Recently at the Priority of Preaching conference here in OKC, Dr. Jim Shaddix of Southeastern Seminary was speaking about this subject of dealing with ancient texts and of the challenge of getting to the “then” so that we deliver a message for the “now.”
He provided what I consider to be a helpful picture of the process of exposition, in which we “expose” what the text is trying to say to us.
He took a Bible, opened it up, and began to layer several sheets of paper to cover that open Bible. Each one represented a different challenge or barrier.
First, there is the language barrier. The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, none of which are native languages to most of the world, if any.
Second, there is the geographical/historical barrier. The events it describes and the discourses it contains all took place years ago in places with which we are not naturally and normally familiar. In addition to this generally speaking, there were particulars behind the writings of the Bible. At times, for example, when I read Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I feel like I am listening to one side of a telephone conversation. Things are being said on the other end and I try to understand what they might be based on the side of the conversation that I am hearing.
Third, there is the cultural barrier. I have heard the culture of the era in which the Bible was written described as being like that of the frame of a picture. The picture of truth portrayed for us in Scripture is contained within a cultural frame. The writers were part of a cultural milieu, an environment with customs and mores different from our own. Understanding them enriches our understanding and explanation of Scripture.
Finally, but certainly not least, there is the barrier of our own sinfulness. Sometimes I don’t understand the Bible simply because I don’t want to. Maybe it challenges me with too much or perhaps I have a blindspot created by my own sinfulness. Bryan Chapell, who also spoke at the Priority of Preaching Conference, writes about the Fallen Condition Focus (FCF) of a text. All Scripture, says Chapell in his book Christ-Centered Preaching, is inspired by the Holy Spirit for a purpose, to “expose what fallen aspect of the human condition needs to be addressed in order for God’s glory to be properly recognize and honored.” (14, Second Edition)
Going back to Shaddix’s visual illustration, the work of exposition is to remove and peel back those barriers so as to “expose” what the text is trying to say. It is a helpful image to remember as I do my work on any text.