Reading The Bible Better - Lesson 5

Literary Context

In this lesson, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of the literary context and its importance in reading the Bible better. You'll learn about the definition of literary context and its role in interpreting the Bible. You'll also discover how to identify the literary context by recognizing the literary genre and understanding the literary structure, including sections, subsections, key themes, and ideas. Finally, you will learn how to apply the literary context to exegesis and analysis, as well as the proper application of biblical texts.

George Guthrie
Reading The Bible Better
Lesson 5
Watching Now
Literary Context

TH102-05: Literary Context

I. Importance of Literary Context

A. Definition of Literary Context

B. Role in Interpretation

II. Identifying Literary Context

A. Recognizing Literary Genre

B. Understanding Literary Structure

1. Sections and Subsections

2. Key Themes and Ideas

III. Applying Literary Context

A. Exegesis and Analysis

B. Proper Application of Biblical Texts

Class Resources
  • Dive into this lesson to gain a deep understanding of how to read the Bible better, focusing on hearing scripture accurately, personal transformation, the grand story, and reading in community, while fostering a sense of joy and wonder in your journey.
  • Discover the power of words, their impact on our lives, and how God's words and communication in the Bible provide guidance, shaping us to live with purpose and spiritual growth.
  • Being receptive to what God is saying to you in the Bible is an important part of reading the Bible better. The parable of the sower gives you a word picture of obstacles you face in attempting to cultivate a receptive heart.
  • By embracing receptivity, you can overcome barriers and enhance your understanding of the Bible, ultimately leading to personal growth, stronger relationships, and deepened faith.
  • In this lesson, you learn about literary context's importance in interpreting the Bible, identifying literary genres and structures, and applying context for accurate exegesis and application.
  • By understanding historical context, you can better interpret the Bible, considering cultural, social, and geographical backgrounds, ancient literary genres, and archaeology to bridge the gap between the past and present.
  • This lesson provides you with knowledge on the importance of Bible translations, their types, and the criteria for selecting the most suitable one for your needs while also offering insights into their historical development.
  • You will learn to identify and interpret various biblical genres, enhancing your understanding of the Bible and applying its teachings more effectively in your life.
  • By entering the story when reading the Bible, you enrich your understanding, connect with biblical characters, and foster personal spiritual growth, Bible study, and teaching skills.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into biblical interpretation principles, like context and genre, and explore essential tools such as translations and commentaries, leading to better understanding and application of the Bible.
You and I need to embrace the powerful, beautiful, life- giving words of God on a regular basis. Various surveys in different cultures, over the past half century, have determined that the number one predictor of a person’s spiritual health is the regular practice of personal Bible reading. Nothing else comes close. If our purpose in life is to live for him and to his glory, and the Scriptures shape us for his mission, then God’s Word provides us with a means to that very desirable end. Everything else in our lives is shaped by whether or not we are living out of a life grounded in the Word of God, the Bible. We need to read it and read it better than we ever have before, so that we can live it well. As we thrive in the Word of God, knowing and living the Scriptures, we have the opportunity to walk with the God of the universe. So you are invited to walk with me as we figure out how to read better this amazing book we call “the Bible.” Perhaps you have tried reading the Bible before and the experience wasn’t that great. I am here to help. There is no more important task in life than hearing from God and trusting him on the basis of his Word.

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Literary Context
Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] Welcome back to reading the Bible better. A number of years ago, my wife and I were taking our kids to church where I was going to be speaking on a Sunday morning and we were running a bit late. We got up and were kind of rush getting the kids ready and and got out the door. And the church where I was speaking was only about 10 to 15 minutes from our house in a small town nearby. So we rushed down there and we pulled up on the street. It'd been a long time since I had actually been at that church. I knew about where it was in the city, but we pulled up on the street. There were loads of cars around and I told Pat, okay, I'm going to go in and get miked up and you just come on and follow me, bring the kids and you know, if you guys need to go to the washroom or something, just go ahead and do that. So so I went into the church, I went down to the front. There was no one there to meet me. And I sat down and I started looking around and I thought, This is not what I remember this church being like. And I realized that I was not in the Baptist church, that I was supposed to speak out. I was in the Church of Christ, which was across the street. So I quietly got up and I kind of hustled out the side door, and I went across the street to the First Baptist Church in this little town of Meilan, Tennessee. [00:01:26][86.5]

