Note: This article has been excerpted from Exegesis and Hermeneutics for Small Groups.
When it comes to exegesis, interpreting the Bible in a way that seeks to understand what the authors intended, group dynamics play a huge role and may prevent you from actually working with a passage. There are two types of people who can derail freely flowing conversation on a passage. The first are those who make it so difficult that no one can understand a passage without their input. There's nothing quite like a group that is filled with the likes of Bible Scholar Bob who can't help but explain something about the history of the passage, Reference Referrer Randy who points out related verses with Bible in hand, and Famous Quote Fran who throws in something stated by C.S. Lewis or Philip Yancey as if she knew them personally. Such a know-it-all attitude can make new Christians or seekers feel out of place.
The other type could be referred to as Simple Samanthas, and you don't want a group full them either. These people make reading the Bible so easy that they take every verse they read at face value. Any and every verse has an obvious meaning, as if it had been written to them in that moment. To them the Bible is just a compilation of sayings that have little meaning outside of what it obviously says to them in the moment.
While few actually fall into these extreme cases, group members usually lean towards one stance or the other. Most don't take into account what the text meant when it was first written and listen to what the text means today. When I was completing my degree in New Testament studies, I found that many of the books about biblical interpretation make the task so difficult that it could easily strip away any hope that anyone can actually read and understand what the Bible is saying.
But the Bible is crucial to our life in the church and in small groups. It is our story, our guide, and our worldview shaper. We are a people "of the book." And if we are going to let this book shape our small groups, it's good to have some basic guidelines—without making things so difficult that we give up and let the "Bible scholars" do the heavy lifting, while we settle for refrigerator magnet Bible discussions.
When working with a passage, use these five basic guidelines to help you think about what the passage meant when it was penned and hear what is it saying to the group members in the present.
- Start with the Big Story. Years ago, I was taking a class from Eugene Peterson. At the end of a lecture, someone asked him how to read the Bible when you've grown tired of reading it. He responded, "Read it like you would a novel." I was shocked by his statement, but it got me thinking about how any one verse, or paragraph, or chapter, or book is part of an over-arching story that opens with "In the beginning" and ends with the full redemption of the heavens and earth. As I reflected on the big story of the Bible I thought about how we read novels. No one would pick up A Tale of Two Cities and try to interpret chapter two apart from the rest of the book. While we all know that the Bible and Charles Dickens cannot be interpreted in the same way, Peterson's instruction helped me see the importance of starting with the big story of the Bible and then working down to the specific issues that might arise in a specific verse. What is this big story? Here's my basic summary:
God created. Man messed up this creation. God set in motion a plan to rescue creation by working through a specific people named Israel. Though Israel repeatedly rejected the opportunity to serve as God's rescue representatives to the world, God did not give up. As a result, he sent his Son to be that representative to demonstrate who God really is and set the course for the redemption of the world. Still, he was rejected, killed, and buried. But he arose, ascended, and sent the Spirit to fill Jesus' followers with power to live the way he lived. Now we live in between—a time when the full redemption of all the world has been won through the resurrection but will not be complete until Christ returns.
When we read each individual verse in the light of this grand story, it's easier to see what the specifics mean.