If ever there was a strategy that would reach the world for Christ, it must be the church sign. Crowning the curb of church properties across America, these little, often backlit, beacons of truth shine out to a lost world. If am not mistaken (and I may be), the origin of the church sign can be traced back to the Apostolic Fathers. Ignatius himself has been quoted as saying, “Seven days without prayer makes one weak.” Indeed some of the earliest extra-canonical sources we have include such pithy statements as: “Dusty Bibles lead to dirty lives,” “Forbidden fruit creates many jams,” and “Searching for a new look? Get a faith lift!” If statements such as these are not going to do the trick, than what better solution do we have?
In all honestly, there are probably few things for which we Christians are more mocked. Statements like these are shallow. How do you sum up God’s grace in a sentence? I can tell you one thing, it is not by saying, “Free trip to Heaven… details inside!” In a world with hundreds of competing worldviews, we claim ours is the only true solution. We say that it answers all of life’s most important questions and explains all of existence. Then we hang the truth of God on statements that barely support themselves. These church sign slogans are weak nails indeed.
However, we do live in an age of soundbites and captions. Even pastors are looking for that “twitterable” little line they can slide in just before a pregnant pause, for effect of course. How many times have you sat in a service, palm to forehead, as a pastor said something like, “Fight truth decay… read your bible!”
The catchphrase is king in communications now. What an unfortunate reality.
You do not have to look into a pulpit to find this mistake. We all make it, and today’s info-on-the-go approach to life has just made it worse. We chop God’s truth up into quotes and soundbites. We try to make it catchy and wind up ditching the deep meaning in the process. Or worse, we completely misapply it. However, proper Bible study does exactly the opposite.
Instead of chopping scripture up verse by verse, good Bible study takes God’s Word as it was written, in context. Each book of the Bible is just that, a book. They were written as complete units of literary work. With the exception of the Psalms and Proverbs, which are truly collections more like an anthology, the books of the Bible were written to be a complete thought. They are literary works, just like the last novel or letter you read. They have a plot and a setting. They have transitions in thought and a context that fills in the meaning as you read.
Last time, I wrote about the need to ground a passage in its historical context, but that is not the only context to consider. A passage also has a literary context. Words and even sentences have little to no meaning when they are ripped out of their context. How many times have we heard someone blantantly misquoted in a news story? How often have we seen a one-sentence soundbite played out of some politician’s speech on television, only to hear him say it was taken out of context?
You can completely change the meaning of a statement if you take it out of literary context. For instance, go back and read the first sentence of this blog post. Is that statement by itself indicative of my feelings? Absolutely not, and when taken in its context, it is obviously satire. But If I were quoted with just that one line, it would completely miss my point. Are we guilty of that exact mistake with scripture? How often do we misquote God?
In order to truly understand the meaning of any portion of scripture, it is absolutely essential to understand its greater literary context. Find out what the author is saying in the entire section or book, not just what it seems like one verse means. As a matter of fact, stop reading verse by verse altogether. The verse and chapter markers in your Bible are not divinely inspired. They were put there by men many years after scripture was written to make it easier to find a passage’s location. Verse markers are good when you need to find your place, but awful when you use them as units of meaning. Think of them as a bookmark, not a complete thought.
Another consideration is the genre of the specific book you are reading. Scripture comes in many literary flavors. Some books are letters, others are narrative, and still others are poetic language. It is important to notice what style of writing you are reading.
If it is one of Paul’s letters, think of it as just that, a letter. It was written by him to real people that, in most instances, he knew. Just like the last time you sent someone an email, Paul had a reason for writing that letter. Try to figure out what the reason is, and it will go a long way to helping you understand the letter.
If it is a narrative like Acts, read it like a story. After all, that is how it was written. Look for plot development, and setting changes. Look at character development. Try to notice themes from passage to passage.
In all genres, attempt to find an outline of thought. Letters typically make an argument or form a case for a particular point of view. Narratives structure around movements of thought or action. The outline of poetic writing often follows symbols and imagery. Follow the authors outline, and you can find the intended meaning.
I saved the best for last, the most important aspect of Bible study is next…
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