[00:01:28] And I got over there. They were making me up, and it suddenly suddenly dawned on me that my family saw me go in the door of the wrong church and they were not showing up over in the right church. So I said, Excuse me, I'll be right back. And sure enough, I went across the street. The service had already started in that church and I looked down through the window and my wife and my kids were sitting on about the third row down in that church. And I went down to them and I whispered, Guys, just follow me out. And they followed me out of the church. And the kids were going, Dad, that was so embarrassing. But we finally made it to the right church. It happened to be Father's Day, and I used it as an illustration for how a father can lead his family wrong if he doesn't know what he's doing. [00:02:17][49.7]

[00:02:17] So actually I use that illustration to start with this morning because I did not understand my context. I didn't have kind of an orientation to where I was at the moment, and that led me to make some decisions which were not very good decisions at the moment. Now, that can happen in life, but it can also happen as we read the Bible. What we want to talk about in this session is reading the Bible in context. We want to read in context when we take up our Bibles. And let me just kind of give in introduction of that and then we're going to walk through some very practical basic points on how we can read the Bible in various kinds of context as we're as we're trying to be faithful to what God has said in his word. [00:03:08][50.4]

[00:03:09] Now, the fact is that God has spoken his word into the world in very specific places and times in ways. And when we tune in to the context in the Bible, it's helping us to respect God's decisions on when and where and how he has spoken his word into the world. If you think about it, let's let's just start with the idea of literary context. If you think about it, every text has a context, even the most simple one. Now, this sign that you see on the screen is a stop sign that was in my neighborhood when I lived back in Tennessee. And I could ask you what how would you read this text? How would you understand it? How would you respond to it? And you might think that's kind of a silly question. You would say, Well, I would come up to the sign and stop. The reality is there were people in my neighborhood who thought s-t-o-p meant slow, temporarily, or proceed because they would go right through that stop sign when when they came to it. But think about this text if it was in a different context, not on the corner of a street. But if you came to this sign and it was hanging upside down in an antique mall, would you read it the same way? Would you be walking down the aisle of the mall and all of a sudden come up to this sign and stop and then proceed? No, you wouldn't do that, would you? Because it was in a very different kind of context. The context would determine how you read and responded to that text. [00:04:57][108.4]

[00:04:58] Now, when we think about context in the Bible, there are three types of contexts that we want to think about. The first is literary context. The literature of the Bible, the text of the Bible always is going to have a context. We're going to discuss how we can tune into the literary context of the different passages we're reading. The second is historical context, kind of the historical backdrop of the stories in the Bible or the writings of the Bible and really the broader history that was going on as the Bible was being written. The third is cultural context. So culture and history are going to relate very closely. But cultural context is a little bit different and we're going to talk about how to understand the cultural context of the Bible and some of the tools that can really help us tune in to specific aspects of culture that may be unfamiliar to us. [00:05:58][60.1]

[00:05:59] So let's start with the idea of literary context. When we talk about literary context, literary context refers to how a passage fits and functions in a book or a group of books, or the Bible as a whole. So really tune in to that part about fit and function. So we're going to ask with literary context, where is our passage in this book? How does it fit? We're going to look at what comes before it and what comes after it. And then the function. What is the particular role that this passage plays at this part of this particular book? Now, in a moment, we're going to talk about the fact that we can also ask how does this passage and the theme in this passage relate to the book as a whole or a whole group of books in the New Testament, for instance, or the Bible as a whole? That also can be literary context. But we'll kind of take it a step at a time and speak about immediate context first, its place in that particular book, and then we'll look at the broader context, how that passage fits in the New Testament or maybe the Bible as a whole. [00:07:11][72.3]

[00:07:12] So let's start with the idea of immediate context, and I'm going to use a very familiar passage. Philippians 413. I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me. Now, the reason why I like using this passage is because I misused it for a long time in my life before I started tuning into the literary context of what was really going on in this passage. I grew up in the United States and I was an athlete. I played football, basketball and baseball, and this was one of our favorite passages as young Christians who were playing athletics. And I noticed after a while that a lot of people really liked using this passage to speak about one's ability to do extraordinary things. So, for instance, I saw athletes on television who had Philippians 4:13 under their eyes, you know, in their kind of eye shadow or whatever. There was a boxer who had Philippians 4:13 on his shorts. We would get together and pray and quote Philippians 4:13. But when we were getting ready to go out and play a football game and the idea was we can go out there and kill those other guys, you know, because God's going to give us the ability to do just extraordinary things as we are playing football. But what I discerned as I got older and started reading the passage more carefully in its context was really this passage is not about ability at all. It's not really about God giving us extraordinary ability. Now there are passages in the Scripture which do give us encouragement that way. For instance, Psalm 18 has a passage where the Psalms says, "With God's help, I can attack a barrier, I can leap over a wall." Back in that historical and cultural context, he was talking about warfare and God giving you the ability to do extraordinary things. But this is not a passage that really has to do with extraordinary ability. [00:09:25][132.6]

