if we want to hear the chord in its fullness and beauty. In other words, harmonize, but don’t homogenize. But remember that this is harmony, not discord. Attend to the diversity within Scripture, but do not "so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another" (Article XX, Book of Common Prayer, p. 871).
Second, recognize that God’s revelation is progressive. God unfolds His truth by stages to His covenant People. (This is an important key to understanding how the Bible may have diversity but not contradiction.) This does not mean that the earlier stages were in error, but that sometimes elements in these stages were only partial and insubstantial revelations of God’s full truth (see, e.g., Hebrews 1:1; 8:5). These elements are now fulfilled in the Son who is fullness and substance. For example, even so vital a feature of the Old Testament revelation as the Temple was fulfilled and thereby replaced by Jesus. The key to the unity of Scripture, as our Lord said (Luke 24:44-48; John 5:39), is Jesus Christ Himself, the Word made flesh.
Third, when an Old Testament passage is quoted in the New, we should always study the Old Testament literary context. The New Testament always uses the Old with some sort of connection to the Old Testament text’s original literary context. That is, the texts from the Old Testament are not used as "proof texts" without reference to their original context in their passage, but this does not mean that the New Testament is necessarily drawing upon the meaning the Old Testament text had in its original historical context. In fact, the interest in the Old Testament in its own historical context, which is so important in modern study, is almost never, if ever, to the fore when the Old Testament is used in the New.
Thus, the message the New Testament writer finds may have little to do with the historical context of the original message, but everything to do with its literary context. This is not as confusing in practice as it may sound. For example, in Matthew 2.14-15 we read: "And he [Joseph] rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’." The quote comes from Hosea 11.1, a passage that speaks of God’s love for Israel (His "son") evident in the Exodus from Egypt. In its original, historical setting Hosea is recalling Israel’s history, not prophesying about the Messiah. But in its literary context it reveals the pattern of God calling His son Israel out of Egypt is repeated in the life of Jesus, His Son.
While Matthew was not concerned directly with Hosea’s message in its original Old Testament context, that does not mean we should not be so concerned. Hosea’s original message takes on deeper significance in the light of Christ, but was itself very powerful in its original setting. So in this example from Matthew 2.14-15 we a see fourth guideline, namely, that passages in the Old Testament can instruct us both by their message in their original context and by their role in the larger biblical witness to Christ.
This example from Matthew 2, and the parallels between Jesus and Israel we saw drawn in Matthew’s account of the Temptation, are in fact examples of a more specific form of organic study known as typology. Typology studies people, places, and events in the Old Testament that form patterns ("types") that are repeated in the New. When Saint Paul says, "Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us" (1 Corinthians 5.7b) he is drawing a connection between Jesus’ death and the sacrifice of the Passover lambs mentioned in Exodus 12. The Passover lamb is a "type" or prefiguring of Jesus which tells us something very important about Jesus (the Lamb who is sacrificed for us).
Sometimes the connection between the Old Testament reference and the New is not nearly this simple. Matthew tells of the weeping of the women when the children were slaughtered by Herod at the birth of Jesus. He then says, "Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more’" (Matthew 2.17-18, quoting Jeremiah 31:15). But the passage quoted has no obvious messianic significance. Jeremiah is depicting the sorrow of the Assyrian exiles, using a historical allusion to Rachel, one of the mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel, whose tomb was near Bethlehem (cf. Genesis 35.19).
So there are three parallels between the Old Testament reference and its use in Matthew: (1) the activity: a lament, (2) the place: Bethlehem, and (3) the characters: mothers and children. Matthew is using the Old Testament text to help interpret the significance of Jesus. By referring to this Old Testament text he is saying that even a tragedy connected with Jesus’ birth fits a pattern in the Old Testament. The oppression experienced under Herod echoes the oppression of exile at the hands of foreign invaders earlier in Israel’s history.
It is significant that Matthew refers to this as a "fulfillment" of Scripture. We usually think of fulfillment as a prediction in the Old Testament that comes true in the New. There are some examples of fulfilled prediction, but most of the time fulfillment is a matter of the repeated patterns of typology. The fact that our Lord and the authors of the New Testament approach the Old Testament in this way shows that this approach is very important. They saw, and we should see, Scripture as an organic whole, with many connections of many kinds between various parts of the whole.
Some people, however, think we should not practice typology ourselves, but use only those patterns or types mentioned in the New Testament. But nothing in the New Testament suggests that we should not find further examples of such patterns. And, in fact, the early Church delighted to find new patterns. The typology between Isaac about to be sacrificed by Abraham (Genesis 22) and Jesus’ crucifixion is found in the Epistle of Barnabas 7.3 (written between AD 70-135), but nowhere in the New Testament. It is highly unlikely, given the popularity of typology in the New Testament, that no one thought of this connection. Whether or not they did, the example of the immediate disciples of the Apostles indicates that we can continue to find such connections.
Now we come to the form of organic study that has had the least acceptance among those who focus on the historical approach. Typology makes a connection between persons, institutions, or events. Allegory, as it is usually understood, makes the connection on the level of words and numbers. That is, associations of words or numbers trigger the reader to recall some aspect of Christian thought not directly in view in the text.
Sometimes the connection is very fanciful. In the Epistle of Barnabas we find a lesson about Christ’s Cross drawn from the story in Genesis 17 about Abraham having his 318 servants circumcised! Greek uses letters for their numbers, so that ‘A’ stands for 1, ‘B’ for 2, etc. The author works out the connection as follows: "Notice that he [Moses] first mentions the eighteen, and after a pause the three hundred. The eighteen is I (= ten) and H (= 8) — you have Jesus [because IH are in Greek the first letters of the word Jesus] — and because the cross was destined to have grace in the T he says ‘and three hundred’ [T = 300 in Greek]. So he indicated Jesus in the two letters and the cross in the other" (Epistle of Barnabas 9.8). To our taste this is probably merely weird rather than edifying. Yet if one reads Scripture this way profound and true thoughts can be triggered by virtually any text!
Most allegory is based on words rather than numbers. For example, the hatred of the Jewish captives in Babylon for their captors is expressed graphically at the conclusion of Psalm 137: "Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" Since the time of the ancient Christian teachers, Christians have understood Babylon as a symbol of sin and the Evil One, and following Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:4, have understood the rock as a symbol of Christ. Thus, this passage becomes a bit of excellent ascetical theology, telling us that we should seize hold of sinful thoughts as soon as they arise and dash them against the Rock, that is, Christ.
I think there is a place for such allegory as a devotional exercise. It enables the whole of Scripture to speak in profound ways. But allegorical interpretation cannot establish any doctrine or practice, because it conveys not what Scripture intends to say but what we have (even if rightly) found in it. It is only edifying embroidery. It is only as sound as the theology one already has before approaching the text. That theology must be an expression of the Scriptures as understood historically (as I have used this word in this paper), within the covenant People of God, and in accordance with the less subjective forms of organic study as biblical theology and typology. Only thus will we be able to say with confidence what the Scriptures teach.
Medieval abuses of allegory to create non- or even anti-biblical teachings led the Reformers to criticize the organic approach. But the Reformers themselves continued to practice the more chaste forms of organic study, while rightly emphasizing historical study. This seems the most fruitful policy. Having already looked at Matthew 4:1-11 through historical study I will now use it to illustrate organic study, namely typology and biblical theology.
An Organic Study of Matthew 4:1-11
The main tools for such study are a set of cross references and a concordance. With these tools you can track down verses in the rest of Scripture that use the same or similar words and phrases as those in your passage. The footnotes I have listed for the passage from Matthew 4 represent a few of the many cross references that could be given. Such study is a matter of looking up references and considering whether they help you understand a theme, type, or simply give historical background. As an introduction to this sort of study I will briefly comment on each verse in order.
