Please read part 1 , part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 , and part 6 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 the power of context. The context is the information around a verse or passage that helps us understand it better. For instance, let’s say you read the words,
“The little boy threw off his jacket and ran through the streaming sunlight.” Would it make a difference to know whether it was winter or summer? Uh huh. That’s context.
Another example. Let’s say you read, “God is in control.” If that was written to a President, what could it mean? If it was written to Christians persecuted for their faith in China, what could it mean? Or to a recent widow? I hope you can see how CONTEXT effects how we read things—how we decide what they mean. There are quite a few elements making up a particular context, but there are three biggies I’ll introduce here—genre, flow, and cultural background. Today, we’ll tackle genre.
Genre. Genre is what kind of book the verse is found in. A genre is a category. So different genres of music might be…what? Rap, R&B, blues, metal, top 40, country, classical. The Bible has genres too – four basic ones: Stories, Teaching, Poetry, and Prophecy. Teaching is generally the simplest to study, so allow me to give you some suggestions about stories, poetry, and prophecy.
Here are a few principles to keep in mind when you study a story.
1. The purpose of a biblical story is to show you something by illustrating it in real life instead of just telling you the answer. So sometimes you have to think a bit harder. Most of the Bible stories are not like Veggie Tales movies. They just tell the story. There is no “Bob” or “Blinky” at the end of the story tell you what it all means. You have to come to your own conclusions, guided by the Holy Spirit, of course.
For example: “Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent” (Genesis 9:20,21).
Did you notice that it doesn’t say anywhere that Noah was wrong to get drunk? Not a single comment. Does that mean it’s OK to get drunk and pass out naked in your tent, waiting for your children to find you in a drunken stupor? NO. This is a story. You have to read it a little differently. You have to read it with what you already know about God and the Christian life in the back of your mind.
2. The reason there are people in the story is to give you someone to relate to. So look at each story from the viewpoint of each person involved. Who are the characters in the story? What were they thinking? Feeling? If I were them, how would I have reacted to that experience? Each character has lessons to learn. Are you or have you ever gone through what they did, or something like it? What can this teach you about your situation? Let’s read another story:
“When (Jesus) came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cured of his leprosy” (Matthew 8:1-3).
The disciples who were with him.
Each perspective changes the story, brings out new insights, stirs up different emotions, raises unique questions. Go with it.
Imagine someone stumbling onto your prayer journal without you there to help them understand it. It’s full of ranting, raving, poems, scattered thoughts, and confessions, right? Pretty intimate stuff. Imagine you wrote something like, “God, I hate Bob. I mean, I really hate him. I wish you’d just drop a piano on his head. And maybe a Winnebago on his family. And an anvil on his dog. Grrrrrr!”
Nasty! But real. If someone happened to read it, how would you want them to interpret what you said? Literally? Or with a grain of salt? Would you want someone to base their own life decisions on what you wrote? Would you want them to adopt your attitude for themselves? Not likely.
Well, the poetic ravings found in the Psalms and Proverbs are like private prayer journal entries. They aren’t always theologically correct. They are, however, emotionally honest. Read them that way. King David once wrote, “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks…” (Psalm 137:8,9).
Uh, is our hero King David fantasizing about killing his enemies’ babies? Would he actually print up a t-shirt that says, “My God is a baby killer!!”? I hope not, but remember, this is a prayer journal. He’s being honest and open with God, and we’re not supposed to take theological cues from everything he writes. Except maybe that God is OK with us being totally raw with him.
Prophetic writings in the Bible are of two main types: Predictive and prescriptive. Predictive prophecy predicts or speaks into the future; prescriptive prophecy speaks into a present situation with God’s heart and insight. Predictive prophecy is probably the hardest part of the Bible to interpret well, because it’s the most specifically targeted in its intended meaning. It can be broken down into two types: Fulfilled and unfulfilled. To complicate things further, it’s not like we can just study all the fulfilled prophecy, draw out four airtight principles, and create a comprehensive “interpreting prophecy template.”
Sometimes biblical prophecies were fulfilled literally; sometimes they were fulfilled figuratively; other times part of a passage is figurative and the other literal, while one part is about the current scenario and the other is Messianic. Other than God saying, “Here’s how to see it” there’s often no sure-fire way of telling which is which. We’re kind of left guessing and trusting God to work things out for the best.
Take the book of Revelation, for example. An end times book, right? Not so fast—millions of Christians would beg to differ on that one, claiming a good chunk of the prophecies in it were fulfilled in the first century. Others believe it’s both an end times peek and a first century fulfillment, kind of a “both/and” kind of thing. And all camps have droves of Bible verses to support their position. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? It’s a tough call.
Prescriptive prophecy is a little easier to digest, and far more common. It’s where God spoke a specific message about a specific situation to a specific person or nation. Usually it was a corrective criticism: “You’re mistreating the poor. Fix it.” Or, “You’re being led astray. Come back to me.” You don’t have to be an ancient Israelite to see the applications you can make to your own life: What are you doing to take care of the poor? In what ways is your heart being drawn to value things or people more than God? What should you do about it?
So that’s it for Biblical Genres. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about flow. It’s gonna be a good-er.