Principles and Patterns for Faithful Exegetical Transition: 
Using Matthew 11:12 as an Exegetical Paradigm
Chikaogu Diokpala Ossai-Ugbah

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“ I have not come here to preach theology” is most often than not a statement that is heard from the lips of some preachers of the gospel. The presupposition that underlies this statement is the assumption that theology is dry and not a spiritually productive and life-giving exercise. It is sometimes supported with the Scriptural foundation “ the letter kills but the Spirit gives life”.

            Since preaching is an assumed theological interpretation, every act of Preaching is theologically based. This is because; no kerygmatic proclamation is made in a theological vacuum for it always assumes an exegetical position. Theology simply put is an attempt to understand God’s revelation and an interpretation of the nature of human response to that revelation. If this is so, any interpretation of God’s revelation begins with an exegetical premise.1

            This exegetical premise is the basis for exegetical challenge that Baptist minister faces. This exegetical challenge can be found in:

      The overwhelming pattern of biblical corruption. 2.      The nature of our task as Bible custodians. 3.      The nature of our call to be a censorship vehicle. 4.      The nature of our call to be a contemporary voice. 5.      The nature of our community to be a creative vicar.

            Exegesis is a derivation from the Greek verb ezgeomai, which imply to make plain, reveal, narrate, or bring out a meaning that enhances understanding. In John 1:18 for instance, Jesus is called the exegesis of God. So, exegesis can be defined as “a systematic bit-by-bit investigation of the historical tradition behind a text and the grammatical meaning revealed in context by a text for productive interpretation”.2  Ralph Martin lends credence to the above definition by observing that exegesis is a pattern of enquiry into the meaning of a text intended for the original audience by the original author(s).3 This process of enquiry involves going back to the original life situation that brought about the writing of the text without embellishing the thought or intension of the original author by either changing the meaning or focus of the text for the original first century audience.4 According to Gordon Fee, evangelicals like us should do good exegesis because it is the only way of discovering and hearing what the text is saying.5

            It is based on the highlighted introductory significance of exegesis that this paper will seek to discuss the topic by looking first at principles for faithful exegesis, patterns for faithful exegetical transition. By exegetical transition, I mean the discovery of meaning from a text and an application of it in another context that share the same contextual peculiarity. So let us consider principles for faithful exegesis.


A principle can be defined as a set of rules that govern a specific understanding. In the case of exegesis, there are three major principles that lay a foundational bedrock foe faithful exegesis. These are: historical, grammatical and contextual principles. We shall try to discuss each of these outlined principles.  


The gap between the first century audience and the present day reader/interpreter of the Bible is great which calls for faithfulness in dealing with a text. The first century audience’s culture, literary form, grammatical syntax and presuppositions that made decoded messages easily understood are not the same in today’s 21st century context.6  Therefore, a closer and much more appropriate means for both understanding and interpreting a text in it’s original context is imperative for today.

 Though the Bible is the inspired word of God, inspiration “does not assure intelligibility”7 since divine ideas were written in a historical setting through human words. Thus, the “authorial intent” of the Bible is human but yet, identical with the divine intention. In other words, the human author was fully conscious of the meaning of what he was writing. Aided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the author was able to achieve his aim.8 Inspiration entails that the Bible has its origin in God Himself and communicated through human medium.9 It is through this human medium that God still speaks today to the present generation with a peculiar historical context. The historical principle seeks to investigate the following:

A.     Who is the author of the book where our text is located?

B.     Who was the original audience to whom the text was addressed?

C.     What is the date of the book where our text is located?

D.     What is the cultural or geographical setting in which the text is located?

What are the sights and sounds that come out of the text?


            “ The Bible says” is usually an assertive declaration made to buttress a point during a session of preaching or teaching. However, what the Bible says and what the Bible mean are two different things. This is because, meaning is not found most times in the very literal words of Scripture but, in the grammatical structure and words that make up a sentence. The Bible was written in languages (Hebrew and Koine Greek) that are no longer spoken the way they were written. Since language is dynamic it has gone through several changes and modifications with time. Above all, no two languages can adequately translate into another because; each has its own distinct form of word formation and sentence structure. So, the Bible interpreter is faced with making meaning out of a text that has lost connection with time. Meaning of biblical words can only be found when words are aligned with their usage in a text to the period in history that relates to it. The grammatical principle seeks to investigate the following:

