Lecture 4: Background Studies
Course: How to Read Your Bible
Lecture: Background Studies
I. A review
Welcome back to our seminar on how to study the Bible. I want us to continue with our discussion about how to be prepared to do Bible study, finish that up, and then move on to talk about background studies.
Last time we talked about preparing for the trip and following our big word picture when you take a trip you have to pack. You have to get ready to go on that trip. And we talked about a number of items that help us as we journey to take this trip of Bible study and trying to discern what God would say to us through the reading and study of his Word. We talked about tools in the last lesson. We talked about the importance of having a good study Bible, of having several good translations, perhaps translations that are coming from a little bit different philosophy of translations. We talked about formal equivalence translation over against a functional equivalence translation. We also talked about the need for a good Bible dictionary and that's going to be very important for our discussion of background materials that we want to talk about in just a few minutes. And we talked about using an exhaustive concordance which we will learn more about when we discuss doing word studies. And then also we talked about using Bible software. There's a lot of good software out there these days and we'll learn more about those also as we go along.
Then we turned and talked about personal commitments. We talked about the need to think through the fact that we all have a pre-understanding with which we approach the Bible. What we mean by that is we come with preconceived ideas about certain passages and what they mean. And we talked about the need to bracket our pre-understanding, to really come with an open heart to the study of God's word so that we are really hearing what the Spirit would say to us and not simply reading in material that we may have learned in the past or something that we may have picked up along the way but isn't necessarily reflective of what God is wanting to say to us through that text.
II. Personal commitments (continued)
We want to talk about three other personal commitments we need to make as we get ready to do Bible reading and Bible study.
B. Rely on the Holy Spirit
The second personal commitment after pre-understanding is reliance on the Holy Spirit. Along with this, we need to have a prayerful attitude as we approach Bible reading or Bible study. In fact, Regina Lynn talked to me after a session in which we were talking about motivation, and she said that a real turning point for her came as she started praying that God would give her a passion for his Word, that God would really stimulate her interest and motivate her as far as the study of God's Word was concerned. That is a tremendous way to start the process. It is also a good way to approach Bible reading and Bible study, that every time we sit down to read or study the Bible, we turn to the Lord and say, "Lord, I need you to open my heart. I pray that you would teach me. I ask, Lord, that you would show me the things that you want me to see in the passage or in the text that I'm reading today so that I can live for you." And I think that kind of dependence on the Holy Spirit is something that is very good and very important.
Jesus said that we have to be like a child if we are going to come into the Kingdom of God. And that child-likeness is a very important principle. If you think about the inquisitiveness of children, the way they are always asking questions when they're very young, we ought to have hearts that are genuinely open to what the Spirit of God would teach us. And so it's a good process every time we sit down to read or to study to begin with prayer and to say, "Holy Spirit, I'm depending on you. I pray that you would teach me."
There are a couple of wonderful passages in that regard. John 15:26 says, "But I will send you the counselor, the spirit of truth. He will come to you from the father and will tell you all about me." So the Holy Spirit is the one who is our teacher. He is the one who lives within us who counsels us as we walk through life. And in 1 Corinthians 2:12 says, "And God has actually given us his spirit, not the world's spirit, so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given to us." The Bible is a spiritual book. It's supernatural. And for us to really understand it at a deep level and be ready to act on it - to be moved to act on it - is something that the Holy Spirit has got to accomplish in us. So we need to really have a personal commitment to seeking the Spirit's help as we do our Bible study.
C. Be willing to submit to the text in obedience
Well, a third personal commitment we need to make is to be willing to submit to the text in obedience. And what we mean here is that as we are hearing God speak to us through the text that we are then ready to be obedient to what God is saying to us in the text. Now I want to make a point here that in our process of doing Bible study we may at times be tempted to jump right to application or right to trying to tell somebody what the text means, but we really need to get the order straight.
1. We need to do exegetical work
First of all, we need to do our exegetical work, our basic study of the text, before we try to do devotional thinking or application of the text. The reason here is accuracy. We want to make sure that as we approach the text devotionally, we are living it out based on what is actually there in the text.
As I think about the importance of basic study before we do some kind of application, I think of the blueberry bushes at my house. We go out and pick blueberries. We never find strawberries on those blueberry bushes. We never find blackberries on those blueberry bushes. We don't find figs. The figs come from the fig tree nearby. And the reason is because that plant produces fruit according to the kind of plant it is, according to its nature. And when we do Bible study, we need to start with exegesis of the text so that our application grows organically out of that text rather than being read into the text or being done in spite of what the text is saying. The fruit of that text is going to come out of the text itself and our application needs to be after we have really understood and studied that text and discerned what it is that God was saying through that text. So we need to do our exegetical work before devotional.
2. We need to do devotional work
We need to do our devotional work, our personal application of the text, before we try to teach it to somebody else. It's very important that as we teach others that there is an authenticity there, and that authenticity comes from having really worked through the process of the text itself and then really applying the text to our own lives before trying to tell someone else how they should apply it to theirs.
I remember years ago hearing Stephen Olford talk about preaching. He’s a famous teacher of preachers. And Olford was talking about how when he studies the Bible in preparation for his sermon, the last thing he does in his whole process before he goes and teaches the text is he would open up his Bible on his bed and get down on his knees and work through the text and say, “Lord, is this true in my life?” And he would go through that process before he tried to teach the text to somebody else.
One of the most amazing sermons I ever experienced was by a man named Paul Burleson who was the pastor of a church I attended in Ft. Worth, Texas. One night he came and he got up to preach and then as he opened the text, he said, “You know, folks, I was intending to preach on this passage but I can’t honestly say that this is real in my life at this point.” And he closed the service and had prayer and we left. Now if he did that every week or every other week or even every month, that would be a problem. But that’s the only time I ever saw him do that. But it spoke very, very powerfully of the need for authenticity as we try to share the text with somebody else.
3. We need to make heart space and life space
Now as we talk about being willing to submit to the Lord in obedience as we are studying his word, the key is that we would make heart space and life space. Making heart space is a reference to us opening up our hearts, making sure that we’re not entangled with the cares of this world and the desires for other things, that our hearts are soft to the Lord. We need to make heart space so that our hearts are spiritually ready to receive what God would say to us.
As we’re dealing with our children, we realize that it is much more important to have their heart than it is simply to have their obedience in outward actions. And we have really tried to work with them on having soft hearts toward mom and dad. We have to work on that in an ongoing way because the key is not just that their outward actions are conformed, but that their hearts are yielded and soft to the principles that we’re trying to teach them. So you and I also need heart space. We need hearts that are open and soft to the Lord as we get ready to study his Word.
And then, we also need life space. We need to set aside time to study and read the Scriptures. So again I want to encourage you to be considering what do you need to do in terms of making space in your life so that you can receive the Word regularly and be obedient to it.
D. Prepare to share your study or reading
The fourth commitment we need to make is to prepare to share your study or reading. The Bible is a book written for community and you and I have a community factor that enters in as we read and study the Word. It’s not meant to just have an impact on us. It is meant to be something that we deal with in community with other people.
In the morning when Pat and I have our time with the Lord and we’re doing Bible reading or Bible study, it’s common for us to share with each other what we’re learning or for one of us to ask the other a question, maybe about a particular passage. And this is something that happens in our small groups at church. It ought to happen in conversation over lunch after church. We need to be people who are sharing what God is teaching us. We should not be doing that from a prideful standpoint, but from the standpoint of really enjoying the Word of God and allowing the Word of God to be richly dwelling in us as his people. And so another commitment we need to make as we think about studying and reading the Word is to share it with other people how we've been blessed as God has taught us.
Well, these are some personal commitments we need to make as we get ready to study the Scriptures together. I want us to move on to our next main topic and that is background study.
III. Background studies
How do we approach dealing with background issues as we are in the process of doing our study. Now you should have a handout that was given you called "Looking Around and Settling In." And here we're describing that part of a trip where you get there and you need to learn about your context. The next two main topics we're going to talk about are context topics. The first is historical context and the second is literary context. Context is very important and when we talk about background issues, it means that we want to tune into the historical and cultural context in which the bible was written. Just think about our own lives. For those of you who are old enough to do this, think back to the 1970s and imagine someone coming up to you and talking about the power of the Web. Well, you might have thought that person was talking about a Spiderman comic they had read. But if someone came up to you and said that to you today, you'd know exactly what they're talking about because you've experienced the power of the Internet. You can find all kinds of things in your research on the Internet itself. Well, that cultural context difference really makes a profound difference in what is being said if you're in 1970 as opposed to 2004.
I just finished reading a novel called "Kindred". It is a novel in which a young lady from modern Los Angeles is zipped back to pre-Civil War south in the United States in a way that she and no one else understands, and she is a young black woman. It's a fascinating story because it sets up the dynamics of a modern person being put into a historical context that has very difficult implications for her as a young black woman. Well, the reason that story works is because you're dealing with two very different historical and cultural contexts. So you and I want to really focus in and allow ourselves to learn about how we can be sensitive to historical and cultural contexts of the Bible.
Well, the first point under learning the culture and talking about background issues in history is "his story" and it comes with a context. Now, God is the one who made the choice of when and where the Scriptures would be written, and so when we study the background, the historical backdrop of the text, what we're doing in part is we are respecting God's choice of place and time. The other reason why this is so important is because you and I are really separated culturally from the people back in the first century by a number of significant factors. We don't dress like they do. We don't eat like the Corinthians do, for instance. We don't use the same language they do. We're not under the same type of governmental system that they were under. There are many, many things that cause distance between us and those people in the first century in their situation. So as we study history and study cultural backdrop of the text, what we're doing is we're trying to close that gap in our understanding so that we can understand their situations and specifically the types of issues they were facing as they were receiving the word of God. The Word of God is God's word to us. It was not written to them and then it's just been handed down to us. It is God's word to us. But to hear that word well, we need to be sensitive to certain historical and cultural dynamics.
There are three main areas for study as we talk about background issues and historical issues.
A. General historical background of the book
The first is what is the general historical background of the book? In other words, we want to ask who, what, when, where, and why. If I am dealing with a book like the book of Romans in the New Testament, I want to understand who wrote the book and we find that Paul is the author of the book of Romans. We want to talk about what Paul was trying to accomplish in that book when he wrote it and why. And if possible we want to try to understand where as well. So when we approach the general historical background of the book, what we're talking about is who was the author, when was it written, why was it written, what are the concerns that form the backdrop of this book.
Well, we know with the book of Romans, for instance, that Paul was in Corinth and he was planning a trip back to Palestine and was in a hurry so he was not able to go and visit the Romans yet. He had not visited the Roman church at this point, and so what he wanted to do is to share with them his gospel. He wanted to share with them his message, and he writes the book of Romans as an overview of his basic teachings about Christ. And so we can tune into that general historical backdrop and it will help us understand a bit more of what's going on in the book of Romans.
B. The immediate historical context of the passage
Well, the second area for study is to ask what can I find out about the immediate historical context of the passage. In each book of the Bible, there is an immediate historical situation that we need to study. For instance, in the Gospels, there are times in which Jesus is at key turning points in his ministry. And we want to understand the dynamics surrounding those. For instance, when Jesus experiences transfiguration on the Mount of Transfiguration. In Luke's gospel, that is a key turning point, when Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus, and the disciples see this phenomenal thing that happens as Jesus converses with them and they talk about his exodus, his way out of the world. In Luke's gospel, from that point on Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem and it's important to read the things that happened in Luke from that point on in light of the fact that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die. So we want to find out about the immediate historical context of certain passages.
