I’m now working on week 4 of 7 in my current class on hermeneutics. Those of you who’ve taken such classes already know all these things I’m learning, but I’m guessing at least a few of you reading my blog haven’t taken a class on this subject. In week 3 both of my textbooks mentioned an approach to reading and interpreting the NT epistles that I think I can say I’ve seen evidence of this in commentaries and devotionals I’ve read over the years, but I probably never realized there was a particular method at work. This may not be new to you at all, but here goes.
It’s called “mirroring” or “reading between the lines” (not too technical, right?) or “reconstruction.” The idea is that the author of whatever NT epistle was writing with a particular agenda to a particular audience for a particular purpose, an “occasional writing.” He was writing for a specific occasion/reason. So, in reading and understanding the meaning of any particular epistle, it is important for us today to understand what issues were being addressed and why. Unless we do that, we run the risk of misunderstanding not only the intended meaning of the passage, but our application of that passage then runs the risk of being based on a faulty understanding of it.
So what is “mirroring”? Of course, I’m no expert on this and have just read a few pages on the topic and enjoyed some interesting discussions concerning this. So just for a very basic description, it is likened to overhearing a telephone conversation where we only hear one person on the phone but not the person on the other end. Have you ever done this? Perhaps in a public place what was being said by someone on their cell phone was so interesting or unusual that we wanted to know what the person on the other end of the call was saying in response to what we could hear, or we wanted to know what that person on the other end was saying that was causing the responses on this end that we could hear. Perhaps you even imagined what was being said or thought on the other end. It could be quite entertaining depending on the scenario. When we do this (if we do this), we’re filling in what we don’t know by clues that we are observing.
When we read a NT letter, we’re basically hearing one side of a phone conversation. By studying the letter as a whole and then in more detail, we begin to try to figure out why the author wrote what was being written to the audience. In some epistles there are references made to other communication that had taken place before. We don’t know what was involved in that communication and yet it’s clear that a conversation is taking place about a particular topic. Obviously, making sense of what isn’t said relies heavily on making sure we read between the lines in context. Otherwise, we could just be making up anything whether it really makes sense or not or has any realistic chance of having been the case or not. Due diligence is required to determine what the context most likely was. Thus, in order to figure out what the conversation is about, we have to find clues in what we’re able to read to figure out what isn’t being said.
So why wasn’t it said explicitly in the letter? The answer is obvious. Just like when we communicate with someone who already knows the background, history, and current situation, we don’t retell all of that just to continue the current conversation. We just pick up where we left off because we know the audience of our conversation already understands what we’re talking about. That’s why the writers of NT letters don’t give us all the information. They were writing an actual letter to actual people and both sides knew the context.
I bring this up because as we read the NT letters, we weren’t privy to that entire conversation. 2,000 years later, we obviously don’t know all of that. We have to figure it out. We have to piece it together by textual/contextual clues in the letter, in other letters (if those apply), in historical references (e.g. the book of Acts can be quite helpful for some of Paul’s writings), and at times there are other biblical and historical connections that could be of help.
So, I wrote all the above because I was so impressed by what one of the authors of one of my textbooks discussed concerning Philippians. It’s such a warm and fuzzy little epistle. I grew up singing that nice little chorus, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice!” Isn’t that a nice little song? Scripture songs are wonderful!
Have you ever thought about why Paul wrote something like this to the believers in Philippi? Think for a moment. When believers in a church are doing the right thing, the pastor or teacher addressing them usually thanks them for doing such a good job with whatever it is. When the congregation is not doing a good job, what typically happens? The preacher or teacher instructs and corrects. The bigger the problem, the more prominent and forceful the teacher’s response. When the message is important, the message is repeated. Repetition is a clue to importance as well as purpose behind repeating it.
Are you beginning to think about that?
“Hey you believers at Philippi. You have a problem. Yes, you are generous givers. That’s good. But you don’t give from a joyful heart. It’s some kind of obligatory thing for you. You don’t have much, and yet you give much, but you give with a bad attitude. You aren’t happy about giving. You need to give joyfully. In fact, ‘Rejoice! And again I say rejoice!'”
Does that make sense to you? Often we think of Philippi as a church with few if any problems, but they struggled with unity (the two women mentioned who were not getting along, and to the point that Paul had to mention it in his letter…that’s a big deal). They struggled with joy.
We often associate this letter with joy in a positive way, but really the letter is written apparently because of a lack of joy. I think of where Paul begins the letter with what I have often viewed as a beautiful testimony of his commitment to Christ, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” That’s probably Paul trying to get the believers’ attention that they’re concerned with petty things regarding their motive in giving, their struggle to live in unity, and an apparent lack of humility (pride does lead to disunity so that makes sense too). So Paul is very loudly saying…”HEY! It’s not about money, and not about who gets their way in the church! It’s about living for Christ and even dying for him! You people need a reality check!”
He moves on in chapter 2 with the section on Christ’s humility. The glorious God took on the flesh and blood as a man. He stooped so low only to be humbled even further by being executed on a cross. There is no greater example of humility anywhere at any time than this.
Why did Paul write this? He just happened to be thinking about how awesome Christ’s humility and was and thought maybe he’d share it with others because he just couldn’t contain himself? Of course not! He wrote this because it fit perfectly into the message he was sending to the believers in Philippi. They needed to understand humility because obviously (to Paul) they did not, and they needed to practice it because they were not.
I don’t know about you, but when I think about the letter from this perspective, I see it in a totally new light. I had never thought much about the possibility that there were some serious problems in this church. Paul doesn’t write lovely platitudes so we can enjoy campfire choruses. He had a specific message and really a stinging one at that. He was addressing serious problems in the church at Philippi and these people needed to get with it and get it and get on with it.
So what do we do with this? If these seem to be solid conclusions, then we can think through how this applies to us. Certainly, if we suffer from disunity, I think we can safely say that we lack the humility of Christ. If we give but do so from a sense of duty and obligation rather than from a heart motivated by joy to give, then maybe we should sing our campfire song and really mean it!
There’s more that was mentioned in the textbook, but you get the basic idea from my paraphrase of it. Even the author would point out that none of this is 100% certain. We’re making educated guesses when we use this technique of mirror-reading or reading between the lines. We can be fairly certain with some things, less certain with others. We should be very careful with this because we can be wrong and we can come to incorrect conclusions and applications. However, as Silva says in his book (paraphrase), it isn’t a matter of whether or not we do this, it’s a matter of how we do it. We need to be careful, but we really have to do this in order to explore the meaning of a NT letter.
Hope this is helpful to you as you continue studying the Word!
The text by Moises Silva:
The text by Duvall and Hays: