Biblical Exegesis

Uncovering Meaning in the Text

To find gold you must dig. You can either pan for gold on the surface where shallow streams flow, or you can blast the inner walls of the mountain—either way, it’s still gold. However, blasting and drilling reap more treasures than a 14-inch gold pan in the river. In the same way, you can read the surface of a particular biblical text and get a decent grasp of its message, or you can “dig” and “blast” (i.e., engage in a rigorous, patient, and careful examination) to uncover the hidden treasures in the Bible. The latter always, if executed well, requires a careful eye, sharp mind, great patience, and fundamentally, God’s help. 

What is Exegesis?

Exe”-what!? The aim of this article is to provide a brief survey of the nature, activity, and goal of what scholars, students, and pastors call “exegesis.” The word itself sounds a bit daunting, doesn’t it? But in fact, with a little explanation, “exegesis” really isn’t all that complicated.

The purpose of biblical exegesis is to uncover the meaning behind the written text of the Bible.[1] In fact, exegesis is the very process by which one uncovers the meaning of any written text. Therefore, exegesis isn’t strictly a theological or “Christian” term. It is simply following an author’s flow of thought. Therefore, the implication is that every person who can adequately read a written language is an “exegete” (one who executes exegesis).[2] Andy Naselli provides a helpful illustration: 

“Exegesis may sound complicated, but it’s really not. You know how to exegete a text. If I randomly opened an e‑mail thread in my Gmail inbox and if I asked you to exegete it what would you do? You would probably do the following (though not necessarily in this order):

1. Recognize that the style of literature is e‑mail, so the thread consists of messages that two or more individuals electronically wrote to each other.

2. Look at the subject line to see whether it tells you what the thread is about.

3. Look at the names of the authors in the thread.

4. Look at the time stamps of the e‑mails.

5. Figure out who the authors are.

6. Read the messages in the order in which people sent them.”[3]

So, if you can read, then you are an exegete. To be sure, not every person is a good exegete. If your knowledge of grammar is elementary, then it is likely that you will become quite stumped at the string of “for’s” you find in much of the Pauline corpus.

Therefore, exegesis requires an obvious prior knowledge—a knowledge of reading. And before you can even read, you must understand the fundamentals of the language you are reading. In other words, if you desire to read any given text, you must first grasp the grammatical and syntactical conventions of the language. If I said, “John hit the ball and ran to first base,” you would need to first understand that “John” is the subject of the verb “hit,” and that “ball” is the object of the verb, which is being acted upon by the subject “John.” Moreover, you would have to explain the coordinating “and” as a conjunction that connects word, phrases, or clauses jointly. In this context, the “and” joins together two independent clauses and closely relates them to one another. Finally, you would need to explain “to first base” either as a prepositional phrase or as the indirect object, and that “first” is an adjective which modifies “base,” the object of the verb “ran.”

So, as you can see, even before you can read you must be able to comprehend the smaller aspects of the language. Most people who are fluent in a language do this internally and automatically. They have internalized the language because they have immersed themselves in it for years. Nevertheless, it is very important that you can verbalize or write out this “internalized” knowledge. Executing exegesis, therefore, is “an intensely intellectual act.”[4] You must know the grammar of language in order to exegete faithfully—otherwise you just might miss the precious stones that lay deep in the mine if you’re only panning for gold on the surface.

The Activity

Exegetical digging looks like very careful reading and thinking. We must carefully read and think about the text in such a way to faithfully follow the author’s train of thought—that is, what the author has to say. In other words, we exegete in order to uncover the author’s meaning in the written text. The written text is merely a medium by which meaning is conveyed, and it is the exegete’s job to uncover it. [5] Sometimes the written text is easy to uncover; other times, it’s not so simple.

