I my last post I described a two-part process by which to arrive at an interpretation that applies to our everyday lives. I compared interpretation to a two-story house, in which the first story is the historical context of the biblical book. In order to arrive at the second story of universal interpretation, you must first understand what the author intended to write to his original audience. This is by and large a contextual venture. We must understand contextual meaning before we can arrive at a meaning that applies to us today.
But how do we understand the first story of the house? What contextual clues do we look for when venturing toward the second story?
Within any given book there is going to be 5 layers of context. Some of these layers may require a commentary or two, but a few will just require that you read a bit more and dig further.
The 5 layers of context are…
5) Author / audience
1) Verse context is fairly simple. How do the verses before and after help give meaning to the verses at which you’re presently looking? For example, Paul says that “there is…no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” in Romans 8:1. While this statement seems pretty straightforward, we can find greater meaning if we look a few verses back into Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”. Paul had been frustrated over his inherent inability to obey God — he found only sin within himself. Who can deliver him from this sinful body? Christ can! By simply looking to one or two verses ahead or behind the passage you’re studying, you can find a wealth of helpful information.
2) What about chapter context? This simply means to look at the chapters before and after the verses you are studying to give a better understanding of the author’s argument. We have already looked at Colossians 2:16-17, in which Paul tells his audience to reject any teacher telling them to add works to their salvation. How does Colossians 1 and 3 help us understand his argument? Colossians 1 explains Christ’s supreme rule over the church (Col 1:15-20), while Colossians 3 explains our position in Christ (Col 3:1-3). Consequently, we should trust in Christ alone for righteousness! Studying interlocking arguments within chapters is so helpful. How does chapter 1 connect with 2? How does 1 relate to chapter 4? etc…Tracking arguments and thoughts across chapters can be surprisingly enlightening.
3) Book context takes into account the themes found throughout the book, and how this helps us understand a given text. For instance, Paul says in Galatians 5:1: “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”. What has Christ set us free from? What yoke were the Galatians falling prey to? From the context of the entire book, we find that Paul was writing the Galatians because they had given into another gospel (Gal 1:6-10), and thought that by conforming to certain Jewish laws and accepting circumcision, that they could be righteous. For this reason, the focus of the entire book of Galatians will be that they had submitted to a hard yoke of slavery by which they could never be saved. This level of context requires that you read an entire book, possibly several times, paying attention to repeated themes. The theme we found in Galatians was freedom from the Law. But other books have differing themes. Ephesians focuses on the body of Christ, Romans focuses on justification by faith, and Colossians focuses on the supremacy of Christ.
4) Bible asks the question, “how does my passage fit within the context of the entire story of the Bible?” Tracking back to Galatians, Paul finds himself writing to an audience that thought they still had to observe the Mosaic Law. Obviously, because Christ came and fulfilled the requirements of the law, and died for our sins, this means that we no longer have to follow the law. By simply understanding that Leviticus was given to a people before Christ came, and that Galatians was given after, this can help us with interpreting scripture. For help with this, I would encourage you to read God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts for greater insight into this.
5) Finally, by understanding who the author and the audience was, you can really get to understand your passage. For instance, the book of Hebrews was given to a Jewish audience who had struggled with lapsing back into Judaism. This really helps us when reading the book as a whole. The book of Hebrews covers the insufficiency of the Mosaic Law in comparison to Christ in salvation. Jesus is better eternally sufficient in saving, and the Law cannot save! If we understand the temptation of the original audience, it really gives deeper meaning and application. This step may require a commentary. But you can often find out much about the audience and the author just from observing steps 1-4.
All 5 of these layers of context helps us when moving to an interpretation that applies to us today. To really understand a passage, and get to the second story (so to speak), we must first understand all of these layers found on the first floor of our interpretive house.