Verse One. This verse says that Jesus was tempted by the devil. Most of us are probably reminded of the temptation in the Garden in Genesis 3, and the first reference I give is to that story. We suspect, therefore, that the obvious parallels in our text between Jesus and Israel, made clear by the desert setting and the quotes from Deuteronomy, are not the only parallels that we should draw. We should find a parallel with Adam. This is confirmed by the fact that Adam can be called the son of God (Luke 3:38), and that Saint Paul refers to Jesus as the second Adam (1 Corinthians 15:47, cf. Romans 5:14). Once we have established this connection we ponder its significance. The contrast is, perhaps, obvious: Adam failed the test, and now the same tempter entices Jesus but Jesus passes the test. This particular connection is extremely important in biblical theology because it touches on many fundamental themes, but instead of expanding on these themes, I will move on.
We naturally compare Jesus’ experience of temptation and our own. I include the reference to 2 Corinthians 11:3 because there Saint Paul draws the parallel between Eve being deceived by the serpent’s cunning and believers being led astray from sincere and pure devotion to Christ. Then we should study what he says about the temptation believers experience. As we thus deepen our understanding of our experience we can compare it with what our original text teaches about Jesus’ temptation, noting both the similarities and differences between our experience and Jesus’.
The third cross-reference I cite for verse one is James 1:13. James says, "Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one’." This verse helps us understand the difference between the Spirit’s role and Satan’s role in the Temptation. The significance of our brief word study earlier (when we were studying the text historically) now becomes clear. Satan is tempting Jesus to sin, but God is testing His Son, just as He tested Israel in the wilderness. Indeed, in the Old Testament the only ones God ever tests in this sense are His own people. He never tempts anyone at all, and He never tests any but His own (cf. Wisdom 11:10).
We catch a glimpse here, as in the opening chapters of Job, of the role of God in connection with Satan’s activity. This glimpse makes us realize how little we know of such matters, though that little is extremely precious — as Saint Paul says of Satan, "we are not ignorant of his designs" (2 Corinthians 2:11). Once again we are touching on a large topic of profound significance which we cannot go into here. As you meet such topics in your study, and you will do so constantly, sometimes divert your attention for a while, and use your study time to travel down such paths and deepen your grasp of God’s truth.
Verse two. For verse two I have listed several cross-references from the Old Testament that mention "40 days." Exodus 16:35 and Deuteronomy 8:1-5 refer to Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness; Exodus 34:28 refers to Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai; and 1 Kings 19:8 describes Elijah’s flight from Jezebel to Mt. Horeb, where he meets God in the still, small voice. I give these references because "40 days" usually signals that a significant event in salvation history is taking place and the Gospels elsewhere draw parallels between Jesus and each of these three, Israel, Moses, and Elijah.
Verse three. The reference at verse three to Matthew 3:17 is the voice of God from Heaven at Jesus’ baptism. That text itself seems to contain an allusion to Psalm 2:7, a text which refers to the Davidic king. Thus, by reflecting on these connections we understand that Jesus is seen as fulfilling the role of Davidic king who is referred to in verse two of the psalm as God’s Anointed One, i.e., His Christ. This psalm was an important text for the writers of the New Testament who quote or allude to it at least 18 times. The theme of Jesus as the expected Davidic king recurs in the Gospels. Jesus is referred to as David’s son at least ten times in Matthew alone, a fact you discover by using a concordance.
Verse six. Satan’s use of Psalm 91:11,12 (Matthew 4:6) is a very interesting example of the misuse of Scripture. Psalm 91 is about the one who trusts in God, saying that God would protect. So Satan’s use of this text seems very appropriate. But the danger intended by the psalmist is that which comes upon such a one, not his own arrogant creation of danger, which is what Satan is tempting Jesus to do in order to prove His power. Thus, Satan uses this text in a way that is "repugnant" to Deuteronomy 6:16. This does not mean that Psalm 91 does not offer a fit description of Jesus in His temptation. Jesus rejects the misuse of Psalm 91, but in fact He receives exactly the protection from danger (in this case temptation) there promised to the one who trusts in God. Jesus is the one who trusts in God par excellence. If you read through the psalm as a description of Him you will find that most of it fits quite neatly.
The last two references I will mention briefly. In our passage we see Jesus’ submission to God and His resistance of the devil, resulting in the devil leaving Him. Now compare James 4:7: "Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you." Again we see a New Testament writer helping us draw connections between our experience and that of Jesus. James gives us God’s promise that temptation will not go on unabated for ever. Our strength to resist Satan is in our submission to God. In a related vein, Hebrews 1:14 says that angels are "ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation." Again we are led to see connections between Jesus’ experience and ours. The fact that we, like Jesus, can resist the devil and be ministered to by angels should encourage us greatly. We see again the web of allusion in Scripture which comes to the fore in this organic approach.
