How to Read Biblical Prose Discourse

Writers who use a prose discourse style present an argument to their readers in the hope that their response will be a change in behavior and thinking. Prose discourse will often rely on conjunctions to tie ideas together, and in doing so, can bring greater contrast or emphasis to interconnected clauses – or statements. Transition words like “therefore, if/then, because, etc.” get used to emphasize some sort of action, purpose, or consequence, which urges the reader to act. These key words often introduce dependent clauses that otherwise would have little meaning or context by themselves but hold great significance when attached to another statement.

In Ephesians 4, Paul is trying to persuade the Ephesians to unify as one and to grow/mature in Christ as one body. Paul’s desire is for the people to put aside any cultural and ethnic differences that previously acted as a divider, and instead, join one another to build up the body of Christ. Within this chapter, we find that Paul uses prose discourse to incite action and to express the importance of humility and unity in Christ. The below excerpt from Ephesians 4:11-16 provides an example of certain transition words (highlighted below) used to connect ideas together and present a logical flow that gives credence to the arguments being made. 

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,  to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children,  tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

In Episode 3 (New Testament Letters: Literary Context), the video explains that the use of transition words isn’t exclusive to connecting ideas in a single chapter of the Bible but can expand to providing transitions between entire sections of the Bible, such as what we see between Ephesians Ch. 1-3 and Ch. 4-6. 

If we really want to have a thorough understanding of what Paul and other Biblical authors were trying to communicate in the New Testament letters, we must have a familiarity with prose discourse, and why they chose to use it. Coupled with an understanding of historical context (Episode 2), we can see that the Bible is still just as relevant to our lives today. 

Here are the three corresponding Bible Project Videos for this week:

How to Read Biblical Poetry

While Poetry is the second biggest category of the biblical genres, it is also the hardest to read for most Christians. One of the hardest things about Biblical poetry is the fact that there is not just one type. Even within the works of the same author (like Solomon) there are dramatically different styles and motifs. For example, while Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon are all attributed to the wise king, they are all distinct in their subject. Another example of different poetic styles in the same work is how the prophets switch between poetry of extreme destruction and extreme redemption in an effort to convince the Israelites to turn back to God. Since this is true within the works of one author, it is especially true across the collection of writings that makes up the Bible. The last distinct type of poetry is Apocalyptic poetry or Apocalyptic literature which consists of Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation and other sections of other books. Over the course of two millennia this is the literature that has gotten Christians in the most trouble. Around the year 1000, thousands of people flocked to Jerusalem because they thought the end of the world was nigh. Even recently every few years someone will try to line up things happening in our fallen world with signs in Revelation and say the end is nigh. As Christians we should be cautious about making concrete claims, and this is especially true with Apocalyptic Literature. Only the Trinity knows when the Second Coming will be.

Why should we read Poetry? Our God is a God of emotion. God loves us with a depth and breadth that is impossible for us to comprehend. He is also a jealous God. He is also a Wrathful God. He is also a Grieving God. Poetry displays to us just how much God yearns for us to follow him. Poetry shows us how jealous God is when we turn towards the fallen world. Poetry describes God’s anger when we refuse to follow him. Poetry captures the depths of God’s sorrow when we are punished and when he lifts up his Son only the be cast down, only to be raised even higher. Narrative is certainly important in conveying God’s story to us and likewise for us to witness to other people. That is why narrative makes up the majority of Scripture. However, sometimes it is difficult for narrative to capture the emotion of the moment, which is what poetry excels at. Narrative helps us discern to what degree we can, along with help from the Holy Spirit, the mind of God. Poetry on the other hand gives us a glimpse into God’s heart. 

The Bible Project – The Art of Biblical Poetry

Exodus 15:1-21

The Bible Project – Poetic Metaphor

Psalms 69:1-6

Isaiah 17:9-14

The Bible Project – The Book of Psalms

Psalms 2:1-9

Psalms 117

The Bible Project – The Prophets

Jeremiah 1

The Bible Project – The Books of Solomon

Song of Solomon 2

The Bible Project – Apocalyptic Literature

Daniel 7:13-27

How to Read Biblical Narrative

Almost half of the Bible is written in narrative form. So how should we approach this literary style as we meditate on and digest the Word? We hope these videos from the Bible Project and our suggested readings will help!

It’s critical to catch the whole plot of God’s characters. Through the whole plot, we see God’s commitment to use weak people to accomplish big things. The following are two examples. Read just one or both and see how God transforms people and their hearts to use them for His Kingdom. He can do the same with you!

We can watch these characters through the Bible, the choices they make, and the consequences of their choices. “Biblical stories use characters as a mirror so we can see ourselves and discover our own human nature in the reflection.” Biblical writers limit detail of physical characteristics so when they are given, they are critical to the story. For instance, Jacob’s skin is described as smooth (just like his talk!)

  • Genesis 25:24-34
  • Genesis 27:11 (Gen 27:1-31 optional)
  • Genesis 32:24-32 – It is at this point and in the following chapter that we see Jacob seeking God’s blessing and his brother’s forgiveness.
  • The Bible Project – Character

The character and relationship struggles these two have are relatable to the struggles in relationships we have today. We can look at Jacob’s story and see how God is with us in our struggles, even when we are in the wrong. He blesses us, even when we don’t deserve it. Because of this blessing and forgiveness, we know how to seek forgiveness from others.

The setting is where the action took place. The biblical authors use the setting to set up what is going to happen. The settings are used to prepare you for what is going to happen. “Settings evoke memories and emotions because of other stories you know that happened in similar places.” These settings throughout the Bible are used like themes. If we know about Egypt, we can know that bad things happen in Egypt (at least until the upside-down Kingdom is at hand!) We can know that moving eastward seems to be related to exile as moving west (or from the east) is a return to the garden and presence of God.

  • Genesis 12:10 – The start of trouble in Egypt for Abram
  • Genesis 42:1-3 – How the Israelites got to Egypt
  • Deuteronomy 17:16 – Don’t have anything to do with Egypt…
  • 1 Kings 3:1 – Then King Solomon has something to do with Egypt…
  • Matthew 2:13-23 – The tables have turned. Jerusalem becomes Egypt.
  • Hosea 11:1 – Egypt’s role is flipped from a place of pain (slavery) to a place where redemption comes from
  • EAST
  • Genesis 3:23-24, 4:16, 13:11 – Exiled to the east
  • 2 Chronicles 36:15-20 – Exiled to the east again (Babylon)
  • The Bible Project – Setting

“The biblical authors have used character, setting, and plots to create a series of repeated patterns that weave through story after story and bind them all together.” This builds key themes using reoccurring words and images. One such theme that is used throughout the Bible is seeing something desired and then taking it. Then Jesus transforms this, setting his own desires for God’s.

Each of these 4 books, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are trying to connect Jesus’s story to all the rest of the Bible. The good news is about Jesus’s Kingdom arriving. The story begins with God creating a good world and leaving humans responsible for its care but through them, sin, death, and destruction enter the world. The Gospel brings hope with the Kingdom of God and the Son of God, to restore humanity to its role of ruling the world with God. Jesus invites people to live in a new world, bringing the whole biblical world to its fulfillment. Each book quotes the Old Testament to show that all the stories before pointed to Jesus. All four books show how the life of Jesus leads up to the cross where Jesus is enthroned on the cross. When he is raised from the dead, we are watching the beginning of a new creation. “The Gospel is designed to persuade us to trust and follow Jesus so we can follow Jesus in the new creation He began.” Each book of the Gospel presents the good news of the Kingdom from its author’s unique perspective.

  • Matthew presents Jesus as a greater Moses so he groups Jesus’s teachings into 5 sections, just like in the Torah. It was written primarily for the Jews so Matthew presents Jesus as the Son of David and the Son of Abraham (Matt 1:1). Matthew tells how Christ speaks of “the throne of His glory” (Matt 19:28, 25:31). He refers to Jerusalem as “the holy city” (Matt 4:5). He is speaking to Jews who are anticipating the coming of a new king, and revealing instead the Kingdom of God, also referred to as the Kingdom of Heaven.
  • “Mark presents Jesus as a new start for humanity bringing the mystery of God’s new creation crashing into the present.” Mark writes to the Roman world and very quickly introduces Jesus’s purpose in Mark 1:14-15.
  • “Luke highlights how Jesus is God’s royal servant from Isaiah who brings God’s light to the nations.” He wrote primarily to the Greeks. He presents Jesus as the Servant of the Lord while also being human, sent to accomplish a specific work for God. As the servant of the Lord, Jesus fulfills Messianic prophecies such as Isaiah 42:1-2 and Isaiah 61:1-2 (See Luke 2:32 and Luke 4:16-30). He is the one who speaks the most of Jesus’s childhood, revealing his humanity.
  • “John focuses on Jesus’s claim to be Yahweh, the God of Israel, to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. John defined his purpose in John 20:31, presenting Jesus as the Son of God (Jn 1:34, 49). John defines who Jesus is with the “I am” statements.
  • The Bible Project – The Gospel

“Jesus didn’t tell parables to make everything clear. Rather he wanted to provoke the imagination and invite people to see what God is doing in the world from a new perspective.” These can be read many times with new revelations taken away each time and can be read by multiple people to reveal many different perspectives and insights!

  • Matthew 13:10-17 – The purpose of the parables
  • Matthew 11:25-26 – The truth will be revealed to those who have the faith of children
  • John 12:23-36 – Jesus brought the light, but many did not have eyes to see or ears to hear
  • Matthew 7:7-11 – Seek Him and you will find Him. Bring this desire to your readings of the parables
  • Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 – The parable of the sower. Which soil are you today? Yesterday?
  • Luke 8:18 – How are you hearing?
  • Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46 – Parables of a vineyard
  • The Bible Project – The Parables of Jesus

The Parables of Jesus are enough for decades of study just by themselves. Realizing the importance of them is key and how we should apply them. Jesus tells his disciples in Mark 4:13, just after telling them the parable of the sower, that if they don’t understand that one, how will they understand any of them? What do you think that means? Why is that parable so important?

May we all develop eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to seek, minds to grasp, and faith to grow!