Session 5 | Understanding What the Present Hearer Hears Now

➡ Average Reading Time: 12 minutes
Some of the information in the following five sessions:
  • Session 6 | Understanding What a Narrative Is
  • Session 7 | Understanding What Covenant Law Is
  • Session 8 | Understanding What Poetry Is
  • Session 9 | Understanding the Prophets
  • Session 10 | Understanding What Wisdom Is

were taken from How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth. The material is presented as a synopsis of the full text with other research material added. Reading this material does not substitute for reading the full text in the book. However, reading this material will reinforce some of the more salient points.

These five genres of literature are the major kinds of literature in the First Testament. Within them, you will find figures of speech with metaphors abounding. To understand these genres of literature will advance your reading, interpreting, living into the Story, and proclaiming the story skills.

Understanding What the Present Hearer Hears Now

Learning Objectives

When you finish this session, you should be able to:
  • Understand how the Holy Spirit works with you to help you interpret Scripture
  • Identify and use the four points of application
  • Risk telling others what you have learned from a text of Scripture
  • Know the differences between literal, free, and dynamic equivalent translations

This session will focus on the topic of Hermeneutics as an application. First, we will interact with the idea of how the Holy Spirit helps in interpretation. Then, we will provide an illustration of a guideline for interpretation and living into the story presently. Next, we will give you four points to help apply Scripture. Next, we will suggest that what one learns, one should share. Finally, we will discuss Bible translations.

Where We Are Going

Hermeneutics: What Does Scripture Mean Now?
The Holy Spirit and Interpretation
Pneumatic Interpretation
Pneumatic Epistemology
Pneumatic Experience
Pneumatic and Cognitive Balance
Illustration: Hiding the Word
Parallel Situations
Do It Now
What Translation Should I Use?

Where We Are Going

  • Fee and Stuart. pp. 29-31

Key Words

  • Epistemology
  • Illuminate
  • Wisdom
  • Parallelism
  • Dynamic Equivalence

Hermeneutics: What Does Scripture Mean Now?

The first task of the reader is to read, observe, and ask questions so as to determine what could have been heard by the first hearer. The second task is to determine what that Scripture means now. What the text means now must be rooted in what the text meant then. When we understand what God is saying in the text, we must then conform our lives to that understanding. Scripture should not be merely learned. Its story should be lived into.

The Holy Spirit and Interpretation

Since the Holy Spirit was part of the inspiring team, what part does he play in interpretation? Often it is stated by well-intentioned believers that they have the Holy Spirit to show them what Scripture means; therefore, they do not need any help. This interesting presupposition says It is not necessary to use any outside help because the same Spirit who inspired the writings in the first place can explain their meaning to me now.

This presupposition is built on an anti-intellectual and pneumatic bias, which suggests that any use of material outside of the Bible pages has no value in determining the meaning of Scripture.

This idea is different but kin to the personalized reading of Scripture. The presupposition is the foundation of the personalized reading of Scripture. Personalized reading should not be abandoned. God surely has the freedom to intervene in any process of reading and give direct communication to the reader of Scripture. He has and will continue to do this. However, this is not the only kind of reading that a believer should practice. We must, at some time, begin to read Scripture and try to understand the message that God delivered to the first hearers. This first-hearer understanding should reflect on our personalized reading. Learning what it means now is based on what it meant then.

Pneumatic Interpretation

Pneumatic interpretation means that the interpreter relies on the illumination of the Holy Spirit in order to come to the fullest comprehension of the significance of the text, usually without the help of any grammatical or historical tools. Its basis is found in the idea of the inspiration of Scripture. It is reasoned: because the human author was guided and assisted in the process of inscripturating, the human interpreter can receive the same guidance in interpreting Scripture. It is believed that there is a spiritual kinship between the ancient authors of the text and the modern reader. When the modern reader has an experience in the Spirit, which reenacts the apostolic experience of the Spirit, the Spirit serves as the common context in which the reader and the author can meet to bridge the historical and cultural gulf between them. If this theory were true, then everyone would have the exact same meaning. But, if one stops to think about it, that is never the case. Most personal meanings are held up as being what the Spirit is saying to an individual. But, since the text of Scripture was not written to individuals, with few exceptions like Philemon, the practice of reading is froth with disparaging results and often results in arguments between the followers of Jesus. Such should not be the case!

Pneumatic Epistemology

The believer’s own pneumatic epistemology sees knowledge not as a cognitive recognition of a set of precepts, but as a relationship with the One who has established the precepts. For them, the teachings in Scripture remain ambiguous until the Holy Spirit illuminates human understanding.