IV. Focusing and Applying our Study
THESE last examples of connections between our lives and the teaching of the Bible leads me to my final topic, how to find the meaning of the text for your own life. Let me offer four focal questions to help you consider the implications of the text for your life and then mention some ways you can put the text into action. I will explain each question and then offer my own answers from our sample text, each of which raises topics that could be dwelt on at some length. As you will see, the answers to these questions often overlap.
The first question asks about our own gut level reactions: How does this passage comfort and challenge me? Our immediate reactions are a very good place to start, though we must recognize that they may come more from our own experience than from what the text itself says. This question helps us bring the text into contact with our own lives and not merely play intellectual games. The other questions to follow will help us avoid merely hearing our own voice in the Bible rather than God’s.
My first reactions to our text included the comfort that comes from seeing Jesus withstand temptation; He is stronger that Satan. I also take comfort from the fact that we ourselves have Scripture and may use it as Jesus did, and from the fact that the devil lets up at times. On the other hand this verse challenges me to resist temptation and to know Scripture well enough not to be mislead.
The second question asks how this passage can help us grow into the image of Christ: How does this passage encourage faith, hope and love? We have all heard the saying that "you can’t take it with you." But these three cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and love are what you can take with you, for Saint Paul says they are eternal (1 Corinthians 13:13). So it’s a good idea to reflect on them in order to build our lives with "gold, silver and precious stones" (1 Corinthians 3:12). Any passage will offer encouragement in at least one of these virtues. This question is more specific than the first one. It helps us focus on the content of the passage while continuing to bring the text into direct contact with our lives.
Let me spell out more specifically what each quality refers to. Faith is both trust and belief. So we ask: Does this passage give us something to trust God for? Does it give us reason for trusting God? Does it give us some truth to believe? Hope is both expectation and confidence. Does the passage give us something to look forward to? Does it offer us encouragement in the midst of difficulty? Love is both the laying down of one’s life and a sense of empathy (1 Corinthians 13; 1 John 3:16; 4:7-21). Do we see an example of God’s love? Of people loving one another? Does the passage stimulate our devotion to God and care for people, helping us lay down our lives for God and for one another through sacrifice and self-denial?
In reflecting on this second question, I find our passage encourages all three virtues. It encourages faith in Jesus as the One stronger than the Tempter. It encourages faith in Scripture as coming from the mouth of God, and as a source of strength and guidance and truth. This passage leads me to hope for the day, in Heaven, when we will be done with this struggle. It also reminds me of the promise in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that we are not tempted beyond God’s ability to help. Finally, it encourages love for God as we see His love for us in His willingness to share our struggle. I am also encouraged toward sacrificial love by Jesus’ example of turning from that which is against God’s will, that is, I am encouraged to live the self-denial which is fidelity to God.
The third question asks how the text fits in with God’s plan: What does this passage teach about God’s work in history and therefore His work today? This question is put in a very general form in order to include the fruit of both historical and organic study. What themes of the Christian Faith are touched on in this passage? What patterns and echoes of material elsewhere in Scripture are present here? This takes in all that we have seen from our study of the passage. As I pull together this material I look for patterns in God’s work in the world and reflect on how those patterns apply today, and especially in my own life. How do I experience Satan’s temptations in my own life? How do I experience God’s testing?
The last question is the most important of all: What does this passage reveal of God’s delightful beauty? God gave us Scripture to reveal Himself and His ways to us. The Bible is a glorious means to a yet more glorious end, the personal knowledge of God Himself through union with the Father in the Son by the Holy Spirit within the covenant People of God. I find that my answers to this question are often very brief, but highly significant. What do we learn of God’s character? What do we learn of His heart, that is, what He loves and hates? What do we learn of His ways of dealing with us?
