III. How To Understand The Bible: Context

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11

Context is king! That is, you cannot understand the Bible without understanding the historical context of a verse. Each book of the Bible was written to a different audience with a different culture, custom and language. Studying the historical and cultural context of the Bible is called isagogics. When we know this background of our audience, we begin to hear the Scriptures through their ears and see the work of God through their eyes. Every book of the Bible was written to address a specific context and situation that was present among God’s people. For example, 1 Corinthians was written to a congregation in Corinth that needed to learn how to practice their faith in loving Christian discipline. Yet, Galatians was written to the church in Galatia to help them understand that salvation does not come from the works of the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. These two books seem at odds with each other, if it were not for the context. The goal of reading the Bible is to keep all the books in theological balance. We find that faith and works go hand-in-hand and that faith expresses itself in loving acts toward God and our neighbor. These are not contradictions, but  seeing the whole picture of the Bible.

Most study Bibles have an introduction before each book. Read it! In the introduction, you will learn about the author, the date, the audience, the cultural setting, the outline and the major theological themes in the book. Once you have this context, begin reading the book and ask yourself questions about each verse with the context in mind at all times. This should drastically boost your understanding of what the Bible is saying.

Take for example Jeremiah 29:11 above. Is this verse really ALL about you? If you woke up on the wrong side of the bed, don’t worry, God has a plan! If you had a bad day at work, don’t worry, the future is looking bright! If money is a little tight this month, don’t worry, God will prosper you! BUT, Jeremiah 29:11 has nothing to do with your bad day, or financial success. The context tells us something different. In 597 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Israel, sacked Jerusalem, rounded up 10,000 of the leading Jewish citizens, and dumped them in Babylon. Those Israelites lost everything. In Jeremiah 29:5-6 God tells these exiles now living in Babylon, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply THERE, and do not decrease.” Basically, you’re going to be in Babylon a while, 70 years to be exact! It is in this context that God says, “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not harm you…plans to give you a hope and a future.” In seventy years, these exiles would be dead! The promise of God would be realized in their children and grandchildren returning to Israel and rebuilding Jerusalem. God did have a plan, but God’s plan was to humble the exiles in a strange land and exalt their decedents. That is a tough message for the faithful living in Babylon! Sometimes God’s plan for us is humility, which is always performed by God for our benefit and our good. Keep trusting in God even when times get tough!

God bless,

Pastor Joel