A Text – It’s Meaning and It’s Significance

As we are almost at the Christmas holiday, I have found myself teaching at a number of different places. I taught a midweek service at Cornerstone Napa (Bill Walden’s church). I taught this past Sunday at Crossroads in Vancouver, WA (Bill Ritchie, and soon to be me). Finally I will teach this Christmas at Calvary North Bay here in Mill Valley. What is fascinating is that I have taught the exact same text (Luke 2:1-7) all three times. But although teaching the same text, I have taught three different messages.

You may be saying, “How is that possible?”. Let me explain it to you. I have been highly enamored with what E.D. Hirsch described in his book “Validity in Interpretation” as the difference between the meaning of a text and its significance. The meaning of the text is what the original author wanted the original hearer to understand and was thus attempting to communicate. This speaks to the original intentionality of the author. The significance of a text would then be what the text means to the hearers in our present context. This is the Spirit’s intentionality in applying the text to a specific and local congregation. This drawing out of the significance for today is something that Eugene Peterson calls Contemplative Exegesis (on a side note, if you have never read Peterson’s books specifically on the pastoral ministry, boy are you missing out! He has 5 books specifically on pastoring and they are rich, searching and disarmingly personal). John Stott spoke of the same idea by saying “We need to find both what meaning of the text is and what it means for us today.”.

What I have been realizing is that Biblical exposition should be equal parts meaning and significance. We need to explain what the text meant from the author to the original hearers AND how these concepts speak prophetically into our current context. I have found a usual leaning in most Bible teachers to one or the other position. There are teachers who think that the only way to teach is to give the meaning (and unfortunately often malign those who focus more on the other position). They say that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to make application (which is true of course). Or there are those who only explain its significance for today (and never even think to do the socio-historical work to understand a text in its original context). I have sought to find that proper middle ground where each message is an explanation both of a text’s meaning and its significance.

So, now back to my three different messages on Luke 2:1-7. At Cornerstone in Napa, Luke 2:1-7 was explained both in its meaning (about the sovereignty of God (in getting Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem) and the humility of God (in the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth). But its significance was about doing ministry in an incarnational way. Allowing the radical identification of Jesus with humanity to be an example for us on how we out to interact with those outside the church. At Crossroads in Washington, I explained the same meaning of the text. But that message was about ‘The Calvary Road to Bethlehem’ and how the circumstances of Jesus’ birth mirror our experiences as we travel the Calvary Road of discipleship. Each verse had its own application. My teaching at Calvary North Bay (which will be on Friday, December 23rd) will have the same explanation of meaning. But the significance will be different seeing that it will be my last teaching at the church before I move north. So the significance of that text at this moment for the precious folks at Calvary North Bay will be unique to our collective experience.

4 replies
  1. Miles DeBenedictis
    Miles DeBenedictis says:


    It is very important that we are receiving from the Lord, for the people. 

    Many times I find certain applications changing in each of our three Sunday morning services. I’m teaching the same text from the same outline/notes, and yet the Lord directs differently each service.

    Sensitivity to the Spirit, as well as the people is important. 

  2. Kellen Criswell
    Kellen Criswell says:

    Great post, D. I agree with both you and Miles. I’ve always identified with the statement, “there is only one true interpretation of a passage, but there are many applications.” This enables us to apply the unchanging and timeless truth of the Scriptures to our lives in always changing and timely ways. Good encouragement.

  3. Bill Ritchie
    Bill Ritchie says:

    The challenge comes when the preacher “applies” the text in ways that the text itself does not communicate. This is always the challenge of good biblical hermeneutics, isn’t it. We need to know the text and its context. It helps us greatly to understand the nuances of language, for which we have numerous tools today. Certainly evaluating our application against those of others across the ages will be helpful as well, to see that we’re not out in left field (or right, if you prefer!). But in the end, as led by the Spirit of God, we find fresh application of timeless truths to the situations in which God has placed us.

    Too many times in our tribe, we have guys who go off on rabbit trails that have absolutely nothing to do with the text in question. It may not be heresy. In fact, it may be a wonderful application of a completely different text. But it simply is not God’s word from the text in question. That’s why doing our homework is so very important. Yes, God can use anyone/anything. But we are also challenged to be workmen approved, rightly dividing God’s Word.

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