Reading the Bible in context is something that Christians talk about quite a bit. Churches and Bible studies teach that it’s important to read “in context” so that we can identify the author’s intent. We can’t just read a verse without understanding what occurs around that verse. By doing so, we run the risk of missing the point behind a Scripture; or worse yet, we come up with an entirely different meaning altogether (and this is bad… very bad.)
I grew up attending a Christian school. I spent a few years attending public school (high school and a little bit of college) before returning to Christian education once again. When I first began attending Liberty University, I had no intention of being a seminary student. (My first major was actually psychology.) But after a few semesters, I felt God leading me in a new direction. I earned my bachelor’s degree in religion and then my master’s degree in theological studies. Here’s one of the most crucial pieces of information I learned: I had no idea how much I didn’t know about the Bible and its history.
The truth is that I learned more in those two years of seminary about the Bible and how to study it than all of the previous years combined. Don’t get me wrong… I loved my church growing up as well as my school and teachers. With the best of intentions, they did the best they could to teach me how to grow as a Christian. I learned my Bible stories forwards and backwards. But reading the Bible in context… it’s so much more than just reading the whole chapter or even the whole Bible for that matter. It’s about understanding where the Bible came from, who the authors were, and what the culture was like when they wrote.
Let me paint you a scenario…
If I were to write a letter to the church discussing current events and issues, I would probably reference these issues as if you knew all about them. After all, these things are all over the news. I certainly wouldn’t have to go into detail describing them. I would say my peace about them and move on.
Now take that letter and hold on to it for a while. Let’s say that after 2000 years, a culture located half-way around the world decides to translate it into their own language. Not only are they translating it, but let’s say that the original language I wrote it in is no longer being spoken. So translators must do their best to try to decipher what I originally meant. Here’s the issue: if the new readers don’t take the time to understand my culture and what I was referencing, they won’t fully understand my original intent. They may be able to learn from my letter, but they won’t understand it the way my original readers would have. It would also be easy for them to misinterpret what I was trying to convey.
That is exactly how the Bible is for us today. The vast majority of the New Testament is filled with letters written to specific churches dealing with specific issues. Now I’m not trying to take away from the fact that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit and alive and active for the believer today. But how much more could we be learning from them if we understood where they were coming from? What first century Christianity was like? The conflict between the Jews and the Gentiles? Who and what Paul was talking about when he referenced specific people and events?
How can we fully understand the New Testament if we don’t understand the most basic things that the first-century world would have understood?
If we want to read the Bible in context, we must be willing to learn about the history and culture of the people who were a part of it.
So I challenge you. Reading the Bible in historical context is amazing! Understand that the New Testament letters were just that – letters. Paul didn’t write them with chapter and verse numbers like we see in our Bibles today. He meant for them to be received as a whole. So read them that way. We can’t just read the Bible through our 21st-century eyes, dissecting Paul’s letters to the point that we’ve made them say something Paul never meant to say.
I can honestly say that I loved studying the first-century world while I was in seminary. I finally understood the gravity of what was happening at that time. It opened my eyes to the hardships, the persecution, the struggle, and yet the immense joy that these new believers felt. I’m still learning how to read the Bible this way, but I can’t help feeling excited with them. They were real people just like you and me. They had a difficult call… to be the first Christians in history. And if God can work in their lives and in their culture the way He did, He can certainly do the same in ours! What an amazing God we serve!
More from the Bible Study Essentials series: