Context Makes Bible Study Blossom
[I’m trying something new with this post, and I’m not sure how helpful it will be. We will go behind the scenes to peek into the kitchen where good Bible study is made in an effort to help you cook up some good study of your own. Enjoy, or better yet, try it.
By the way, at the end of this post there is an update on the Philips’ work of sharing the gospel in Cambodia, don’t miss it!]
God’s word is like a well of water. Its life-giving truths are so close to the surface even the newest believer can drink from it and be satisfied, yet its insights are so deep even the greatest minds cannot chart its depths. Only the revelation of God could produce such a book. “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97). Yes! Those words of adoration often leap from my own heart.
One of the most important tools that help us drink deeply from God’s word is an understanding of context. Context is the setting in which a Biblical account is placed.
This setting is painted by the ideas that precede and follow a specific text. Context can also be expanded to include things like the purpose of the book, the style of writing, the cultural backdrop, or the covenant in which a text is found. When context is ignored false teaching abounds.
Yet, when context is properly used it is the source of great joy in Bible study. Each section of Scripture is like a seed of truth that stands beautifully on its own, but when it is planted next to the truths around it, it blossoms into a full bouquet of understanding. As a result, the meaning of a text is more deeply appreciated.
Context is especially helpful with Biblical narratives. The inspired historians are not primarily concerned with the chronology of events. Their goal is not just information, but persuasion. They want their readers to see the world from a particular perspective—God’s perspective. As a result, their writings are often arranged thematically, which means the placement of an account has great significance. It’s not just that this historical event happened after another, but that each account is related to the ones around it! Since over 40 percent of the Old Testament and nearly 60 percent of the New Testament consists of narrative, context is particularly important.
To discover the context of a Biblical account you can start with this simple approach.
B – Book
S – Section
I – Immediate context
First, how does your text fit into the overall purpose of the book? Sometimes an author tells you his goal, or it is clearly discerned from his content (see John 20:30-31; Luke 1:1-4; Mark 1:1; Acts 1:1-3). Second, identify the major sections of the book. Each section is a key act in the story. What role does your text play in telling that act? Finally, how does the immediate context (before and after) relate to your text?
Perhaps this can be best communicated through illustration.
Context and Feeding the Five Thousand
General Context. Let’s consider Jesus’ miraculous feeding of over 5,000 people with five loaves and two small fish. This is one of the few miracles recorded in all four gospels (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15). Its inclusion is important for a number of reasons, but I’ll mention just two.
First, it plays a pivotal role in the training of the Twelve apostles (their instruction, Mark 6:7-13, 6:30-52 (esp. 5:52); their mission was His mission, Luke 9:2 & 9:11). As the apostles handed out dinner and cleaned the dishes they learned that Jesus was more than sufficient to fulfill their needs, which is a lesson they leaned upon in the years that followed.
Second, the miracle marks a pivotal point in the crowd’s rejection of Jesus. In less than 24 hours the crowd goes from trying to make Jesus king, to turning their backs on Him and walking with Him no more (John 6:15, 66). They were willing to take what Jesus gave, but they were not willing live like Jesus taught. In general, the miracle shows what it takes to be Jesus’ disciple and why so many people choose not to be.
The central message of the miracle is easily summarized by this triplet of truths:
1) We do not have enough.
2) We give Jesus all we have.
3) Jesus provides all we need.
What comfort this gives us when we feel overwhelmed. What courage this gives us when we feel insufficient. Let us learn the lesson of the loaves!
Specific Context. The truth of the text then begins to blossom into vibrant colors when it is read in the context of each gospel account. We will look at the gospel of John for an example. (This is not an exhaustive examination, but it is meant to provide excitement into the insights you can gain through considering context!)
The Feeding of the Five Thousand in the Context of John
(B) Book. The purpose of John’s gospel is to provide evidence to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:30-31; 21:24-25). Thus, John wants us to see the miracle as a sign pointing us to the identity of Jesus—He is the Provider.
(S) Section. In this section John presents Jesus as leading a New Exodus. The way God provided for Israel in the wilderness is now fulfilled spiritually for the world in Jesus.
- Jesus is the bread of life, as pictured in the manna (Ex. 16:1-35; John 6:22-59).
- Jesus is the living water, like the water that came from the rock (Ex. 17:1-7; John 7:2-52 (esp. :37-38)).
- Jesus is the light of the world, like the pillars of cloud and fire that guided Israel in the wilderness (Ex. 13:17-22; John 8:2-9:41 (esp. 8:12; 9:5))
The context deepens our confidence that Jesus is able to provide life for those living in this barren world.
(I) Immediate Context. Jesus goes on to compare His ability to physically feed the 5,000, to His ability to spiritually feed the world as the Bread of Life (John 6:22-59). Yet, feeding on Jesus means much more than making a sandwich. It means believing His words and trusting His work.
Try using this same method to examine the context of The Feeding of the Five Thousand in Matthew (Matt. 14:13-21), Mark (Mark 6:30-44) and Luke (Luke 9:10-17). What insights will the context provide to deepen your appreciation of this miracle? (Below is a handwritten example of my examination of the text and its context.)
Download a pdf of my handwritten examination of the text here: Feeding The Five Thousand (Tim Jennings).
The purpose of Bible study is transformation! We cannot end without some soul-searching application. So, here is mine…
Application. This miracle presents us with a question, “Where do I seek satisfaction?” As long as I seek satisfaction in my own abilities, I will stay hungry. As long as I seek satisfaction in my own circumstances, I will stay hungry. But, when I take all that I have and give it to Jesus, what He gives me in return is more than enough.
This is the secret Paul learned in a Roman prison cell. He wrote the Philippian church and said, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:12-13). I pray we all will find Jesus to be more than enough!
You can see how the context takes an exciting miracle like the Feeding of the 5,000 and causes it to blossom with richer meaning and calls upon us to have bolder obedience.
So, the next time you study a text from God’s word, remember the context. It will not only help you understand the text correctly, but it will deepen your enjoyment of it.
“Let all that you do be done with love.” (1 Cor. 16:14)
Mike and Christy Phillips and their four children moved to Cambodia to spread the gospel in October of 2014 (read an article Mike wrote about the work in Cambodia here). They are busy learning the language and making contacts. Last month eight Cambodians joined them for Bible class and Sunday worship! Below are some pictures from that worship.
They have also shared the gospel with a neighbor named Mali, and now Mali has asked Mike to teach his son and niece about the Bible.
One of the ways the Phillips generated interest in the Bible is by moving their language studies to the front yard. Their language teacher used to teach the family inside the house. But recently they decided to move the table and chairs to the front yard and open the gate. When they did people just started coming in to talk. When they found out that they believed in Jesus they asked if they could worship with them on Sunday.
In addition, the Phillips give Bibles to the people they talk with. Mike writes his name and phone number inside the cover along with an invitation, “Call for free Bible Study.”
Please join me in thanking God for these opportunities for the gospel, and pray that they may continue and be fruitful for God’s glory.