[00:09:26] Now, let me just explain that this is a passage where Paul is writing to the Philippian Church. The Philippians have sent money to help support him while he is incarcerated in the culture. At that time, if a person was in prison, they depended on their friends and. Family to support them, to provide food and resources while they were in prison. The prison didn't provide those kind of things. And so the Philippians have given to Paul, and now Paul is writing back to them and saying, "Thank you for supporting me. I celebrate our partnership together as you did this." So notice and I want you to watch carefully listen for the main theme of this passage as we work our way through. He says, "I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that once again you renewed your care for me. You were in fact concerned about me, but lacked the opportunity to show it. I don't say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances. I have learned the secret of being content, whether well-fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me. Still, you did well by sharing with me in my hardship.". [00:11:00][94.9]

[00:11:02] Now, did you pick up on the main theme? What? What was it? Say it out loud. In your place and with your group. If you said that the passage is really about contentment, you're absolutely right. It's not so much that Paul is saying God is giving me extraordinary ability to accomplish something here. What he's celebrating in this passage is that God is constantly present in his life, in ministry, in helping him to be content in situations where he doesn't have many resources and in other situations where he has abundant resources. And that's really interesting to think about. [00:11:46][44.1]

[00:11:46] So let's think about those one at a time. When you think about limited resources, this passage would apply very well, for instance, to a missionary who's trying to carry out their ministry to people and yet is dealing with a very limited supply of resources. There may be many of you who are listening to this video who are in those kinds of situations. You may be a single mom in Brazil who is trying to figure out how to meet the needs of your family, and yet you find the peace of God as you are depending on him. God is providing for you, but you're learning to be content in that situation. It may be that you are a person who has other kinds of limitations, and yet as you grow as a believer, you're learning to grow in contentment. The other side of this is interesting too. How do we strive to be content when we have a lot of resources? I've actually known people who suddenly have more resources than they need and they're more stressed out than they ever were when they had limited resources because they're afraid that they're not going to take care of those resources well or they're going to lose the resources. So sometimes we we have to allow the Lord to work in us spiritually with whatever circumstance we're in. And that's exactly what's going on here. [00:13:15][88.2]

[00:13:15] So when we're reading a passage to tune in to the literary context, what we want to do is we want to begin by reading before and after the particular passage that we're reading. This is a very simple step, but when you're reading and you come to a passage that is really interesting to you and you tune in to that and you think, well, maybe I'll even memorize this passage because it's really speaking to me, be sure that you're reading the chapter before all the way up to the passage and after, and ask yourself, what is the broader theme that is going on in this particular passage, and how does my passage fit and how is it functioning at this particular place? So that's one of the things we can do to tune in to the literary context. [00:14:03][47.3]

[00:14:03] Let me mention one more. One of the tools I'm going to suggest to you is that you get a good Bible dictionary to help you with your reading. Pat, who you heard from in a previous little segment about having time with the Lord. Pat always keeps a Bible dictionary right beside her when she's having her time with the Lord in the morning because she'll come upon themes that she wants to look up, and a Bible dictionary can be very helpful with that. But the other thing a Bible dictionary will do is it will give you an introduction to the different books that you read in the Bible. So, for instance, what you see on your screen is a little section from a Bible dictionary, and it's article on Philippians. And in this article, the author of this article gives an outline of the book. And if you'll notice, you've come down to chapter four verses ten and following. And this outline tells us that this section in Philippians is about the apostles contentment in Christ's strength. So right there it kind of tips you off and says, Oh, well, the general theme seems to be contentment in this passage. Now what I want to suggest is read the passage for yourself first. Don't just go to the tools, but if you're still struggling with discerning kind of the general theme, then you can pick up a tool that can help. And a little bit later in our sessions together, I'm going to suggest some online tools. For those of you who may be in cultural context where it's harder for you to access a Bible dictionary or study Bible, we're going to point to some online tools that can help as well. So we have immediate context. [00:15:49][105.5]

