The Bible isn’t a secret code book, but a treasure-store for everyone of universal truth that never changes. Right research can help you find and correctly understand this valuable truth.
How we study the Scriptures is comparable to the process of constructing buildings, and in our Bible study we may also fail to follow the original and true design. Without considering God’s eternal “blueprint,” we may come to incorrect or shallow conclusions.
Is the Bible an organized piece of literature? It must be, since according to Ephesians 1:11, God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”
The Bible is also eternal. God’s Word “was with God in the beginning” (John 1:2), and Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mark 13:3–1). Not only did God plan from the beginning to send his Son to die for our sins so we could live with him forever, but he also decided to reveal parts of this eternal plan to us through the Scriptures. I marvel at this opportunity we therefore have to look into God’s blueprint for history.
Some people treat the Bible as a secret code book. They believe God is sending personal messages to them which have little or no relationship to the original meaning of the Scripture passages. But we don’t have to go to this extreme in order to hear God speak to us today. Part of the beauty of the Bible is that even while it speaks to all of us, it also meets our unique, individual needs.
Sometimes we may look in the Bible for some portion that is just right for us, and say that this verse means a particular thing “to me.” But the right meaning of the verse is what it means for everyone.
God is speaking to us today through the same principles laid down by the prophets and apostles. Our applications of Scripture will be as unique as our own situation, but the truths are universally the same. We therefore should learn to understand what Scripture passages meant to those who first read them.
The treasure to be found in Scripture is not a new thing God says to me, but rather what he has been saying through Scripture ever since it was written.
In Mark 12:18–27 Jesus had to point this out to the Sadducees, who were questioning the resurrection because of a supposed contradiction in the Scriptures. In his answer Jesus quoted what God had said to Moses through the burning bush—”I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” It didn’t matter that these words were spoken many centuries earlier. They were still true then, and they are still true today.
How do we uncover the original message of a passage in such a way that we can apply it personally to ourselves? Since the truth revealed in any passage was given in order to clarify God’s will at that time, we need to learn more about that time period, and what need caused the author to write what he did.
Bible commentaries often call this information the “occasion” of the book. With a little research in these commentaries and other books about the Old and New Testaments, we can find information to help “set the scene” of a Bible book in our minds.
A major key to understanding any book in the Bible is to discover the author’s purpose. What was his primary interest when he wrote the book?
Sometimes the authors tell you this themselves. John said he wrote his gospel “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Luke said he wrote “an orderly account” of Jesus’ life “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:34).
We can often find more information about an author’s purpose in Bible commentaries. For example, since Mark was not one of the twelve apostles, you may wonder in what way he was qualified to write his gospel, and why he wrote it. By doing research on Mark I discovered a strong early tradition indicating that Mark served as a writer and translator for the apostle Peter. Near Peter’s death, or shortly afterward, Mark apparently wrote own the sermons he had heard time and again, and formed them into this gospel. This tradition stems from Papias, Justin Martyr, and Clement of Alexandria, all three of whom lived in the second century and are considered reliable resources.
By knowing this we can realize that Mark’s purpose was not simply to write a history of Jesus’ life, but to group together various sermons from Peter that stemmed from Christ’s ministry. We can then identify such things as where these short sermons seem to begin and end.
If no other source indicates the reason a biblical author wrote his book, try reading over the book in one sitting to get the “big picture” of what the author seems to say. In many books the emotional tone or the general content will reveal his apparent purpose.
Remember that the book was written to fill a clear need in the lives of those to whom the author was writing. Identifying with these needs of the original audience will help you succeed in applying this part of Scripture to your life.
After developing an opinion about the author’s purpose, you can investigate the strategy he used to fulfill that purpose. This includes recognizing what form of literature the author used. Was it a personal letter? A formal treatise? Poetry? Each type of literature has its own unique influence on the book’s content. By visualizing the author’s purpose and his strategy, you will begin uncovering the outline of the book’s message with confidence that you are following his logic.
You’ll also want to learn more about the political and social climate of the times in which the book was written, as well as the experiences and background of the author. When stidying Paul’s epistles, for example, try to place them in the context of his travels and the events of his life. His difficult time in Philippi (Acts 16:11–40) had an impact on how he evaluated his ministry to the Thessalonians, and it is helpful to see this when studying Paul’s first letter to them (see 1 Thessalonians 2:2).
Jonah’s running away from the Lord is best understood only in light of the political scene at the time. Ninevah was the capital of a cruel civilization that was an enemy to Israel. Their means of torture were their boast. Jonah probably wondered why God wanted him to preach to this enemy, and also what the Ninevites would do to him because of his dreadful message. The first readers of the book of Jonah would have easily understood this. Another example is the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians, which is important in understanding many New Testament books. Factors such as these reveal the tensions, disappointments, expectations, and doubts of those who first read the books in our Scripture.
Drawing together the author’s purpose, his strategy, and the political and social context of the book is vital for understanding any portion of Scripture. Too often we jump right in observing the text without first finding out where the author is “coming from.” It may take self-discipline to first do research when you are eager to begin your actual study of the passage, but you’ll find the strength of your conclusions well worth the investment in building this foundation.
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This article is by Keith White, pastor of Gardner Friends Church in Gardner, Kansas. Originally published in Discipleship Journal issue 6, used with permission.