Sunday, August 15, 2021

Bible Study 09 — Context [Part 3]

Another instalment in the re-presentation of our 2013-2014 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.


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 us 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 for a bit.

Reading Someone Else’s Mail

We always need to remind ourselves that we are not the original recipients of most of the books and letters in the Bible, though we always benefit from the knowledge of God that we gain from them. As others have well put it, we are “reading someone else’s mail”.

That’s obvious when we read Paul’s letter to Philemon, for instance: the book is tiny, written specifically to one believer for the purpose of imploring him to respond in a kindly and Christian manner to the unexpected return of his runaway slave. Since most of us are not apostles, slave owners or slaves, anything we can get out of Philemon 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: The Four Gospels

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 his intended audience is unquestionably Jewish. As any good Jewish historian would, he begins with the Lord’s genealogy. Moreover, he repeatedly refers back to the Law of Moses. A Greek or Roman audience would have been entirely unfamiliar with and uninterested in Jewish legal/religious details. But Matthew goes out of his way 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 fulfills the requirements of the promised Messiah of Israel. Only a Jew would care.

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 does not begin with a 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 whom 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.

How Theme Influences Content

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 center, 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, though 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 reasonably characterize the gospels as redundant.

Next: More about greater context

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