[00:15:49] A second type of context that still is under the category of literary context is the broader context. Now, the picture that you see on the screen is a picture. It's a painting of my grandfather in his Rose Garden. Toward the end of his life, my granddad had 150 roses in a garden in the backyard and he would get out there in the heat of the summer. He was a hard worker. And this is a little slice of the backyard. And what you are seeing is the immediate context around my granddad. There are about a dozen rose bushes in this picture. But when I look at this picture, something fills my mind and it's the whole yard. In my mind's eye, I can see the broader context of this picture. I can turn around and look at the house. In my mind, I see the big walnut tree where there was a bag swing that we would swing on out over this drop off all the time that I was growing up. I think about the dogwood tree in the front yard. I see the broader context, and that broader context really influences my thinking about this picture because it gives me kind of the bigger picture of what is going on there. [00:17:09][79.4]

[00:17:09] Now, when we think about broader context, that can mean this same theme that I'm dealing with here elsewhere in the book. So not the immediate context, but for instance, in Philippians, you can look at the theme of partnership, which shows up right at the beginning of the book in chapter one. But then Paul comes back around to it in chapter four. In fact, in the very passage we were looking at on contentment, he also speaks about the Philippians partnership with him. This is a bracketing effect, what authors would do at times in the ancient world. They didn't use subheadings and that kind of things. They would bracket a piece of literature to show the beginning in the end and have similar themes at the beginning in the end. But my point is that you can sometimes read when you're reading the whole book, you'll notice that a theme will pop up in different places in the book and you can read those passages one in light of the other to help you understand what is going on in a particular passage. So you have the same book and the same theme elsewhere. [00:18:11][61.6]

[00:18:11] You can also have the same author, but a theme that kind of reaches across books. So for instance, Paul speaks about the resurrection body in first Corinthians 15, and he speaks about the resurrection body in Second Corinthians Chapter five. So you have the broader context you can look at there. [00:18:30][19.0]

[00:18:31] A third type of broader context reaches out even further to the whole Bible. You might think about the whole New Testament or a theme as it extends through the Old Testament and the New Testament. For instance, you can follow the theme of the temple all the way through the Bible, and it's a very, very cool study because it starts early in the Bible with the tabernacle and then moves to a physical temple that was built by David's son, Solomon. And when you get to the New Testament, that Temple theme changes into us, the people of God as the new temple of God. And the cool thing about that in terms of God's mission is now the temple is not just a building in Jerusalem, it's actually people. The Spirit of God lives in all of us as the temple. And the Temple of God, therefore is in Victoria, British Columbia and Sao Paulo, Brazil and Beijing, China. The Temple of God is all over the world, including Jerusalem in Israel. So you can follow a theme through the whole book, and that gives you the broader context. [00:19:39][68.0]

[00:19:41] And then you have this idea of the Old Testament in the New Testament. And that's a very unique thing that I want to pick up on and talk about just for a minute in relation to a story that we've already seen a couple of times in our study together. Let me go back to Mark for one more time and talk about Jesus as calming of the storm. Now, what I didn't say when we talked about that passage earlier was that there's some very important relationship to the Old Testament in this passage. So if you remember from this story, the disciples woke Jesus up and they said, Teacher, don't you care that we are about to die? And remember, he got up and he rebuked the wind and the waves. And if you remember I said that, that the Greek text basically says, Jesus shouted at the storm in a wave, Shut up, and they died down. Now, one of the things we're going to talk about in genre is how do we read the stories of the gospels in a particular way? And we're going to come to that a little bit later on as well. But what I want you to see here is the punchline of this passage is where it says that the disciples were afraid and they asked the question, who then is this? He speaks to the wind of the wave. And they obey him. And it's almost like a little bell goes off and goes, Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. That's the right question to ask, because one of the things that's going on here is this is eluding back to an Old Testament passage. And that passage is from Psalm 107. Look at what this passage says in Psalm 107 verses 24 through 29. They witness the acts of the Lord. His amazing feats on the deep water. They reached up to the sky and then dropped down into the depths. The sailors strength left them because the danger was so great. They swayed and staggered like a drunk. And all their skill proved ineffective. They cried out to the Lord, the Lord God in their distress, and He delivered them from their troubles. He calmed the storm and the waves grew silent. In the bigger, broader context of the Bible. We can ask the question as we read Mark four, who is it? Who has the ability to calm the waves and the storm? And it's the Lord God. And the cool thing about Mark Chapter four and the passage of Jesus calming the storm is that passage is there not just to kind of inform us of an event in Jesus life. It is speaking about the identity of Jesus. That Jesus is the Lord God who has stepped into Earth and He is putting things in motion in the world that are going to have a very, very profound effect, including in your life and my life. So we want to look at literary context, the broader context, and is something we're going to look at in addition to the more immediate context. [00:23:02][201.5]

