Sometimes the Bible’s meaning is plain and simple:
- “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, ESV).
- “Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb 8:1).
Many times, however, the meaning is not so plain:
- “Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent” (Gen 9:20-21).
- “Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus” (John 12:20-22).
When you’re studying a Bible passage and the point is not stated explicitly, one thing you can do is zoom out and observe the structure. Often, authors use structure to convey meaning, and we might not get the meaning unless we discern the shape of the text.
For example, Noah’s nakedness in the vineyard comes right after God dismantled and recreated the entire world (Gen 6-8). When we read of a naked man of the soil who consumes a fruit, and of a sin that enters God’s pristine world, alarm bells should go off in our heads, reminding us of Genesis 3. We suddenly realize that, though the Flood may have wiped people from the face of the earth, it could never wipe sin from their hearts. The structure of Genesis (cycles of creation-fall-new beginning) illuminates this strange episode for us.
For another example: John 12 concludes the first half of John’s Gospel. (Chapter 13 launches Act II, with most of the rest of the book describing the last 24 hours before Jesus’ death.) With the singling out of Philip and Andrew (John 12:22), we remember the beginning of the story, where these two men were some of the first disciples called by Jesus (John 1:40, 43). Only this time, Jesus doesn’t have to recruit anyone; disciples are coming to him. The initial “Come and see” (John 1:39, 46) has morphed into “Sir, we wish to see” (John 12:21). These bookends on John 1-12 (among others) show the tremendous impact Jesus’ years of ministry had on the world. This impact fulfills prophecies like Zech 8:20-23 and triggers Jesus’ troubled reflections on his looming death (John 12:23-33).
Over the next month or so, I’ll illustrate the value of structure through a study of the feeding of the 5,000. Through the context and structure of each Gospel, I hope to show that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John used the same event for a different purpose. Stay tuned!