I live in a town reminiscent of The Andy Griffith Show. It is a wonderful, fast-growing community just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. Real estate is booming. Even small houses are selling for enormous rates. A little house in the middle of town recently listed for a huge asking price. I asked a real estate agent, “How can such a small house command such a large price tag?” His response, “Location, location, location. Location is everything.” In hermeneutics, we have a similar saying, “Context, context, context. Context is everything.”
I’d like to get into the nuts-and-bolts of a term we’re learning, hermeneutics. It begins with a proper study of context. The general idea is that we begin with a passage of Scripture. We want to understand how that passage fits within the larger section, the book itself, and Scripture as a whole. It’s best to work backward, actually: from the broader perspective (the message of the whole Bible) and focus-down toward the narrower (the specific meaning of our specific preaching-text). Let’s begin with that broader perspective, which we call “canonical analysis.”
The “canon” simply means the entire Bible. Canonical analysis, then, seeks to discover the controlling theme of the Bible. When God gave us the Bible, He gave it to us in chunks spread-out over time: 66 separate books written over a time-span of about 1500 years, but it is 1 story. He had a single purpose in mind. Our first task is to determine that purpose. Once we discover it, then we can see how our book (and, later, our preaching-text) flows from that single purpose. It functions much like the cue ball in the image above. The controlling theme is the driving force. Everything else takes its “cue” from it.
This controlling purpose must come to us “exegetically.” I discussed that term in a previous article. Simply put, it must spring forth (the “ex” in exegesis) from the text rather than be imposed “into” the text (the “eis” in eisegesis). Once everything is taken into consideration, the controlling theme that springs forth from the whole of Scripture is as follows:
“[T]he plan of God can be defined as a word or declaration from God that he would form a nation and out of that nation he would bring the one through whom salvation would come to all the nations.”Walt Kaiser
Of course, we know that “One” as the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus came out of Israel (the tribe of Judah). He brought salvation to people of every nation. The Bible is the stunning story of how God fulfilled that single promise. The OT calls it the “covenant” God gave to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3). The NT—especially Paul—calls it the “promise.” Once this promise-plan was given, the rest of the Bible is the spectacular unfolding of how God fulfilled it in His Son, Jesus Christ. Every paragraph in Scripture, then, either (1) feeds into, (2) flows out of, or (3) in some way serves to advance this controlling theme.
David vs. Goliath
Everyone knows the story of David & Goliath. When we understand the controlling theme of the Bible, then the meaning of the David vs. Goliath episode becomes clear. The focus is not: Because David defeated the giant in his life, you can defeat the “giants” in your life, too. Rather, the promise-plan was in serious jeopardy. The giant, Goliath, defined the terms of battle in 1 Samuel 17:8: “Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.”
Do you see it? The issue at stake was God’s promise-plan! If Goliath wins, the promise-plan perishes. If David wins, the promise-plan is preserved. David recognized this clearly. His last words before bull-rushing the uncircumcised Philistine: “The battle is the LORD’s, and He will give you into our hand” (1 Sam 17:47). David’s trust in God’s promise-plan was greater than his fear of the giant. You see? This is not about defeating the “giants” in your life so much as it is about trusting God’s faithfulness to fulfill His promise-plan “in spite of” the giants in your life. That canonical context changes the whole perspective!
I taught this in Senegal, Africa. The following day, an humble African man named Abraham approached me (pictured below).
Abraham was distressed. In his beautiful broken accent, he shared, “I was supposed to preach David vs. Goliath on Sunday. No one ever taught me about the promise-plan of God. I didn’t sleep last night. I re-wrote my sermon. May I preach it in class and get your critique?”
This was quite the surprise, but his last words were, perhaps, the most powerful.
Stop and think about that for a moment: “I almost preached in the Name of God something God did not say.” What made Abraham’s comment so powerful is it revealed how much he cared. To him, to misrepresent the King’s revealed will was unthinkable. To him, it wasn’t sufficient merely to proclaim “truth:” he must proclaim the specific truth that springs forth from the King’s written edict; and there’s a difference. If we are to refine and sharpen our accuracy in representing the King’s proclamations, where does it begin? Context, context, context.
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament (Baker Books, 2003), 32.