Reading the Bible - Episode 6
Hello, welcome to Reading the Bible. My name is Collin, I’m a pastor at Redeemer Anglican Church in Dacula, Georgia, and in this season of shelter-in-place, I want to help you and your family learn to love reading the Bible in your homes. I think many of us don’t really know how to approach reading the Bible. It’s a strange book written thousands of years ago, and though we’re told again and again that we should be reading it, whenever we try, we don’t feel like we get anything out of it. If that’s you, you’re not alone, and I want to help. Because while this is a strange book written thousands of years ago, I’ve come to believe it to be the most transformative work of literature the world has ever known; and I want help you discover that as well.
Over the past 6 weeks, we’ve said that the key to reading the Bible is recognizing that it is a unified story told by a variety of different voices. Each of these voices contributes to the story in a unique way. These voices are different genres of literature. So if we’re going to learn how to read the Bible, we have to learn how to listen to these different voices. Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at tools for reading three of the loudest biblical voices: Narrative, Poetry, and Discourse. This week, we’re wrapping things up by learning how to read discourse in the Bible.
Discourse, or prose discourse, is what most people think about when they think of the Bible. Speeches, laws, sermons, letters, moral teaching. Most people think this is the what the Bible is all about, but actually, only about a quarter of the Biblical story is told from this voice. What is surprising to many is that the Bible actually communicates mostly through narrative and poetry.
Now, that doesn’t mean prose discourse is not an important voice, because it definitely is. Most of what we call the New Testament is written using this genre. And for this reason, chances are that if you walk into a church on a Sunday morning, or in our case today, check out an online service, you’ll probably hear a lot of this style of literature. If the New Testament tells us the most about Jesus, and most of that New Testament is written in prose discourse, than much of what we know about Jesus is told in this voice.
Now, as we said, there are all kinds of prose discourse in the Bible, but today we’re looking at one particular and very important variety. Of the 26 books of the New Testament, 21 are letters written by the first followers of Jesus to communities around the Roman Empire. So this week, we’re exploring how to read these letters.
Every single letter in the New Testament, and every occurrence of this literary genre in the Bible has the same purpose, and contrary to what you may think, it’s not to communicate information. The letters of the New Testament, the book of Romans or 1 John, they were not written so that you’d have more information about God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. They were not written to dispense theology.
The purpose of prose discourse in general, and the New Testament letters in particular is this: to persuade someone to do something. Every letter was written to persuade someone to do something. What is the purpose of the book of Romans? To persuade you to do something, Ephesians? To persuade you to do something.
This means that New Testament Letters are situational, intentional, and motivational.
They are situational - the author is speaking to a particular audience that is in a particular situation. In the book of Romans, Paul is speaking to the Christian community in Rome who are struggling with internal conflict because of all their differences.
They are intentional - the author has something specific that they want to accomplish by writing this letter. Again, in Romans, Paul isn’t interested in giving dense theology for its own sake. The whole first half of the letter is showing that Jesus is the center of the community, and it is Jesus that binds everyone together, and because of that, the Christian community can be wildly diverse and yet radically united. Paul wants the community to come together in the midst of all their differences.
Lastly, they are motivational - the author is presenting arguments to persuade his reader to act in a particular way. The meat and potatoes of the letter to the Romans is Paul setting forth arguments that demonstrate why and how the Roman church can be united in Jesus’ name.
So as we’re reading the letters in the New Testament, we want to be asking: 1) What’s the situation being addressed? 2) What does the author want to his readers to do? 3) How is he trying to persuade them? If you’re thinking through these questions, you’ll go a long way towards really understanding these writings.
Circles of Context
Circles of Context
So! If the New Testament letters are written for a particular audience, it’s almost like we’re listening in on another person’s conversation. If you’ve ever eavesdropped on someone’s conversation before, you know that context is really key.
Imagine your at a coffee shop, and you catch a bit of a conversation between two women a couple tables away. One of them says to the other, “I’m going to kill him.” You can see, in this scenario, context is really important, because “I’m going to kill him” could mean a lot of different things. On one extreme, you might be dealing with a potential murderer. More likely, she’s exaggerating though, and she’s really frustrated with a boss, coworker, or family member. Maybe it’s actually a statement of fear, like she has a new puppy, but she’s overwhelmed by taking care of it, and she’s worried that she’s going to kill it. Maybe she’s actually talking about next week’s Trivia Night at the Rancho Grande down the street, and she’s going to wipe the floor with her husband’s team. You can see, context is really important if you’re going to understand what’s going on.
The same is true when reading these New Testament letters. Context is essential. And there are three contexts that we need to be mindful of when we read these letters. The Biblical Context, Cultural Context, and the Situational Context.
Biblical context helps us answer the question, “Where are we in the Biblical Story?” In the case of the New Testament Letters, we’re towards the end of the story. God created people to be his partners in ruling creation with him, but humanity broke ties with God, wanting to rule in their own way, and this led to all the violence, injustice, and death that we know today. But God promised a man named Abraham, that through him and his descendants, blessing and life would spread to all the nations of the world, restoring them to God’s vision for humanity. And thousands of years later, Jesus says that he is the fulfillment of that promise. So the disciples were sent out to be messengers of the good news that God’s promised restoration was available through Jesus. These letters are part of the spread of that message. As the disciples spread the good news about Jesus throughout the Roman Empire, communities of believers began to be formed in city after city. It is to these communities that these letters were written. So this is how these letters fit into that grand narrative.
