A second way to grasp the meaning and application of the Bible is by following the progression of thought in a passage. For example, a woman once told Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” (Luke 11:27). This praise for Jesus’ mother seems odd, but in that culture people believed that women could find greatness by bearing a great son. She meant to bless Jesus by blessing Mary. Jesus’ reply is intriguing: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). The term rather suggests that Jesus means gently to correct her. Rather means “yes, but there is more.” Her praise is commendable, yet she subtly diminishes womankind by assuming that a woman finds greatness through connection to a great man. While that is not entirely false, a woman finds true greatness by becoming a faithful disciple. In this case, sound exegesis requires resources. Any thorough commentary will address the cultural factors in Luke 11. Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias are also great aids.
Proper exegesis in this case also requires that we note the subtle shift marked by the word rather. Careful readers watch for terms that signify a shift in thought. When a passage contrasts ideas, draws conclusions, or makes concessions, we often see terms like but, or, furthermore, yet, since, for, because, then, therefore, so that, and many more.
Biblical discourse frequently makes the main point clear by placing it first or last in a passage or by repeating it (Ps. 103:1–2; James 2:17, 20, 26). But we must read carefully to see how the passage reaches or develops that main point. For example, the theme of Romans 3:21–4:25 is justification by faith alone, but the role of 4:1–8 is not immediately obvious. The phrase just as David also speaks (4:6) shows there is some connection. Reflection shows what the connection is: knowing that one statement of justification by faith won’t be enough, Paul illustrates his point through twin heroes of the faith, Abraham and David. The lesson: not even Abraham, with his amazing deeds, was saved by works. And even David, with his terrible sins, was forgiven and justified by faith. If these two are justified by faith alone, all believers are.
We have many excellent books on Bible study methods. Together they answer our common questions. For example, when reading history, we should prefer literal interpretation of Scripture wherein a mountain is a mountain. Yet the teaching of Jesus and the prophets bursts with metaphor, exaggeration, and irony. Jesus asked loaded questions, expecting answers, while refusing to give a straight answer to half the questions people put to Him. Jesus interpreted some parables (Matt. 13:3–43) but lets us puzzle through others (v. 37). Likewise, Revelation occasionally offers hints on the proper interpretation of its symbols (for example, Rev. 12:7–12).
Moses and Paul had a linear, propositional style, but Jesus and most prophets love poems, parables, and analogies that arrest us with their vividness or strangeness and invite us to think. When we read them, a mountain might be a place of rebellion. In that spirit, Jeremiah 51:25 calls Babylon, a city located on a vast plain, a “destroying mountain.” Similarly, while most narratives spell out their message, others stretch out for pages without doing so. If we keep our eye on the style or genre of each book, these things become clear. In His wisdom, God chose to hand us cardinal truths such as “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15). But He lets us wrestle our way to other principles.