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Monday, February 17, 2014

Bible Study 09 – Context [Part 3]

Another instalment in an ongoing series about studying the Bible using methods deduced from the Bible itself. The series introduction can be found here.

The second Bible study tool we are discussing is context. For justification, see the first post on this subject.

2. LARGER CONTEXT (The Book)

It’s fair to say that each book of the Bible is written with a specific purpose in view. This would likely be true even if each book was solely authored by a human being; most people do not sit down and write without purpose, though some things one reads on the internet might make one question that assertion.

But it seems all the more logical that this would be the case when we remind ourselves that the word of God has a single author, in that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”. Of course each instalment of God’s progressive revelation of himself to mankind would have a specific purpose, whether or not such purpose is instantly obvious to us.

Let’s think about that fact for a bit.

We always need to remind ourselves that, where most of Scripture is concerned, we are not the intended recipients, though we always benefit from the knowledge of God that we gain. As others have well put it, we are “reading someone else’s mail”.

That’s screamingly obvious when we read Paul’s letter to Philemon, for instance: The book is tiny, written specifically to one Christian man for the purpose of imploring him to respond in a kindly and Christian manner to the return of a runaway slave. Anything we can get out of it for ourselves is purely by application or by extension. But since “all scripture … is profitable”, we need not doubt that there are important lessons we can glean indirectly from that particular piece of mail.

In other cases, though, the fact that a book of Scripture had an intended audience other than us, and a primary purpose unrelated to our daily lives may be easily forgotten. Psalms and Proverbs contain such universal statements that we may forget that they are not written first and foremost for 21st century Christians but for faithful Jews and, in some cases, for Israel’s remnant, about which we read in Revelation. These Psalms have not yet reached their intended audience. Whatever useful lessons we may draw from such passages, it would be a mistake to attempt to interpret every detail as if it relates to our own experience.

But let’s not just assert that the Holy Spirit writes with purpose, let’s examine how:

An Example:

Why do we have four gospels when we could’ve simply had one? We could try speculating, I suppose, but at least in one case, the author has told us why he wrote about the life of the Lord Jesus:

Luke tells Theophilus, to whom he writes, that he is doing so “in consecutive order … so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught”. His concern is primarily historical, documenting the entire account of the Lord’s life with considerable detail for the purpose of authentication.

As for the other three:

Matthew doesn’t tell us his purpose in so many words, but the fact that his intended audience is Jewish is evident from the fact that he begins with the Lord’s genealogy and continuously refers back to the Law; something with, and in which, a Greek, Roman or modern audience would be much less familiar or interested. He takes great pains to show the continuity between that which was prophesied in the Old Testament and its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. He starts in chapter 1, with “all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled” and continues all through his narrative (2:5,17; 3:3; 4:4,6,7,15; etc., etc.), establishing how in every detail, Jesus fulfils the requirements of the promised Messiah of Israel.

Mark’s emphasis is on the actions of the Lord rather than his words, concentrating on his continuous activity in service of his Father. There are few parables or long speeches as are found in the other three gospels, but much activity. The word translated “immediately” occurs 40 times.

John makes no attempt to write comprehensively, telling us “there are also many other things Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written”. Instead, his mission is primarily theological; to demonstrate that Jesus Christ was fully God. Consequently he begins, not with genealogy or human history, but with the statement “… the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. It is through John that we learn clearly for the first time, though it may be suggested elsewhere, that Jesus Christ was the agent through which God created the world. This is not something to which John was a witness, obviously, and puts his gospel in a different category entirely from the other three.

Considering the specific themes apparent in Matthew, Mark and John, it is unsurprising to find that all three writers, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, pick and choose the facts they use in the service of those themes:

·         Mark, viewing the Lord as servant, and John, giving evidence that he is God in the flesh, don’t bother with genealogies; Luke, the historian, and Matthew, writing to Jews, both provide them.

·         Luke and Matthew provide varying degrees of birth and childhood detail, with Luke naturally providing the greatest amount of history; John and Mark start with the Lord as an adult.

·         John, with his emphasis on the heavenly nature of Christ, comes back time and time again to it, giving detail the others do not. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us John the Baptist referred to the Lord as one “mightier than I”, but only John reports these words from the Baptizer: “[He] has a higher rank than I, for he existed before me”. John frequently adds such details to reinforce his theme.

So why four gospels? The Lord Jesus is the centre, the nexus, the entire point of the word of God. He is everything that God has to say. It’s not surprising that it takes more than one account to even begin to do him justice.

But the wealth of information provided for us, as John admits, only scratches the surface.

One thing is certain: When their purpose is understood, nobody can suggest that the gospels are redundant.

Next: More about larger context

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