Literary Context

If we grow in our ability to interpret the Bible, that can always help our relationship with God, because we will hear God speak to us through Scripture more clearly. Perhaps the most important skill to learn for interpreting Scripture is to read a passage in its literary context. What does it mean to read Scripture in light of the literary context, and why is the literary context so important?

By giving attention to the literary context, I mean that we interpret words in light of the verses of the Bible in which they’re found. And we interpret verses in light of the immediate sections of Scripture in which they’re found. And we interpret small sections of verses in light of chapters and large sections of a book of the Bible. And we interpret chapters and large sections of a book of the Bible in light of the book as a whole. Words, sentences, passages, and chapters “take their meaning from the biblical book of which they are a part” (Jeannine Brown, Scripture as Communication, 213). In short, making use of the literary context means that we interpret words and verses according to what we find in the immediate and surrounding passages.

The literary context is important because it helps to keep us on track. Too often we try and make a piece of Scripture fit our own preconceived notions. When we read something in its literary context, we have to face what’s really in the text, so that we don’t accidentally (or purposefully) make Scripture say whatever we want it to say. When we read a verse in its literary context, we must deal with the verse in light of what the rest of its own context is saying. A good literary approach allows Scripture to have its own voice. The literary context is also important because it’s clarifying. It’s very hard to see the meaning of a text if we don’t understand what the author says before and after that given piece of text. Many meanings are possible when we don’t read something in context. The literary context gives us much more to work with, so that we have the author’s own guidance to clarify the meaning.

Interpreting the Last Nine

Last week I shared “A Brief Guide for Learning to Interpret a Whole Book of the Bible”. I put much of that guide together while studying the letters of Paul, but lately I’ve been applying the steps and skills from the guide to a different section of the New Testament. These days I’ve been studying and teaching the last nine books, Hebrews through Revelation.

Unlike Paul’s letters, these books are written to broad Christian audiences living in many areas of the first-century Greco-Roman world. So Hebrews through Jude are sometimes called the “General Epistles” (not including Revelation, though it’s really a letter, too). The name does not mean they only have general, not specific, things to say. The audiences, not the messages, are general.

While we can put a general label on the audiences, the books themselves are harder to categorize. They are quite different from one another. For instance, when I move from James to what follows, 1 Peter, it strikes me that two mature Christian leaders, both writers of the NT, could express their faith in such different ways. While both books consist of five chapters and focus on the Christian life, the way they go about it could hardly be more different. 1 Peter emphasizes who believers are through Christ, and mentions Christ 22 times, while James concentrates on the need for believers to be doers of the word, and mentions Christ only twice.

The last nine books of the NT are also different than the rest of the NT. For instance, the Greek noun for “gospel” is used only twice from Hebrews to Revelation, though it occurs 74 times in the writings that come before them. On the other hand, the Greek noun for “endurance” or “perseverance” is used fourteen times: seven times more often than the word “gospel”. That’s a taste of how the focus in these books is different from the first eighteen books of the NT.

So we shouldn’t open these books and expect to hear exactly the same kind of message we find in the rest of the NT. Each one of the books has its own distinct voice and offers a distinct witness about the Christian life. And that’s how I want to study them – to find out what particular message and testimony each one bears. This way, we can receive not just a general Christian message but a fresh and pointed word from each book, to challenge and shape our lives.

A Brief Guide for Learning to Interpret a Whole Book of the Bible

Note: I wrote this with the interpretation of New Testament epistles in mind, but most of it applies to other parts of the Bible, too.

1. Read through the book in its entirety, seeking to understand it as a whole and trying to follow the line of thought. As you read the whole book, be aware if you see things you haven’t noticed before or if you recognize parts that may not have been emphasized in your prior exposure to the book. Also, does reading the whole give you have a sense of the basic structure of the book?

2. What clues do you discover about the rhetorical situation and aims? That is, can you find evidence for the occasion that gave rise to the book, or what situation the writer is addressing? Do you find information about the original audience and their circumstances? What clues does the book give about the writer? What rhetorical aims do you find? That is, where and how does the writing express what the author was seeking to accomplish by writing this book?

3. What primary themes stand out? Look for literary devices like repetition of key nouns, verbs, images, phrases, and ideas. Look for “book ends”, where a theme stands out at the beginning and end of the book. Try to trace how the author develops the main themes. Making an outline of the book will help you follow the flow of thought and the way the themes develop. Where and how do the key themes intersect? As you read this book of the Bible, keep asking what the main thought is and where it changes.

4. In light of your attention to the book as a whole, what have you come to understand about the theological perspective of the book? What seem to be the most important beliefs, and how are they described?

