Session 3 | Understanding What the First Hearer Heard

➡ Average Reading Time: 11 minutes Understanding What the First Hearer Heard

Learning Objectives

When you finish this session, you should be able to:
  • Understand how God used many authors and many kinds of literature to give a wide variety of textures to his word
  • Know what Exegesis means
  • Know the two kinds of questions you should ask of every text in Scripture
  • Know the four important aspects of preunderstanding

Session Preview

First, we will look at the character of Scripture and why it is important to understand what God used as material to communicate his word to us. Next, we will learn what exegesis means. Then we will share the two kinds of questions that a reader should ask about every passage of Scripture he or she reads. Finally, we will look more closely at the need for understanding historical context.

Where We Are Going

Exegesis: What the First Hearer Heard
The Character of Scripture
What the First Hearer Heard (Exegesis)
Reading for Clues: Learning to Hear What the First Hearer Heard
Context: Historical Questions
An Illustration Demonstrating Historical Context
Gideon’s Fleece: The Story
Gideon’s Fleece: Some Points to Think About
What Is God’s Will

Key Words

  • Chapters and Verses
  • Fleece

Exegesis: What The First Hearer Heard

Reading the Story of God in Scripture consists of two parts. First, we must ask the question, what did it mean? Second, we must ask, what does it mean to us now?

These two parts are webbed together. They do not stand independently from each other. There are segments of the church that suggest that only stage one is relevant. There are hundreds of employed pastors (that may be based on a false assumption. For a different take of the idea of pastor click on the footnote[ref]Winn Griffin. Gracelets: Being Conduits of the Extravagant Acts of God’s Grace. Harmon Press. 197-214. [/ref]) telling their congregations on a weekly basis what God used to do. The other side of the coin, usually found in Charismatic varieties of the church, suggests that stage two is valid and stage one has no value. The text-only means what it means today with no dependence on its history. Ignoring the first part means that interpretation is open to subjectivism without any controls. Anyone’s opinion about meaning is as valid as the opinion of anyone else. If we turn and ignore the second stage, we remove the possibility of a personal encounter with God through Scripture.

The process of moving from the first part to the second part enables you as a story-reader to move from the text of Scripture in its context, to the truths presented in the text, to allowing Scripture to speak today with a fresh and dynamic power as it had in its original setting. Finally, you can take the contextual meaning of Scripture, apply it to the community of God that you serve, both Jesus followers and non-Jesus followers.

This method will not allow you as a story-reader to fall prey to the never-ending process of prooftexting Scripture. Proof-texting is the process by which you seek to prove a belief by alluding to a text without considering its original inspired context and meaning.

As a reader of Scripture, you must remember that it was written within human history and culture (context) and in a human language (content). This means that the truths of Scripture are encased in the cultures of the ancient Hebrews and Greeks and in the human languages of those cultures. To understand what God has said, we must seek to understand those cultures in order to interpret the biblical text properly. The process of understanding and interpreting begins with reading.

The Character of Scripture

As I pointed out earlier, scripture is a product of both God and man. It is divine and human. Scripture describes the acts of God, interprets those acts in words that are human. Because God has chosen human words with which to communicate to us, we, as humans, need to give attention to being good readers and interpreters of Scripture.

Scripture is God’s word. It carries authority in our lives. It speaks to us today, with the same impact that it spoke to the first hearer in the first century. At the same time, Scripture is written in the human words of men. These words came with a certain historical setting. They are conditioned by their time and space. When we interpret Scripture, we must allow this tension to exist and not choose the divine side over the human side but bring them together in tension.

God chose to speak his eternal word within a certain period of history. What was spoken in past history is meaningful in present history? Here are two pieces of information that will help us as we read and interpret Scripture.

