Biblical Interpretation (Part 4): Chiasm
In the previous three parts to this series we have looked at some keys to proper interpretation which should make a lot of sense once we stop and think about them, but often we tend to neglect them or are unaware of them until we have them pointed out to us. Recognizing this should cause us to stop and become humbled before God and to realize how much we need his Spirit’s help and guidance in properly understanding and applying his word. In this post, we are going to look at a type of literary structure which many people are totally unaware of. In fact, I was unaware of this only until recently. The Bible is often misinterpreted because of a failure to understand this way of writing that the Biblical writers, and God, have used in the Scriptures. It is a literary structure referred to as chiasmus.
Chiasmus (or chiasm) comes from the Greek letter "chi." This letter looks like our English letter "X." It represents two or more subjects connecting together and meeting in the center, often emphasizing the center. Chiasm is a way of writing which answers the topics raised in reverse order from which they are introduced. For example, Subject A is introduced followed by Subject B. Subject B is then continued or answered, followed by Subject A again. Let’s take a look at the following portion of Scripture to demonstrate chiasm:
"It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him: If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us: If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself." - 2 Timothy 2:11-13
Now if we fail to read these three verses chiastically, we might conclude that the "he also will deny us" is referring to God denying eternal life to those who deny him. Now of course, God does not grant eternal life to those who have rejected the gospel found in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, but is this being referred to here in this passage? Let us look at the passage again, only this time with chiasm in mind:
Subject A: "It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him:" (verse 11)
Subject B: "If we suffer, we shall also reign with him:" (verse 12a)
Subject B: "if we deny him, he also will deny us:" (verse 12b)
Subject A: "If we believe not, yet he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself." (verse 13)
Notice that, according to chiasm, verse 12b is referring back to the earlier part of the same verse. This is referring to our reigning with Christ Jesus if we suffer for him. Therefore, to deny him would have to do with failure to stand up for the testimony of the gospel because one is afraid of men more than God. In turn, Jesus will deny his servants a right to reign with him if they have been found unfaithful to Christ. This fits the context of chapter 2. Let us just look at the previous three verses for example:
"Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel: Wherein I suffer trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound. Therefore I endure all things for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory." - 2 Timothy 2:8-10 (underlinings mine)
Notice three things:
1) Paul was preaching the gospel of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 8).
2) He suffered trouble from his testimony (verse 9).
3) He did this that the elect might obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory (verse 10).
Paul is basically saying that there is a reward in heaven for those who suffer for the name of Jesus Christ. And in verses 11-13 he says that we have life with him, and if we suffer for him we shall also reign with him, but if we deny him he will deny us the right to reign, but he will not make void his promise to save us or else he would be denying himself. This is not understood unless we read the passage chiastically.