How to Interpret: Answer Questions

This week I’ll unpack the second of 3 steps for interpreting the Bible.

Step two was Answer the Questions from the Text:

Once you’ve asked your questions, answer them.  There’s one critical rule, though: answer questions only if they are answered (or clearly implied) in the text (Prov 30:5-6).

Don’t go on rabbit trails.  Don’t use minor details to make the text say what you want it to say.  Don’t build a whole theology from one verse.  Instead, answer only those questions that are either assumed or addressed in the text.  Let the rest go.

Two kinds of answers are “in the text”:

  1. Some answers are assumed in the text.  The original audience would have known these answers, but they’re lost on us because of the thousands of years that separate our lifetime from theirs.  We need websites or Bible dictionaries to help us understand what scholars have learned about ancient cultures. We can also reference related Scripture passages to illuminate the one at hand.
  2. Some answers are addressed in the text.  The author made these explicit for his audience.

From Luke 2:1-21, here are some examples of answers assumed in the text:

  • What was it like to experience upheaval for a census?
    • Some in Luke’s original audience may have remembered this very census that occurred during Quirinius’s governorship.  We should look it up. (On the link, scroll down to point (2) “Census of Quirinius.”)
  • What does it mean that Jesus is called “Christ”?
    • We need help from passages like Psalm 2:2 to provide the necessary background.
  • How long was Joseph and Mary’s trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem?  How did people view shepherds at this time?
    • Most of the original audience would understand what it was like to travel from Galilee to Judea, or to interact with shepherds.  We need tools like websites or Bible dictionaries to help us understand such things.

Here’s an example of answers addressed in the text:

  • Why does Luke contrast Jesus’ glory with that of the Roman rulers?
    • Because God deserves the highest glory (Luke 2:14).  He is saving the world through Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11).
  • So what does Luke want us to do about Jesus?
    • In contrast to the Might of Rome (Luke 2:1-2), Mary treasured up these things (Luke 2:19), and the shepherds gave God highest praise & glory (Luke 2:20).  Luke implies that we should have similar responses to Jesus.

Finally, here are some possible questions not assumed or addressed in the text.  We ought to let them go (at least for now):

  • Did Mary walk or ride on a donkey?
  • Was Jesus born in a stable or a cave?
  • Do angels have wings?
  • Who are those “with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14), and what does this tell us about predestination?

What other answers to your questions can you find in the passage?

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How to Interpret: Determine the Main Point
How to Interpret: Ask Questions