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The Map is Already Drawn
Looking for the Context of the Book, Chapter, Passage and Verse
(A song I’ve been loving for you to enjoy while you read)
Ten years ago, a friend of mine invited me to watch the second part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I had a slight issue though, until that point, I’d only watched the fifth, first, and third films in the series (in that order), and I’d fallen asleep throughout 70—90% of each film. I arrived at the cinema with no idea of what had happened in the first part of the Deathly Hallows or, indeed, any of the other films. Suffice it to say the experience was an odd one, not just for me but for the other viewers. Throughout the film, I tried to piece together what exactly was going on and when something didn't fit the narrative that I was forming for myself I would chuckle. I can't remember exactly what it was that had happened, but I ended up laughing quite heartily at what I soon found out was a rather poignant moment in the film. Sitting in the front row, I felt eyes like daggers burrow into the back of my head. It was only the third day since the film had come out and everyone in the room was a die-hard Potter fan. Thankfully, something exciting flashed across the screen and my sin was quickly forgotten.
We've all been there, whether it be a sports event, a play, a book someone has recommended, sitting, standing, or walking around thinking, “what on earth am I meant to be seeing that everyone else is already aware of?” We’re looking for ‘Context’.
A few years ago, my better half took me to a modern art gallery for my birthday. Wonderful for me, baffling for her. As the day went on her enjoyment began to grow as she learned to ask questions that would help her to better understand what she was seeing. Questions like:
Where does the artist come from?
What are they trying to say?
Is this political, polemic, or is the message a positive or a negative one?
As we left, she admitted that though she’d organised the day for me, she was convinced she wouldn’t enjoy any part of it, but by understanding why I was so excited, she was able to learn so much about modern art which she had never would have been able to on her own. She had, somehow, had a good time.
What about the bible then? Two Testaments. Sixty-six books. Multiple Genres.
That’s a tall order for anyone to get to grips with and very few of us are theologians, historians, and literature scholars, not to mention first century Jews or Greeks. Perhaps that’s why so many of us choose to leave the bible out of our lives entirely, even as Christians. Others decide to only read the ‘verse of the day’ and find a way of applying it to their lives, like biblical fortune cookies.
If you’re reading this, you have access to the internet and therefore a plethora of resources available for free at the click of a button, but what you also have is the ability to increase your understanding of the bible in just a few simple steps. For some of you, that’s through this article as well as those I’m releasing over the next couple of weeks, for others you need something deeper than that. If that’s you, stick around to the end for a book I think you’ll love, but also because you might find this method useful for teaching others.
I would contend that Context is a key component to understanding anything, not just the bible, I mean anything. Pet names, inside jokes, dialects, family habits, fears, hopes, and dreams. There are so many aspects of each of our lives which to fully explain we must begin by saying something like, “Well there was a time when…” or, “Back in Grandma’s Day…” or, “You had to be there, but…”
Things don’t just happen, they happen ‘because’ of something.
Even to teach you about Context I’ve had to tell you stories and give examples! Why? I need to give you Context for why you need to know about C… you know.
I’ve found over the years that for some reason this is the hardest step in bible reading for people to adopt and I want to make clear that this isn’t some Theologian only, wacky, crazy idea that only applies to those who spend decades understanding one verse, but this a normal, everyday practice which shouldn’t be disregarded because we’re talking about the bible. Conversely, I find that some have been reading the bible for years who, now that they know a decent amount, no longer feel the need to go back a learn about the Context of a book, chapter, or verse because they probably already know all the information there is to know. Please don’t fall into that trap either. Learning is like reading all the books on a bookshelf before realising there’s another bookshelf further along and once you finish that finding a whole library behind that one. Even if you were to finish the library, you’ll probably know enough by then to know how small this library is and how many more you’ll have to explore. Learning helps us to know more and also to know how much we don’t know.
Where do I start?
To get you off to a running start I want to suggest three stages of study that you might incorporate into your bible reading.
When you start a new book in your bible reading plan, take some time to ask some of the following questions:
Who wrote this book? (Find out anything you can about the author. Career, calling, family, heritage etc)
Who is this book being written to?
What Genre is it?
Whereabouts in the Bible do I find this book?
Who are the principal figures?
What are the key events?
When was it written?
Where was it written?
If you have a study bible, most of these questions will probably be answered in the introduction to the book, if so, fantastic, that’s great. If you don’t you might want to check out the Bible Project on YouTube or some online commentaries at blueletterbible.org. Once you’ve done this you’ll have a really great basis upon which to build and as you read the book more about it will become clear. Places will come alive, people’s actions may make sense and the authors intent will help to explain some things which otherwise might seem peculiar. Now, when you come across a new individual in the story (i.e. David, Barnabus, Enoch) you can do a small character study on them. What do we know about them from scripture, does anyone outside of scripture talk about them? Why are they being focused on this passage?
The same can be done for events. Take Passover for instance, if you read about the last supper and Passover in the Gospels you’ll then be able to understand it better if you find out when it was celebrated, who it was celebrated by and what it was commemorating.
Once you’ve gotten to grips with doing this for Books, Events and People then you can start looking into careers, geographical locations, people groups, genre differences, literary styles and all sorts of other elements from the text.
There is always something new to learn.
Finally, when you’re reading a tricky passage, remember that this passage doesn’t stand alone in the bible, there’s context up and down, left and right. Sometimes (usually) the best context is right in front of you ready to find. The author hasn’t written this by accident or simply spilt ink in the shape of a heresy, so looking at what they have been talking about up until now, or coming back to the passage after reading on and finding out where they are going can really help to untie us from difficult readings. The map has been used by many, many saints before you and will be used by saints long after you’re gone, worry not, you’re tracking a well-worn path.
The Gloss & the Text by Andrew S. Ballitch
This article was the first of three talking about what I call the three C’s:
I am far from the first person to group these three sentiments together though and so I’d love to introduce you to a book that explains them far better than I ever could. For those of you who don’t know, William Perkins was a Puritan Theologian of the Sixteenth Century and wrote a book called the Art of Prophesying among other fantastic works. Throughout, he puts to use what he calls Colation, Comparison and the Analogy of Faith, which are the same thing, but under different titles. Andrew Ballitch has gone through Perkin’s work in amazing detail, showing how time after time, Perkins expounded upon the Scriptures using this method and with great care and skill. If you’re looking for someone from history to learn biblical interpretation from, this is your guy and I can think of no better book to get you started on your journey.
For now, have a wonderful week and I look forward to speaking to you again next Sunday. I will be quite rested by then, having had a week off on holiday! I am quite excited as it’s been rather a long time since we’ve last been away.
Grace and Peace,
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