In the present passage we learn that God tests His Son and God defeats Satan. Such a view of God is quite different from the laid-back, permissive God that is so popular today, a God who would perhaps give Ten Suggestions but never Ten Commandments. Our passage reveals God engaged in discipline and battle. Study of this text leads me to consider whether these themes have an adequate place in my theology and life.
Praying and Living the Scripture
Once we have found a point of contact between our lives and the text by asking these four questions (and there will always be one), we can do something with it. The first thing we should do is turn the text into prayer. Most texts will offer grist for one or more of the following types of prayer: (1) Adoration of the God revealed. In our text we have seen a God whose ways are beyond our full comprehension, using the work of Satan for His own purposes. We may also adore Him as the One who helps those oppressed by the Evil One. (2) Thanksgiving for His blessings, in this case for His help when we are tempted and for His Scriptures. (3) Confession of our sins revealed by this passage, in this case the particular sins in our own lives, and places where we have not -- or are not -- resisting temptation. (4) Petition for ourselves and intercession on behalf of others, in this case asking for ourselves and those for whom we pray, God’s strength against temptation. My study of Scripture gives me something specific to pray for each person on my daily prayer list, in addition to the particular needs and concerns I bring to God on behalf of certain of them.
After we’ve turned the text into prayer, we should make sure the text has a practical effect on our attitudes and actions. Usually the text will remind us of, or instruct us in, common features of Christian discipleship. Then we should simply obey them. But at times we will find the practical teaching is unclear or controversial. The most important general guideline is that any specific action must be consistent with and not contradict the light of Christ and the whole of Scripture interpreted through Christ. It has to fit the "Great Code" of Scripture. The input of the covenant People throughout history is also very significant. Any interpretation that goes against the consensus or even the majority opinion of the believers who have gone before, especially that of the ancient, undivided Church, is doubtful, to say the least. As we continue to study and pray over areas of uncertainty, obedience to what is clear should be our primary concern .
The present passage might lead us to ask questions of ourselves such as these: Do we take temptation seriously? Do we share God’s hatred of sin? Are we putting ourselves in the way of temptation — doing things, going places, meeting people, watching programs or movies — that we know will lead us into sin? Are we doing what we should to learn the Scriptures, the sword of the Spirit which He has given us for spiritual battle (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12)? This last question is particularly appropriate in an introduction to Bible study!
V. Getting Started
WE HAVE now surveyed some of the major aspects of studying the Bible. It can all be rather overwhelming! How do you get started? The most important thing is to do some sort of study. If you are unfamiliar with the Bible you might want to begin by simply reading it quickly to get the big picture.
It has been said that you should guzzle the Scriptures like beer before you sip them like wine. If you try this method, start with the New Testament and then move to the Old. Set aside a certain number of chapters or a certain amount of time each day and then simply read through without pausing. If some verse catches your attention, keep reading but mark it and come back to it after your time of reading and reflect on it further.
Or you may want to move more slowly. You might read one of the books a chapter or a section at a time, or choose one of the readings assigned in the Church’s lectionary (see The Book of Common Prayer, beginning on page 888).
Read slowly through the text and see if anything catches your attention. If it does, pause and reflect on it, talking to God about what you are thinking. Using the five basic observation questions (who, what, when, where, how) and some of the "Four Focal Questions" mentioned above should help guide your study.
If you want to dig deeper into the text you might begin by using one or two of the further steps I have mentioned. For example, you might start by reading over the text, observing it as carefully as possible, meditating on it. Then focus on a particular word that seems important or confusing. Look it up in a concordance and see how it is used elsewhere to get an idea of its meaning in the Bible and in your passage. In this way you will be learning how to study words in detail.
Or you might want to try a more detailed method. Read the New Testament and then the Old Testament in order, a chapter at a time. Spend a half hour on each chapter, using maps, a concordance, and cross references if you wish, but no notes or commentaries. Go through the book in order, skipping nothing and observing everything you can in the text, paying attention to every word. Mark up the text, using different colors for the three basic aspects of study: observation, interpretation, and application. You could use black to mark the signals in the text that help you outline its flow of thought and other basic observations, blue to mark the connections you find in the text and insights and questions you have about the meaning of the text, and red to mark verses that are particularly meaningful to you personally. Jot down your insights and difficulties in a notebook. If you use the "Four Focal Questions" and start looking up cross-references, you will find nutrients even in such unpromising soil as the boring chapters of genealogies and Old Testament food laws.