Tomorrow I'm going to be preaching at a church. I'm going to be preaching on Isaiah 6 and in that passage you have Isaiah giving a point of reference. He said: "In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord..." And we can study specifically the historical context of Isaiah's vision there. He was writing in a time of crisis. Israel had faced tremendous prosperity but there was a tremendous political power looming on the horizon, the Assyrians. King Uzziah died in 739. He had been a good king and so this was a crisis for the nation and for the prophet himself.
C. What cultural elements we need to study
A third thing that we can study as we do our background studies is to ask what cultural elements do I need to study. It may be that some aspect of the culture comes up in our process of study that we need to find out more about. It may be a group like the Pharisees or it may be some type of food that is involved in a situation. When Peter sees the sheet come down in a vision in Acts 10, God is about to send him to preach the gospel to a group of Gentiles in Cornelius' household. We need to understand the point of that vision as God tells Peter to arise, kill and eat. And Peter says, "No, Lord," because he is a Jew who has been kosher. He has kept the food laws all of his life, and so we really have to understand the backdrop of what's going on in that passage.
IV. Tools for background studies
Let's talk just for a minute about tools that will help us get there. Let me mention a few.
A. Bible dictionary
We've already talked about the need to use a study Bible. You will need to get a good Bible dictionary, like the Holman Bible Dictionary. Bible dictionaries will have a wide variety of articles on people, places, things. It is like a first line of offense as we get ready to study background issues. Now there are special Bible encyclopedias which are like extended Bible dictionaries. This, for instance, is a specialized encyclopedia. This is the Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Places. What it does is it goes into explanations of a lot of different cities and countries that are referred to in the Bible.
B. Background commentary
A second type of tool is a background commentary. Now I think one of the best ones right now is the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. In this commentary, authors on these different books go through and comment just on background issues as they relate to the text. So as you're reading through the Gospels, they're not going to do commentary on things that you would normally have. When you're reading through the Gospels, a backgrounds commentary is not going to comment on everything in the text. It is going to specifically zero in on backgrounds issues such as the groups, cultural practices, maybe the specific historical context that is being dealt with. I think backgrounds commentaries are a very powerful tool for personal study as well as for people who are teaching Bible studies or Sunday school because they really fill out a lot of gaps for us in terms of what's going on in the text.
C. Maps and atlases
Another type of tool that we can use for background studies would be maps and atlases. You have maps in the back of your study Bible but also there are atlases like the Holman Bible Atlas. And if you're dealing with a period of history, different kinds of events, a good Bible atlas is going to give you much more detail in terms of your study than you would have with the maps in the back of your study Bible. Some atlases will have topographical illustrations and these can be very helpful and impressive as you're studying different types of events in the Scriptures. So that's a third type of tool.
D. The Internet
And then a fourth one that you need to be careful with is the Internet itself. It is amazing what you can find on the Internet. There are websites like the Perseus Project which comes out of Tufts University. They have a tremendous database of different types of artifacts. You can go online and at times see pictures from different locations in the biblical world and see those places from various angles. The caution is that the stuff that's put on the Internet obviously is not controlled, and so at times you can pick up some very bad information or some misinformation and you just need to be careful and consider the sources that you're using on the Internet. There are very helpful materials there but it also can lead you down some paths that you don't want to go, simply because anybody in the world can put up stuff on the Internet and they may or may not be well informed about the materials they're actually putting on there.
V. Background fallacies to avoid
Well, it brings us to another issue in doing background studies and that is: what are background study fallacies to avoid? Let me mention three of these and then we'll move on to talk about how background studies can help us and examples of how they can help us in specific ways.
A. Over-focusing on background details
First of all, one fallacy would be focusing too much on background details and obscure intention of the passage. It may be that you’re a person who love history and background kind of information, and in doing your study you get so caught up in the bigger picture of the background material or maybe the details of the cultural material that it really obscures the intention of the text.
For instance, in Hebrews 9:1-10, the author talks about the tabernacle from the Old Testament and the setup of the tabernacle. There have been people who have really gotten into that and they’ve gone into the details of the tabernacle and all the nitty-gritty details, and then they even start spiritualizing those. But if you do that, then it begins taking attention away from what the author of Hebrews is doing at that point. And in fact, the author of Hebrews himself says I don’t want to go into all the details at this point. Because what he’s trying to do is just show that there was a structure that was set up and a process by which the priests moved into the outer room of the tabernacle and then the high priest once a year moved into the inner room, the holy of holies, in the tabernacle. So one thing that we want to be careful of is not getting so caught up in the background material and the historical details that we actually start obscuring the intention of the passage itself. So that’s just a caution.
B. Using outdated or misinformed tools
A second caution is using outdated or misinformed tools. Now this is one of the reasons why using a solid tool that’s been done in recent years can be very helpful. We may use some tools that are older tools. Some of the commentaries, for instance, that were written back in the 1800s are still valuable. Many of those people came from classical types of education and at times they may have insights that we need, but more recent tools that are done based on solid scholarship can help us not to go down some wrong paths.
For instance, you may have heard someone teach on Matthew 19:24, where Jesus talks about it being so difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, and he’s using that as a spiritual illustration. And I’ve heard someone teach on that before. He talked about what Jesus was really discussing there was there was a gate in the city of Jerusalem which was called “the eye of the needle”. Because it was so small, the camels, as they went through that gate, have to be unloaded or perhaps even get down on their knees in order to go through the gate. Well, the problem with that teaching is that there’s absolutely no historical evidence whatsoever that there was a gate called “the eye of the needle” in Jerusalem. It’s based purely on speculation and someone came up with that creative idea somewhere along the way. So that would be an example of misinformation that someone is introducing as an element of background.
C. Ignoring the background
A third fallacy would be to not study the background of the text at all. I think we run a much greater danger reading our culture and our historical situation into the text if we are not sensitive to the specific culture and historical situation in which the text was written. Now again I want to emphasize that God’s Word is written to us. It is God’s tool to speak to us and he means for us to hear it. It was not just written for those people back there. But again God chose the place and the time and we need to respect that and work with it and be sensitive to it.
VI. How background studies can help us
Let me give just a few examples of how background study can help us and we’ll close and conclude with this discussion today.
A. Background studies can explain elements that are not clear
First of all, background study can explain elements that are not clear. Let’s look at a couple of passages together.
In Acts 22:25-29, we find Paul back in the city of Jerusalem, and Paul has been arrested and is now being interrogated by the Roman soldiers who arrested him. Now you will remember it is the situation where Paul had been in the temple and there was a mob action started against him because they thought he had brought a Gentile into the temple, which again has its own historical backdrop. But now Paul is about to be interrogated. If you back up to verse 23 of Acts 22, it reads, “And as they were crying out and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust in the air, the commander ordered him (that is, Paul) to be brought into the barracks, stating that he should be examined by scourging so that he might find out the reason why they were shouting against him that way." So what the commander was going to do is loosen him up a bit by beating him. "But when they stretched him out with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, 'Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?' And when the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and told him saying, 'What are you about to do for this man is a Roman.' The commander came and said to him, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And the commander answered, ‘I acquired the citizenship with a large sum of money.’ And Paul said, ‘But I was actually born a citizen.’ Therefore, those who were about to examine him immediately let go of him and the commander also was afraid when he found out that he was a Roman and because he had put him in chains.”
Well, what’s going on in the backdrop of that text? Why do they react to Paul the way that they do? How can Paul simply look over his shoulder as someone is about to beat him and just say, “By the way, did I mention that I’m a Roman citizen?”? Well, as you pick up from the text itself, a Roman citizen could not be scourged without a trial and it was really a severe punishment brought against the Roman official who had the person unjustly punished. So there is background there we can study about this political and historical context in which Acts 22 was written.
B. Background studies can help communicate the force of what is being communicated
A second thing that background study can help us with is it can help communicate the force of what is being communicated. Now let me give you an example of what we’re talking about here.
Look at Luke 23:27 and following. This is when Jesus is being led away to be crucified and it says in this chapter, “And following him was a large crowd of people and of women who were mourning and lamenting him, but Jesus turning to them said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for me but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold the days are coming when they will say “blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.” Then they will begin to say to the mountains “fall on us” and to the hills “cover us.” For if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?’”
Well, what do we know about the historical situation Jesus is prophesying about? I think Jesus there is referring to the fall of Jerusalem which happened in A.D. 70. In fact, Josephus tells us about the siege of Jerusalem and one of the most horrible aspects of the siege was when the Romans came in and laid siege to the city of Jerusalem and you had the Jewish freedom fighters who were opposing them. The Romans did horrible things to the Jewish fighters that they caught. In fact, as those freedom fighters were looking out from the city, the walls that had already been breached around the city and on the hills outside of the city of Jerusalem, there were hundreds and hundreds of Jews who were being crucified by the Romans. In fact, the Romans taunted them by crucifying their captives in all different types of contorted positions on the wall around the city of Jerusalem. And so as these freedom fighters were looking out, they saw hundreds and thousands of their colleagues who were crucified outside the city. In fact, Josephus says that there were so many Jews being crucified that they ran out of crosses and they had to start crucifying people on top of other people.
Now when you understand that this is what Jesus was prophesying about, then you understand the force of what he was saying. You know, stop weeping for me. In essence, Jesus was saying, “This is a tragedy and today three of us will die outside of the city, but there’s coming a time that you won’t believe.” Jesus is saying that there are implications coming because you failed to recognize the Messiah when he came. So understanding that prophetic moment that Jesus was looking towards in the siege and the fall of Jerusalem helps us to understand a little bit more of the force.
Now the original readers of the gospel would have understood very well – those who were there after that siege took place and after the city of Jerusalem fell, they would have felt the full force of Jesus’ statement there. It’s quite possible that Luke was written in the early to mid 60s but especially for those who heard this read after the siege and fall of Jerusalem, it would have been very powerful historically for them.
C. Background studies can help clarify application
Well, there’s a third way that background study can help us. It can help clarify application.
For instance, in Hebrews 13:2 the author is giving a list of practices that we as Christians are supposed to practice, and these are very practical types of exhortations that the author gives here. And in the second verse of chapter 13, he says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Well, does that mean that you and I are supposed to just take in anybody into our homes, perhaps pick up anybody on the highway who is needing help? It may be that at times those actions will be appropriate. But if we understand a little bit of the backdrop of Jewish and Christian hospitality at this period of time, then we understand that this was an age in which they did not have the Hampton Inn down in Jerusalem. They had inns, but inns were often very unsavory places, and there was a high value placed on Jews and the early Christians showing hospitality to fellow believers as they traveled through the world at that time. And so as we think about this exhortation, we might think about the ways that hospitality was taken up then in order to then think about parallels to our situation when we read this.
The exhortation “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” may sound like we just need to open our doors to anybody who comes up from the street and knocks on our door. But I think that we would need to think through the situation a little bit more based on the historical and cultural context in which that was originally written.
Well, these are a few thoughts on background study, and I want to encourage you again to be browsing your Bible dictionary. It might be this week that you want to, as you’re doing your Bible reading, be sensitive to specific historical and cultural situations and begin to use your Bible dictionary to learn more about the historical and cultural contexts in which your passage was written.
Well, I’ll look forward to being back with you next week. May God bless you and may we read the Word well this week and practice it faithfully.