Have you ever had someone walk in on a conversation and totally misinterpret what you said?
“That’s not what I meant,” you try to defend yourself, and your conversation partner agrees because they’ve been listening all along. But the person who just walked in doesn’t get it. They only heard that one sentence and have already formed an opinion.
Before we can begin to understand Scripture, we must first seek to understand the original culture and context in which it was written. The Bible is a compilation of 66 books written over 1,600 years by 40 authors, all inspired by the Holy Spirit and beautifully telling the Big Story of God.
This Big Story is sometimes called the metanarrative of Scripture. It’s the story of how God works in the world through creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Each story fits into this Big Story as we ask the five journalistic questions:
1. Who wrote it?
While all Scripture is God-breathed, God used humans to accomplish the task of writing the books of the Bible. Each writer brings his own personality and writing style to the text, which makes it fun to switch from Paul’s logic and sarcasm to John’s more love-filled letters. It also helps explain things like how similar James’ letter is to the Sermon on the Mount, considering James was Jesus’ half-brother.
2. What genre is it?
Each book of the Bible is written in one or more genres. The main genres of the Bible are Law, History, Poetry, Prophesy, Gospel, and Epistle. Knowing the genre of a passage helps us choose which interpretative tools to use with each text.
Just like you read the Sunday comics differently than you read Shakespeare, so you’ll read Proverbs differently than the Sermon on the Mount.
3. When was it written?
Did you know the books of the Bible are not presented in chronological order? They’re grouped by genres instead (see #2 above). So it’s fascinating to discover that the book of Job (which comes right before Psalms) was written sometime before the Flood. Whoa. Talk about perspective-shift.
Answering “when” also tells us a lot about the culture of the time and place, which leads us to Question #4.
4. Where did it go?
(Most textbooks will have “Who was it written to?” under this point, but I was trying to go with the 5 W’s, and this is the best I could do. Let me know if you have a better suggestion.)
Simply put, the Bible is written FOR us but it wasn’t written TO us. And you get into tricky territory if you try to take some of the words of Scripture as if they were written for you. Not all promises made to Israel apply to the church today.
Now this isn’t to say we can’t learn from these books. Of course we can. They’re part of the Bible for a reason. But we must begin by asking, “Where did the writer send this book after he finished writing it? Who read it? What did their lives look like? How would they have understood it?” Then we’ll begin getting a better picture of what the writer’s intent was.
5. Why was it written?
Let’s be honest. Most writers write with a specific purpose in mind. So it is with the writers of Scripture. Moses wrote the first five books to instruct the Israelites and remind them what God had done for them. Paul wrote Galatians to confront those who said circumcision was necessary for salvation. Others wrote to admonish, inspire, warn, and encourage.
We can tell why a book was written by identifying major themes and repeated ideas. Look at these in light of the Big Story, the cultural and historical context, and you’ll soon get a better understanding of why the book was written in the first place.
At this point, you may wonder how in the world you’ll find all this information–we’re just beginning!
The good news is we have plenty of resources at our fingertips to help. Blue Letter Bible and Logos are two of my favorite. Check them out!
- Pray, thanking God for giving us the Bible and asking Him to give you His wisdom.
- Read the introduction to John, either in your Bible or this one online.
- In your notebook, answer the 5 W’s on the gospel of John:
- Who wrote it?
- What genre is it?
- When was it written?
- Where did it go? (Who was the original audience?)
- Why was it written?
- With this in mind, read John 1. What stands out to you now that you know the background of the book? Write a few thoughts in your notebook.
- Praise God for how He has preserved His Word for us and how He uses it even today to grow us closer to Him.
- Optional: Share one new thing you learned today on social media using #deeperbiblestudy. I’d love to hear from you!