A.     What is the literary context/character of the text/book?

B.     What is the history in the text?

C.     What are the textual issues raised in the text?

D.     What is the grammatical structure/syntactical relationship in the text?

E.      What is the meaning of a word in its historical usage?


          The contextual principle is the transition of a message in a text for specific application to the lives of present day hearers. It is a” method of transition…from what did the text mean to what does the text say and how do I understand it for myself today”.10 The term context denotes “ connective circumstances of historical and or grammatical transition between a passage of Scripture and another. This closely understood from an examination of sectional, immediate, book, biblical, historical, logical or theological contexts of a text. A context is made up of: a pretext, a context and a post-text. A pretext is the issues or events that occur before a text, a context is the matter that is at play in the present text while a post-text is the issue or event that occur just after the text in focus.  The contextual principle seeks to achieve the following:

A.     Invite the Holy Spirit for insight based on your historical/grammatical context?

B.     Stay with the passion of a text that is meant for today’s audience?

C.     Stay within the biblical/theological context of the first audience?

D.     Develop or adopt a personal translation of the text that to be interpreted?

E.      Pick out the significant words/phrases in the text for better explanation?

F.      Apply the meaning of the text in today’s context that does not betray the purpose of the text?

G.     Employ cultural/contemporary equivalents that can illustrate the meaning of the text better for today’s audience?

Having examined the various principles involved for faithful exegetical transition, this paper shall attempt to use Matt.11: 12 as an example of the outlined principles. While this sample does not claim exegetical totality, it is a model that can be improved upon. 


From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven is subjected to violence and the violent ones are plundering it.  Matt. 11:12.

The gospel according to Matthew was originally anonymous without a designated author, just like the other synoptic gospels were. The term “according to” was a later attachment by the Church as they sought authenticity for the writings. This is because; the writers of these books never knew that they were writing Scripture when they embarked upon the project of didactic historicization of the Jesus event. However, the book of Matthew appears to have been written by Matthew, formally called Levi, a Jew, a former tax collector and later, a disciple of Jesus Christ (9:9). Some of the factors that favour this association are: church tradition, the Jewishness of the gospel (6: 1-18,chp.8-9, 23,27:62-66,28:11-15, as in the use of the kingdom of Heaven:), the consistent pattern of promise and fulfillment citation of Old Testament passages (Cf: 5:17-20, 8:16,21:4), and the imposing use of the title “ Son of God” for Jesus (2:15, 3:17, 4:3,6, 8:29,14:33,16:16, 17:5, 21:3726:63,24:36, 27:40,43,54, 28: 19). Above all, the overriding theme of the book “ Jesus is King” establishes the basis for the major emphasis on the King and the kingdom. The book of Matthew was probably written around 60-75AD.11 The note of ignominy, persecution and conflict against the Kingdom of Heaven (Cf: 22:7,24:1-28) establishes the basis for the contention found in our text.

The gospel of Matthew is located within a cultural context of Kingdoms initiation and authority. Jesus, Yahweh’s Yeshua is pictured, as the Sum total of Yahweh’s promised kingdom, while John the Baptist is the proclaiming voice about the Kingdom of Heaven. The opposition to both the initiation and proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven reaches feverish peak in Matt.11: 12. The opposition earlier cited begins from Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus at infancy (2:16-23), Satan’s attempt to distract Jesus from the goals of the Kingdom (4:1-11), Jesus` confrontation with the Pharisee’s over the purpose of the Kingdom (9:1-8), the empowerment of the twelve over powers of evil (10:1-4) and the revelation of the patterns of persecution over the Kingdom (10:16-24). It is this sort of confrontation that builds up into the violence that the kingdom of heaven is subjected to in 11:12. So, the foundational structure of Matthew’s gospel shows that the violence that comes into play in our text cannot be positively located for the advantage of the kingdom of Heaven. Rather, it is detrimental to the kingdom for, Matthew shows violence to be the manifest attitude of Satan and his aide’s to frustrate the purposes of the kingdom of Heaven.  An analysis of Matthean silt-im-leben, grammar and context will support the view that the violence of Matthew 11:12 is not positive for the kingdom of Heaven and bearers of its proclamation.