This kind of personal discovery keeps you focused in the text itself, instead of getting distracted by other people's comments. Such study then enables you to make the most out of the wonderful tools that are available.
As I said before, because we seek to know God and His will and not just gain knowledge of a book, we must consciously seek God's guidance to hear His voice. Your spiritual disposition is of the utmost importance. So it is important to never let the study become an end in itself. It is a means to the end of hearing God's message. And as you work at developing your skills in the study of Scripture be patient with yourself. It is a life-long pursuit and even the greatest saints and scholars are only on "the lower slopes" of the mountain.
I have mentioned resources available to help you in your study. These will be a great blessing, but I cannot recommend highly enough that you study the text for yourself. That is, be careful not to pay more attention to the resources you might use than to the text itself. While most people can get plenty out of Scripture on their own once they learn some of the methods I have described, many study guides can help as you focus on particular passages. The Bible Reading Fellowship and Scripture Union publish good ones. Several series available at your Christian book store give you study notes through specific books of the Bible or on specific topics. But even if you use study guides, you still should first try to approach the text for yourself, making your own observations. This personal discovery is the most exciting and will help you get more out of any other helps you may consult. Whenever you use secondary sources it is wise to always check them against the primary sources, that is, the text of the Bible itself.
If you find all of this overwhelming do not panic or give up. The most important thing is to do some sort of study with an obedient heart. Experiment with different suggestions I have made, or which you find in the books listed below. With patience and practice your skill in "rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15) will grow.
A Word of Encouragement
There is widespread rejection or minimizing of the clarity and authority of the Bible among leaders in the Churches, not least among Episcopalians. Yet this is not true to the heritage of any of the Churches. In particular, The Book of Common Prayer makes clear that Anglicanism has recognized the Scriptures as uniquely authoritative for the Church and its members, and as divinely powerful for living the life God offers us. Although it may be counter-cultural, not only in the world but also in the Church, we need to be people saturated with Scripture.
Our Lord instructed us to pray, "give us this day our daily bread." We pray this prayer and then do what is necessary to get physical food. Do we also pray this prayer and then do what is necessary to receive spiritual nourishment? Recall from our sample passage that Jesus quoted Deuteronomy: "Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God." If our souls are malnourished, is it God’s fault or ours? If our Church is sick unto death, it is not because the Father has changed, or the Son’s work on the Cross has been canceled, or the power of the Spirit has been depleted, or the means of grace in Word and Sacrament have been withdrawn. It is because we have not sought to hear every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. The Son says we need the bread of God’s Word, He tells us to pray for the bread we need and He teaches us that the Father will give good gifts to those who ask (Matthew 7.7-11). Have you prayed today for your daily bread? Have you done anything to receive it?
Most of us do not need to be exhorted to eat food. We recognize that people who don’t want to eat are ill. Reading and studying the Scriptures are also natural and enjoyable activities. We ought to recognize a lack of interest in being nourished by the Word as a spiritual sickness. Reading Scripture should flow from our relationship with Christ. We should beware of turning them into duties that take all the joy out of the Scriptures, or intellectual exercises that produce no fruit in our lives. If we go to the Bible to get to know God, our study of Scripture will be kept in proper perspective and not become dry and lifeless. All of our study is a means to the end of seeing and hearing the God who loves us and calls us to share in His own Life in His Son by the Spirit.
In the Bible God offers us the truth that sets us free. Here we have one of the primary means God offers us by which we may "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18). May what I have written encourage you — and better enable you — to be nourished by the Scriptures unto eternal life. To God alone be glory.
The Rev. Dr. Rodney Whitacre is Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. He has just completed a commentary of St. John’s Gospel, which will be published by InterVarsity Press in September 1999. He is the author of Johannine Polemic: The Role of Tradition and Theology (Scholars Press, 1982) and is currently working on a patristic Greek reader.
Posted on 24 February 1999. Copyright Rodney A. Whitacre, 1998.