Exegesis Times Two: A Reprise

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Pastor Matthew Teaching in Jerusalem.
I received an encouraging email yesterday from a dear friend that brought to my mind this blog posting of mine from late summer or early fall of 2009. I have to tell you that I love to preach, and I am so thankful for the privilege that it is, and the patient and eager spirit of the Bethel Church family as well as the multitudes who listen on radio, tune in on the Internet, or download podcasts. Here is the post:

Before going further, however, it is important to define “exegesis”, which in its most basic sense means “to interpret” or “explain.” This word is a combination of two Greek words, ex, meaning “out”, as in “exit” or “excommunicate”; and hegeisthai, meaning “to lead”. The general idea is that when interpreting something—like a passage of Scripture, for example—one leads or pulls out of the passage the premise being put forward by the author. Ideally, every Bible teacher does this with every passage of Scripture to which he or she gives attention. In my case, every time I address a passage of Scripture, I apply an exegetical process to it, through which I determine a wide array of details ranging from contextual matters to literary features of the text to historical-grammatical details to theological issues, and so forth. On one hand it is a laborious process, though quite fulfilling. On the other hand, over a period of many years, it becomes second-nature to who I am.

It is a process that begins with an intentional and thoughtful observation of everything within the text. As my friend and professor Dr. Howard Hendricks often said, “Observation is the key to interpretation.” This is one of the reasons why my sermons often have a narrative feel to them. I want very much to place the listener right in the middle of the action so that she can hear the flies buzzing around the threshing floor. After all, one of the preacher’s chief goals, in my estimation, is to connect the biblical moment with where we are today as people. It is this connection that helps facilitate an illumination of the timeless truths to be absorbed. Thus it is that every passage of Scripture that I preach or teach, or about which I write, undergoes this process of leading or drawing out from the text whatever nuggets the Lord would reveal from within the text. I absolutely must work to interpret and explain the passage. That is the preacher’s job.

But if the preacher stops there and goes no further he has, in my estimation, only done half of the job. The reality is that along with exegeting the biblical passage the teacher or preacher must also—and this is hugely critical—exegete the audience to which the presentation of the text is given. The same process applies to the audience that applies to the text. There must be a leading or pulling out from the audience those nuggets that reveal the nature and needs of the audience. What is the historical context of the audience? What are their cultural mores? What is their demographic make-up? How can one characterize their group-think? What of their presenting issues in life? And what are their real issues in life? These questions and more are necessary to know the audience. Then it is the preacher’s task to enmesh what is revealed regarding the audience with what is revealed regarding the Scriptures. It is this that allows for a collision between the timeless truths of God’s Word and the timely realities of those receiving that Word. It is what makes for better application, more relevant exhortation, and more penetrating insight for both the presenter and the listener.

This is why I speak of exegesis times two. One must exegete the biblical passage. And one must exegete the audience. An effective Bible teacher can do both of these things.

One important aspect of this is the role of time. Just as it takes many long hours to exegete a biblical passage and translate all of that into an exposition (on average, my sermon preparation process takes about twenty to thirty hours a week), so it takes much time to exegete an audience. To answer many of the aforementioned questions means studying diligently the audience, the community, the congregation, et cetera. It means getting to know personally the people to whom one is speaking regularly—crying with them and playing with them and rejoicing with them. It means, in effect, doing life with them, as much as is reasonably possible within the natural constraints of time and opportunity. Most critically, it means constantly seeking the Holy Spirit for wisdom and insight into the particulars of the people. It means applying this principle as revealed in Jeremiah 33:3, wherein the Lord says, “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” Indeed, this invitation from the Lord shapes a substantial part of my daily routine, whether it is regarding the biblical text or the listener. I want to know what the Master wants me to know.

That it takes time to get to know the listening audience, however, can really put the preacher at a great disadvantage, one that is overcome with nothing other than the time necessary for experiencing life with the audience. Rushing to know the listeners can often have the unfruitful effect of landing on false and/or short-sighted assumptions regarding people and their mores and needs. In some ways it is like turning the oven on too high to hurry along a baking process. The outside of the cake is firm, maybe even crisp, but the inside is just not done. Waiting too long, however, to bring the meaty details of the audience and the text together can run the risk of making the preacher appear or actually be disconnected and out of touch. Both of these are tragic and unnecessary.

In the end it is the Holy Spirit who can duly inform the soul of the preacher when all of these things come together well. That is when the real rhythm begins.

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