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“How does the Bible mean?” Shouldn’t I say, “What does the Bible mean?” I once thought the same about John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? Leave it to a poet to tweak a straightforward question into something odd.

But Ciardi has a point. Students of Scripture sometimes want the bottom line, “What does this passage mean?” without wasting time on, “How does it mean?” But you can’t get to the “what” without the “how.” If we think that Jesus’ story of the rebellious workers (Mark 12:1–12) is straightforward history, we will be mystified that He tells us about violence in a vineyard. Or suppose we take the story as allegory, thinking that everything in the story matches something real. Then, when the owner (who represents God) says, “They will respect my son” (v. 6), we will think that God was surprised when Israel’s leaders killed His Son. But if we recognize that this is a parable, a story that usually resembles the reality it symbolizes at one main point, we can hear what this story means by recognizing how parables mean.

Each biblical text is a road, taking its readers from their present situation toward a fuller understanding of God’s grace. The road starts with a problem, question, need, defect, error, or sin in the original audience’s experience. It leads to a destination, the goal to which God calls His people: more trust, wisdom, love, joy, or unity. As we travel the route with the original recipients and see how our need parallels theirs and how God’s goal for their growth should be reflected in ours, we are learning what the passage means.

Starting Point: Life Setting and Occasion

What need evoked this portion of God’s Word? Who were the people to whom God first sent this message, and why did they need to hear it? This is the life setting of the first audience and the occasion for writing. Were they confused over eating meat consecrated in a pagan temple (1 Cor. 8–10)? Almost persuaded that they needed circumcision to be first-class Christians (Galatians)? Perplexed by suffering (Job)? Mired in selfish materialism (Malachi)?

Destination: Purpose

What would the first readers become by taking this text to heart? This is the purpose for which the text was given, the goal God intends it to achieve in hearts and lives by the life-giving grace of His Holy Spirit. Do they need to repent? To be comforted? To humble themselves? To put doubts to rest? To grow in discernment, rejecting error and embracing the truth? To see the connection between truth confessed and lives lived? To replace selfish rivalry with loving servanthood? To praise the God who is worthy of all worship?

Each biblical text is a road, taking its readers from their present situation toward a fuller understanding of God’s grace.
The Road Between: Genre

“How to say best what’s to be said?” C.S. Lewis explained the genesis of the Narnia Chronicles in his essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said.” The stories began, he insisted, not with a plan to disguise Christian doctrine in children’s allegories, but with images: a faun with an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a lion. Then, living with the images, he saw an opportunity to recast biblical truth in an unexpected form, which could slip past the “watchful dragons” of pious sentiment, enabling readers to experience gospel truth afresh. He chose the fairy story genre in light of his readers’ religious background and the goal he wanted them to reach.

Our all-wise God, who always knows how to say best what’s to be said, has spoken to His people in different genres, varying His approach according to their background and circumstances and according to His purpose for each text in their lives. The Spirit leads human authors to select, from the treasury of forms familiar to the audience, the right tool for each task. Since different genres use language in different ways, they lead us to expect different “ways” of meaning, requiring different interpretive strategies. Among the genres of biblical literature are historical narrative, parable, proverb, psalm, law, prophetic oracle, apocalyptic vision, sermon, and epistle. To paraphrase Lewis: “Sometimes parables may say best what’s to be said . . . and sometimes psalms do, and sometimes history, and sometimes visions.”

Some of Scripture’s Genres

Historical narratives and parables are both stories. Stories grab our attention because they involve people in action, moving through complications of a problem to a climax, then resolution. Through historical narratives (Genesis, Samuel, the Gospels, Acts), God declares His acts in real history to set people free from sin’s slavery and death, to bring them into His covenant, and to judge His enemies. Biblical history focuses our hopes finally on the redemption Jesus achieved “when the fullness of the time had come” (Gal. 4:4). Biblical history is not just a record of dry facts, but a recital of events that call us to trust and obey the God who saves in time and space.

Parables are God’s “end runs” around our defenses, camouflaging His demand in fictional form in order to ambush us from behind (see 2 Sam. 12:1–10). The key to the parable is the unexpected element that shows us to be guiltier than we had guessed and grace to be greater than we had dreamed it could be.

Proverbs, like parables, are provocative, pushing us to ponder what’s behind surface experience and to penetrate life’s puzzles. Their very brevity teases our brains and provokes us to admit that “common sense” often isn’t—common, that is.

Psalms are songs of the heart and mind in all circumstances, from the highs to the lows, and for all purposes: to raise lament in trouble, thanksgiving in rescue, praise in worship, training in wisdom, and more. As poetry, they are marked by compact, intense expression and vivid symbolism. The Psalter moves from sorrow and suffering to joy and praise, providing a window on the experience of Christ for us and His Spirit’s transforming grace in us.

Law reminds us that our God is the King, who rescues His people from slavery to other masters in order to bring us under His authority and protection. “Be holy, for I am holy,” says the Lord in the wide range of His commands. His commands expose our guilt, making us flee to Jesus the curse-bearer. His promises turn our trust to Jesus the law-keeper, who gives us His perfect record by grace alone, through faith alone. Viewed through the lens of Jesus’ redeeming work, the law unveils the Spirit’s design for renewing us into God’s image.


Prophetic oracles are bad news and good news. Like prosecuting attorneys, the prophets file charges against the guilty, present the incriminating evidence of our law-breaking, and announce the coming sentence. Yet prophets also carry words of hope: when people have failed and all seems lost, God will come to the rescue, through a new creation, a new exodus, a new conquest, a new David, a new temple. Through bad news and good, prophets whet appetites for Jesus.

Apocalyptic visions provide X-rays of spiritual forces invisible to the naked eye, using dramatic action in vivid symbols to paint the eternal dimensions of the struggle between Christ and Satan, faith and idolatry. The visions of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation speak a distinctive language, on the border between poetry and prose, rich in visual metaphor and allusion to previous Scripture. Those who seek to get their message must immerse themselves in the language of prophetic symbolism.

Sermons (Deuteronomy, the Prophets, Acts, Hebrews) are urgent calls to repentance and warm promises of mercy. Sermons persuade and motivate through appeals to history, to previous Scripture, and to the demonstration of God’s truth in creation and miraculous signs.

Epistles are interactive, recording half of a conversation in correspondence. Some answer a single problem (Galatians, on getting right with God), while others address a host of issues on which God’s guidance is needed (1 Corinthians). Some are heavy on doctrine and lighter on application, while others shift the balance the other way. But none omits gospel truth, and none ignores the difference it makes. Paul’s letters often move from the gospel of Christ’s grace to the changes this grace ignites in believers and our relationships.

From “How” to “What”

By paying attention to a passage’s original occasion, genre, and purpose, we honor the God who spoke His Word in history, in human language, and in a rich complex of contexts: the first recipients’ cultural background, their place in redemptive history (Old Testament or New), their spiritual experience, and the figures of speech and types of literature they used. The better we understand these contexts, the better we grasp what God is saying and what He intends to do in us through each passage. And when we see the change that God intends this text to accomplish in our thoughts, emotions, and actions, we are discovering what the Bible means.

The Lens of Scripture

Encountering Difficult Passages

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From the November 2018 Issue
Nov 2018 Issue