The Bible is a beautiful library of books, filled with ancient wisdom for our present day.
It speaks not only of the past but also of the future.
It provides us with a proper framework for how we can know and interact with God, along with giving us a roadmap for how we are to live our lives.
Its importance can’t be overstated.
And our commitment as followers of Jesus to read, study, and practice the teachings of Scripture is vital to our relationship with God and our growth and maturity as His image bearers on the earth.
But it’s not just reading the Bible that’s a vital practice for a follower of Jesus, it’s reading the Bible in its proper context.
Because the Bible is an ancient collection of books, stories, genealogies, and history, it’s imperative that we know and understand the context in which the Bible was written.
Each author who penned the words of the Bible while under the inspiration of God did so with various writing styles and methods of communication. Every book of the Bible was written in a specific genre within varying contexts.
And in order for us to properly read, understand, and interpret the Bible, we need to understand the various contexts in which it was written.
Let’s take a look at three major contexts found within the library of Scripture.
The Historical and Cultural Context
Dr. Michael Heiser states in his book, The Unseen Realm:
But you must remember that, while the Bible was written for us, it was not written to us.
The original audience of the Bible lived in a world that is in many ways vastly different from our world. And whenever we read the Bible, it’s important that we understand who that passage of Scripture was written to.
A few important questions to ask when reading the Bible are:
Who was this written to?
What was going on during this point in history?
Both of these questions help to provide context to the passage of Scripture being read, studied, or taught.
When we know who the passage of Scripture was written to, we can put ourselves in their shoes, imagining what it would have been like to hear or read that same passage of Scripture within their specific context.
And when we know what was going on at that point in history, we can more accurately assess what is being said and why.
To provide an example, let’s look at a central theme in the book of Acts.
Professor and theologian, Dr. J. Todd Billings, shares:
A central confession of both Jews and Gentiles within the Book of Acts is that Jesus is Lord. But they had different cultural conceptions of what this central confession would mean. For Jews, to say, “Jesus is Lord” meant Jesus was the Lord of the universe in the Old Testament, who created and chose them as God’s people. Among Gentiles, the same word for Lord in Greek was used to speak about the caesars, the worldly rulers who would often ask for homage. And somehow, in his mysterious way, Jesus was the true Lord now. So even within the early church, there are different cultural conceptions of the gospel that complement each other. 1
What might seem to us a simple declaration of Jesus’ Lordship was a radical and dangerous confession for Jews and Gentiles alike.
When we have a more accurate understanding of the historical and cultural context of the Bible, we become more aware of the weight and magnitude of the Scripture, especially with core confessions of our faith as mentioned previously.
The Literary Context
Another important context to be understood when reading and studying the Bible is its literary context.
The literary context is important because it helps to keep us on track. Too often we try and make a piece of Scripture fit our own preconceived notions. When we read something in its literary context, we have to face what’s really in the text, so that we don’t accidentally (or purposefully) make Scripture say whatever we want it to say. When we read a verse in its literary context, we must deal with the verse in light of what the rest of its own context is saying. A good literary approach allows Scripture to have its own voice.2
It’s easy for us to come to Scripture with preconceived notions about God, His world, and His people. And because of that, it’s important that we understand the literary context of the Bible.
Emily Kurz at the Ethnos 360 Bible Institute writes:
When you know the literary context of the verse you are studying, you will better grasp the passage as a whole. The literary context gives you a better understanding of what the author is intending to say. This increases your chances of accurately interpreting the message.3
It’s the literary context of Scripture that provides us with clarity on what’s being said, as well as the intention of that specific author. And whenever we better understand what the author intended to say, we are able to interpret the Bible more accurately.
A few key questions to ask regarding the literary context of Scripture are:
Is this passage of Scripture written in poetic form?
Is the author using metaphor to communicate a truth or reality?
Is the passage of Scripture descriptive or prescriptive in nature?
Each author within the library of Scripture penned their words using various themes and communication styles, all with the intent of communicating truth to their readers.
And it’s our responsibility to accurately read and interpret the Scriptures, in order for us to develop a Biblical worldview.
The Theological Context
While the Bible is a collection of books penned by various authors, its story is intricately woven together with an overarching theme.
Each verse, each chapter, and each book join together to form an entire narrative which we know of as the story of God. And God’s story and movement throughout history is not random or by happenstance. It’s intentional and interconnected.
The Bible provides us with a framework for how we view God, as well as our role within God’s larger story.
Author and pastor, Matt Smethurst, writes:
If we ever hope to properly handle the stories in the Bible, we must first grasp the story of the Bible. And that story, the one that traverses its way from Genesis to Revelation, though recorded for you, is not finally about you. The focus is far higher and the hero far better.4
The Bible, while written for us, was not written about us.
Its overarching narrative doesn’t center on us.
The Bible, from beginning to end, centers on Jesus Christ.
It’s a Christocentric theology that binds the stories of Scripture together, forming a beautiful narrative. A story that transcends time and spans generations.
Jesus is the central theme of Scripture, and the context for our theology when we approach the Scriptures.
And it’s only when we understand this theological context that the dots begin to connect, enabling us to see the beautiful tapestry that is the story of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Reading the Bible in Context
Because reading the Bible in context is an invaluable part of following Jesus, we created a course to help you dive deeper in the beauty of the Scriptures.
In our online course, Unseen Realm 101, Dr. Michael Heiser takes a look at the Bible through a historical lens, explaining:
- The historical and cultural milieu of Scripture
- The various authors and audiences of Scripture
- God’s vision for a supernatural family on the earth
If you’d like to go deeper in your study of God’s Word and discover more about the importance of reading the Bible in context, you can register for our online course here.
In Joel, chapter two, we read And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons...
Full altars. Hands raised. Decisions made. Every Sunday, this is a normal part of many church...
For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of...
Revelation 1: 3 states Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed...