A Very Brief Guide for Interpreting a Whole Book of the Bible

I recently spent a morning with young Zambian women who are thinking about attending seminary. Our focus was learning to interpret the Bible, and we studied the whole of Paul’s letter to the Philippians using these questions below.

1.  Read through the book in its entirety, seeking to understand it as a whole. Does the reading of the whole enable you to see things you had not noticed before, or which haven’t been emphasized in your prior exposure to the book? Do certain aspects stand out as characteristic of this book?

2.  Can you find evidence for the occasion that led the author to write the book, or the situation which the writer is addressing? Do you find information about the original audience and their circumstances? What aims for the book do you find? What does it seem the author was trying to accomplish by writing this book?

3.  What primary themes stand out? Look for repetition of key words, images, phrases, and ideas. (As you read this book of the Bible, keep asking what the main themes are and where they change.)

4. In light of your attention to the book as a whole, what have you come to understand about this book’s perspective on God and the Christian life? What clues do you find regarding how the Christian life looks and works? Do you have any new insights into key verses that have been meaningful to you in the past?

5. In light of all that you have discovered above, how does this book speak a living word to you personally, and how might it speak to your church or to others you know? If you were to teach or preach from this book, what would you wish to emphasize?

A Brief Guide for Learning to Interpret a Whole Book of the Bible

Note: I wrote this with the interpretation of New Testament epistles in mind, but most of it applies to other parts of the Bible, too.

1. Read through the book in its entirety, seeking to understand it as a whole and trying to follow the line of thought. As you read the whole book, be aware if you see things you haven’t noticed before or if you recognize parts that may not have been emphasized in your prior exposure to the book. Also, does reading the whole give you have a sense of the basic structure of the book?

2. What clues do you discover about the rhetorical situation and aims? That is, can you find evidence for the occasion that gave rise to the book, or what situation the writer is addressing? Do you find information about the original audience and their circumstances? What clues does the book give about the writer? What rhetorical aims do you find? That is, where and how does the writing express what the author was seeking to accomplish by writing this book?

3. What primary themes stand out? Look for literary devices like repetition of key nouns, verbs, images, phrases, and ideas. Look for “book ends”, where a theme stands out at the beginning and end of the book. Try to trace how the author develops the main themes. Making an outline of the book will help you follow the flow of thought and the way the themes develop. Where and how do the key themes intersect? As you read this book of the Bible, keep asking what the main thought is and where it changes.

4. In light of your attention to the book as a whole, what have you come to understand about the theological perspective of the book? What seem to be the most important beliefs, and how are they described?

5. What perspective on the Christian life do you find? How does this piece of literature describe the inner dynamics and outward behaviors of the Christian life? What are the Christian’s resources for living in this way? Try to figure out and describe how the Christian life works, according to this document.

6. This is optional but possibly clarifying: How do your observations regarding numbers 5 and 6 compare with what you’ve seen in other books of the Bible? Does the comparison help to distinguish the particular perspective of this book?

7. In light of all that you have discovered above, how does this document speak a living word to you personally, and how might it speak to your church or to others you know?

8. If you are writing an essay, teaching a class, or preparing for a preaching series that will interpret the book as a whole, read and dwell with your observations until you can develop a way of organizing your discoveries in a meaningful way.

Forming a Christian Family (despite not having all the explicit directions from the Bible that we might like to have)

Our faculty and student small groups used this piece for discussion. We had good conversations, and I hope it can be helpful beyond our campus.

The New Testament does not offer as much direct guidance for family life as we might like. Passages that teach about the life of the church, and how believers are to live in unity with one another, may have as much to tell us about our life as Christian families as those few passages that deal directly and explicitly with family life.

When the New Testament was being written, those who wrote it were preoccupied with the meaning of the gospel, the nature of discipleship, and the welfare of new congregations of believers. The New Testament was written so early in Christian history that the biblical writers may have barely begun to give thought to what it means to have a Christian home and to live as Christian families. That may be why it’s hard to find many passages that deal explicitly and directly with our life as Christian families. The New Testament does confirm certain teachings from the Old Testament, such as reserving sexual relations for marriage. And we find specific guidance now and then, as when Ephesians tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25). However, as a whole, family life was not at the forefront of thought for those who wrote our New Testament. Because of this reality, when we turn our attention to Scripture for the formation of our families as Christian families, we have to exercise extra thoughtfulness.

Yet the truth is that the New Testament does give us plenty of guidance for forming Christian families, if we consider that the Christian home is a place of Christian fellowship and that a Christian family is a small piece of the body of Christ. In a Christian home we carry out our life of discipleship in a very close and personal way with other believers. When we realize these things, we can realize also that passages of Scripture that teach believers to live out the Christian life in fellowship with one another implicitly have much to say about life as a Christian family. Passages that teach believers to grow together as disciples fill the pages of Scripture. While the passages of Scripture that deal explicitly with family life may be limited, passages which teach Christians how to live in unity and grow together in Christ are plentiful.

So, today we are going to look at the passage that may be the poetic height of the apostle Paul’s writing on relationships between believers. It is safe to say that Paul was not thinking about family life or marriage when he wrote 1 Corinthians 13. He was thinking of helping the body of Christ in Corinth to get along with one another, and not harm each other, as they learned to use their spiritual gifts to build up their congregation. However, since Christian families are also small pieces of the body of Christ, what Paul said about love between believers in the body of Christ also speaks depths of wisdom about creating a Christian home.

Questions for Study and Discussion of 1 Corinthians 13

Let’s read 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 for the purpose of what these verses might speak to us regarding Christian family life.

1. In verses 1-3, love is a standard to measure the value and contribution that we add to the church. What would it look like to use these verses as a standard to measure what we as parents, spouses, brothers, sisters, and children offer to our families?

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.)

2. Why might Paul have said in verse 13 that “the greatest of these is love”? Why would he elevate love over hope and faith?

(1 Corinthians 13:13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.)

3. How do verses 4-8a describe love? Can you summarize?

(1 Corinthians 13:4-8  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.)

4. What do these qualities look like when they’re expressed concretely in family life? And what would be the result if these qualities were present and increasing?

5. Are there parts of Paul’s description of love that were very present as you grew up in your own family as a child? Were there parts that seemed to be lacking?

6. What parts of the description of love are difficult or most challenging for your family now?

7. What habits or practices have you found to be helpful for cultivating love in your family? What ideas can you share that might help other families?

8. How can we pray for one another’s families today?