Three Important Contexts for Bible Study

Each book of the Bible was written at a specific time, and that historical background is important

“The best way to grasp the literary context of a passage is to read it yourself. Unlike historical context, where we mostly need to depend on experts, any ordinary person with a Bible can see the literary context. When studying a smaller passage of Scripture, it is a good practice to read the entire book which contains that passage on an ongoing basis.”

 

We use the word “context” a lot on this blog. However, we don’t always use the word in the same way.

There are at least three different contexts that are important when studying the Bible: the historical context, the literary context, and the personal context. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Historical Context

Each book of the Bible was written at a specific time, and that historical background is important. At minimum, we should recognize who wrote the book and what was happening in that part of the world at the time.

One of the main themes of the Bible is how God calls and saves his people and how they extend his kingly rule over the earth. Therefore, it is crucial to understand who is in power and the condition of God’s people.

The question of power is relevant both for God’s people and those nearby. When reading the Old Testament, we should learn about the leaders of Israel and the surrounding nations. How the king in Israel came to power and whether he was faithful to God will explain much about the mood of a passage and any warnings or commands contained therein.

God’s people have gone through long stretches of faithfulness and rebellion, punctuated by prophetic announcements. As we read the Old Testament, we need to discern whether Israel is turning toward or away from God at the time.

(The questions of power and faithfulness apply when reading the New Testament as well, but the span of time and the number of other nations involved are much larger in the Old Testament.)

The best place to find a short historical introduction to each book of the Bible is a good Study Bible. For more detailed information, a commentary is the place to turn.

Literary Context

The context to which we refer most frequently on this blog is the literary context of the passage in question. This is certainly true for our ongoing Context Matters series. In these posts we examine well-known verses or phrases from the Bible and show how they might mean something deeper or different that what we assume.

Literary context matters because the Bible is not a loose collection of inspirational stories or aphorisms. The biblical authors wrote works of literature, so where an author places a passage was a deliberate choice, and the meaning of that passage is framed by what comes before and after.

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