by Barry Newton
What commonality exists between your spouse staring at you for an unusual duration and a newspaper cartoon featuring a president interacting with a dragon? Perhaps not much.
However, one common element is certain: you will try to understand what was meant and you will probably arrive at some conclusion. But will our spouse or the cartoonist agree that we have really understood?
Having the proper goal and tools promotes an appropriate understanding. In the case of the cartoon, a helpful tool involves knowing that inflation has been stereotypically characterized in Brazil by a dragon.
Possessing proper tools and the appropriate goal in Bible study is likewise significant for biblical interpretation. The objective in Bible study should not be to discover or express my own feelings or thoughts about a text. If this were the goal, the author’s intended message would be irrelevant. Nor should the driving agenda be to defend a particular viewpoint or make the message palatable to our cultural sensibilities.
Studying God’s word needs to be focused upon trying to hear the divinely inspired message which the author communicated. One tool for hearing more clearly the intended message involves becoming aware of ancient literary techniques and forms.
In Philippians 1:3-11, Paul expanded upon the Hellenistic form of including a thanksgiving when writing to those of close friendship by also including a prayer for them. Not only did Paul express gratitude to God for their prior relationship with him, he prayed for who they could become.
As Paul’s mind would compose these introductory prayers in his letters focusing upon the needs of the Christians to whom he was writing, it was only natural that those thoughts would intertwine with his motives for writing. Paul’s prayer sections are commonly recognized as identifying why he wrote his different letters.
What was Paul’s prayer for the Philippians? He desired that their love would abound with profound insight. We should expect to hear in this letter a message laced with calling them to love, but not a superficial love driven by fickle and transitory emotions. The stage is set for exploring what a love driven by deep insight and wisdom looks like. The adventure awaits.
Gaining the proper tools prepares us to correctly understand cartoons containing dragons or a spouse’s gaze. Similarly, we gain insight into Philippians by understanding the role of Paul’s prayers.