Bible Study Principles

Recently, I was asked to help explain what Matthew 24:20 was talking about, especially the part about hoping not to have to escape “in the winter”.  This verse is usually translated into English along these lines:

“And pray [that your flight will not be] / [that you do not need to run away] in winter or on the Sabbath.”

To be able to understand this phrase, we need to try our best to understand the meaning of the Greek in the original setting.  After we have understood the context within which this phrase was spoken, then we need to seek out what the message is for us today and apply the message to our everyday living.  This may seem to be too great of a challenge for some people, but it need not be so if we apply some basic Bible study principles.

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First, we need to look at the word or phrase itself.  One quick and easy way for people to do this is to take multiple translations and compare them to each other.  We are fortunate to have many English translations today.  In this instance though, after looking on the site , and searching for comparisons of this phrase, I found all 28 English versions use “in winter” and I’m fairly certain the French, Spanish and German translations do as well.

So then I turned to a good Greek Lexicon, a tool where you can look up the basic meaning of Greek words used in Scripture.  My favourite lexicon is Louw & Nida’s “Greek-English Lexicon of the NT Based on Semantic Domains.”  That’s a fancy way of saying, what is the central meaning of a Greek word as compared to other Greek words which have similar usage and meaning?  In this case, we find that there are two closely related ways to translate the Greek word here, either as “winter” or as “bad weather”.

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I checked six different translations of Mt. 24:20 into Papuan languages to see what they did and I found that it was an even split with three of them translating “winter” as “the time of cold” and three of them translating it as “the time of rain/wind”, i.e. “in the rainy season”.  Each translation took into account the “general meaning” of the Greek word and applied it to their culture in appropriate ways.

Interestingly, every one of these Papuan translations clearly kept the Jewish cultural aspect intact when they referred to “or on the Sabbath”.  They translated this as “Sabbath” (i.e. just borrowed the word), or “Jewish day of rest / Jewish day of praying” (i.e. the concept of Sabbath).  So whereas “winter” can be translated and interpreted according to a variety of local cultures today, the “Sabbath” is a Jewish specific cultural idea and must be preserved carefully in all translations regardless of local culture today.

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Now, another important step in good Bible study practices is to look at the biblical context that surrounds a given verse.  Matthew 24:20 is found within the context of Jesus’ answer to the disciples regarding the signs of when the temple would be destroyed, as well as the larger context of chapters 24 and 25 that speak about followers being ready for Jesus’ return at the end of time.

I think this is what makes portions of Mt. 24 and 25 difficult to understand, because within one long speech, Jesus moves his focus from one specific time (i.e. the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD) to a second non-specific time (i.e. the return of Christ).  In wanting to understand the larger context of Mt. 24:20, I looked at a good commentary, such as Leon Morris’ Commentary on Matthew.  He says about these two chapters:

“The last of Jesus’ major discourses in this Gospel is largely concerned with judgment and the conduct expected of the follower of Jesus in view of the coming judgment. There is a problem for the student in that sometimes what Jesus says refers to the coming judgment on Jerusalem, a judgment that was consummated in the destruction of the city in A.D. 70,  and sometimes what he is saying refers to the judgment at the end of the age.

We may well argue that there is a theological unity between the two judgments, and that some of what Jesus says could apply equally well to both. The first of these is a judgment that followed the rejection of Jesus in his earthly ministry, and the second is the judgment that will follow the preaching of the gospel throughout the world.

But we should not approach these chapters with the conviction that everything in them applies to only one of these judgments.  The intermingling of prophecies referring to the events leading up to A.D. 70 with those applying to the end of all things makes this discourse particularly difficult to interpret.

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And so this brings us to the third important principle of good Bible study.  To summarize all that is above, the first question to ask is “What does the text say?”  The second is, “What does the text mean?”  And now thirdly, “What does this text say to me today?”  In other words, what is the message that is God’s message for all people of all times, and how do I apply this message to me today?

We know now that Mt. 24 and 25 are dealing with God’s coming judgment.  At one level it was a message for Jews of the first century, but it is more importantly (within the larger context) a message to all people to be ready for the time when God will put an end to time itself and His Son Jesus will come back to judge all people, punishing those who are not his true followers, and rewarding His true people with the blessings of an eternal heavenly banquet.

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Back to Mt. 24:20, one more specifically first century aspect is that since the Jewish people would not know when this disaster would come, just the fact that it was coming, they were to pray that there would not be any extra difficulty to face on that day such as bad weather or a day that was religiously and ceremonial guarded as the day of rest.

But by application, and by looking at the larger context, especially the parables of ch. 25, Jesus warns all true believers to be vigilant and not be caught off guard when the last final day would come upon mankind.  And so I believe we can say the main message here is this, “Destruction is coming!  Are you ready?”

And we know today that as long as we have placed our faith in Christ, then we can be assured that even though we do not know the final day, still we do not need to fear it.  God will say to us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the Kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”  (Mt. 25:34)

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