Please read part 1 , part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 , part 6, and part 7 of this series before reading today’s post. We’ve been unpacking a simple approach to hearing God speak through scripture. Today I’m going to talk about two things: flow, and cultural background.
The flow of a passage is another important way to figure out what something means. Webster says flow is “the direction of movement or development.” Most of the Bible has a flow to it. It’s moving somewhere. The writers are developing ideas as they go. Cluing into their flow of thought goes a long way. For instance, the book of James has often been compared to the book of Proverbs. It’s central theme is wisdom.
He warns us about temptation—what’s at stake when we ignore wisdom or don’t put it into practice (1:13-25).
The rest of the book is about “doing the word”— applying God’s wisdom to daily life.
That’s a definite flow, and that flow helps us to put all the little sections into a larger perspective.
Even more amazing, the whole Bible itself has a flow—it’s one big, majestic story. So we go from God creating man, to man sinning, to God calling Abraham, then Moses, David, His Son being born, dying for our sins, the church beginning, and the final return of Jesus Christ. It has flow. It’s moving in a specific direction and as it’s moving it is developing something. In the case of the whole Bible, it’s the story of mankind with a very specific plot. The more we understand the flow, the more we understand the meaning of the smaller parts, the specific books of the Bible.
The most important place to be aware of flow is between the Old and New Testament, or in particular, before Jesus’ death and resurrection, and after it. Jesus’ death changed almost everything that could be changed. All the Old Testament sacrifices were no longer necessary. Almost all the Old Testament feasts were fulfilled by his life and death. He bridged the gap between us and God, paid for our sins, defeated the devil, satisfied our thirst, crucified the law’s list, and so much more. Which means that almost everything you read before the cross should be filtered through the “New and living way” (Hebrews 10:20). Every Old Testament passage must now be read from the perspective that what they were longing for is now here. Faith, community, kingdom… it all changed on a dime that dark day. Sometimes we forget that, and misinterpret what the Old Testament means for us now.
For example: Korah, one of the Old Testament Temple workers, said to God, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” (Psalm 84:10). His poetic line has made it into a popular Sunday morning Church chorus or three. But Korah only said what he did because at that time, the bridge between God and mankind hadn’t yet been built by Christ. Back then God visited the people in a sacred tent, hidden by layers of silver, gold and curtains, shrouded in dread and mystery. Only priests, and only through innocent blood, could see God or meet with him. Korah was a Levite, one of the many servants who waited for their turn to minister in that tabernacle. Apparently Korah’s rotation had a thousand day cycle, and he spent the next 999 days pining for his next shot to be near his beloved God. Read the Psalm with that in mind, and it makes a whole lot more sense.
But that’s not our reality. Now “we have confidence to enter the most holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened to us through the curtain… let us draw near to God…” (Hebrews 10:19-22). You’ve got to read the larger flow of the Bible into those Old Testament passages.
Certain genres in the Bible, like the stories, have an obvious flow too. Kind of a micro-current within the larger river. The meaning of specific verses usually relates to the flow of the whole story. But the main idea with flow is this: What you’re reading was written with a specific purpose in mind. Usually God has a wider purpose for each passage than the writer ever dreamt of, but keep in mind that the writer (and God) is trying to develop some idea, to show you something. You are supposed to analyze what’s written and try to figure out what the author is saying, where he’s going with the ideas. Where he’s going is often where we’re supposed to end up too.
Finally, though, let’s talk about cultural background. This is one of the big kahunas touted by the hermeneutics people: “You’ve got to know cultural background, or you don’t know squat.” Well, maybe they don’t use the word squat, per se, but I’ve heard people say basically the same thing many times. And it’s just not true. Probably seventy-five percent of the time, a person can get what they need out of a biblical text—the big idea—without knowing anything about cultural background. The last 20% of the time you can usually find the cultural info you need by studying the culture revealed within the Bible itself. If that weren’t true, it would mean that God had locked most of the world out of understanding 20% of the Bible because we aren’t ancient Hebrews. That’s just silly.
What is true is that knowing a little cultural background can enhance or deepen our understanding of scripture. Take Korah the Levite from the previous section. Knowing that he was a Levite and that Levites were a tribe in Israel that lived as servants in the Temple is cultural context that matters. Knowing that there were so many Levites that they had to rotate their duties is also important. It helps get inside Korah’s head space, which helps us discover the meaning of Psalm 84 and apply it to our lives. But all of the cultural background I just gave you can be found by studying the Bible itself. It just takes a little digging.
Yes, I’ve read lots of cool cultural background material from outside the Bible that really does enhance Biblical passages for me. And I confess, I’ve also got a “Key Word Study Bible” that gives me some Greek and Hebrew word meanings and I love digging around in there. And sometimes—though rarely—there are bits of scripture that don’t make sense without the cultural baggage to reference them by. But I’m not aware of any major truth that’s so cloaked in culture that you can’t understand it without an Encyclopedia Britannica open in your Study. Ninety-nine percent of the time, all you need is found somewhere between Genesis and Revelation.
So what do we look for as we read? First, what it says. Secondly, what it means. And thirdly… for myself in the mirror. But that would be getting into tomorrow’s post.