What is a Chiasm?

by Matt Carter

A chiasm is a structured form of writing that follows an X-shaped or > -shaped pattern. Chiasm is pronounced as ki-az-um. Instead of X-asm, it’s called a chiasm, because the Greek letter χ (chi) looks like an X.

A chiasm works by having a series of thoughts, themes, or claims stated sequentially like in a train of thought. These statements follow a singular direction until they reach a climax. At that climatic main point, these thought statements are then repeated in reverse order. The main point of the whole chiasm is given at the center of the passage.

Chiastic patterns are common in ancient literature. They are found throughout the Bible as well as texts like the Iliad. Chiasms helped people to memorize this oral literature.

Most of us learned to look for the main point of a passage at the beginning or ending of it. The central main point of a chiasm, however, makes sense of the thought trains on either side of it.

Chiasms can be short or long. Matthew 6:24 is a great example of a short chiasm.

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
(Matt 6:24 NASB)

Because we learned to look for the main point at the beginning and ending of a passage, we naturally understand this verse to focus on God and money. This verse is therefore asking us to choose between God and money. Try hard to resist greed and do good deeds with your wealth.

To illustrate the chiasm, each point is on its own line. Pairs of points within a theme align in the same column with each other.

Theme 1Theme 2Theme 3
No one can serve two masters;
for either he will hate the one
and love the other,
or he will be devoted to one
and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and wealth.

If you read this verse as a chiasm with the emphasis at the center (Theme 3), however, you see the main point is about loving the right master. Secondarily, this is about serving that master. Some people serve God without loving Him. Our love and devotion to the Lord should drive our service to Him. Service is an outflow of that preceding love.

So, first, be in love and devoted to the Lord. Serving Him naturally follows that devoted love as if it were a predetermined consequence. Reading this verse as a chiasm reveals that this choice between God and money we focused on without reading it as a chiasm is actually a heartfelt choice about love and desire. We will be devoted to one or the other. Our feelings and actions will be driven by one of these two masters. It is our heart not our head that is in the driver’s seat.

A great example of a long chiasm is 1 Corinthians chapters 11-14.

Women and Men at WorshipOrder in WorshipSpiritual GiftsChrist-like Love
Prophets and Their Appearance (11:2-16)
The Lord's Supper (11:17-34)
Gifts and the Nature of the Body (12:1-30)
Hymn to Love (12:31-14:1)
Gifts for Building the Body (14:1-25)
Prophets and Speaking in Tongues (14:26-33)
Don't Chat During Worship (14:33-36)

Here, there is only a single point to the central theme instead of the pair in Matthew 6:24. The central theme is that love is the centerpiece of the church and Christian life. It all starts and flows from love. Starting from love, spiritual gifts are ways we can work out that love to others. Christ-like love should drive us to put others in front of ourselves. The ways in which we use our spiritual gifts should be driven by love for each other. How we present and conduct ourselves during worship together matters. All of these things should be guided by a love that does not insist on its own way (13:5). That kind of self-sacrificing love is not arrogant, rude, or envious. Instead, that Christ-like love rejoices with the truth and the good of others.

Chiasms are a common literary device used in Scripture. Knowing how they work helps us to get more out of the Bible. They help explain passages. Being able to spot them just takes practice and a commitment to reading and rereading through the Bible.

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