 The book of Matthew follows a five fold Pentateuchal formula. The context of Matthew 11:12 is located in this general pericopae of Jesus` discourse about John the Baptist (11:1-20). However, the immediate context of our text is within Jesus` exposition of the activities of Satan (11: 1-13,52). It is within this unit that John as proclaimer of the kingdom announces, “ the kingdom of Heaven has come upon you”(11:28). The emphasis of the proclamation is the realization of God’s eschatological plan, and it is this purpose that meets with opposition. So, the actions and attitudes of Herod Antipas are contextually revealed in our text as illustrative of the violence that the kingdom of Heaven faces.


The syntactical structure of our text shows that there are two independent clauses. These are: The Kingdom of Heaven is subjected to violence and The Violent ones are plundering it. Thus, the sentence has two independent subjects with : basileia tÇn ouranÇn  as the subject of the first clause, while, biastai  serves as the subject of the second clause. However, biazetai functions as predicate to the first clause and harpazousin autn  functions as the predicate to the second clause. The verbs in both clauses biazetai  and harpazousin  have the same root meaning in biazÇ: which does imply negative violence.

Furthermore, it has to be pointed out that biazetai as used in the text is an “ intransitive passive verb” employed in the sense of a hostile and violent opposition to God’s kingdom reign (Cf: Matt.5: 3b, 7:21,11:27,29). The passive nature of the verb suggests that the subject of the first clause basileia is the receiver of the violent action put up in the verb being a passive subject. On the other hand, the subject of the second clause biazetai has a negative association. For instance, the word $4"FJ"Â has a variety of meaning which in both primary and secondary meanings denote: to oppress, to maltreat an individual through the use of force as in military, sexual or religious harassment.

In continuation, the predicate of the first clause harpazousin means to steal, plunder or capture in war. But most importantly, all through the New Testament the verb harpazÇ is used in a context of opposition to the purposes of the kingdom of heaven (Cf: John10: 12,28,29,Matt.12: 29,13:19). Consequently, biastai and biazetai cannot have a positive usage in Matt. 11:12 since it will create a problematic structure to the other N.T. usages where they are used negatively (Cf: Matt.5: 3b, 7:21,11:27,29). Above all, harpazousin autn explains the nature of action in the first clause.

Similarly, in Greco-Roman history and literature, as exemplified in the works of Plutarch, Lucian and Josephus, biastai and harpazÇ are used in the negative sense of hostile plundering activity. The term is used to describe the activities of daredevil armed robbers who maim, paralyze, forcefully disposes and tear apart their victims.  Thus, the Matthean concepts of harpazÇ and biastai describe “ those who resist the rule of God and (seek to) plunder it”. In resume, biastai and harpazÇ define the activity of Satan and all who carry out his mode of activities.



Something that is worthy of note is the pericopae in which our text is found, that is the imprisonment of John, the proclaimer of the kingdom of Heaven, by Herod Antipas. John’s imprisonment is illustrative of the opposition/harassment that the kingdom of God faces. It must not be forgotten that Satan stands in unmitigated opposition to the values, principles and pattern of the kingdom of God in the Matthean text (Cf: 6:10,13,22,24-29,13:39) and here in Matt.11: 12 Herod Antipas fully demonstrates the nature of Satan by antagonistic opposition, seen in other places in stealing the word from people’s heart (13:19) and by setting Peter at cross- purposes to the values of the kingdom (16:21-23).

      The three outlined understandings of harpazÇ: violence, stealing and cross-purposes are still demonstrable activities of Satan today. The reign of the kingdom of God in people’s lives is being forcefully resisted by the aggression of Islam in Northern Nigeria, Indonesia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, North Africa, Iran, Pakistan, Jordan, and Iraq among others. This violent resistance comes by way of armed attacks and lives of several Christians are lost. This shows that Satan as in Matt.11: 12 is on the offensive against the kingdom of Heaven. Similarly, the devil continues to steal the word from people’s hearts and set them at cross-purposes through various demonic attractions by sensual models, nude clothing, false religions and oppressive governmental legislations.

      So, biastai cannot be seen in a positive sense of spiritual warfare in attacking the satanic host to wrest the kingdom from the enemy. Rather, the text supports the fact that the kingdom of God is the subject of deliberate and unwarranted violence. This is because; harpazousin and biastai   “ form a synonymous parallelism”. Therefore, Matthew 11:12 portray a conflict where the kingdom of God is subjected to violent murder. So, the violent one (biastai) is Satan and all who oppose the proclaimers of the kingdom of God like Herod Antipas. The violent are seen today in imperialistic decrees, democratic legislations, ancestral and even marital opposition to live kingdom life in Jesus of Nazareth.


