When we come to study the Bible, we all know that one of the key things we must understand is the context of the passage. If we don't, we run the risk of reading and applying it in a wrong way. Below are some pointers to help you know what to look out for, as you seek to understand the context of a passage.
Literary context - The context in the text
Firstly, we need to understand a passage in relation to the text it is part of. Letters are a part words, words are a part of sentences, sentences are a part of arguments, stories, flows of thought, which then make up books. To understand a text, we need to understand how words and sentences fit in the larger context of the book they are written in.
To do this, you need to look at the flow of thought throughout the book. How does each part relate and change how other parts are understood. Also, you need to study the themes and key things that the author is trying to say. Then from this, you can seek to understand the purpose in why the author is writing. And once you know what the author is trying to achieve, you will be able to better understand and apply the text. This will also help you to focus on the main point the author is making and not the small details of the text. But to help us understand an author’s purpose, we also need to look at the next context of every passage.
Historical context - The 3 audiences of every passage
We need to realise that there are three audiences to every passage that we read in the Bible. Understanding this about biblical passages will help us read and apply them properly.
1. The audience in the text
Every passage needs to first be understood at this level. Every passage and story in the Bible tells us about people, what they did, what happened and God’s involvement with them. This is probably the clearest audience in our mind when we come to reading a passage, because we see them in the passage.
Because there is this audience, we need to ask the following questions: What did the things in the narrative mean for the people in it? What was the significance for them of the things happening?
Also, we need to realise, that at times this audience may be the same as the one the text is written to (e.g. most of the epistles), however, often it is different (e.g. most Old Testament books, the Gospels). An example of this is in the gospel books, which tell of Jesus and His interactions with people at that time, but then the gospel book has been later written to different individuals and groups decades later.
2. The audience the text was written to
Now we are talking about the written text, not the narrative in it. This is where we look at the historical context and background of the author and those who he was writing to.
Every book is recorded by an author, at particular time, to a particular group of people and with a particular purpose. In the Bible, often the stories and events being written to people, happened hundreds of years earlier.
So here as we read, we must ask the questions: What would have hearing all these things done to the people it was written to? Why was this written? What was the authors purpose in writing this?
This is so important to understanding a text. Imagine if historians in 1000 years came across a cartoon or article on the Australian or American politics of today. They would have to know the culture and what is going on now at this time to properly know what that cartoon means. And we must do the same with the Bible and know the audience and context it was written in, to understand it.
3. The audience of the future
This is us, and many others in history. All passages in the Bible were written for the edifying of God’s church (2 Timothy 3:16-17). 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 summarises many Old Testament stories and it says this about them. “These things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did... These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on who the fulfilment of the ages has come.” (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11). This audience may not have been in the authors mind, but it was in God’s mind as He enabled men through the Holy Spirt to write the Bible. He had us and the future readers in mind, who would benefit greatly from these books and were also written for us. Do you realise that? The Bible was written for you! Even this passage here, or ones like it that can feel irrelevant are for us and our good. The problem is we don’t open our eyes and wrestle slowly with what we read. I don’t enough!
This means, we need to ask the question: How does this passage apply to me? What do I learn from it?
May understanding the context of every passage in the Bible help us to properly apply them to our context. For more help on studying the Bible, read "How to study the Bible - Key principles".