[00:23:03] Now, how do you get at the broader context as a question? Well, let me mention a few things. First of all, use cross-reference notes in the margin are the footnotes of your Bible. Many of you will have Bibles who have cross reference notes. That's what those passages are out there in the margin of your Bible or in the footnotes of your Bible. And it will point you to other passages that will be along the same lines as the passage that you're dealing with your. But your Bible probably has a subject index. Many of you can turn to the back of your Bible and it gives different subjects. You could look up the same theme in that subject index. You can use a good Bible dictionary, as I mentioned, with immediate context, but look at the theme in the Bible dictionary, for instance, on the temple, and it will walk you through how that theme pops up in different places in the Bible. And then a good study Bible can also help with this. If you have not invested in a good study Bible and you have the ability to do so in your context, then you need to get a good study Bible because boy, it can really help you. Let me give you an example of that. This is from the NIV Study Bible. And if you go to chapter four, verse 39, the passage we were just reading. Notice what the note says in the study Bible. Israel Scriptures are emphatic that God alone controls the sea. And then it gives a number of passages in that regard and look at what it tells us. It points us right to Psalm 107 verses 25 through 30, which is the passage that I put up on the screen just a moment ago. [00:24:43][100.1]

[00:24:43] When you refer to a Study Bible, what do you mean by that? [00:24:46][2.6]

[00:24:47] Yeah, that's a that's a great question. There are so many options on the types of Bibles. You'll have application Bibles and Bibles for fishermen in Australia. I mean, it's it's crazy. It's just there's so many different options out there. So I'm glad that you asked that question. A study Bible, though, is a Bible that is going to be rich with additional information to help you understand the particular text, and normally this is the way it works. A study bible will have an introduction to each book of the Bible, kind of giving you basics of authorship and date and where this was written and to whom it was written. But especially the best study Bibles are going to have rich notes. Now, if you look at let me just mention a few of them study Bibles like the NIV Study Bible, the NLT Study Bible, New Living Translation Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible. Often those study Bibles are going to have notes that are written by specialists on the particular book that you're reading. So what makes it a study bible is you have the text of Scripture, but it also is going to give you loads of notes at the bottom, and then those points are footnoted. So for instance, I did the study notes for the New Living Translation Study Bible on the Book of Hebrews. And what I did is I took my study of that book over years and put that study in those notes. Sometimes you will have a study bible that's done by one person, but I think that the best study Bibles are probably those where there have been a whole collection of scholars who were specialist on those individual books, and they've put their understanding in those notes to help you as you stumble across things in the scriptures and you're thinking, I have no idea who the Pharisees are. Well, often in a study Bible, you can look and it will give you a basic brief introduction on the Pharisees at the bottom of the page. So a study Bible is one of the most basic tools you can get to read the Bible more effectively because you have study tools kind of built in to the Bible itself. Study Bibles tend to be pretty thick. You may want to have your study Bible that you use for your daily reading and then another Bible that you take with you to church. But the point is use a study Bible because it can really help you read the Bible more effectively. [00:27:19][151.6]

[00:27:20] When you are using the study Bible and you're reading the text and then reading the notes. How do you do that in a way that's helpful? [00:27:30][9.2]

[00:27:31] That's that's a great question because we do want to make clear that the notes that are written by these scholars, these are not from God. These are scholars have done the best job that they can in studying the texts themselves. Scholars at times are going to disagree with each other on particular points. So as you go on, you'll learn to study the details of the text in various ways. But we do want to make clear that what is from God was inspired by God is the text of Scripture itself. And then that text is being commented on in the notes of the study Bible. So there's a distinction between those two things. Now, in our next session together, what we're going to do is we're going to turn and look at historical context and then the cultural context and finish up by thinking a little bit about our own context as we are trying to read the Bible well together. So look forward to seeing you in that next session. [00:27:31][0.0]