Monday, November 5, 2012

Bible Study Tips: Look for Pattern Variation

I have written often about how important it is to identify repeated words and concepts when studying the Bible. Doing so helps us to identify the main themes and topics within the book or passage that we are studying. The value of paying close attention to repetition, however, is not limited to this role. Often slight variation on common or expected repetition can provide helpful insight as well. This works at both a big-picture level (something I plan to deal with in a future post) and on the micro level which is where today’s Bible study tip is focused. In this post, I want to explore how a slight variation on a common repetition can add reinforcement to a particular theme that is in view. Of course, our goal in study should always be to understand the plain meaning of the text but these subtle reinforcements of the message help us to appreciate the richness of the Bible and the glory of God in His revelation of Himself.

As an example let us examine one of the statements that Jesus makes while on the cross. Both Matthew and Mark record that “…about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
(Matthew 27:46 ESV, c.f. MK 15:34)

The emphasis of this verse is clear enough. Jesus is asking why God has abandoned Him.
For the first time Jesus is experiencing separation from the Father as He takes upon himself the sins of His people. He is experiencing a separation from the Father that He has never known. Theologically we understand that this separation is the result of God’s righteous judgment of sin. Many people point out that Christ’s words here are a quotation from the 22nd Psalm and that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of David’s famous lament. What many people often miss, however, is just how unique these words actually are in the mouth of our Lord.

Jesus prayed constantly. The Bible repeatedly describes Him praying or going off to pray. In most cases we are not told exactly what He prayed about but there are at least 10 or 12 times where some of the specific words He used are recorded. Remarkably, this verse and the parallel verse in Mark are the only instances I know of where Jesus does not address God as Father when speaking to Him. In fact, when He teaches the disciples how to pray He instructs them to address God as Father also.

Whatever else might be intended by the use of “father” as a title for God it is certain that a certain intimate relationship is implied. Father, while being a title of authority and respect, is also a signifier of a close relationship. It is therefore interesting that the only place where Jesus does not address God as “Father” is when He is crying out to ask why He has been forsaken. It is only when Jesus is aware of His separation from God (due to our sin) that He addresses God as sovereign deity rather than the normal address of familiarity. While the meaning of the verse is sufficiently clear, knowing this detail adds gravity to the scene and reinforces the theme of separation. Not only do we see the pain of our Lord as He cries out to God but the very words that He uses indicate how dramatically His relationship with the Father has changed as He takes the place we deserve.

By noticing this slight alteration to the normal pattern that Jesus uses when He prays we are able to notice a “layer” of the text that reinforces the theme and deepens the force of the statement. Paying close attention to these slight variations can often lead to observations about passages that deepen our understanding. If you are interested in taking this further I suggest you begin by studying each of the introductions to Paul’s letters. Look carefully at how each one slightly alters the general pattern then pay close attention to how the variations relate to the message of each particular letter. You can then go on to apply this kind of observation to other texts.

I pray God blesses your continued study.

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