There is a danger in relying solely on this pneumatic guidance in the interpretive process. This danger lies in the potential that the interpreter confuses his or her own (or some other) spirit with the Spirit of God. It is because the pneumatic interpreter claims divine guidance, the resulting interpretation is assumed to be above questioning and thus implicitly demands an authority on par with Scripture. This led I. Howard Marshall, a biblical scholar, to write:

There are people who have claimed to be led by the Spirit who have promulgated shocking heresies … such people depended purely on what they conceived to be the Spirit’s help and so landed themselves in a subjective approach … they failed to listen to the voice of the Spirit as he spoke to other interpreters of Scripture within the fellowship of the Christian church over the centuries. In scriptural interpretation, as in any other area, it is essential that we “test the spirits” (1 John 4.1).[ref]I Howard Marshall. “The Holy Spirit and the Interpretation of Scripture” in Roy B. Zuck. Rightly Divided: Readings in Biblical Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional. 73.[/ref]

Pneumatic interpretation does not give the interpreter free rein to interpret the Scriptures privately without any form of accountability.

Pneumatic Experience

There is also an experiential dimension to the pneumatic form of interpretation. This experiential dimension tends to let experience inform interpretation without being grounded in the historical significance of the text. This is not to deny a believer’s personal experience. It is to say that a process of informed interpretation should naturally lead to a personal experience of the text. Experience is not the starting point, but it does inform the process of interpretation as interpretation informs experience. God can communicate to us through personal experience as well as Scripture. Personal experience with God often unlocks previously undiscovered scriptural truth, but experience should never be the norm by which we test Scripture.

When the Spirit helps the reader to gain some insight into Scripture, he does not provide that information for the reader. The Spirit enables us to free our minds to understand the text but does not whisper to us the correct interpretation of the text. The Spirit does illuminate Scripture for us, but he does not give us new revelation, which is equal to Scripture. He does not guarantee that what we interpret is infallible. He does not give one person insights that no one else has. Depending on the Spirit alone is not a substitute for diligent study.

What one can and will argue is: if the Spirit could inspire the first writer, why can’t he inspire now? We do not need to close the door to the Spirit and his use of Scripture in our lives. We need the personalized approach to reading. But we need to add to our diet a level of reading and observing which gives attention to the context and content of Scripture. One without the other is useless. To only have the personalized approach and state as a certain fact that the Spirit has shared a specific meaning is how the cults are born. God can and does speak to us personally and directly through Scripture when he initiates. Those times are specifically for us, for our time and space. Let’s hold on to the times when God intervenes and speaks directly to us. At the same time, let’s read and study Scripture paying attention to context and content so that we can know with certainty what he is saying to us today. In the final analysis, we can do what the word teaches.

Pneumatic interpretation is important in allowing the Spirit to share with us a word of comfort, judgment, or exhortation. The insights shared in those moments are not necessarily the plain meaning of the text.

Pneumatic and Cognitive Harmony

We must balance the pneumatic and cognitive approach to interpreting Scripture. Thus, the proper control for understanding what a text means now is the original meaning that the first hearer had. God did not speak into a vacuum. He acted and spoke into real-life situations, with real live people. His message was to them. That message to them is still available to us today, and we in the ecclesia need to discover it.

If we do not use this control, then Scripture can mean anything that any reader wants it to mean now, and usually does. Subjectivity reigns! The most often leveled criticism of the pneumatic interpreter is a person’s subjective reading of the text of Scripture.

The original meaning of the text and its discovery–to the best of our ability–is the proper control for understanding what the text means for the present reader(s). This control will keep us from making such mistakes as Jesus is not God as the Jehovah’s Witnesses have, or that we should baptize on behalf of the dead as the Mormons have. These are all errors in application because they did not begin with good exegesis. In other words, the meaning now is invalid because one did not start with the meaning then.

We all want to know and need to know what God has said in Scripture and what Scripture means for us today. It is imperative! But we do not have the liberty to make it mean anything we wish it to mean and then give the Holy Spirit credit for that meaning. We surely do not want to be found in the place of saying that the Spirit is contradicting himself or that our meaning is as authoritative as his. Thus, understanding what he said to the first hearers will keep us on safe ground in determining what it means for us today.

A guideline to follow is: a biblical text cannot mean what it never meant. The meaning of the biblical text for us is the original intended meaning that the first hearer/reader could have understood.

Illustration: Hiding the Word

We have used Psalm 119.11 to teach that we should memorize Scripture verses. As we observed, the books of the Bible were broken down into chapters and verses a long time ago. You may wish to note that the original writers did not write this way, nor did the original readers read this way. It is unfortunate that we have been taught to memorize and quote verses. We were taught this because of a verse (wouldn’t you know) from the book of Psalms.

I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you (119.11 NIV).

We have interpreted word in this verse as “verse or verses.” The context of this verse is vv. 9-16 which forms a complete section of the larger poem of Psalm 119. It begins with a question reminiscent of a style of Wisdom writings in the First Testament (Prov. 23.29f.; Psalm 25.12f.). The question posed is: How can a young man keep his way pure? The answer is in the second part of the parallelism: By living according to your word. Word can have many meanings in the First Testament, among them an event such as the covenant with Abraham as recorded in Genesis 15.1-21. In 119.9, word is the divine word that proceeds from the mouth of God as it is in Psalms 17.4 and 33.6. Word can indicate:

  • A particular message as in Jeremiah 7.2.
  • It can also be the sum total of God’s revealed will as in Deuteronomy 4.2.

