Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Bible Study 10 — Context [Part 4]

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.

2. GREATER CONTEXT (Continued)

The categories into which I’ve placed each book of the Bible are not hard-edged. Many books of the Bible contain more than one type of literature. Leviticus is largely law, but includes history. The gospels are historical, but include teaching. Revelation is prophetic, but includes personal messages to actual churches. The historical books contain long psalms and songs. The books of poetry contain wisdom and prophecy. Job is clearly poetic but there is every reason to believe it is historical. Peter and Paul write letters with prophecy in them. The letters are also full of teaching, but not everything in them is doctrinal by a long shot.

But to understand how to interpret what you read in any book of the Bible, it is necessary to remain aware of both the larger and more immediate context.

Let’s look at just a few of the ways in which failure to observe greater context can cause confusion:

1/ History (Genesis – Esther, Matthew – Acts)

Historical books are to be understood as literally as you would take any secular historical account; for the serious Christian, all the more so. Of course, for those who disbelieve in miracles, there is a tendency to spiritualize or mythologize any account which seems unlikely to them. Therefore Adam and Eve, Noah and his ark, the destruction of Sodom, Jonah, the crossing of the Red Sea and other historical incidents are sometimes taken allegorically.

There is no reason to allegorize a passage that comes in the context of an otherwise clearly historical account beyond simply wanting to get rid of the miraculous to make what you are reading seem more credible to the modern mind. But if you accept the existence of God at all, the possibility of miracles naturally follows. And if you accept the concept of a loving God, miracles become inevitable.

I put it to you that if you’re not prepared to believe in the miraculous, there’s not much point in studying scripture. To reject the miraculous either makes nonsense of scripture or liars of its writers.

Historical books simply tell you what people did, not always what they should have done. The well-known bromide that “You don’t get doctrine from the book of Acts” is a useful principle to remember whenever you’re reading history. Just because an otherwise godly man, woman, group or nation did something does not mean it is something we should emulate or that God approves of it.

2/ Law (Leviticus, Deuteronomy)

There is a huge danger of taking the Law that was given to the people of Israel at a certain point in time and imposing it on Christians. The concept of tithing is a very common imposition of an Old Testament concept on the New Testament economy. The book of Acts tells us in no uncertain terms that the dietary laws of the Old Testament do not even apply to Jewish Christians, let alone Gentile believers, and the epistles go on to explain how the rest of the Law is not to be imposed on believers in the Lord Jesus.

Of course there are wonderful things we can learn from the Law. It shows us the character of God by setting forth what he prizes and despises. There are applications that can be made from the Law to our lives as believers in Christ. But we are not under obligation to the Law, an easy thing to forget when you’re studying it.

3/ Poetry (Job, Psalms, Song of Solomon, Lamentations)

Poetry is by its nature hyperbolic. David describes acts of God that he could not possibly have witnessed: “What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?” These are not lies or hallucinations, they do not describe miracles and most of the time they are not even prophetic; they are figures of speech and are to be read as such, just as you would understand half the songs on the radio and any great secular or religious poetry.

To try to draw scientific conclusions from, or to literalize, poetic language will get you into no end of confusion.

4/ Wisdom (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes)

Proverbs is full of pithy universalisms. Most of the time they apply to us too, and we are wise to observe their general truth. Unlike the law, they are not hard and fast rules to be applied in every single situation. They speak to the human condition and offer wise advice in view of it.

They also frequently make use of a Hebrew literary device by which a truth is either reinforced by contrast (“A wise son makes his father glad, but a foolish man despises his mother”) or by repetition in slightly different words (“Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser, Teach a righteous man, and he will increase his learning”). Spending too much time parsing the latter construction for hidden meaning is not often profitable.

5/ Teaching (found within the gospels and epistles)

Whatever the Lord or the apostles said, they said to an original audience first. The “brood of vipers” John the Baptist spoke out against were hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees seeking John’s baptism of repentance without being willing to “bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance”. There is an application for us, perhaps, but the passage itself has nothing to do with the Christian church or anyone in it. When Matthew says, “one will be taken, the other left”, it is addressed to a Jewish audience and has nothing whatsoever to do with what is commonly referred to as the rapture.

6/ Letters (Romans – Jude)

Once again, the letters of the New Testament are best understood by first asking to whom they were written, and why. Some are personal, some are for a wider audience, though we can learn from all of them. Often the writer discloses his purpose, or it may be easily inferred (John: “These things I have written … in order that you may know that you have eternal life”; Paul to Philemon: “I appeal to you for my child … Onesimus”; Paul to Timothy: “that you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God”, etc.).

There are, of course, things in each letter that are outside the general purpose of the letter, but much misunderstanding can be avoided by recognizing, for instance, that the book of Hebrews was written to Jews, not Gentiles, something well explained here and here.

7/ Prophecy (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel – Malachi, Revelation)

John tells us “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy”. This is a good principle to hang on to as we read the prophetic books. They point forward or back to Christ, always. They are not written for our entertainment or to enable us to fix dates. They are only fully understood once they come to pass. The prophets of old sought “to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow”, and it was revealed that “they were serving not themselves but you”. Once the Lord Jesus came and died, the things they said which were intended to apply to him became clear. Before that, not so much.

So too with the Bible’s prophecies of the future: Their value is in giving us the general sweep of human history and the ultimate destiny of believing man in the glorious eternal kingdom of Christ, not in bogging down in the details of Gog and Magog, the whore of Babylon, which particular “lie” they will believe, or in leading Bible students to make foolish and specific predictions.

The prophecy in scripture abounds with figurative language. You can take the Bible “literally” and still see that in an instant, unless you are determined to be deliberately obtuse. Any of the prophetic books must be read with this in mind in order for them to make any sense.

God has spoken “at many times and in many ways”. We would be wise to listen to all, the way they were intended to be heard.

Next: More on context

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