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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Bible Study and Research

When we want to go deeper than just merely study the Bible we want to research God’s Holy Word. There are plenty of books out there to research the Bible is various aspects. There are many resources out there, written by Christians who have gone before in the endeavour of researching the Holy Scriptures.

What types of books are out there? How can we use them?

The main resource any devout student of the Bible needs is a good Study Bible. Most, if not all, English translations have myriads of study Bibles to choose from. These range from daily devotions, chronological Bibles, age specific, careers specific, students’ Bibles, pastors’ Bibles, and topical study Bibles. (I’m not going to go through what each of these are. They are pretty self explanatory.)

Another good one is getting a good Bible Commentary Set. Many of the major Christian academic publishers offer one or more series of commentaries. These can range from easy-to-read for the non-scholars folks, to Koine Greek and Ancient Hebrew word studies. There are several sets that are finding Christ in the Old Testament. From in-depth (multiple volumes per book of the Bible) to a single volume for multiple books.

Which types do I recommend? For the Sunday school teacher or Bible study leader I recommend the less intense commentaries, you know, to get your feet wet. For students of the Bible (whether you are in Bible college, seminary or you just want to study the Word for your self) I would suggest finding a series that is in the middle range. The more non-concise commentaries I would definitely recommend for the more astute students, pastors, preachers, and anyone who is not afraid to read and in open to expanding their knowledge.

Don’t get we wrong–any commentary or resource may and can be used by the Holy Spirit to convict us of sins and misunderstandings, and open our minds to new things and concepts, a new way of looking at the same old text.

Another resource that I have found useful is a Bible Survey or Bible Backgrounds book or commentary series. These can be different textbooks, and at the same they tend to offer similar information. A Bible survey (Old Testament survey or New Testament survey) gives readers a overview of the Bible: historical context, archeological finds, geological maps, lists and, above all, they show how the entire Bible or testament is telling one big meta-narrative of God’s story intertwined with human history.

Along with Bible surveys come a related resource, Bible Atlas. If the pervious resource have maps, then why bother with an atlas? Like any other atlas, a Bible atlas focuses on the specifics of the region it depicts. What I am saying is, a world atlas focuses on the countries of the world, climates, ecosystems, etc. Whereas, a Bible atlas focuses on the Bible lands of the ancient world. These maps show routes taken by certain peoples, where events happened and a few other tid bits of information in one place.

What else is out there for students of the Bible to use?

Bible Dictionaries, Greek and Hebrew Word Studies… The list goes on.

Two more I want to highlight are Bible Handbooks, and Bible studies. A handbook is a great resource for anyone, regardless of education or church leadership. This resource is filled with concise knowledge that everyone asks. “Who is the author? When was it written? What are the main themes?” It is like having all of the introductions to the books of the Bible, found in a good study Bible, in one easy to use book. Bible handbooks can be small enough to place in a purse, handbag or computer bag.

Bible Studies are a resource most academic scholars overlook when they list off Bible resources. How can these be helpful? A Bible-based Bible study makes the group think about what they have read in the Scriptures. They are the best stepping stone for any church or circle of friends to get into God’s Holy Word.

Most of these resources are used by Bible colleges and seminaries around the world. While most church libraries have never heard of them (at least their lack of such materials points to this conclusion). I do highly recommend anyone who is serious about digging deeper into the Bible to begin a personal library or even suggest to their church library to begin a section with such useful books.