What Does Exegesis Mean and How Can You Use it in Three Easy Steps - Skip to content

November 12, 2021

What Does Exegesis Mean and How Can You Use it in Three Easy Steps

Written By Grace Theological Seminary

Early on in the book of Acts, a great persecution breaks out. The Christians who were gathered in Jerusalem were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, thus beginning to fulfill the Great Commission Jesus had given His disciples. Followers of Jesus were literally being hunted down in their homes, arrested by Saul of Tarsus simply for proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah.

Despite the persecution, we read about miraculous healings and the Holy Spirit being received by new believers. With such tumultuous events taking place, one may question whether anyone was asking, ‘What does exegesis mean?’ Was the study of exegesis vs eisegesis considered important? Enter a chance encounter between Philip and an unnamed Ethiopian eunuch.

All we’re told about this Ethiopian is his station in life and what was currently on his reading list. As it happened, it was Isaiah 53, but listen to his interaction with Philip.

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. ~Acts 8:30-31

Philip began with the aforementioned passage from Isaiah the prophet and explained the good news of Jesus to the Ethiopian. He must have been thorough, because the Ethiopian asked to be baptized into the faith when they passed some water. It appears exegetical study was of utmost importance.

What does exegesis mean and what is exegetical study?

The definition of exegesis is the critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture. Put simply, it is the process of discovering the original and intended meaning of a passage of scripture. When considering the importance of knowing truth, exegetical theology is vitally important. After all, would you want to get to the end of your life and discover God wanted you to do this while you were doing that?

If you’re asking the question, “what does exegesis mean?”, then you should probably know the definition of eisegesis as well. Exegesis is in distinct contrast to eisegesis, which is where someone forces their own ideas into the interpretation of the text. So how does one apply themselves to proper exegetical study? Like your favorite pastor’s sermon technique, we have three points for you to consider.

1. Context, Context, Context

You’ve likely heard about the blind men who were trying to describe an elephant. The first man touched only the side of the elephant and so described it as a smooth and solid wall. The second man touched the elephant’s trunk and described it as a giant snake. The third man touched the elephant’s tusk and concluded it was only a sharp spear. The last blind man touched only the tail of the elephant and decided an elephant was nothing more than a piece of old rope.

When participating in an exegetical study, we are all too often like blind men, not realizing what we cannot see. This is why context is so important. When attempting to understand a portion of scripture we need to ask lots of questions.

What genre of writing are we studying? Poetry will be read differently than prose. Are we in the middle of a story? Are we being introduced to a new character? What was happening in the world at large? How did they view God’s people? These are just a few examples of questions needing to be asked.

What does exegesis mean? Put simply, it means understanding the author’s original intent in writing. The more we understand the biblical context, the better we will be able to understand the whole of what was happening. Who wrote the book we are reading? Who was the intended audience when this passage was first written? Was there a specific lesson that the original author was trying to teach the original audience?

2. Follow the Rules

All languages have rules. Since we’re studying a book that has been translated from an ancient language to a modern one, we need to be careful to understand the rules of the original language. After all, Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible in modern English, so he was operating under different sentence structures, with different cultural understanding, and unique perspectives on how the world operates.

Knowing that the authors wrote in a different language means we will need to understand their original intention for what they wrote. What did those words mean, especially the theological terms that we throw around so quickly? After all, each word has a definition and, using basic sentence structure rules, we can know what the author was trying to convey. Oftentimes, unless there is good reason to understand it differently, we can trust a simple answer based on the perspective of the author.

It is important for us to seek out the structural and theological meaning. The words we are reading form sentences, and those sentences form paragraphs, and those paragraphs form chapters and stories. These stories were written down for a purpose, to convey a truth. It is up to us to do the hard work of figuring out what God, the ultimate author of all Scripture, is trying to tell us. After all, we’re told that “all scripture is…useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16) Proper exegetical study will mean following the rules of sentence structure, grammar, and translation.

3. Apply it

Have you heard of the pastor who preached the same sermon two weeks in a row? The congregation assumed it was a simple mistake and decided not to say anything. When it happened the third week in a row, they approached him to inquire if he was ok. He replied that when they applied the truth from this sermon, he would start preaching the next one.

We’re not advocating repetition in teaching until everyone finally gets it, but this anecdote does convey an important truth. Exegetical study, properly done and taught, should be applied. Honestly, this is the purpose of understanding scripture. If the Ethiopian eunuch had only understood the good news of Jesus but never applied the truth to his own life, it would not have done him any good.

In fact, James, the brother of Jesus, points out the silliness of understanding scripture without applying it.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it — not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it — they will be blessed in what they do. ~James 1:22-25

Are you interested in learning more about proper exegetical study and its techniques? If you’re asking, ‘What does exegesis mean?’, the Masters of Divinity in Exegetical Studies program develops your skill in Biblical Exegesis. Earn your Masters of Divinity and be equipped to shepherd God’s people with the truth as it was intended to be taught. 

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