September 30’s exegetical method
Monday, I woke up with part of Hebrews 4:12 on my mind-- “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.”
My first reflections were about the implications this verse held for worship. What an unsettling experience it would be to sit in worship and constantly feel poked and prodded by the Word. How many people would sit through such an experience? How often would people sit through such an experience?
Then, I thought about this verse as a critique of worship. If this statement is true, why do I rarely feel anything living or active happening in worship? What is missing?
Then, it was time to get up and start my morning routine; however as soon as I was able, I looked up the verse in the Greek. I particularly wanted to see what words were used for “living” and “active,” and learned that “living” (Ζῶν) is a participle of the Greek verb to live and “active” is an adjective (ἐνεργὴς); “energetic” would be a close English equivalent.
Unsurprisingly, the Greek for “the word of God” is ὁ λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ, which is the same phrase used in Revelation 19:13 and is similar to John 1:1.
Surprisingly, the “sharp, two-edged sword” in Hebrews (τομώτερος . . . μάχαιραν δίστομον) is not the same as the one in Revelation 1:16 and 2:12 (ῥομφαία δίστομος ὀξεῖα ). This brought back a memory of reading a scholarly article on μάχαιραν as an ancient scalpel-like instrument, which could cut down to joints and even to bone marrow.
After checking the Greek, it was time to consult Wesley’s Notes. For Wesley, this verse is a reference to preaching. If preaching is “mixed with faith,” then it “exerts its saving power” (Notes, Hebrews 4:2, 4:12). If it is “armed with threatenings” then it is “living and powerful” (Notes, Hebrews 4:3, 4:12).
The first note brought to mind another one of Wesley’s publications where he speculated on the reasons why his pre-Aldersgate preaching was so ineffective. The second note about threatenings reminds me of Sermon 35 where Wesley explained what he meant by preaching Christ-- “to preach Christ, is to preach all things that Christ hath spoken; all his promises; all his threatenings and commands; all that is written in his book; and then you will know how to preach Christ, without making void the law.”
Wesley’s comments got me thinking about preaching in particular rather than about worship in general. The sermon might be unsettling while other parts of the service might be comforting or inspiring or pleasing. This mixture of reactions seems more tolerable to me than an hour-long session of seat-squirming. (Notice how my research sent my ruminations on a different trajectory?)
This method (personal ruminations checked against the Greek, the UM doctrinal standards, and scholarship) helps me restrain my tendency to read my interpretations, opinions or preferences into the Bible.
So from the perspective of Hebrew 4:12 as read through a Wesleyan lens, the reason why a worship service feels listless, routine, and unenergetic is because all of the teachings of Christ are not being preached.
A different hermeneutical method might help preachers whose sermons have drifted into the dead zone, a method which pushes them outside of their preferred reading of scripture and challenges them to wrestle with the words of Christ that rarely make it into their sermons.