As you read the biblical text, an important part of deeper Bible study is to pay attention to repetition. I mean repetition in two senses: 1) watching for repeating themes and 2) reading the same passage repeatedly.
Do you remember as a child your parent gave you the same warning over and over? Maybe it was “Stay away from strangers and don’t talk with them,” or “The stove it hot, and it will burn you.” The warnings you heard over and over became embedded within your consciousness until it was not what they told you; now you were the one issuing136 the warning. Or perhaps you can remember your mother or father telling you again and again, “I love you, Sweetie. I cherish you more than anything.”
The Bible is God’s message to you. When He says something repeatedly, it’s important. Sometimes He repeats the same message with the same words, such as “His love endures forever” in every verse of Psalm 136.
Sometimes, the same thought recurs with almost endless variation, such as the psalmist’s love for the law of God in Psalm 119. In the first two eight-verse stanzas, for example, he describes the Torah as “the law of the Lord” (v. 1), “statutes” (2, 14), “precepts” (4, 15), “decrees” (5, 8, 12, 16a), “commands” (6, 10), “righteous laws” (7), and “word” (9, 16b), “all the laws from Your mouth” (13), and this pattern of repeated closely overlapping synonyms continues through most of the psalm’s 176 verses!
This variation tempts us to attempt to distinguish subtle differences between the related terms, but such an attempt would be highly speculative and risks committing the fallacy of overspecification, a mistake too often made in exegesis. Our efforts trying to discern the differences distracts us from the main point: the psalmist is expressing a love for God that focuses intensely on His communication to us. He loves God’s word deeply, from the heart, and seeks not only to learn it thoroughly but to obey it willingly.
Paul in Ephesians speaks of bringing into unity all things in heaven and on earth in Christ, ending the dividing wall of hostility, making Jews and Gentiles one new man, bringing them into one body, the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, Christ and the church becoming one. As we read, we notice the variety of terms, but an overarching theme of oneness.
When Jesus tells his mother, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4), we begin to look for this phrase or concept in the rest of the Fourth Gospel. We find it in John 7:6 and 8, where Jesus tells his step-brothers, “My time is not yet here; for you any time will do…. My time has not yet fully come.” In v. 30, the writer tell us, “No one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come.” In 8:20 the author again says, “Yet no one seized Him because His hour had not yet come.” Then, in John 12:23, after Greeks tell Philip their desire to see Jesus, Jesus says, “The hour has come….” In v. 27 He asks, “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’” In v. 31: “Now is the time….” The sequence continues in 13:1: “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave the world….” It reaches its climax at the opening of Jesus’ high-priestly prayer: “Father, the hour has come….” (17:1).
To these more or less obvious verses we should tie verses like John 7:33, where Jesus tells the crowds, “I am with you only for a short time, and then I am going to the One who sent me.” John 9:4: “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.” Also John 11:9-10: “Are there no twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.” A similar theme repeats in 12:35-36: “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.”
When we read through all of these verses, we gain insights into the life of our Lord. Jesus sensed that His mission on this earth was so important that it was under a schedule controlled by the will of the Father. He was aware of the approaching Time, and felt the urgency to accomplish everything the Father had for Him to do. Not a moment could be wasted on lesser things. Every minute of “daylight” was needed for the Work. The signal that the Time had arrived was the spilling over of His viral message beyond the confines of the House of Israel.
The secondary application seems to be that we also should share that same sense of urgency and unwavering purpose in what we do for the kingdom of God. Submitting to the Lord’s will, who alone makes it grow (1 Cor. 3:6-7). We must do what we can for our Lord while we still have the time, before our time is no longer available.
Other examples of repeating themes include:
- “Body” in 1 Corinthians, with at least three different senses: body of Christ (the church), body of Christ (that died and arose from the grave), and body of the Christian (bought by Christ for the purpose of glorifying God, to be raised at the last day).
- Paul’s use of “hope” in 2 Corinthians.
- The phrase “For three sins and for four” in Amos 1 and 2.
- The repetition of Jeremiah’s prophecy of 70 years (Jer. 25:11-12; 29:10; Dan. 9:2; 2 Chron. 36:22).
Going deeper in Bible study also involves reading the same passage again and again. I have discovered at least two reasons for doing this.
1. Repeated reading of the same text opens up the possibility for new discoveries of meaning.
First, each time you read it, one or more different words may capture your attention, making their own contributions to the overall meaning.
The first reading acquaints you with the overall, on-the-surface message of the passage. A second reading may point out the underlying rationale for making these particular points. In the third reading, you may notice the emphasis of certain words that escaped your grasp previously. In the fourth and fifth readings, you might become aware of the structure of the passage—why the author moves from one statement to another. On the twentieth reading, when you have the passage almost memorized, you might tell yourself, “Aha! I never saw that before. Of course, that’s what it means.”
