Last time we looked at starting a regular pattern of Bible study.
It’s a great discipline to cultivate, so that we constantly have input from the Lord into our thinking. Paul talked about the value of Scripture in terms of teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness in 2 Timothy 3.16 and we all need all these ministries as we seek to grow in our knowledge and love of God. But no Scripture exists independently of the whole.
Context is important
So, whether we are dealing with one verse or a whole book, we do have to set each text in its context if we are going to understand it properly.
I remember a missionary to the Arab world telling me that before he began that work he had several times been arrested by the command, ‘You shall not go down into the land of Egypt’. Was this a word from the Lord to him? Ought he to ditch his plans? He concluded that the original context of the words in Jeremiah 42 was very particular to the hearers of Jeremiah’s day and did not match his own circumstances in the same way at all. It was teaching Jeremiah’s hearers that they could not escape the judgment God was bringing on Jerusalem by fleeing south, back to the land of their earlier captivity.
It is rightly said that a text out of context is merely a pretext and that you can make the Bible mean almost anything if you ignore its original purpose and context.
First, we have to look at the immediate context of what we are studying, in its own particular place in the book of which it is a part. I find the ‘why’ questions especially helpful here. Why does the writer say these particular things at this point in his book? Why does he say it here and why does he say it in this way? The more we can train ourselves to listen carefully to the detail of Scripture, the deeper will be our understanding and the richer our enjoyment of God’s life-giving words. ‘They are more precious than much pure gold and sweeter than honey from the comb’ (Psalm 19.10).
This means we have to ask ourselves exactly who is being addressed in our passage and what the surrounding verses tell us about their situation and need. If we can understand why these words were written for the first readers and what it meant to them, then it will start to become much clearer how the same unchanging message is vitally relevant to us, now.
That won’t always be obvious on the surface and we will often need to re-read and think hard, asking the Lord to open our eyes to see ‘wonderful things in your law’ (Psalm 11.18). Do you remember how Paul combined hard work with divine illumination when he wrote to Timothy, ‘Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this’ (2 Timothy 2.7)? Both are equally vital — reflection is our job, insight is the Spirit’s gift.
So if I’m doing my own notes on a book of the Bible, as suggested last month, I shall want to be working on what is the big idea, or theme tune, of the whole book. Why is it in the Bible? What would we not know if this book were not there? What is its distinctive contribution to the whole 66 books? This is sometimes called the ‘melodic line’ of the book — the major theme, which replays with different variations and applications, all the way through. If you think you know your Bible well, ask yourself how many books of the Bible you could write a theme-tune sentence summing up its essential contribution to the whole. You will probably find, like me, that you have quite a long way to go. But it’s an exciting journey!
Look for surprises
Another great tool for doing this work is to look especially for the things that surprise you as you read. Whenever I am pulled up by the Bible text and find myself saying, ‘I’ve never noticed that before’ or ‘Well, I wouldn’t have written that’, or, when I start to consider how this text questions my assumptions or rattles my cage, I rejoice because I know I’m going to be on a learning curve. It stops me thinking I already know it all and just applying my framework to every passage, like a mincing machine, reducing the Bible to a string of sausages, all much the same. Setting the text in its context will bring the truth alive and help enormously with its application. More about that next month!
David Jackman is the past President of the Proclamation Trust and writes the ‘Notes to growing Christians’ column for EN.
This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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