First, God chose to give us his word through many different authors, media, and centuries. The Bible is many books, written over a 1500 year period with no fewer than forty authors. Scripture is an expression in the words of people from a vastly different culture and time. These individuals included kings, prophets, shepherds, philosophers, educated, and those who are unlearned. God first spoke his word to those people. What it meant to them within their culture and time is what it will mean to us today in our culture and time. We are centuries removed from these people and cultures. That fact proposes a problem in interpretation, but not a problem that cannot be overcome. Thus, the reader of Scripture must be involved in determining what the text that s/he is reading meant to the first hearer as well as transferring that meaning from that culture to his own culture.

The second thing to remember is that God chose many kinds of literary forms by which to communicate his word to us. To understand these kinds of literature will help present readers not misread what God intended to communicate. In Scripture, we have narratives, gospels, history, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, letters, revelation, riddles, parables, sermons, etc. All of these call for a different approach in reading. They must be identified and read with care. These books, like all books, have a beginning, middle, and end. They have context. Remember, the first writings were not written in chapters and verses. They were later additions to the text. Learning to read without using these additions as guides can result in some interesting insights.

What the First Hearer Heard (Exegesis)

Exegesis is the study of Scripture which identifies what the original meaning of the text is. Thus, doing exegesis is trying to hear what the first hearer heard.

First, we must understand that when we read, we are doing exegesis. When we are talking to someone at work or church about a passage of Scripture, and we say, “What is meant by this is,” or “This word means,” we are expressing our exegesis.

It is true that we perform exegesis on every biblical text we read. Therefore, it becomes important that we have a clear process of thinking so we can perform the task well.

Reading for Clues: Learning to Hear What the First Hearer Heard

What do we do in order to hear the message the first hearer heard?

There are two levels with which a reader can become involved in order to perform the task while reading.

The first level requires the knowledge of many things: original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; Jewish, Semitic and Greek history; how to discover the original text when the manuscripts have many varied readings; the use of all kinds of primary tools and resources.

The second level requires one to concentrate on knowing what you, as a reader, can do and learning how to use the work of others.

Learning to read is learning to observe the text carefully and ask the right questions of it. Therefore, reading and asking questions is important! There are two fundamental questions to ask:

  • Historical Questions: Here you ask the questions about the cultural history surrounding the time of the text of Scripture. This area focuses on context.
  • Literary Questions: Here, you ask the questions about what kind of literature the passage is as well as the relationship of words and sentences. This area focuses on content.

Context: Historical Questions

History is important! Before we can understand a passage in the Bible, we need to know the historical situation which caused the writing.

History will vary from book to book in the First and Second Testaments. For example, it is important to know that Amos and Hosea prophesied at the conclusion of the Northern Kingdom just before its collapse and captivity by the Assyrians, while Haggai was a prophet to the people of the restoration of Judea after the Southern Kingdom had been taken captive and released. Several hundred years elapsed between the two. The culture was somewhat different in each of those timeframes. For perspective, think of the history of the United States and the changes in culture over the past two hundred years.

There are several resources that will be helpful at this point. Have you ever tried to put together a toy for a child at Christmas without having the proper tools? Turning screws with a dime is not the best way to put together a bicycle. Having the right tools and knowing how to use them always makes the job of assembling much more pleasurable. Let me recommend three bits of help. The first is a one-volume dictionary, New Bible Dictionary, Third Edition edited by D.R.W. Wood and published by InterVarsity Press. The second is a much more in-depth set entitled Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, edited by Merrill Tenney and published by Zondervan. These and other good Bible dictionaries can be purchased at your local Bible bookstore on via Amazon. For those of you who have a need to do more research on a specific topic, there are other references at the conclusion of each article in each of these tools that may help. A simpler approach to this information is The Revell Bible Dictionary (now out of print but available online) edited by Larry Richards. The text is in short pieces and is like reading USA Today.

There are four important aspects of history that are important for your preunderstanding of any passage of Scripture. These aspects will help you control the urge to read some twenty-first-century ideas back into the first-century language.


Understanding who the author is of the book or passage you are reading will help you place the book into some historical context. As an example, when we study a First Testament prophet like Hosea, it is helpful to know to whom Hosea ministered so that you can become aware of the situation which caused Hosea to speak and write as he did.


