Preachers are constantly in search of new content. The demand to preach something fresh each week is a daunting task. We feel like we need to deliver something timely and unique. Thus, we frantically search for fanciful interpretations, hoping to provide something to our people that they have never heard before. We read books, scour commentaries, browse blogs, listen to podcasts, and download sermons all in an effort to stumble upon some jaw-dropping revelation.
In this frenzied attempt to make unique contributions or employ stirring illustrations, we are prone to over-interpret the biblical text. We forget that the languages of the Bible, Greek and Hebrew, are not magical languages waiting to be decoded. They are ordinary human languages that God chose to use to reveal Himself to ordinary humans. Thus, the same rules apply to biblical languages that apply to all languages. In other words, the Bible simply means what the various human authors intended it to say. We don’t have to over-analyze each word and trace its history back a thousand years before the biblical era to determine its actual meaning. We have to simply ask: “What did Paul (or any other writer) mean when used this word?”
Moises Silva is a brilliant Biblical scholar and linguist. In his 1990 book, God, Language, and Scripture, he illustrated the absurdity of many modern methods of biblical interpretation, by including a fictional conversation between two men, Mike and Harry. Harry begins the conversation: “Say, Mike, I heard some interesting gossip at the convention last week.” Mike replies: “Oh, really? Who was being christened?” Harry is obviously confused by Mike’s response and asks for clarity, to which Mike responds: “Come on, Harry!” The basic meaning of the word gossip has to do with god parenting. Everyone knows that” (p. 87)! Since Mike did not have “god parenting” in mind when he said the word “gossip,” Harry should not have equated those two words. Etymology (studying this history/roots of words) is not usually the most helpful thing in understanding what the author is actually meaning to say. A word means what it means based on context and how it is being used when it was written, rather than on everything the word can potentially mean. For example, if I said that I would like to “cultivate a friendship with you,” you would have no reason to think that I was talking about planting a garden just because the word “cultivate” has roots in the field of botany. You would understand what I meant without ever considering the botanical roots of the word.
This problem of over-interpretation is understandable, because we truly believe that the Biblical text in front of us is an inspired text. If we believe that God authored the text in question, then we are certainly inclined to see each word as significant and indispensable. This can lead to a focus on individual words, divorced from both historical context and authorial intent. Though such interpretations are creative, they fail to either fairly represent the author or to adequately illuminate the reader. We may come to some conclusion that seems enlightening, but it’s not really what the original author had in mind.
Perhaps an example from Scripture might be helpful. The Greek word doxa is used throughout the New Testament and is generally translated as “glory.” In the Greek of Jesus’ day, the word typically meant “judgment or opinion”, and by extension, “good reputation or honor.” However, the authors of the New Testament were all Jewish (other than Luke), and for decades Greek-speaking Jews had used the word doxa as the equivalent of the Hebrew word for glory, chabod. The chabod described the heavy, weighty glory of God that filled the Temple and accompanied the presence of a majestic God. Since Greek didn’t have a word that equated to the Hebrew notion of chabod, Greek speaking Jewish people adopted the word doxa but loaded it with all of the meaning and implications of chabod.
Therefore, when we read that an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds in the field at Jesus’ birth, and the glory (doxa) of the Lord shone around them in Luke 2, we have no reason to think that “glory” means judgment or opinion. If one is simply doing a word study and finds that doxa can mean judgment, they might conclude that God’s judgment was descending on the shepherds, even though Luke is communicating the exact opposite! Contextually, the glory is the majesty of God and the shepherds are blessed and exceedingly glad that they are recipients of this good news. In sum, “glory” means what Luke intended it to mean when he wrote it, and it is totally irrelevant what “glory” meant when the common Greek speaker used it. Words mean what the author intends them to mean.
In conclusion, the heart of this brief article is to encourage preachers and teachers to unashamedly proclaim the simple, straightforward message proclaimed in the text. You don’t need a Ph.D. to understand what the Bible is basically trying to communicate. All you need is an English translation of the Bible, a good introductory commentary, and the power of the Holy Spirit to guide you. Find a text to preach, discover what the author intended, and discern how the Holy Spirit would apply that message today. You don’t have to hit a home run every Sunday. Sometimes, a base hit that keeps an inning alive is all that is really needed.