Likewise, careful reading involves understanding the words an author uses in the manner the author uses them. Words take on meaning in their given context. Take Mortimer Adler’s warning, for example:

If the author uses a word in one meaning, and the reader reads it in another, words have passed between them, but they have not come to terms. Where there is unresolved ambiguity in communication, there is no communication, or at best communication must be incomplete.”[6]

Therefore, exegesis requires you to sometimes differentiate the meaning between different authors’ utilization of the same words. John Piper illustrates:

… if we want to construe what God intends by the word “wisdom” in James 1:5, we do not import the meaning of “wisdom” from Proverbs 8. That is, we do not assume that since these two uses of “wisdom” have the same divine author, they will likely have the same meaning. Rather, we recognize that since God avails himself of the language conventions of his individual revelatory spokesmen, we would do better to go to James 3:15 to see how James employs the word “wisdom,” and thus discover God’s intention. [7]

Yet, before you can “come to terms” with an author, you must establish a reliable text. That is, if you know Greek or Hebrew, it is your obligation to engage with any text-critical issues.[8] Those who do not know the biblical languages are limited in their exegesis, since they rely on both textual critics and translators for their written text. “It is therefore incumbent upon interpreters of the English Bible to find a reliable translation. But those who taste the exhilaration of theological discovery through careful grammatical exegesis will never be satisfied until they can drink fully at the foundation of the original source!”[9] 

The Goal

The Bible is like a never-ending mountain that houses endless supplies of precious gold. You can either pan for the dust in the streams which flow from the mountain, or you can dig and blast your way into the endless treasuries of wealth housed deep within the mountain’s body.

The goal of biblical exegesis is to uncover as much of the Bible’s hidden treasures that God will allow. Since the Bible is a supernatural book,[10] this not only involves the intellect, but the heart—i.e., your affections. Therefore, the grammatical and syntactical conventions of language do not constrain the meaning of the text. The glory of God shines forth through the text into our hearts (2 Cor 3:18).[11] This should foster hope for those who struggle with grammar! Though it is crucial in reading your Bible, the Spirit of God is not constrained by your lack. This factor is primarily what distinguishes biblical exegesis from other forms of exegesis. The outcome of biblical exegesis has eternal implications. Therefore, the ultimate goal of biblical exegesis is to see reality clearly for what it actually is, as prescribed in the Bible, and respond to it with a proportionate heart-felt adoration for Jesus Christ. 

Biblical exegesis is meant to foster hope in the exegete, like one ancient exegete professed: 

“Let your steadfast love come to me, O LORD, your salvation according to your promise; then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me, for I trust in your word. And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth, for my hope is in your rules.” (Ps 119:41–43)

Likewise, the gold of the Bible, once uncovered, is designed to shoot an eternal joy deep down into the Christian’s heart:

These Things I have spoken to you [i.e., my word], that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11)

God has given to us his word in the grammatical and syntactical conventions of language. Therefore, may we grasp these conventions with a fierce grip, that we might uncover the riches of eternal knowledge that lay behind the words of the biblical text.

[1] “Narrowly defined, exegesis of Scripture is the personal discovery of what the biblical authors intended their texts to mean,” Jason S. DeRouchie, How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017), 2.

[2] “The presupposition lying behind this task is that the biblical books had ‘authors’ and ‘readers,’ and that the authors intended their readers to understand what they wrote … Exegesis therefore answers the question, What did the biblical author mean? It has to do both with what he said (the content itself) and why he said it at any given point (literary context)—as much as that might be discovered, given our distance in time, language, and culture,” Gordon D. Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 3rd ed. (Lousiville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 1.

[3] Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017), 2.

[4] John Piper, Biblical Exegesis: Discovering the Meaning of Scriptural Text, 5.

[5] “Texts convey meaning; they do not produce it. Rather, following God’s leading, the biblical authors purposely wrote the words they did with specific sense and purpose ... Exegesis is about discovering what is there, which includes both the specific meaning that the authors convey and its implications ...,” DeRouchie, How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament, 2.

[6] Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classical Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1972), 96, emphasis mine.

[7] Piper, Biblical Exegesis, 6.

[8] For an overview of textual criticism, See Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament, 36–49; D.A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Ann Arbor, MI: Baker Book House, 1979); A lecture by Daniel B. Wallace: “Is the New Testament We Have Now, What They Wrote Then?,” YouTube,; Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Test of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, trans. By Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).

[9] Piper, Biblical Exegesis, 8.

[10] See John Piper’s three books, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016); Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017); Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, forthcoming [2018]); So also John Piper, “A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness,” JETS, 60/1 (2017): 81–88.

[11] For a great read on this very topic, see John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 519–693.