This has happened to me over and over again. Here is an example. At first reading, Ephesians 4:17-32 seems to be a disjointed laundry list of exhortations to holy living. A second reading, however, reveals three transitional words between paragraphs (the ‘So’ beginning v. 17, the ‘however’ of v. 20, and the ‘Therefore’ of v. 25. The Apostle Paul is reminding the Ephesians (or others, if v. 21 suggests he is not acquainted with his readers) that their conversions to Christ calls for a lifestyle quite different from the pagan norm. It was characterized by ignorance of God, a hardened heart, and a self-centered lifestyle.
By the new creation, God introduced a renewed personality after His likeness. It is one that has an outward-orientation characterized by self control, a concern for others, and a desire to replace old, destructive habits with new ones that contribute to the well-being of others. Paul assumes that the new life in Christ will be visibly different.
The “So” of v. 17 indicates that all of this is the spiritual growth that Christ, the head, directs to take place within the Body of Christ. It is the way that each part connects with and coordinates work with the other body parts.
As we remove from our lives the negative, destructive behavior, we must put in its place positive, constructive habits so that Christ is glorified by what we do.
In contrast to the pagan outlook (darkened thinking) and the pagan lifestyle (hardened hearts), Paul reminds his readers that their minds have been illuminated and their hearts made tender by the impact of the Good News on them. They MUST live differently. Paul says, “I insist on it in the Lord.” The change is a radical about-face that touches every aspect of daily life, of which these admonitions are but examples.
Gone is the selfish individualism characteristic of pagan urban life. In its place is the Body Life that replaces the attitude of “Everyone for themselves” with “One for all and all for one.” The result is a new, healthy regimen for spiritual growth in which members care for one another, bear each other’s burdens, and affirm one another.
The underlying principle of all of these commands is the shared experience of conversion, and behind that, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It all leads to the climax, “forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (v. 32).
What we are exploring is the flow of the context. Only repeated reading by a humbled heart yielding to the Lord in prayer, plus meditation, reflection, and analysis can yield these and other insights.
2. Repeated reading of the same text allows for the shifting of the life-context of the reader.
Reading the text again and again presents you with the opportunity to gain a new perspective on the text as you life-context shifts. Or it may be that as you read, you remember when you were a shoplifter, or had a hair-trigger temper, or got caught in a lie. The text of Ephesians 4:17-32 would hit home for you in different verses, based on what you are remembering at the moment. The rest of the passage is still there and remains valid, but that part of it that resonates with what you are going through at the moment will seem to be the focus of the passage.
We must acknowledge this as a neglected part of what we could call the external context. The cultural, historical, and literary backgrounds to the text are all a part of the external context augmenting our understanding of any passage. But the life-context of the reader – his or her immediate concerns and point of view – has a strong influence on how to make a modern application of the text.
As the circumstances of your life constantly shift, the impact that the word has on your life constantly shift, the impact that the Word has on you will also vary. For instance, perhaps you are a young person with the impulse to rebel against your parents. Or perhaps you are the opposite – trustworthy and responsible – working in your father’s organization and under his supervision. Or, as a third possibility, you are the parent of a rebellious child who has left home and is out of touch with you. People in these three circumstances will find three different applications to the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).
It is not that the intended application changes, but the emphasis certainly does. Each of these situations creates within the reader a viewpoint that shifts the message of the parable to one of these applications: 1) come to your senses and return to your parent who loves you; 2) you too might be estranged from your parent, even though you see them every day; and 3) perhaps the love you have demonstrated for your child is this minute tugging at your child’s heart-strings and prompting the idea of returning. Granted, all of this is in addition to the main message of the passage: God is ready and willing to receive one sinner who repents.
Or take the Parable of the Loving Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus’ question, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man…?” identifies the same person: the one who had compassion on him. Yet you would see yourself as a different character in the parable depending on whether you were the victim of a mugging, a ministry professional, or a criminal seeking vulnerable prey. For any of those situations, the question shifts to: Am I loving my neighbor by what I would typically do in a similar situation?
Want to go deeper?
- Try to discern the reason why the gospel writers strung together the various events of Christ’s ministry as they did. For example, why did Luke place the Dinner Party at Martha and Mary’s house (Luke 10:38-42) immediately after the Parable of the Loving Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). I believe the two sections have contrasting lessons. Can you determine what they are?
- Look for the repeating theme of “this generation” in Luke-Acts. What did Jesus and Peter foresee as the fate of the generation that encountered Jesus in person and rejected Him? The time-frame for the Olivet Discourse, Luke 21:32, so disputed by people with differing eschatologies, fits in with the rest of them and can be understood only as a link in the chain.
- Read through the Epistle to Titus several times. (In the NIV it only has 951 words in 12 paragraphs.) Why does Paul mention ‘good’ seven times, five of which are “doing what is good”?