How to Read the Bible in Context
The Bible is not just any book. It is God’s Word to us, given using a number of literary genres, through the stories of a cast of rotating characters, and over the span of a few thousand years.
So how do we read such a book?
This question is important when picking up any document, from paperback to newspaper. You wouldn’t read a historical novel on WWII the same way you would a nonfiction historical account of the same time. And we read the newspaper's front page differently than the opinion-editorials (or at least, we ought to read them differently).
How, then, should we read the Bible? It starts with context.
In Christ from Beginning to End, authors Trent Hunter and Stephen Wellum outline six different contexts—three specific, three general—to help you read the Bible well. For Hunter and Wellum, understanding these 6 contexts is like reading the directions before playing a board game:
If you know the rules, the game will make sense and you might even enjoy it. But learning the rules can be a bit tedious and frustrating until you start to see how they fit into the larger game. (41)
The same is true for the Bible. Grasping these rules will help you read the Bible in context and therefore help you better study the Bible.
1. Consider the Historical Context
“Every passage of Scripture emerges in the course of history” (47). Which is why in order to read the Bible in context, we need to read it in its historical context—beginning with the author and the original audience.
“When thinking about the original audience,” Hunter and Wellum explain, “we should distinguish the original characters in the story from the original readers, those who were reading Scripture about those characters” (47). For example, we read about Abraham and his journey from Moses’ point-of-view as he led Israel through the wilderness on the way to the promised land. An important question to ask, then, is: “What is Moses teaching the Israelites about Abraham and the Patriarchs?” (47).
The Gospels serve as another example:
[I]n his Gospel account, John tells his post-resurrection readers about events that weren’t fully understood until after the resurrection, not only preserving historical accuracy but also reminding us that the original audience was reading the Gospel after Christ’s resurrection. (47)
As with the Five Books of Moses, the Gospels illustrate the principle that the historical context of the Bible is informed both by the original authors and the original audience.
2. Consider the Cultural Context
Coinciding with historical context is the cultural context of a biblical book. This includes the original cultural circumstances that gave rise to the book, as well as the cultural features of the time.
Consider Revelation 3:14–22, where John wrote to seven churches addressing specific circumstances. “We should not forget that these were real churches with real locations in the first century” (47).
And in Revelation 3:15–16, the Laodicean church is described as neither “hot” nor “cold”—reflecting the cultural features of two nearby cities: Hierapolis had hot springs that were of medicinal value, while Colossae had cold springs that brought nourishment and refreshment; Laodicea’s water was lukewarm, tasteless, and useless. The cultural features of Laodicea inform the historical circumstances: “the spiritual life of the church had become like her city’s water supply— lukewarm and useless” (47–48).
Remember that there were real-life circumstances that gave rise to the Bible's narrative books and poetry, the Gospels and the letters. Hunter and Wellum help readers understanding these circumstances along with the cultural features of the time, helping us read the Bible in context.
3. Consider the Literary Context
”Reading a text in its literary context involves interpreting it in light of its flow of words and the form the words take” (45).
First, considering the texts literary flow involves reading a text in terms of the words around it. “Words mean something in the sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books in which they are used” (45). That’s why we don’t start reading a novel in the middle, because each word, paragraph, and chapter all add up to something important. And yet this is often how we approach the Bible, by starting in the middle with little regard to the literary flow that adds up to specific meaning. Hunter and Wellum explain:
Since it’s a long book and pastors preach out of different sections each week, we get used to entering and exiting portions of Scripture without considering the context of the books in which they are found, let alone their location in the rest of the Bible’s storyline… But this practice can also reinforce our tendency to read passages in isolation. (45–46)
The authors offer a solution: “if you take the time to read and reflect on a book as a whole, then every part of that book will start to make more sense” (46).
Second, properly reading the Bible in its literary context means considering the literary form the author chose in writing. “The Bible’s words are written in the form of minimally three different kinds of texts: discourse, narrative, and poetry” (46):
- “Discourse texts are simply words spoken or written from one person to another” (46)
- “Narrative texts are words that tell a story” (46)
- “Poetic texts…[convey their] meaning through images, and [these texts are] structured" formally; consider English poetry's rhyming lines (46)
While these three are often combined, forming other genres, “learning to spot the form or the kind of text the author writes will greatly help you in your personal Bible reading” (46).
That concludes a summary of the 3 specific contexts for understanding a biblical text. The summary only scratches the surface of what Hunter and Wellum discuss in their book.
Now we transition to a summary of 3 general contexts:
4. Look Down at the Close Context
“When we look down at the page, we seek to understand the words in their immediate context. The close context takes into account the divine inspiration and human character of the words written” (42–43). This general kind of context includes the chosen words, communicated ideas, and the specific book we’re reading, understood within its historical setting. It’s everything we see when we read the page in front of us, both the divine and human aspects of the book.
