TGOC Bible Class Curricula – How To Study The Bible (First Quarter) Lesson 11 – A Deeper Study Into Interpretation
We have been looking at the three main steps of the inductive method of Bible study – (1) observation, (2) interpretation, and (3) application.
We are going to spend some more time on the second step – interpretation.
In this step, we are going to deal with two questions: “What did the author mean by what he wrote?” (2) “What were the original recipients supposed to understand?”
The key to proper and accurate interpretation is context. There are two kinds of context that we are going to study: literary context and historical context.
Illustration: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” (1 Corinthians 7:1)
If we were limiting this statement in isolation and not studying the whole context, we might erroneously misinterpret Paul as stating that it is not good to get married at all. This would contradict other Scriptures such as Genesis 2:18-24; 1 Timothy 4:1-3.
What is Paul discussing?
Previously, Paul established that fornication was a sin that Christians were to flee (1 Corinthians 6:12-20).
Some Corinthian brethren rushed to extremes by falsely concluding that celibacy was the ultimate virtue - even to the point that they were willing to become celibate by divorcing their God-joined spouses in order to live out what they believed to be a more “holy” way of life (1 Corinthians 7:1-12).
Paul is responding to a slogan these extreme brethren had made. Translators of the English Standard Version (and New International Version of 2011) put 1 Corinthians 7:1 in quotation marks: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’”
In using the hermeneutical step of observation, we notice the time frame of this slogan: “in view of the present distress to remain as you are” (1 Corinthians 7:26). Paul is stating that in view of the present distress it would better for those Christians who were single not to get married (he implied nothing about divorce).
It is important to see why we should not isolate a verse from its context.
When we are studying the literary context, we are to look at the levels of context: (1) the immediate context (1 Corinthians 7), (2) the larger sections of the book (1 Corinthians 5-7), (3) the book as a whole (1 Corinthians), the books written by the same author (the Pauline literature), and then the whole Bible.
There are tools to aid us in studying literary context. We could look at a concordance, cross references, Bible handbooks (such as Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook, Zondervan Handbook to the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Handbook), and last of all, commentaries. Always remember that these aids are manmade and most of them are written by non-Christians. Pay primary attention to the Scriptures themselves and especially the context.
It is important to understand the historical context. To give you an idea, let us look at a joke: “One day in court, the prosecuting lawyer asked the farmer on the witness stand, ‘At the scene of the accident, did you tell the policeman you had never felt better in your life?’ ‘That's right.’ The farmer replied. ‘Well, then, how is it that you are now claiming you were seriously injured when my client's auto hit your wagon?’ The farmer explained. ‘When the policeman arrived, he went over to my horse, who had a broken leg, and shot him. Then he went over to Rover, my dog, who was all banged up and shot him. When he asked me how I felt, I just thought, under the circumstances, it was a wise choice of words to say 'I've never felt better in my life.'"
There was a preacher who gave a sermon on 2 Timothy 4:9,21. The sermon was titled “Come Forward Before Winter.” The preacher had applied the sermon to what some call a Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). When winter comes, people usually develop a mild form of depression who suffer from this disorder. In all honesty though, is this the correct way to understand this passage? No.
In the historical context, Paul is in a prison in Rome. Timothy was at Ephesus (which is a seaport city). Paul was writing this letter to Timothy. During the winter season in the ancient times, it would have been very dangerous to travel in the winter time. In fact, ship travel closed down in early November and did not reopen until the next spring. Paul is urging Timothy to hurry before it becomes too hard to travel.
God chose to communicate His word in real time to real people. This means that to honor God's word we should know something of the historical situation in which the text was written.
There are various tools that a person can use to help aid in understanding the historical context, such as, Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, Bible atlases, and commentaries, etc. (a commentary is the fruit of someone else's study and reflects the beliefs of the author; so it is important that you understand the vantage point from which the author comes).
Try not to use commentaries until you have done your own observations and interpretation.
In studying the historical context, there are some dangers in gathering inaccurate information. So be careful.
Let us now do an exercise in historical context:
Illustration: Revelation 3:14-22 - There are three cities located near each other in the Lycus Valley: (1) Hierapolis, (2) Laodicea, and (3) Colosse. Look up some historical information about these cities and before you proceed to read point 10, try to see if you understand what Jesus was saying to the church at Laodicea where he says in Revelation 3:15,16: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.”
Answer: Colosse was at the top of Lycus Valley; its water supply was cold water. Hierapolis had its hot springs. The city of Laodicea had to receive its water supply through pipes from the mountains. By the time the water got to Laodicea, it was lukewarm. Jesus was saying that He wished the church at Laodicea was useful. Hot water is good for bathing. Cold water is good for drinking. Lukewarm water is good for nothing! It is to be spewed out!
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