God’s Holy Word, In Context

Keeping the Bible in context is not necessarily an easy task to do, for we are thousands of years removed from when they were originally written. We will be using contexts to examine each passage of God’s Holy Word: historical, cultural, literary, theological and personal. For most of the Books of the Bible these will be looked at in umbral terms, meaning the context does not change from chapter to chapter. While other contexts will be examined passage to passage, depending how the story or section is divined.

For this study you will need a Bible commentary, a study Bible, and/or other reference material. Personally, I favour the New American Commentary for two reasons: 1. I have half the series in my personal library, and 2. it is a good balance of in depth word-study format and easy to read for laypersons. It does not matter which commentary or commentaries you use, the information we will examine should be found in most is not all series.

Last June, in the post “Keeping God’s Holy Word in Context“, we briefly looked at the contexts as layout by Dr George Guthrie in his study Read the Bible for Life, (published by LifeWay). We will look at what each type of context means, plus I will briefly explain what you can expect in regards to each context.

  1. Historical Context – This is regarding the history of the events in the passage and of its writing. This includes the timeline of events as it relates to the rest of the Bible and today; the original audience, (traditionally excepted) author, place and time of writing; and the world in and around the place in the passage. I will post several timelines in these sections: AC (After Creation), BC & AD (Before Christ & Anno Domini),  and BP (Before Present).
  2. Cultural Context –  This context is related to historical context in that it not information that we can necessarily get out of the passage itself, but we need to look at the broader picture of archeological finds and other texts from the era in which it was written. This includes things like: the social structure, practices, politics, home life, communal life, even what they believed and why.
  3. Literary Context – While each book of the Bible is found in a specific section does not mean that it is necessarily similar to the other texts in the same section. For example: the book of Lamentations is found in the section Major Prophets but it is poetic lament over the fall of Jerusalem. Similarly, a passage within a book can be a different literary genres. Each passage (or group of passages) will be examined in light of its literary genre, the genre of the book, and the section of the Bible the book is found in. Patterns, and repeated words or phrases, will also look at for they give us a hint at what is important in the passage, what the author wants to convey to the original readers/hearers.
  4. Theological Context – This one is linked to the previous context. Each passage in God’s Holy Word is filled with theological truths. Several major categories of truths are: God, creation, humanity, sin, and salvation. How the passage fits in with the “Big Picture” of the rest of the Bible and how it fits in with God’s redemptive story are essential aspects we need to discuss before we can look at the application of the passage.
  5. Personal Context – Bringing the message home is what all true Christians desire. The trick here is to examine the first four contexts before looking at ourselves. One statement that I have heard over the years is “Reading the Bible is like reading someone else’s mail”. While this is true we should never allow it to hinder us from reading and studying the Holy Scriptures that have been passed down to us for the millennia. Instead of reading the Bible through the lens of our twenty-first century culture and norms, instead of looking for what we want the passage to say, we need to prayerfully look at the passage for what the Holy Spirit wants us to see in light of the above contexts.

Remember, the Old Testament was first the Holy Bible of the pre-Christ Jewish communities in Egypt, the Levent and ancient Babylon and Persia. Along with the New Testament, the Holy Bible first belonged to the early Church. The books of the Bible were first written for them. But it is still God’s Holy Word for us today.

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Epistles and Revelation in God’s Holy Word

Over the past two months we looked at the various sections on the Bible. Our general overview touched upon the importance they have within the meta-narrative of God’s story and we looked a little at how to interpret them in light of contexts. Today we are talking about the Pauline epistles (1 Corinthians-Philemon), the general epistles (Hebrews-Jude), and the Book of Revelation.

When you receive a letter, email or text message how do you read it? Do you read it with the sender’s voice in your head, filled with emotional charge? We are all humans and we all tend to read into messages. The same problem can arise when we read the epistles found in the New Testament. We can read meaning into what Paul or the other apostles wrote. We tend to apply it to our lives first before we look at the situational (cultural) context.

When we read our own personal letters we typically know the situation or circumstances behind the author’s words. To understand the epistles we have to apply the same scheme. Researching the historical background from Bible surveys, commentaries or even the Acts of the Apostles can shine a light on the reason behind the letter.

Comprehending the purpose of a passage will aid us greatly in applying it to our daily lives.

One thing that I cannot stress enough, which is in part thanks to Dr George Guthrie and seminary, is context. Keeping all Scripture passages in their proper context is crucial in understanding the Bible as the original audiences would have understood them. (As closely as we can make it, that is.)

This goes for the epistles as well as John’s Revelation.

Also known as the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation has been a mystery for most (if not all) of Church history. Why is this? Symbolism. A good percentage of the imagery that John uses are derived directly from Old Testament passages. (When we come to studying Revelation, chapter by chapter, we will look at this in more detail.) What is important to reading this book? Context.

