Context Questions

"For" but not "to"

We hope these are useful to facilitate discussions with your family.  The next page of Lamp Lighters Material is called Bible Context Questions.  It deals with the important questions a reader should ask themselves as they approach the Holy Scriptures.   The first and most basic thing we need to continually set before us when reading scripture is           The Bible was written for us,                      but it wasn't written to us. The apostle Paul assures his young friend Timothy that, "16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  This addresses the for part.  We can be sure that our holy scriptures have been preserved for us to help show us the story of God and how we can make God's story our own.   What many fail to remember, though, is that the Bible was not written to us.  Take, for example, the scripture I just quoted in the above paragraph.  It is a couple sentences that were pulled from a letter written by a Messianic Jew (Paul) in the late first century, and it was written to a half-Jewish young man named Timothy who was a prominent figure for Christians in the city of Ephesus.   Part of being a student of the scriptures, if we truly believe that they have been preserved and written for our benefit, means we must take all of the scripture into proper context.  To properly contextualize the scripture, we need to ask our Bible Context Questions, which we will discuss below.  

CHALLENGING QUESTIONS

  1. What does it mean that the Bible is written for you? Does it mean that the author had you (specifically) in mind when he wrote down the words?

  2. If we want to take the Bible seriously, does it always mean to take the words literally? What if the author did not intend the original audience to take them literally? 

  3. What are some examples that come to mind of passages that could be taken out of context and shown to mean something they never meant?

INTRIGUING METAPHOR

Discuss how listening to one side of a phone conversation can be challenging.

  • Discuss the trouble you might get in by acting on information heard from one side of a conversation... especially if you make no effort to contextualize.

  • What are other metaphors that describe the lack of context we can have when approaching the Bible?

What are the Bible Context Questions?

Our team assembled six questions that will help the reader gain a lot of context for the vast majority of Bible passages.  Here they are:

  1. Who is writing?

  2. Who are they writing to?

  3. What are they writing about?

  4. What period are they writing in?

  5. What period are they writing about?

  6. What type of writing is it?

These questions help us understand the context of a given passage by shedding light on the background of a given text. Too often, we look at scripture in a vacuum.  Social Media is flooded with cool pictures featuring verses of scripture with no context.  Take for example the following verse image:

This is a neat picture and when we read the words, they sound inspiring.  Only when you realize that this is Satan speaking in the Gospel of Luke chapter 4, tempting Jesus to abandon the worship of God, do the words' context suddenly seem so important.  

Even when a passage is in context, much of the Bible can seem cryptic and difficult to understand.  The Bible Context Rules are a great place to start in your studies.  If things still seem confusing, do not fret! You are part of a long and rich tradition of people who daily grapple with the scripture.  Thankfully we have many promises from God that the person who undertakes a diligent study of the word and who meditates on it day and night, will reap rewards both in the present and the future.  

CHALLENGING QUESTIONS:

  1. Have you ever taken a passage of the Bible out of context? Might your current understanding of some passages lack crucial context?

  2. How do we correct our own limited understanding?

  3. Are there certain ideas and concepts in the Bible that you should 'hold on to' more tightly than others? Example: "Was Jesus God?" vs. "Did Jesus have long hair?"

INTRIGUING METAPHOR:

One of the most challenging things about social media is the scrutiny we often find ourselves under while using it.  It is really easy to take a word, a picture, a bit of sarcasm completely out of context and characterize someone in a certain light.  

  • How does this idea relate to the Biblical author's words and concepts?

Genre

The last thing we need to address in the Bible is genre.  The Bible was written by dozens of authors over a period of about 1500 years.  It is comprised of 66 different books which each have their own voice, style, and purpose.  The following is a rough approximation of the content of the Bible:

  • Narrative (~40% of the Bible)

  • Poetry (~30% of the Bible)

  • Prose (~20% of the Bible)

  • Other (~10% of the Bible)

The Bible is sometimes described as a "manual for living" or "basic instructions before leaving Earth".  One of the many problems with thinking of the Bible this way is that it in no way literarily resembles an instruction manual.  Instruction manuals are supposed to be taken extremely literally.  They include almost no figurative language, and they provide exacting and detailed instructions of how to behave to accomplish your goal.  

The Bible almost never communicates any ideas in this manner.  Far more often the authors chose to communicate complex ideas through narrative story arcs.  They portray humans as complicated (some good and bad in each character) and their decisions rarely can be understood to be 'the right choice' or 'the wrong choice'.  Take for example Abraham.  Early in Abraham's story, God tells him to leave his family and travel to a new land.  Through the story, we notice that he doesn't actually leave all his family (he takes his nephew Lot) and it seems like he doesn't go straight to the land God tells him to.  The author never comes out and tells us that Abraham is sinning, instead he shows how Lot is continually getting into trouble and Abraham has to save him.  He shows how Lot fathers the tribes of Israel's ancient enemies (Moab and Amon).  And he shows in the narrative arc all the trouble that Abraham gets into by not listening and obeying right away.  

Sometimes we get frustrated because the Bible doesn't clearly communicate in the way we expect and in the genre we want.  Usually this means we have forgotten that the Bible was not written to us.  We should, at these times, take a step back and try to understand the original audience and author and help shape our own story from that of the inspired scripture.

The other thing that is important to remember is that God chose to reveal his word in these genres.  He could have preserved the law on the stone tablets for us, right? Instead he thought that his words and his word would be better preserved by literary geniuses putting amazing narrative, mind-blowing proverbs, powerful prose, and even some erotic love poems into a single work.  And all these works point back to our God and his desire to reunite his kingdom with ours.  

CHALLENGING QUESTIONS

  1. Why would God give us a bunch of stories about messed-up people doing messed-up stuff?

  2. Why did God choose to reveal his word in the form and way that he has?

  3. When we read the Bible do we try to apply it to our lives, or do we try to shape our lives into the Bible's form?

INTRIGUING METAPHOR

Imagine you are put in charge of putting a 3-year old to bed and she asks for a story.  What would happen if you just told her, "You need to make good choices about food... make sure you eat your veggies."

  • How does telling a child a good story with a powerful lesson help shape who they are?

  • How do the stories that we tell as a community of believers shape who we are?

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