In Psalm 119.11, the psalmist says that he has treasured the words of God so that they may determine his actions in life. The word word here is a poetical synonym to the word word in verse 9 and usually means the Law in Psalm 119.

On one occasion it means a promise as in 119.140. The followers of God in the First Testament were taught the stories of God and their meanings. It is in this context that we should render this section of Psalm 119.

To hide his word in our hearts is at the very least to hide in our hearts, the stories of how God has acted in faithfulness on behalf of his children throughout the First Testament and the Second Testament as well. These action-packed stories should determine how we approach life as a child of God.

Living into His Story

Here are four points that can help you live into the story of Scripture to your life.


First, you must understand the text. You can accomplish this by using the tools that we have suggested in the previous sessions. Remember, there is only one meaning to the text, and that is the meaning that the original hearer understood. While there is only one meaning, the Holy Spirit has the creativity to help us live into the story in our lives in many different ways.

Second, understand who you are. If you know your strengths and weaknesses, you will be better equipped to hear the Spirit’s direction of living into the story in your life. In your strength, you may develop confidence, while in your weakness, you may develop a deeper faith in God.


The psalmist tells us that he meditated on the law of the Lord. This is a good practice. Think about what the text means and how it applies to your own situation. Allow time for God to speak to you.

Parallel Situations

You must learn to look for parallel situations in your life and associate them with the meaning of the text. The text may cause you to relate to life differently. The text may tell you to relate to God differently than we previously have. The text may suggest that we relate to ourselves in a more positive manner. It may call on us to relate to others around us in a more favorable way. The text may suggest that we relate to those we have counted as enemies in a different way. We may have sin in our life that is exposed by the text. We may be given a promise. The text may command us to go or do something specific.

Do It Now

Don’t put off till tomorrow to begin living into the text today.


When we have heard what the first hearer heard and have taken that meaning to heart and have begun to live into the story in our lives, then we should take the risk to tell others what we have discovered. A word of caution! By telling others, I do not mean to tell them of your personalized discovery, nor the way in which you are living into the story. You can, however, share the meaning of the text you discovered. In fact, you might use the old teaching adage: See one, do one, teach one. When you read and study, looking for the meaning, which the first hearer could have had, you are in the process of seeing Scripture from a different perspective than you may have ever looked at it before. When you began to live into its story, instead of applying the text to your life with the tools we are suggesting you are in the process of doing. Once you have succeeded in this area, you can easily teach someone else the process.

What Translation Should I Use?

God inspired the original authors to communicate with his children his word. God’s inspiration of those authors produced Scripture. The Holy Spirit illuminates us through an informed interpretation of the meaning of the text so that we are informed and motivated to make changes in our lives.

Scripture’s sixty-six books have come to us originally in three different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Since most of us will never give time to learning these languages, we need tools to help us in our reading–what we have to help us with this difficulty are good English translations.

One thing we should know about translations is just that: they are translations. They are the product of scholarship working with texts which often have several different renderings. Thus, often one has an interpretation within the translation which he or she is also called to interpret. It is useful to use many different translations when reading Scripture. One should be primary, but all should be used.


Translating can take many different approaches. We can translate a word-for-word rendering from one language to another, or we can translate an equivalent meaning from one language to another in which the effect of wording in the source language constructs wording in the receptor language, which has the same effect.

A good translation will impact a reader in the receptor the same way the original language would have impacted the reader. A good translation informs and provides feelings that would have been received by the original hearer or reader of the words. There are many things, which go into creating a good translation, whether it is literal, free, or a dynamic equivalent.

An Illustration

There are problems with both the literal translations and free translations. The literal translation often makes the English translation ambiguous, while the free translation often updates the original too much.

Dynamic equivalence, sometimes called functional equivalence, is the attempt to translate the words of Scripture, along with its idioms, etc., into a precise equivalent for us in the English language.

Leviticus 18.6 provides an illustration.

  • None of you shall approach a close relative to have sexual intercourse. I am the Lord (NAS: a literal translation).
  • None of you shall marry a near relative, for I am the Lord (Living Bible: a free translation, paraphrase).
  • No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the Lord (NIV: a dynamic equivalent translation).

It is plain that the literal translation of NAS has left the English reader with ambiguity while the Living Bible has gone too far with the word marry. The NIV has properly taken the idiom of the First Testament and found a dynamic equivalent in the English language.

The NIV text is a dynamic equivalent translation. It represents the best scholarship in the Evangelical community.

Community Discussion Questions

➡ |CDQ Info|

  • Have you practiced this form of interpretation?
  • What was the interpretive result?
  • Have you practiced this form of interpretation?
  • What was the interpretive result?
  • Why is the present meaning of Scripture dependent on the original meaning of Scripture?
  • How will following this control help us keep from making God say something he never said?
  • Have you ever tried to read a new translation of Scripture without verse divisions? What was your experience like?
  • How is meditating on God’s word different from meditation in Eastern religions?
  • What should you be aware of when searching for a study Bible?

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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.)