Scripture as a divine book means it is unified, from one Author, coherent, sufficient, perfect, and urgent. These truths carry several implications for how we read the Bible:
- “We should read it with creaturely humility because these words are from our Creator and Lord”
- “We are to read with expectation”
- “We should also read with caution, recognizing that we are inclined to misunderstand what God has written”
- “We should read the Bible patiently to accurately discern what God has said”
- “We don’t stand over Scripture; we stand under it in submission to God” (44–45)
Since the Bible is also a human book, we need to pay attention to its human aspects. We must not focus on the Bible’s divine character to the extent we neglect its human ones. Hunter and Wellum remind us that “God speaks to us through what the authors wrote, which demands hard work from us to discern what the authors intended to say. Reading a given text in its close context means reading it in its literary and historical context” (45).
Hunter and Wellum remind us to “take seriously every word and read them in keeping with their divine and human intent” (48).
5. Look Back at the Continuing Context
Since the Bible was written over time and spanning several centuries, “we must look back in the story to discover how a given passage relates to what preceded it” (49). We need to discern the deeper shape and flow of the story, understanding the movements of characters and events and how they relate to the underlying structure of the Bible.
But how? One way is simply to work through the Bible, starting at the beginning with Genesis. But this has limitations because the Bible isn’t necessarily compiled chronologically as we often think of books. Instead, Hunter and Wellum suggest we concentrate on tracing two of the Bible’s major divisions: its plot movements and covenants.
First, the Bible’s story can be outlined in four major plot movements, which explains the story of reality: creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. “These four plot movements are helpful because they follow the Bible’s own plot and help us think about the Bible’s unique worldview against other worldviews” (51–52), which answers four major questions:
- Where did we come from? (Creation)
- What went wrong? (Fall)
- What is the solution to our problem? (Redemption)
- Where is history ultimately going? (New Creation)
Second, the Bible’s covenants bring order, direction, and focus to God’s story. What is a covenant? “A covenant is a chosen relationship between two parties ordered according to specific promises” (55). In our case, God’s relationship to humanity and his promises to us. Hunter and Wellum identify five important covenants that define the contours of the Bible’s story:
- God’s covenant with creation through Adam and Noah
- God’s covenant with Abraham and his children
- God’s covenant with Israel through Moses
- God’s covenant with David and his sons
- God’s new covenant in Christ
“As we read the Bible’s story, we are always asking ourselves, How does this covenant reveal the God who saves and the Savior he sends?” (62) Hunter and Wellum help you explore this question and make sense of the covenants.
6. Look Ahead to the Complete Context
“The complete context—what we can also call the canonical context—is where we look ahead to discover the fullness of God’s intent in light of the fullness of Scripture’s message” (63). There are at least two ways Scripture connects the details of the Bible’s big picture.
The first way is the promise-fulfillment theme, which centers on Christ. “There is continuity between the promises God makes and the fulfillment he brings. Promise and fulfillment glue the Bible’s diverse phases together. Knowing this helps us discern how a given part of Scripture relates to the Christ of Scripture” (64). The Old-New Testament distinction best reveals the promise-fulfillment structure of Scripture. It reminds us how God’s promises are now fulfilled in Christ. In other words: “the Old Testament is the story of God’s promise and the New Testament is God’s fulfillment of all he has promised” (64).
The second way is the unfolding of typology through the biblical covenants. Typology is the way in which certain thematic patterns are traced through the covenants as the Bible’s story unfolds. These types or patterns “help us see how the revelatory features of God’s unfolding plan in the past relate to his new revelation in Christ” (65). There are three general categories of these types: people, events, and institutions. One example is how Moses points to Christ as a greater prophet than himself. They also outline several characteristics these types share:
- Types are patterns rooted in history. “Types are not merely imaginative ideas; they are real people, events, and institutions that signify something greater to come” (67)
- Types are designed by God. “Types are not random; they are purposeful in God’s plan” (68)
- Types involve progression toward fulfillment in Christ. “As types are unpacked through the covenants, they move from lesser to greater in scope and significance for God’s purposes, especially as they come to final fulfillment in Christ” (68)
Why We Need to Study the Bible (Not Just Read It)
“If you’ve been puzzling over the Bible for a few years, you might be in a place where you’re familiar with its many parts but are unsure of how they fit together” (27–28). This is why we need to take the time to study the Bible, with all of its various components and pieces—and not just read it. As the authors explain:
Like a puzzle, the pieces of the Bible—the various books, letters, characters, and stories—do fit together. The Bible contains mysteries, but its meaning is not intended to be mysterious or hidden from us, especially in its central teaching. God does not try to hide truth from us; he reveals it. The Bible reveals more than a picture for us to enjoy. It reveals a person for us to know. (28)
And, like any puzzle, we need to put the pieces of the Bible together in order to get a clear understanding of the Bible’s unity and central message. When we do, we will become more competent in reading the Bible for ourselves—all in order to do as Paul says: comprehend “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18–19).
Justin Taylor says of Christ from Beginning to End, “In this book you’ll learn what Scripture is, how to read it, and how it all hangs together. Who wouldn’t want to pick up a book like that?”
Pick up your copy today to better understand how every part of Scripture fits together to reveal the glory of Christ Jesus, and read the Bible in its many contexts.
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