But there’s another layer of context we need to be thinking about, and that’s the cultural context of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was a very difficult place to live for the vast majority of its citizens. Society was incredibly stratified. There were clearly defined hierarchies, and people did not associate with folks from lower social status. There were temples to all kinds of gods in all the major cities, and above them all was the Emperor, Caesar. Caesar was Lord and God. So, you can see how the message of Jesus was so counter-cultural! In the Christian community, the poor and the rich, men and women, the slave and the free all gathered together in love because God’s love had been given to each of them freely in Jesus, through no merit of their own. And they would gather to worship Jesus, not Caesar, as Lord and God. This was the cultural context of these letters and the more we know about their culture, the more we’ll understand what’s being said in these letters.
Lastly, we’ve got to be thinking about the situational context, something we’ve talked about already. Every letter was written in response to a specific situation going on in one of these Christian communities. When Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, the community was struggling with division. Those who were of Jewish decent and those who weren’t were having trouble getting along. So Paul writes in response to that situation. When he writes to the church in Galatia, there’s a belief being spread throughout that community that faith in Jesus isn’t enough to be a disciple, but you also need to follow the Jewish laws. So Paul writes in response to that situation. So as we read, we’ve got to have all of these contexts in mind. Where are we in the biblical story? What’s the cultural context? What’s going on that has prompted this letter to be sent in the first place?
Structure of Letters
Structure of Letters
Now, think about a letter that you’d write to a friend or family member. They typically follow a pattern. There’s an opening where you say who you are and who you are writing to. There’s often a greeting of some kind, “I hope everything is going well; it was so great seeing you at the wedding last month, etc.” Then you’ve got the body of the letter, which contains what you really want to say, and you end with a conclusion of some kind.
It’s the same with these biblical letters. You’ll notice a pattern. There’s an opening, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, to the saints at Colossae, grace to you and peace from God our Father.” Then there’s typically a greeting, which in that culture was usually a prayer of thanks, which you can see in so many of the letters in the New Testament. Then the body, which contains the bulk of what the author wants to say, followed by a conclusion, which were sometimes personal greetings (tell so-and-so I say hi) or final instructions.
Now, one thing you’ll probably notice as you read these letters is that they sound nothing like what you’d write. They sound more like speeches than letters. And that’s because these letters were written to be read aloud and performed to the communities that received them. Most people back then didn’t read, and so the apostles wrote their letters to be heard rather than to be read.
Because of that, they were very intentional with how they wrote these letters. Remember, these letters were written to persuade these communities to do something in particular, and so the authors needed to ensure that their arguments could be followed. So they were very careful to show their flow of thought, which they do with transition words. These words or phrases help us not get lost in the body of the letters. These are phrases like, “Therefore; so then; because of this; For this reason; etc.” So as we read these letters, we need to keep our eyes out for these words, because they are clues that help us follow the flow of thought.
For example: take a look at the letter to the Ephesians. It begins with a grand look at how Jesus is king over all of creation and all people. Then we see a transition, “And as for you…”, meaning non-Jewish people, even though you were outsiders, now you are a part of this new people formed under the kingship of Jesus, and then we see another transition, “Therefore...” the community of Jesus consists of people from all nations. So in the first part of the letter, Paul is making the case that by faith in Jesus all people have been united in the one new people of God. Which brings us to chapter 4, and another transition word, “Therefore.” And this serves as the hinge between the two halves of the letter, because having made the case that Jesus unites all kinds of people in his one community, now Paul urges that one community to love, serve, and forgive one another.
So you can see how important these transition words are for understanding the flow of thought of these authors. The most important thing to remember is that these letters are not disjointed paragraphs of theological truth. Often if our only exposure to these letters is through sermons on a Sunday, where we only have time to look at a single section of a letter, we start thinking of them in this way; but we need to remember that they all fit together to form an argument that is trying to get you to do something!
And this is actually a great place to wrap up our series on Reading the Bible. The Bible, in all of its various literary genres, Narrative, Poetry, Discourse, the whole thing is not primarily communicating information to you about God or Jesus. To be sure, there’s a lot of information here. God wants us to know him, and to know him well, and so he has given us a deep look at who he is and what he’s about by giving us these writings, but that’s not the end of it. That information is a means to an end. The invitation of the Bible is that the more we come to know of God’s faithfulness to a rebellious people, the deep reservoirs of his forgiveness and love for us that are evident in the story of Israel and the story of Jesus, the more we learn about him the more we’d desire to live like him. To love like him. Be compassionate like him. Stand up to injustice like him. Care for the poor like him. Forgive our enemies like him. Create beauty like him. Bring peace like him.
Reading the Bible cannot be about amassing religious information, but about learning to joining God in his plan for bringing restoration to all peoples. This is what James gets at in his letter, when he says that the religion that is pure and faultless in God’s eyes is to look after the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from contributing to the brokenness of the world. In the Scriptures we learn about all the amazing things the Lord has done for us; but learning is half of the equation. These tools for reading and understanding the Bible mean nothing if we don’t then go and put them into practice, as we partner with Jesus in bringing his blessing of restoration to our neighbors. Let the comforting words of God’s love and grace be the challenge they are meant to be, to go and be peacemakers, people of forgiveness, compassionate neighbors, and generous friends. This is what it means to read the Bible.
Hopefully you’ve learned something over the last six weeks that will help you understand this amazing book a little more. Whether it’s the stories of the Old Testament, the poetry of the Psalms, or the letters of the apostles, I hope this book becomes even more meaningful to you and your family as you strive to take it all in. It’s worth the effort, because there is so much life in these pages, and so much transformative power in these words.
Thank you for walking with me over the course of this series. If you haven’t already, check out the other episodes, you can find them on our facebook page, website, or youtube channel. If you have questions or comments, message us! We’d love to continue the conversation. But that’s all for now, so may the Spirit do his good work of enlightening your heart and mind as you read God’s words to truly know the risen Jesus Christ and to be made more and more into his image and likeness. Amen.