Knowing when the book was written adds to your toolkit specific information which can help you unlock the meaning of the Scriptural text.


This plays a major role in our understanding of a specific passage. The circumstances determine the book. Understanding the makeup of the receiver will help you as a reader, begin to solve the mystery of the text. As an example, if you choose to believe that James was written to a Jewish congregation, you will come to different conclusions than if you believe it was written to a mixed congregation of Christians.


In the Second Testament, the authors are seeking to provide solutions for specific problems in specific churches. Not knowing that Paul was writing in direct response to specific problems, First Corinthians will make little to no sense.

Discovering the occasion and purpose of a biblical book is the most important piece of information that you can gather from these helps. You can do so by asking the following questions:

  • What were the customs of the people?
  • What were the problems they faced?
  • What were the needs of the people to which the book was written?
  • What was going on in the Church that caused the writing of this book?
  • What was occurring in Israel which occasioned the prophet to say what he was saying?

The process of the discovery of this information gives a new set of presuppositions through which the content of the book or passage you are reading must pass.

An Illustration Demonstrating Historical Context

Gideon’s Fleece: The Story

Let’s see if we can answer two questions and provide some clarity to the term fleece. First, was Gideon’s fleece trying to determine God’s will in advance? Second, does this model serve as a practice for believers today?

The historical setting described in Judges 6 argues against “putting out a fleece” as a somewhat common practice, as being a method by which Gideon was trying to determine God’s will in advance.

In chapter 6, Gideon was told by the angel of the Lord that he would defeat the enemy of Israel (Judges 6.11-16), an empowered thought occurrence that was quite clear!

Gideon‘s response was to request a sign from God so that he would know that it was really God to whom he was speaking. He received a second empowered occurrence. God consumed the offering of Gideon by fire (6.17-24).

Judges 6.33-35 informs us that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, a third empowered thought encounter. Gideon was still not convinced. At this point, Gideon asked for yet another sign to further substantiate that the promise of God was true (6.36-40). Judges 7 tells us that the enemy was defeated.

Gideon’s Fleece: Some Points To Think About

There are several points that suggest that the contemporary Christian practice of putting out a fleece is nothing like what occurred in Judges 6.

The fleece of wool which Gideon put out was not simply a circumstantial sign; it was a miraculous display of God’s power. God had already provided several empowered encounters for Gideon such as the angel of the Lord, the offering consumed by the fire of God, God speaking to him, and the Spirit of God coming on him. After all these events, it seems unlikely that Gideon was asking for a mere circumstantial sign to determine God’s will. God had already told him his will.

Gideon was not employing the fleece to determine God’s guidance. He was using it to gain confirmation of guidance which God had already given. What Gideon was asking for by the fleece was enough faith to believe that it was God who had spoken (6.37). He was not asking if he was making the right decision.

However, what Gideon did could be interpreted as a display of doubt on his part rather than being an example of a proper approach to discovering God’s will. With all that Gideon had experienced, God’s will was plain. God graciously accepted Gideon’s lack of faith and gave him this final sign. But this does not suggest that Gideon’s perpetual testing of God was appropriate. God demonstrates in the Second Testament that he has no tolerance for those who demand signs in order to believe (the scribes and Pharisees: Matt. 12.38-39; Zechariah: Luke 1.11-20).

What we can determine, then, is that putting out a fleece in order to ascertain God’s direction in advance of a decision is not a biblical model to be used. Gideon did not use the fleece to obtain guidance, but to confirm the guidance already given. His motivation was not a desire to do God’s will, but a reluctance to follow God’s guidance because of his own doubts.

So in the words of John White: “If you have never put out a fleece–don’t start. If you have put out a fleece–stop!” [ref] John White, The Fight: A Practical Handbook to Christian Living (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976), 165. See also: “put out a fleece, layout a fleece” [/ref] Fleece as a model of discovering God’s will is not a Biblical model.

What Is God‘s Will?

