Exegeting the biblical text

August 29th, 2018

Preachers who rush to, “What will preach?”, are like fire marshals rushing to a fire with the wrong address. We must work with the text, doing exegesis before settling on a direction. Use at least one scholarly commentary devoted just to your book of the Bible, like Richard B. Hayes’ First Corinthians.[1] A one-volume commentary on the entire Bible, like, The New Interpreter's Bible One-Volume Commentary,[2] is helpful mostly by providing condensed overviews of each book. Commentaries geared to the lectionary and preaching are also useful, like The Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary.[3] A Bible atlas or online resource has maps, essays, and pictures of biblical places, life, and architecture. An interlinear Bible can help with translation, like the online resource www.scripture4all.org. Websites like www.biblegateway.com and www.blueletterbible.org offer different English translations.

The process of working with the text is exegesis (Greek: to lead out), drawing the meaning out from a text, as opposed to eisegesis, reading into it what is not there. The boundary between these is blurred nowadays; the context and experiences of readers affect meanings. The distinction nonetheless still has value. Interpretation should be guided by the rule of faith (Latin: regula fidei) or analogy of faith (analogia fidei), what the church has commonly understood and is often represented not least by creeds. When in doubt about the meaning of a passage, it should be understood to be consistent with other Bible texts. Scripture interprets Scripture. Exegesis asks literary, theological, and historical questions and seeks informed responses. Preachers may initially wonder if they have anything to say about a text, but after playing and working with it, there is too much to say, creative energies and imaginations are fired up.

Following is a list of [ten] exegetical questions. My own answers are given for 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, but you, reader, should write out the answers for your own text.

First, read over all the questions and note questions you might not normally ask. Depending on the biblical text, an occasional question might not need to be answered. The exercise initially may take a couple of hours, but when it becomes familiar, it can require much less time. Overall, it saves time.

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Exegetical Questions: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

10 Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose.11 My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. 12 What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name? 14 Thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you, except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that nobody can say that you were baptized in my name! 16 Oh, I baptized the house of Stephanas too. Otherwise, I don’t know if I baptized anyone else. 17 Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news. And Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning. 18 The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. — Common English Bible


1) Read and reread the text on your own. Close your eyes and picture its events or the events surrounding the author or receivers, relying upon clues that the text offers. You might think about each detail in what is known as ‘praying the text.’ What in the text have you not have noticed before?

I am newly impressed by the urgency of Paul's plea to the church in 1:10. Why would Christ have been considered by some as equivalent to Apollos, Cephas and Paul? Paul founded the church in Corinth, but his role seems ill-defined: he preached and baptized a few. Paul's memory is initially faulty about whom he baptized, and he remains uncertain.

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2) Determine the boundaries of your text by reading what comes before and after it. Does it have unity and coherence on its own or do you need to consider a larger section? Identify its form or genre.

The argument that begins at 1:10 continues at least to 2:5. This entire section concentrates on divisions in the Corinthian church.

3) What function is this text designed to serve?

Paul seeks unity among the arguing factions of the church. He uses his authority as an apostle and a founder of the church in Corinth to call them to account.

4) Make an initial statement: What is God doing in or behind this text?

God unites the church (or: overcomes divisions) through Paul preaching the cross.

5) Identify key words and phrases that provide clues to the theme of the passage and check in a concordance or lexicon for meanings of important words.  Make a provisional translation of the text if you have the original language and read various translations. Check the critical apparatus and notes to see if there are textual problems or variant readings.

Key words and phrases: "proclaim the gospel", "the cross of Christ", "power" of the cross, "the cross is foolishness", "being saved", "power of God". I note no significant variants.

6) Who are the main characters? Does someone serve as a representative of God if God is not mentioned (e.g. in Esther, Esther or Mordecai; a prophet, a disciple, etc.)—or even if God is?

The main characters are Paul, whom we take as speaking for God, Chloe and her people, and the various parties in the church in Corinth. Apollos and Cephas are mentioned, along with Christ, who as an actor is in the background here.

7) What happens? What is the plot or movement of thought?

Paul appeals for unity, reports what he has heard, and rebukes any attempt of people in the church to follow anyone but Christ, including himself.

8) What happens before and after this text (i.e. what is the literary and historical context)?

Paul established the church five years earlier. He is now in Ephesus with Sosthenes. Some people in Chole's household have come to him. He writes because of what he has learned from them, and Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, who carry this current letter back to Corinth (1 Cor 16:17). Because of this letter, some bad practices in Corinth are presumably resolved, like at the meal, for they are not mentioned again in 2 Corinthians. Other issues will remain, including his own role in the community. These were not resolved by a second visit (see: 2 Cor 2:1-11).

9) What is the conflict in the text?

There is conflict between: three parties in Corinth, those who follow Apollos, Cephas, Paul, and Christ; Paul and those he is rebuking; and perhaps between Chloe, as the whistleblower, and some others in Corinth.

10) What resolution of the conflict does the text offer?

The resolution is for the people to follow only Christ, trusting in the power of the cross.


[1] Richard B. Hayes, First Corinthians, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997).

[2] Beverly R. Gaventa and David L. Petersen, eds., The New Interpreter's Bible One-Volume Commentary (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2010).

[3] Paul Scott Wilson, ed., The Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary: Preaching Year A, B, and C (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2013, 2014, 2012).


Excerpted from The Four Pages of the Sermon, Revised and Updated by Paul Scott Wilson. Copyright © 2018 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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