This is the eighth lesson in Mel Lawrenz’ new “How to Study the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
The reason we study the Bible is to deepen our connection with our Creator who has been gracious enough to speak to us through the prophets and apostles. The way we get the connection is to look for the true meaning in the biblical text, which we can only get to if we examine the whole before the parts.
The basic block of meaning in the Bible is the individual book. These “books” have different forms: a chronicle of history (e.g., Joshua), a collection of prophetic oracles (e.g., Isaiah), a collection of worship poems and songs (e.g., Psalms), a gospel proclamation (e.g., Luke), a personal letter (e.g., Titus), the account of a vision of all history and the future (e.g., Revelation), etc.
When we prepare to study a book of the Bible (for personal Bible study, or for group participation, or for teaching, for instance) we need to understand:
- The historical background of the book. For instance: the first five books of the Bible were written in order to give the people of God a clear vision of who they were; Ezra and Nehemiah were written to re-establish the core spiritual principles of rebuilding a nation; Lamentations comes out of the utter loss and humiliation of conquest; the apostle Paul wrote Philippians when a prisoner of the Roman Empire; Revelation came out at a time of great persecution. Each of these historical settings helps us understand the meaning of the texts.
- The cultural background of the book. What we mean by culture is the beliefs, customs, languages, arts, and ways of life of a particular people. Culture is deep and complex. Biblical authors wrote what they did in particular cultures, and we must understand them to understand their texts. The Hebrews moved into and conquered the people of Canaan, and the clash between their cultures were at the center of the biblical story for centuries. We need to understand the paganism and idolatry and the tribalism of the times. To understand the Gospel of Matthew we have to account for some details about Jewish, Greek, and Roman culture. 1 Corinthians requires us to know something about the social immorality of Greek culture. The book of Hebrews brings up cultural aspects of first century Judaism, etc.
- The geographical setting of the book. The Old Testament prophets who spoke to Israel and Judah, raising spiritual issues within the people of God are one thing, but Ezekiel, written in Babylonia during exile, has a whole different setting. Books written from a rural setting use rural metaphors, and those written from urban settings use urban language and comparisons. Geography matters.
- The political setting of the book. Writings coming out of a strong empire like Israel during the days of David and Solomon have one set so concerns. Those written during horrible civil war have a different perspective. And those written from exile take the perspective of the conquered and oppressed.
All of these aspects of the backgrounds of biblical books do not make the Bible impossible to understand, and they do not obscure the core meaning of Scripture. In fact, the multifaceted historical/cultural/geographical/political backgrounds of biblical books make them richer as records of God’s truth. We learn about moral value and spiritual principles as God reveals them in all of life’s circumstances. Also, when we acknowledge all the complexities of the backgrounds of the biblical books we are learning all the ways God Almighty is redeeming and judging the human race.
So what are some steps to approaching biblical books as whole units? Here is one process:
- Begin by reading a simple introduction to the biblical book you are about to study. Simple introductions are found in study Bibles or Bible handbooks.
- Read the whole book straight through, ignoring chapter and verse divisions. Those divisions were added many centuries later, and they can get in the way of a simple straight reading.
- Take notes. The questions you have. The statements that stun you. The words that are repeated. The transitions that show the flow and connection within the book. Watch for the main points. Perceive the passions and concerns of the writer.
- Make an outline, or just a list of the main parts and points in the book. Don’t worry about the outlines produced by Bible scholars at this point. This is your personal perception of the flow and structure of the biblical book.
- Read a more detailed background resource—a book introduction in a commentary, an online article, an article in a Bible encyclopedia, for instance.
- Go back and read the whole book again. If you have to teach it, read it a third time or more. It is amazing how much more we pick up as we scan through the biblical text repeatedly.
Spending time examining a biblical book as a whole gets us past fragmented reading. “A verse a day” will never get us to the meaning of the Bible. We need to keep seeing the whole.
Mel Lawrenz trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a Ph.D. in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, the latest, How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.