Let me describe a situation for you to consider. A person moves to a seaside village in America during the Fall season. This person doesn’t understand the language or the culture yet – they just want a better opportunity for their children.
As they look outside the kitchen window at dusk, a scene is unfolding on the street in front of them that leaves them speechless. A small man, obviously a pirate of some sort, is waving his sword at a homeowner while thrusting a paper bag in his face. The home owner doesn’t appear frightened…in fact, he sticks his head inside for a moment and then dumps candy in the brown bag with a smile. The pirate abruptly leaves and the same scene reenacts itself at the next house.
Obviously, we are witnessing someone’s first Halloween…but what is obvious to one is not always obvious to another. Because this night is ingrained into our culture, it requires no explanation. However, for an “outsider,” the actions have no context, it makes no sense, and they end up confused.
Here’s the rub. What happened in the Bible made perfect sense to that audience, in that culture, during that time…But we are the “outsiders” trying to understand a foreign culture. Coupled to that phenomena is that we are not only trying to understand the situation we are observing, but also trying to discover principles that transcend across time, languages, and culture. Wow! How do we do that?
Identify the Main Characters
Understanding both the writer and the ones being written to helps us to understand the setting of a passage. The church at Corinth dealt with much Greek pagan influence whereas the church at Philippi was immersed in Roman culture. The churches in Macedonia had great poverty but the church at Laodicea professed their wealth.
No two churches in the New Testament were identical. Understanding the audience and their background helps us to “sit where they sat” (to use Ezekiel’s phrase). By this, I mean that we don’t simply read the Bible as a history book about a dead civilization – it is the living Word of God that abides for ever. I don’t know who coined the phrase, but read the Bible with a “sanctified imagination,” envisioning what that audience was dealing with and what it would have been like to receive that letter.
In discussing “main characters,” it isn’t just the writer, and the recipients. Take, for example, the book of Jonah. If we want to understand the cultural setting, we need to investigate Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. Why was Jonah so unwilling to take the truth there? Further, why was he so frustrated when they repented? Most evangelists / missionaries I know would be beyond thrilled if an entire city turned to God!
In the case of Jonah, most commentaries will give a description of the brutality of the Assyrians. If ever a nation “deserved” to be judged by God, Jonah was sure it was the Assyrian nation. That mindset of Jonah is key to understanding what God is accomplishing in his life. The book isn’t centered on a whale!
Identify Foreign Customs
If you read the New Testament this morning, you read something roughly 2,000 years old that was originally written in Greek, under the Roman Empire, to talk about Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures! If you were reading in the Old Testament, the events you read happened at an even greater time distance!
While the Bible is a living book, speaking to all generations, it is written within a specific historic, geographic, and linguistic context. Consequently, there is an expected contextual understanding that the writers have for their audience. Yet, that knowledge that was so “obvious” to the original readers isn’t as obvious to us today.
Consider the Abrahamic Covenant as it is ratified in Genesis 15. Abram is asked to cut animals in half. It’s “weird” by American standards – where’s the contract? What does the small print say? Our “way of doing business” doesn’t match up with the times of Abram.
We often say God “made a covenant” with Abram. More accurately, He “cut a covenant” – literally. In that time, the custom of entering into a covenant was to cut the animals in half, and have both parties walk through the midst. Symbolically, they were pledging that if I fail to live up to my part of the covenant, may the fate of these animals be mine as well.
Consider the holy kiss that the New Testament churches were commanded to give in greeting. The church I attend doesn’t make it a practice to kiss all who enter! But, do we have the right to just abandon a command? Paul’s inspired command isn’t so much the “how” but the “what.” What they are commanded to do is show hospitality; How they did it in that culture was with the kiss on the cheek. Today, we show hospitality in different ways.
Identify the Letter’s Cause
What’s the purpose for the writing? What is the spiritual condition of the intended audience? Is this a rebuke or an exhortation? Some writers give their reason explicitly (Luke 1.1-4; Acts 1.14; 1 John 5.13). Others we can tell by repetition of themes.
In the Psalms, some Bibles print the “preface / foreword” of the psalm that provides a historical connection. In the Gospels, specifically Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there are so many similarities – but what’s different? These differences in emphasis help to identify the purpose, the prompting for the book from a human perspective.
In the book of Hebrews, there is a strong, defined Christology. Yet, there are five parenthetical exhortations / warnings that show these believers were in the midst of some challenging circumstances and were in immediate need of understanding spiritual maturity.
Identify the Passage’s Context
Before you focus on “that one verse” that speaks to you, ask some basic questions first. Are there any words that should be defined? Any words repeated? Is this verse part of a command? An Old Testament quotation? Is it narrative, prose, poetry, prophecy?
Meaning is grounded not in a stand-alone word, nor even a sentence – it’s found at the paragraph level. Identify that paragraph (there are paragraph Bibles that help with this) and its main idea.
Bring it together
With the audience (characters) understood, customs identified, the purpose clarified, and the context noted, it’s time to bridge the cultural/time gap from the original audience to our 21st century. We are moving from understanding the passage’s meaning / interpretation to making an application for today.
- Before jumping to application, proper interpretation of the text is vital (else, how can we make a proper application?)
- Identify the principles or underlying issues in the text (the Bible repeats themes in both testaments, over the course of 2-3000 years…These would be “general” principles and we should pay attention; some were very specific situations such as Abraham at Mount Moriah, the Rich Young Ruler commanded to sell everything, etc)
- Identify the parts of the text that have no contemporary practice in our culture (we don’t pour water or ointment on feet, we don’t encourage our women with head coverings – what was the purpose of these actions and what principle can transfer to our culture?)
- Read the Scripture; Hide it in your heart; Meditate upon it; Ask for God’s wisdom; and Live it out;
God’s word is alive today. With God’s help and our willingness to be diligent in hearing and understanding His word – we can see it bear fruit in our lives today!