     In conclusion, exegesis deals with theology and interpretation. It must begin with faithful and accurate discovery of the historical, grammatical and contextual setting of a text. This is done to explore the meaning of a text for the original audience for adequate transition of meaning for today’s audience.  The Exegete goes through this process in recognition of the fact that the Bible was written by specific persons, to specific people, in specific situations, at a specific time, in a specific language, for a specific problem and to give a specific answer. In other to gain meaning the historical, grammatical and contextual principles helps the exegete to break the time/language divide and enter into this realm of specifics. When this is done a faithful pattern of exegetical transition emerges that will build up souls in the kingdom enabled by the Holy Spirit.


1 . Cf:  Ralph P. Martin, “ Approaches to New Testament Exegesis” New Testament interpretation: Essays on principles and methods, Howard I. Marshall, Ed., (Grand Rapids: WM.B.Eerdmans, 1977), pp. 220-251. Some of these exegetical premises Martin explains have to do with the approach to interpretation of Scripture. These include: allegorical interpretation where literary terms or words are held to be the way they are written; spiritualizing: where spiritual meaning is attached and given to every object and narrative in scripture, “sensus plenoir’: where meaning is read into a text that was not intended by the author sometimes under the guise of revelational knowledge by the interpreter; dogmatic method: follows the traditional line of denominational interpretation, or in key words/ phrases in neglect of the context in which such is used and the presupposition approach: where the interpreter comes with an already made up mind to a text just to use it as a support for a theological position without digging into it. While it is true that “ presuppositionless exegesis” is not possible, the interpreter’s thought form and exegesis must be subject to the context of Scripture. An interpretation based on experience is improper having reached a “ predetermined conclusion”. Meaning can only be got when a text is read with a first century mind-set.
2 . See Chikaogu D. Ossai-Ugbah, Contextual Exegesis. A Guide To New Testament Interpretation for Pastors and Students, (Jos: Stream Christian Publishers, 2001), P.1.
3 . Ralph P. Martin, “ Approaches to New Testament Exegesis” New Testament interpretation: Essays on principles and methods, Howard I. Marshall, Ed., P.220.
4 Stuart Douglas, “ Exegesis”, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 11, D-G, David N. Freedman and others Ed., (New York: Double Day, 1992,PP.682-688.
5. Gordon D. Fee, Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), PP. 37-51.
6 . Gordon D. Fee, Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament Hermeneutics, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), PP.24-36.
7 Paul O. Davidson, Exegetical Methods Seminar, NTL 802, The Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, Ogbomoso, 3rd September 1999.
8 Millard j. Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation: Perspectives on Hermeneutical Issues, ( Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), PP.11-32.
9 John Goldingay, “ Inspiration”, A Dictionary of Bible interpretation, 1992 Ed., PP.324-316.
10See Daniel Fuller, The Role of the Holy Spirit in Biblical interpretation,
11 See the following sources: Roland Q. Leavell, Studies in Matthew. The  King and the kingdom, ( Nashville, Tennessee: Convention Press, 1962), PP.1-5, Michael Green, The Message of Matthew, ( The Bible Speaks Today), ( Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), PP.19-39, John Stott,  Men with A Message, Rev. by Stephen Motyer, ( Suffolk, England: Evangelical Literature Trust, 1994 and S. McKnight, “ Matthew, Gospel of ”, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Joel B. Green, S. McKnight and Howard I. Marshall Ed.,( Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), PP.526-541.

Chikaogu Diokpala Ossai-Ugbah hails from Umutu in Ukwuani Local Government Area of Delta State, Nigeria. He is the Senior Pastor of Ugbowo Baptist Church, “Garden of Restoration”, E.D.P.A. Estate, Benin City, Nigeria. He holds a Nigerian Certificate in Education (N.C.E) in History/Christian Religious Education from the College of Education, Agbor, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Religious Studies (B.A) from the University of Ibadan, a Bachelor of theology degree (B.TH) from The Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, Ogbomoso, and a Master of Theology degree (M.TH) with a major in New Testament Language and Literature and a minor in Systematic theology also from The Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, Ogbomoso.