The original audience would have understood Revelation according to their couture and theology (both Jewish and Christian). While this is true it does not mean that it is totally irrelevant to us today. Many commentators and scholars will attest that this work has three distinct genres interwoven: letter, prophecy and apocalyptic. While it, as well as all the epistles, had special meaning for the first century Church, it also has profound meaning for us today.

We can not ignore Revelation on the sole basis that it is difficult to read and understand.

Next week we are wrapping up our study Read the Bible for Life, by Dr George Guthrie, after which we are diving “In God’s Holy Word”. This will be a chapter by chapter study of the Holy Bible using the New American Commentary series, published by B&H (Broadman & Holman).

Jesus’ Teachings in God’s Holy Word

Once again we look at the Gospels. Last week we saw the importance of the New Testament stories, and this week we are looking at Jesus and His teachings. What importance do they have in the grand story? What do they mean for us today? From my time in Bible college I have noticed that Jesus’ parables are among the most popular biblical passages preacher, ministers and Bible teachers like to talk about.

The messages of His teachings have a login common with the messages found in the Old Testament. Coincidence? Definitely not! The God of the Old Testament in the exact same God as the New Testament.

When we read through the parables and other teachings of Jesus we find one central theme. And that theme is the Kingdom of God. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15, HCSB). This concept is found throughout the Old Testament. If God has a Kingdom then He must be King: “This is what the Lord, the King of Israel and its Redeemer, the Lord of Hosts, says: I am the first and I am the last. There is no God but Me.” (Isaiah 44:6).

Jesus is the perfect story teller of all times. He uses various forms to convey the Truth, not as He sees it but for what the Truth really is. Earlier we mentioned parables. These are the most common in Jesus’ teachings to the crowds, the disciples and to the Jewish leaders of His time. Parables use figures of speech to tell the lesson.

How do we understand parables? Context, context, context. In order to properly understand Jesus’ parables we need to look at the cultural context of Ancient Middle East. Below are three questions we need to ask ourselves.

  1. Why do the characters do what they do? See Luke 10:25-37 for example. Why did the religious leaders avoid the injured man?
  2. Why are the actions of a character so controversial? Back in Luke 10, why was the Samaritan’s help countercultural?
  3. What can I take away from this? How do I need to change in my life or my relationship with God?

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is an example of a different method of Jesus’ teachings. Here He speaks with authority: “You have heard that it was said… But I tell you…” (Matt 5:21a & 22a).

Another teaching tool Jesus uses is being the example. The best example of Jesus living out His teachings is found in John 13.

Above all, what can we take away from all of Jesus’ teachings we read in the Gospels? What is His “primary goal”? Dr George Guthrie asks this question. His answer is “discipleship”. The entirety of the Holy Scriptures is about discipleship. While God is the main character, He has always made an effort to draw us near to Him. When we listen and obey we become Jesus Christ’s disciples. What else can we do when we say we are followers of the Most High?

New Testament Stories in God’s Holy Word

The New Testament is full of stories, just like the Old Testament. In fact it is 60% stories. While stories are fun to read, those in the Holy Bible are more than mere tales to entertain us. There is a lot more to them then just the words on the pages and the images they describe. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus Christ and the Acts of the Apostles is the story of the Holy Spirit’s movement within the early church.

Several weeks ago we looked at the importance of narratives in the Old Testament. As we read the Old Testament we see that it is not about the human characters nor is it about us. Within the last two weeks a man I know from the men’s (Bible study) group from my church told us his approach to reading any  part of the Scriptures, “What does this passage mean to me?”

While that is not a bad question, it should never be our first question. Who is the Bible really about? We saw that the Old Testament is about God as main protagonist or hero. The New Testament is also about God, in the person of Jesus Christ.

In his video clips on the study Read the Bible for Life Dr. George Guthrie emphasizes four points any Christian can and should use when reading God’s Holy Word. Paraphrasing in my words, they are 1. keeping it in context, 2. the reason why the authors wrote, 3. their main emphases, 4. remembering the Gospels are about Jesus, and 5. the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection.

When we read the stories of the New Testament, primarily the four Gospels, how many of the points above come to mind before what does it mean to me?

When we have a better grasp of the original meaning of the story then we can have a better appreciation of the meaning of the text, even a better understanding of what it means to me. How does one get a grasp of the text? Any Bible scholar or pastor can give you a list of tools they use. The ones I have used in the past and plan to use when we do the “In God’s Holy Word” study are the following:

  1. A good study Bible
  2. Bible dictionary (a lexicon for more advanced study)
  3. Bible backgrounds commentary and Bible atlas
  4. Bible commentaries

Reading the New Testament in our daily devotionals can be helpful. “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (1 Timothy 3:16-17, HSCB). But when we take the time to dig deeper into God’s Holy Word we can see a lot more and God can use us to teach rather than just being taught. God wants to use His people in the church, all of His people, to teach and train up more people to teach and train the next generation.

A friend’s church as a saying, “Making disciples to become disciple-makers.” Reading the Holy Bible is more than us reading it, it is God communicating with us so we can show others “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6).