The process I will walk you through today is in 5 steps; (1) identify the boundaries of the text, (2) choose appropriate analytical tools, (3) interpret the true point(s) of the passage, (4) apply the passage, and finally (5) develop a rhetorical strategy for effective communication. I will use Philippians 3:1-14 as a test case for this process throughout this presentation.
The old question and answer, “How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” applies to the study of God’s word as well. The full counsel of God cannot be fully explored on any subject in a single sermon and so we must choose what passage or passages of scripture we will exposit. There are many approaches to setting these textual boundaries, but in the case of Philippians 3 we will utilize rhetorical analysis to identify the pericope for exposition. Verses 1 and 2 give us our first marker through the use of a very brief introductory narrative which introduces the audience, “my brothers and sisters,” Paul’s goal in writing, “a safeguard for you,” and the threat he is addressing, “beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” What follow are Paul’s proposition and his arguments for that proposition. We find our closing marker in verse 15, “Therefore,” which signals a shift from argument to praxis or from indicative to imperative tone.
Pick your tools
In approaching God’s Word for the purpose of interpretation and exposition, it is critical to first choose the tools that best fit the passage. In other words, the tool should fit the genre you are interpreting. The tools appropriate to interpreting a Psalm would likely differ from those you would employ in interpreting an Epistle. In our example of Philippians 3, Paul’s letter was meant to be read aloud to the churches. It is in affect a persuasive essay or speech, therefore rhetorical criticism, as we have already employed, would be a valid tool. The letter was written in a specific time and place in order to address specific challenges being had by the local church in Philippi. This would indicate that a historical-critical analysis, in particular Greco-Roman cultural analysis, as well as a 1st Century Jewish historical understanding, would be useful in providing the proper lens through which to examine the passage. In addition, a close reading of the text reveals some etymological questions that a careful word study would help in answering. Lastly, our ultimate goal for any exposition is to relate what the passage teaches us about God and about ourselves from God’s worldview. Therefore we must also pull the theological interpretive tool from the bag. Now we are ready to get to work.
What’s the Big Idea?
Whenever we are working with the inspired word of God it is important that we resist getting cute or inappropriately creative with our interpretation. While God’s word may be applied to many different circumstances, any given passage only has one meaning. Recognizing, not inventing, that meaning and communicating it to our audience is the goal. In our example of Philippians 3, Paul’s proposition in verse 3, “For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, exult in Christ Jesus, and do not rely on human credentials,” is the main point he will elucidate in the following verses and defines the rhetorical situation he is addressing. In other words, physical circumcision as practiced by the Jews in this context represents the self-righteous acts of the law, while followers of Christ exult in His works of righteousness on their behalf and do so by faith through the Spirit of God, not depending on their own effort which adds nothing to Christ’s completed work. Following this rhetorical framework Paul then responds to the implied argument from his opponent that credentials matter. He does via a description of his own impressive credentials, “If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more,” which he then immediately dismisses three times in increasingly strong language. They are liabilities because of Christ, liabilities compared to knowing Christ, and finally, they have the worth of excrement compared to being found “in Christ.” In plain language, self-righteousness is a pile of useless dung when compared to the righteousness based on the faithfulness of Jesus. It is this righteousness from God that is available to us in Christ.
Once I have determined the appropriate interpretation or point of the passage, I take time again to read and reread the passage, meditating on what it means or has meant practically in my life. The best place to start with Philippians 3 is with Paul himself. What did it mean in his life? How would he apply this truth? He makes this clear in verses 10-14. Because of Christ’s faithfulness, Paul has four aims in life that we can share; to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death. In verse 11 Paul states the goal of these aims is to “attain” (Greek – katantaō) to the resurrection of the dead. It is important that we understand that the word “attain” here should not be construed as “earned.” The Greek verb means to arrive at or to come to. Paul’s desire is to be like Christ in everyway and persevere until His coming and the resurrection of the dead on the last day. In this sense Paul’s “striving” or running after in verse 14 is not a work in order to earn salvation, but a deep ceded desire to know Christ more and more. Having arrived at an interpretation and before beginning to compose a message, it is the cautious pastor who will look at some trusted commentaries to make sure he hasn’t made any fatal flaws or missed any nuggets that could be helpful to his final product.
Much as Paul employed rhetoric in writing to the churches of the 1st Century, so we will take the product of our interpretive work and put together the pieces in a way that is clear, convincing, memorable, and moves our hearers to action/application. In doing this we will ask ourselves questions like; what historical background or etymological information that I have uncovered will be useful in my opening narrative? How can I phrase my proposition in such a way that it will be memorable and complete? What will be my arguments from scripture for that point? What potential objections or questions might my hearers have and how I can answer them? How I can employ elements like parable, metaphor, or hyperbole to make the point more memorable and move my hearer to action? What combination of my personal testimony on the subject (ethos), emotional appeal (pathos), and logical argumentation (logos) will have the greatest impact on my hearers? What action or attitude do I desire to evoke from my audience? Answering these questions will assist us in developing our manuscript from which our sermon will derive.
As you apply these steps; identifying boundaries, choosing exegetical tools, arriving at an interpretation, finding application, and finally developing a rhetorical strategy for preaching, we must keep in mind our ultimate objective. It is not our purpose to reinvent what Paul said to the 1st Century church at Philippi, but rather to develop an interpretation and application that are faithful to the text and then to present them to the 21st Century church in a such a way that the power of God may be made manifest through it in their lives for the glory of Christ.