In high school, I had a great art teacher who wanted to make a point. She gave us an assignment to complete in class. It sounded easy enough, but it proved to be a rather humorous and humbling lesson. All we had to do was draw a camel. That was it. Sounds easy, right? Well, we had nothing to look at, no frame of reference at all. Believe it or not, camels are rather scarce in Tennessee. And so, most of our drawings were atrocious. They looked more like misshapen cattle or deformed horses than camels. The point was obvious, some basis of familiarity is necessary. We need a frame of reference.
We need a frame of reference.
The same is true in studying Scripture. To just open the Bible, point to a verse, and start reading would be like jumping into the middle of a movie and trying to understand the importance of a character’s dialog. You will have too many questions for the plot and story to really make much sense. Who are the characters? What’s going on? If you’ll watch for a while, you can usually catch up, but if you just repeatedly jump in and out of the theater, well, you’re missing the movie and not enjoying the time you’re investing. Unless we systematically approach God’s Word in a similar way, we will miss the point and not enjoy the time we are devoting.
When it comes to studying Scripture, there are two main contexts that make up the step of familiarization: historical and literary. The historical context helps us understand where we are in history, and is basically a list of facts about the verse or verses that help us understand the author’s intent and the greater application in our own lives. We can usually begin to understand the historical setting by asking the five basic interrogatives you learned in grade school: who, what, when, where, and why. Who is the author of the book? When was it written? Where was the author? The recipients? Why was it written? What are they doing/saying/teaching? To what end?
It’s important to find these facts because we need to know what the culture was like and where this Scripture is along the path of God’s plan of redemption. Remember, from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is teaching us that we were lost to Him through sin, that He actively worked to draw us near to Him through teaching and guiding chosen people, that He secured our restoration through Jesus, and, ultimately, He will restore all that is His. The details He has recorded in His Word were important enough that each one was intentionally included and preserved for you and I to read, to understand, and to apply.
He will restore all that is His.
Beyond the historical context, we also need to familiarize ourselves with the literary context of our verses. The reason this is important is because it lets us know how we need to read the text. For example, you wouldn’t read an encyclopedia the way you would read a novel. You wouldn’t read an email the same way you read IKEA instructions. So, why wouldn’t we want to know what type of literature we’re reading in Scripture?
Going deeper, literary context also speaks of where the verses fit with those around them. For example, taken out of context, Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, so you won’t be judged,” might sound like a command to not tell people they are wrong or making mistakes. However, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, He goes on to speak about, you guessed it, the necessity of judging.
In the literary context of the verses and paragraphs around this verse He explains what He means. For example, in verse 6 He speaks of what is holy and valuable. How can we know these things if we aren’t using sound judgment? Then, in verses 13-21, He talks about narrow gates and broad gates, false prophets, sheep and wolves, good fruit and bad. These are all statements teaching it is necessary to differentiate, otherwise known as using sound judgement.
So, in its literary context, it’s plain to see that verse 1 isn’t a condemnation against common sense, but a warning not to be harsh in our discernment, particularly when it comes to spiritual hope. Everyone can be saved, but not everyone should be a spiritual influence in our lives. We must use judgment, but that judgment must be formed by Scripture. Other New Testament authors pick up on this by teaching believers to beware of false teachers and heresies, to correct people that hold to wrong beliefs, and to encourage one another toward solid biblical truth, all of which require us to be biblically aware.
We must use judgment, but that judgment must be formed by Scripture.
The only way to understand the literary context is to become familiar with the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs around the verses being studied. This may sound pretty intimidating, but not if we approach our daily readings systematically. If tomorrow I simply pick up where I left off today, then I already know a lot of the context. Plus, some of what I read today helps clarify what I read previously or sets the stage for what I’ll read later. This is also a reason I preach expository messages. It keeps the truths being communicated clearly in focus.