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Figuring Out the Intended Meaning

Last week’s article introduced us to hermeneutics. If you remember, I faced a moment of truth when my daughter asked, “Daddy, what is hermeneutics?” I replied with a simple but usable definition: Hermeneutics is the task of trying to figure out the intended meaning of a specific passage in the Bible so that we follow it correctly. Now the question is, “How do we figure out the intended meaning?”

When you begin to study a specific portion of Scripture, you must give your best faith effort to decide where the passage begins and ends. We do this by looking for clues in the text itself. A good example is the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew begins by telling us that Jesus saw the crowds and began teaching them (Matthew 5:1). He ends the sermon by describing how amazed the crowd was when Jesus finished teaching (Matthew 7:28-29). Matthew provides the clues that we need to figure out where the passage begins and ends.

Once the boundary lines are determined we want to begin looking for specific details that will help us arrive at correct understanding. It is fairly easy to spot repeated words, phrases, and concepts. You won’t get very far into the Sermon on the Mount before you realize that in the first 12 verses Jesus says the word “Blessed” 9 times. Or later in the Sermon Jesus repeats the phrase, “You have heard…but I say to you.” Repetition helps us to identify the point the author is trying to make.

Jesus uses contrast all throughout the Sermon on the Mount. He contrasts the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees with His own teaching (Matthew 5:21-48), true and false righteousness (Matthew 6:1-18), His love for humanity with His love for the rest of creation (Matthew 6:25-34), His fatherly love with the love of earthly fathers (Matthew 7:7-12), and who will and will not enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:13-27). Contrast seems to be something we can identify quickly.

Comparisons, on the other hand, can be a little harder to spot (in my opinion). One example of this from Jesus’ sermon comes in 5:12 where Jesus is encouraging His disciples to rejoice when they are persecuted— “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Did you see the comparison? He compares His persecuted disciples to the persecuted prophets of old.

Yes you read that correctly, “Pay attention to conjunctions.” Don’t skip over little words like “for”, “and”, “if”, “because”, or “therefore.” Conjunctions guide the flow of the author’s thought. If we miss these, we will most certainly miss his point. For example, we are tempted to consider Matthew 7:7-11 as a complete unit. However, the “therefore” in verse 12 should convince us to expand that passage and conclude that our prayer life and our love for others are undeniably linked together.

Well, this blog has probably continued too long. Maybe I will (or maybe I won’t) write more about conditional clauses, illustrations, quotations, and other literary features to look for. Hopefully the four I have provided will help you in your attempt to figure out the author’s intended meaning. One last thing to remember is this: PRAY THAT GOD WILL OPEN YOUR EYES TO SEE CLEARLY WHEN YOU STUDY HIS WORD.