I’m preaching/teaching through Revelation on Sunday nights. We had just looked at the first part of chapter 21 and talked about how although this text is commonly applied to heaven, it’s really about the exalted church that has just been delivered from Roman oppression. On the way home my wife Janice made the comment, “That’s really not that hard to see if you have read the first twenty chapters.”
I thought this was an especially cogent observation. If you invert it, it suggests that the reason we have trouble understanding a passage is because we haven’t read what comes before it. Or more to the point, we approach the Bible as one giant book of verses to be analyzed and systematized rather than recognizing the uniqueness of each of the Bible’s different books and approaching it in this manner.
In a word, I’m talking about context but not just the immediate context of a verse (i.e., the few verses before it and after it). I’m referring to the overall context—who wrote the book, who were they writing to, why they wrote it, etc. I like to use the acronym ASAP in developing the background of a biblical book or letter. The letters stand for: author—style—audience—purpose. If you have a decent understanding of these four things it really helps you step into the story as opposed to being on the outside looking in.
The more you think about this, the more sense it makes. Why not study a book or a letter in the same manner the original recipients did—going through the whole of it rather than isolating little pieces of it? That’s not to say there’s no place for systematic studies or just isolating certain texts at times (Jesus did both of these things on occasion—Luke 24:44ff; Matthew 22:32). Still, we aren’t able to do these things unless we have some sense of what the contextual meaning of the passage is. After all, how can we know what a text means to us if we don’t have some understanding of what it meant to the original audience?
Some think this makes Bible reading and study more work but I would suggest that the opposite is true. The difference is that the work is front loaded—the first few times you read Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia you would have to spend a little time researching and then reminding yourself of the ASAP. Then after a while, you’ll find it is embedded in your thinking whenever you refer to it (or even when someone just randomly quotes a verse from it).
Contrast that with the rip-a-verse approach where you are constantly asking how these two or three verses should be understood because you’ve never taken the time to build a contextual foundation for the book or letter. I can tell you from experience that taking time to do your ASAP saves time in the long run. Let me close by saying I’m not suggesting that this makes all of our struggles go away. At least Peter didn’t think so (2 Peter 3:15-16). I am saying that this must be a basic building block if we hope to have a solid understanding of the Scripture.