5. What perspective on the Christian life do you find? How does this piece of literature describe the inner dynamics and outward behaviors of the Christian life? What are the Christian’s resources for living in this way? Try to figure out and describe how the Christian life works, according to this document.

6. This is optional but possibly clarifying: How do your observations regarding numbers 5 and 6 compare with what you’ve seen in other books of the Bible? Does the comparison help to distinguish the particular perspective of this book?

7. In light of all that you have discovered above, how does this document speak a living word to you personally, and how might it speak to your church or to others you know?

8. If you are writing an essay, teaching a class, or preparing for a preaching series that will interpret the book as a whole, read and dwell with your observations until you can develop a way of organizing your discoveries in a meaningful way.

If Jesus overcame temptation by quoting Scripture, why does the same thing not work so well for us?

Or maybe I should only presume to speak for myself: Why hasn’t the same thing always worked for me?

Remembering truth from Scripture helps us to overcome temptation, but from my experience, I’m not sure it’s the whole solution. While the powerful forces at work in our souls require Scripture, they may also require other factors to be in place before we can overcome as Jesus did. I’d like to explore one such factor.

When we see Jesus quoting Scripture in the face of temptation, it’s easy to miss another element in the story: what happens to Jesus just before the temptation. He hears God’s voice, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Scripture did its work for Jesus when Satan tempted him, but the context of the passage tells us that Jesus went into those temptations grounded in the love of the Father.

What if we went into times of temptation fully assured of God’s love? What if, like Jesus, we were firmly rooted in our identity as children of God?

To overcome temptation, in addition to Scripture, we need what the apostle Paul describes in Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” When we cultivate our relationship with the Spirit of God who lives inside us, we get more firmly rooted in the reality that we are God’s beloved children. And then we have a better shot at loving our Father more than the sin that entices us.

In the letter to the Ephesians, just before we get to the chapters that tell the believers how to live, we find a prayer that they will be strengthened by the Holy Spirit in their inner being, that they will be rooted and grounded in love, and that they will know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Those last few verses of chapter 3 prepare believers for the commands to live the Christian life in chapters 4 to 6. The Christian life works best – and perhaps only – when it’s lived as a response to God’s love.

As Jesus overcame temptation, so can we. But part of how he overcame was by being grounded in God’s love. Let’s pray to hear the Spirit telling us we are God’s beloved children, so that we, too, are rooted and established in the love of God.

I’ve offered something that I think can help in overcoming temptation, but much more could be said. Feel free to share more that can reinforce our stand in the face of temptation.

Who is responsible for temptations and trials?

A pastor friend and former student asked me a question: Do trials and temptations come from God or from Satan? And does the word in Greek (peirasmos, peirazō, in Arabic ELTAGROBA) say if it’s God or the devil? Here is a reply, but feel free to add to the discussion.

The first part of the question isn’t easy to answer, because the New Testament describes God, Satan, and the human heart – all three – as involved, but it doesn’t say that God actually tempts us to sin. Here is a quick survey of ways the New Testament uses the Greek word (peirasmos, peirazō) behind the English word “temptation”: Matthew 4:1 is difficult, because the Holy Spirit leads Jesus to a place to be tempted by the devil. This shows God’s involvement, though he does not actually tempt. In Luke 4:13, temptation comes from the devil. Hebrews 11:17 is an interesting case, because it implies that God tests Abraham’s faith. But it’s not temptation to sin; rather, a test of his faith comes from God. That may be the clearest time that this word is used with God as the implied subject. In 1 Cor 10:13, God does not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear. So he is involved, making sure that the temptation is not more than we can handle. 2 Peter 2:9 teaches that God is the one who rescues us from these trials. Revelation 3:10 teaches that God is able to keep us from a time of testing (the same idea is behind Jesus’ encouragement to ask that God not lead us into temptation). But honestly, I’m not sure why the Lord’s prayer asks God not to lead us into testing (Matt 6:13). Frequently it’s the human heart that is the problem, such as 1 Tim 6:9 says with respect to wealth. James 1:2 states that Christians face trials; it doesn’t say where they come from. James 1:13 clarifies that God tempts no-one toward evil, but that our own desires bring temptations (1:14). 1 Peter 1:6-7 and James 1:2-4 teach that very good fruit can come from these trials, which suggests that God is involved, but not that God tempts us toward evil. 1 Peter 4:12 says we shouldn’t be surprised by tests, and the next verse suggests they come because of our relationship and union with Jesus Christ.

To conclude, I would say God never tempts us to sin, but he is involved in our being put into places where we will be tempted and tested by our own hearts and by the evil one. He gives us a way to avoid sin. And when we overcome, this strengthens our faith, which is God’s desire. So, in a way, God does use Satan’s ability to tempt us, though he does not tempt us himself.