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.