Unlocking the Text: Part 2

“Understanding the context will help shed light on the text itself.”

As previously discussed in the inital article of this series, many students have survived a year or two of Greek only to be left frustrated and wondering how to use their Greek. David Black states, “The student or pastor whose heart beats with passion for the Word of God is willing to endure the inevitable drudgery that comes with seemingly endless lists of words or forms. There comes a time, however, when all but the most devoted disciples of paradigms and principal parts ask, ‘What good is all of this? How will this help us as pastors?’ These questions are neither stupid nor smart-alecky.” Rather, they provide the purpose for the ensuing article.

The World Behind the Text

The first step in answering these seemingly elusive questions involves establishing the context of a passage. Establishing the context will provide the background information to assist in understanding the meaning of a passage. It will also assist in identifying the exact passage the expositor of the Word will preach. The context must drive any interpreter of the Word of God. A commonly known saying is “A text without a context is the pretext for a proof text.” A careful interpreter of the Word does not desire to support a biblical position on the basis of proof texts that have nothing to do with the context in which they are located.

This leads to the question of what exactly is involved in understanding the context? An example may be helpful. What thoughts does the following statement bring to your mind? “A child of mine received a black eye.” To understand this statement in its context, the following questions may be asked: Which of my children received the black eye? Where was my child when he or she received the black eye? How did the incident occur? Who was involved in it? Were there any witnesses? What events led up to my child receiving the black eye? What was done in response to the incident? Is this a literal black eye, or is it a figurative reference to something my child received as a result of inappropriate behavior? The list could go on, but these provide a sample of the types of questions that must be asked to recreate the original setting and context of the incident.

As indicated by the above illustration, part of understanding the context of a biblical passage involves the art of asking the right questions: Who is the author? Who are the recipients? What is the relationship between the author and the recipients (e.g., adversarial, congenial, close friendship)? Where do the recipients live and what are the present circumstances (e.g., persecution, poverty, wealth, spiritual indifference)? What are the geographical factors surrounding the story or the setting of the recipients (e.g., location, natural resources, weather)? What is the culture of the recipients (e.g., religious background, city life, athletics)? What is the overall purpose of the book? What is the subject matter immediately under consideration in the part of the book where my passage is located? All of the previous questions are seeking to answer two basic questions. What did the biblical author mean? What did the author intend his original recipients to understand?

These questions assist the interpreter in understanding the world of the biblical text in the first century. They also are necessary to bridge the gap of two thousand years between the writing of the text and the reading of the text today. It is then crucial for one to apply the text to the lives of people living in the twenty-first century. This understanding is not without difficulty. Those who live with western culture face not only the time gap involved but also the vast cultural gap between the West and East.

Asking these questions helps the interpreter to understand the developmental stages of the text. The stages include the event followed by the recording of the event followed by the reading of the text. The event involves either the events recorded in the text (narrative) or the events that precipitated the writing of the text (letter). Recording of the event involves the author penning the event into a manuscript. Reading of the text involves the world of the recipient and their reception of the text. Rarely, if ever, can each of these stages be recreated in complete detail; however, the more the interpreter understands these aspects, the better he will understand the world of the text.

The next step is to find answers to the questions. The following sources are extremely helpful:

Arnold, Clinton E., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, vol. 1-4 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002). This four-volume set is an invaluable tool for providing cultural and background information on the books and specific texts of the New Testament.

Encountering Biblical Studies (Grand Rapids: Baker Books). This series includes volumes on the historical and theological surveys of the Old and New Testaments.

Ferguson, Robert, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993). This resource is helpful in understanding the society, culture, philosophies, religion, and political atmosphere of the world of the last centuries BC and the first centuries AD.

The Text Itself

One part of the context involves understanding the world of the text. The other part involves the text itself. How much does one decide what part or how much of a passage he will preach? The most natural place to begin this process is to break a text into paragraphs to isolate individual units of thought. This process leads to preaching a self-contained unit of thought rather than attempting to preach multiple principles in a single message.

Focusing on one paragraph helps the pastor/teacher to stay focused in his preaching. If one preaches large sections and multiple principles, the recipients may suffer from information overload. This is a danger of any message. The safeguard of preaching paragraphs is that one focuses on the main principle of the paragraph and drives that main thought home without overwhelming the audience with an overabundance of material.

The context provides the basis upon which to build a sermon. However, even this context must be kept in context. No sermon is adequately prepared apart from the foundation of Christ and time spent in prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit for illumination. Prayer, coupled with a sound exegetical method, provides the foundation for a skillfully crafted sermon based on the text of Scripture and applicable to individuals today.

Originally published Winter/Spring 2004