So then, how do we find the will of God? The question begs the response, “I didn’t know that God’s will was lost!”[ref]Winn Griffin. Googling God’s Will: Why Keep Searching for It When It’s Not Lost? Harmon Press. [/ref] Scripture gives us some profound answers. The authors of Scripture are fond of saying something like this is the will of God. These texts could fall into the arena of the plain meaning.

  • It is God’s will that you should be holy; that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God… (1 Thess. 4.3-5).
  • Be joyful always; pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thess. 4.16-18).
  • As a result, you do not live the rest of your earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry (1 Peter 4.2-3).

God’s will is not necessarily a geographic place, but a response to what is taught in Scripture. If you are practicing the above Scriptures—then you are the will of God, and there is no need for you to put out a fleece to try to find it.

Community Discussion Questions

➡ |CDQ Info|

  • Between the two positions, which do you tend to lean toward? Why?
  • How has learning isolated verses of Scripture caused you to misuse God’s word?
  • Why do you think that knowing the historical situation surrounding a specific passage of Scripture will help you understand what the first hearer heard?
  • How does asking questions about the historical context help you get a better grasp of the meaning of a passage of Scripture?
  • Have you ever put out a fleece in order to try to discover God’s will for your life? How do these historical insights alter your previous understanding and practice of this subject?

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Read Me First


Throughout these sessions, I have used the word ecclesia (singular) for the usual word church and ecclesiae (plural) to indicate a church in a particular geographic place, i.e., the ecclesiae at Corinth, meaning the whole of the many smaller ecclesia that met in homes in Corinth. This is to distinguish between the Institutional Church model (IC) and ecclesia that meet in cities and towns around the world. The ecclesiae written about by the authors of the Second Testament were not the same as what the “church” has become over the years of its existence. Usually, but not always, folks think of a church as a place where they go to a building and set in rows of pews and listen to music and sometimes sing and listen to sermons by a pastor or senior pastor. The ecclesiae of the Second Testament time did not invoke this model.


I have discovered over the years that if you want to try and change minds about something special, you have to venture out and reword it in order to grasp a foothold for a new refreshed understanding of the idea presented by the word. Such is the case between "church" and "ecclesia."


Happy Reading!

Read Me Second


Referenced verses in the text of this study are not used to prove some point of view. They are merely markers where the subject matter is referenced by other books and authors. To gain a larger view of each quote, a serious student of the Holy Writ would take the time to view the reference and see what the background is. The background provides tracks on which the meaning of a text rides. So knowing the context of a referenced passage would help the reader to gain a more thorough understanding of an author than just the words quoted and marked by a verse number that was not a part of the original author's text, which as you might remember was performed on the text in a random fashion many years later.


Happy Reading!

Read Me Third


The verses that are referenced in these sessions are not meant to prove a point. They are simply pointers to where the idea being written about may have a correlation. In order to see if they accomplish the thesis presented by the original author, a student should read, at a minimum, the chapter in which the verse is found as well as trying to ascertain what the original author may have meant to say to the original audience.


Of course, this is a lot of work but it is beneficial work. If one does not understand what the author meant when it was written and the audience could not have understood by what was written, then the words on the page can mean anything that a present reader may assign as a meaning, thus distorting what God was inspiring for the original writer to write to the original audience to hear.

A great and recent book by N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird entitled The New Testament in Its World would be a wonderful addition to your reading helps.


Happy Reading!

Jesus Followers


There are many synonyms to use for the word believer, which is the most common word for a person who has "converted" to follow Jesus. I have chosen "Jesus follower(s) or follower(s) of Jesus instead of the word believer in these presentations to allow the reader an opportunity to move away from the idea of believer which conjures up the possible thought of "ascent" to a set of doctrines that have been assembled by different groups over the centuries and show up in this day and age as a set of statements posted on web sites and other written material. These sets of beliefs are suggested by many as the ones that one should ascent to so that upon death the one who assents can go to heaven, i.e., just believe and you are good to go. Jesus followers/followers of Jesus suggest an action that one should take. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. Yes, belief is important, but one must move beyond belief to action.


(See "Discipleship" Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 182-188.)