Engaging Exposition (11): Analysis of Epistles

The Epistle is the one of the predominant types of prose found in the New Testament. Epistolary literature is propositional in nature and requires a careful analysis of both its linguistic and literary contexts.

Interpreters must remember several things as they outline Epistles. First, the author’s MIT is not found in individual words or even sentences-it is found in studying the whole discourse as it relates to the parts (e.g. whole discourse, paragraph, sentence, clause, phrase, and words). Second, Epistles are constructed to address localized situations and problems. They are occasional documents addressing particular persons and specific issues. Consequently, they tend to be thematic. Third, the authors of the Epistles are developing theological arguments that address a local church context. An Epistle is a challenging genre to outline because it requires knowledge of grammar. As you begin to outline a text in an Epistle, there are seven areas to consider.

Scope of the Text
Locate the parameters of the text. This helps ensure that the text is being studied in its context. Many Bible translations provide headings designed to reveal these parameters. Rather than relying upon the work of others, however, interpreters should verify the parameters on their own using the language clues they find in the text.

Identify the Independent Clauses
The basic unit of thought in grammar is the sentence, and every sentence (or independent clause) is constructed through the combination of a subject and predicate. Locate the independent clauses and you can discover the primary units of thought in the text.

Identify the Dependent Clauses
Dependent clauses provide descriptions or explanations of the independent clauses. For example, as you study Philippians 2:5-11, you will find these dependent clauses: a) “existing in the form of God (2:6)”; b) “by assuming the form of a slave” and “taking on the likeness of men (2:7)”; c) “and when He had come as a man in His external form (2:8)” and “by becoming obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross (2:8)”; d) “for this reason also (2:9)”; e) “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow-of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth-and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (2:10-11).” These dependent clauses are important because they expand our understanding of the author’s main ideas as revealed through the independent clauses.

Produce a Structural Diagram of the Text if You Can
This diagram will help you discover the natural divisions within the text. Your ability to recognize the natural divisions will increase your ability to discover the author’s MIT. Informal diagramming can accomplish the same purpose.

Identify Transitional Clues in the Text

Generally a text will have one main idea with supporting concepts. The author often reveals these supporting concepts through his use of transitions. Not every text will contain these clues, but many will. Biblical authors used transitional clues to develop their arguments.

Identify Key Words and Concepts

An author’s MIT is always discovered through the analysis of a biblical text, by both studying and structuring the Scriptures. Every text is constructed with words, however, and the author chose those words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As a result, it is essential to understand the meaning and significance of those words.

Space does not permit a lengthy treatment advocating the pursuit of a workable knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. Suffice it to say, if you are going to devote your life to Christian proclamation, it is critical that you take the time to learn the biblical languages, if at all possible.

If you look at Philippians 2:5-11, a number of key words and phrases stand out: “Attitude, existing, form, advantage, emptied, himself, slave, likeness, external form, humbled, obedient, cross, name, knee should bow, tongue, should confess, Lord.” Every one of these words is significant and should be carefully defined.

Identify Key Theological Themes
Every biblical text is designed to reveal something about God and humanity. As you identify the key elements in an epistolary text, you must keep in mind that there are theological themes present. The author may address several theological themes in a text. They may be stated or inferred. Your task is to discover them.

Philippians 2:5-11 is one of four great Christological passages in the New Testament, and it provides one of the essential descriptions of the person and work of Jesus. As a result, you would expect to find a number of theological themes, and you would be correct. There are at least four distinct themes: 1) the full deity of God the Son; 2) the incarnation of the Son; 3) the substitutionary, atoning death of Jesus on the cross; 4) the exaltation of Jesus. Addressing and developing these is all a part of doing faithful exposition.

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