Looking at the context.

My favorite teaching is when I get to walk through part of the Bible with a group of people. It’s how I started 300 words several years ago, walking through the book of Matthew. On Sunday, I was teaching about part of the letter of Colossians. Rather than spend all of our time examining particular sentences, I spent some time explaining how I approach a text.

I start with the assumption that a real person was writing these words to real other people with some intent to communicate. I wish I could explain this better, but briefly, I assume that when there is a letter in the Bible, it is more like an email in my actual inbox than an email in a novel or a movie.

With that assumption, when I’m looking at a chunk of the Bible there are a couple questions: What did this mean for the writer when it was being written? and What does this mean for us?

Often, we start with the application: what does it mean for me? But what if we started where we start with other conversations, with context? After all, you and I hate to have our words taken out of context: “That’s not what I meant. Did you hear what was happening before I said that?”

In looking at a particular sentence in Colossians, I suggested to the class that we look at four contexts. (This would be true for any other sentence of the Bible).

  • First, the whole letter.
  • Second, all of Paul’s writing.
  • Third, the whole Bible.
  • Fourth, the larger picture of God’s work with humans.

I’ll explain more about these contexts during the next couple of days. And I know that it seems like I’m saying that we can’t understand anything without looking at everything.

We’ll see.

5 thoughts on “Looking at the context.

  1. Rich Dixon

    We don’t need to know everything to look at anything…but it helps to know something.

    Seems like even a flawed version of the bigger picture is better than none at all, as long as we remember that it’s flawed and incomplete. I’m reminded of the story of the blind people who described an elephant by touching different body parts…the person touching the leg was convinced an elephant is straight and sturdy and rigid. Try telling that to the person touching the ear.

    We tend to cling tightly to our preconceptions about God’s big story, but the elephant’s not really like his ear or his leg or his belly. Or something. Or maybe I need more coffee.


  2. cjhinx

    This reminds me of the Sunday School curriculum we just finished, “God’s Big Picture.” The last lesson of the curriculum was on “God’s Big Picture and You.” It was such an awesome lesson I wish I could teach it several times a year. The lesson not only explained God’s big picture throughout the Bible, it also brought in how God used many different people in the Bible to accomplish his will. Then it went on to talk about how God will use each of us in his big plan. I am always amazed at how the lessons we teach our children can benefit all of us in some way.


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