A Very Short Guide for Interpreting a Whole Book in the New Testament

We used this guide as fifteen students (from Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi) and I have studied Hebrews through Jude in six weeks. I led class the first three weeks, and they took turns leading class the last three weeks. It’s been rich.

Read the following guide and then read through the whole biblical book with these questions in the back of your mind, taking notes as you go.
1. What stands out the most to you as you read this book?
2. What clues do you find regarding the audience’s situation to which the author is speaking?
3. What rhetorical aims do you find? That is, what does it seem the author was seeking to accomplish by writing the book? Where and how does the writing express these aims?
4. What strategies does the author use to carry out these aims? (Examples: Can you detect a structure of an argument? Is there repetition of key words and concepts? Do quotations of the OT seem significant? Are certain phrases or ideas important at the beginning and re-appear at the end? Does making an outline of the book help you see the strategies better?)
5. What are the main themes of this document? How are they described?
6. Try to describe, in depth, how this book portrays the Christian life. What contributions do you think this book makes for understanding the Christian life?
7. What situation(s) in your own life, or in the life of your congregation, does this book remind you of? If you wrote your spiritual autobiography with this letter in front of you, how might you use it to tell your story? And are there ways this letter helps you to understand things you have witnessed or experienced in your congregation?
8. How does this book speak to your life? How might it speak to the life of a congregation you are serving or have served? How might it speak to the church as a whole in your home country?
9. If you were to prepare a series of sermons (and/or teachings) based on this book, how would you do that in a way that is true to what the book is saying and also on target for the lives of the people you are ministering to? What passages would you choose? What would the main focus be for each of the messages you would share? Take notes for possible sermon outlines.

Interpreting the Last Nine

Last week I shared “A Brief Guide for Learning to Interpret a Whole Book of the Bible”. I put much of that guide together while studying the letters of Paul, but lately I’ve been applying the steps and skills from the guide to a different section of the New Testament. These days I’ve been studying and teaching the last nine books, Hebrews through Revelation.

Unlike Paul’s letters, these books are written to broad Christian audiences living in many areas of the first-century Greco-Roman world. So Hebrews through Jude are sometimes called the “General Epistles” (not including Revelation, though it’s really a letter, too). The name does not mean they only have general, not specific, things to say. The audiences, not the messages, are general.

While we can put a general label on the audiences, the books themselves are harder to categorize. They are quite different from one another. For instance, when I move from James to what follows, 1 Peter, it strikes me that two mature Christian leaders, both writers of the NT, could express their faith in such different ways. While both books consist of five chapters and focus on the Christian life, the way they go about it could hardly be more different. 1 Peter emphasizes who believers are through Christ, and mentions Christ 22 times, while James concentrates on the need for believers to be doers of the word, and mentions Christ only twice.

The last nine books of the NT are also different than the rest of the NT. For instance, the Greek noun for “gospel” is used only twice from Hebrews to Revelation, though it occurs 74 times in the writings that come before them. On the other hand, the Greek noun for “endurance” or “perseverance” is used fourteen times: seven times more often than the word “gospel”. That’s a taste of how the focus in these books is different from the first eighteen books of the NT.

So we shouldn’t open these books and expect to hear exactly the same kind of message we find in the rest of the NT. Each one of the books has its own distinct voice and offers a distinct witness about the Christian life. And that’s how I want to study them – to find out what particular message and testimony each one bears. This way, we can receive not just a general Christian message but a fresh and pointed word from each book, to challenge and shape our lives.