How Can the Bible Relate to Us Today?

How to Understand Scripture – a Guideline

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Have you ever said something to express your thoughts, but the hearer misunderstood it and became angry or hurt? It certainly happens in any close relationship, doesn’t it? The thought you had in your head was clear, but somewhere between the brain and the mouth, your thought came out a little differently than you intended. Then on top of that, the other person interpreted your thought (innocent as it may have been) from what they thought they heard as filtered by their own past experiences. If you are – or have been – in a close relationship such as marriage, a loving commitment or even a close friendship, you know what I mean.

When people interpret or understand the Bible, they tend to do much the same.  They may interpret the Bible from their own experiences with little regard to the intent or thoughts of the author. The following is a culmination of what I’ve been taught, what I’ve learned, what I’ve developed and what I’ve tried to practice in my study of the Bible.  I have no one to attribute these principles to other than the one who started me on in-depth Bible study: Dr. Clayton Harrop, Professor of New Testament at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California. He taught new seminary students “Introduction to Biblical Exegesis” [Exegesis: “Ex-eh-JEE-sis” – ‘critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture’ {Oxford Languages Online}]. That was a great class for me as I had not been exposed to in-depth examination of scriptures in the church in which I grew up.

We are about to engage in a study of Paul’s teaching about marriage as presented in Ephesians 5. When trying to understand the Bible, both what Christians call the Old Testament and the New Testament, I encourage you to go by these principles:

> Who was writing the scripture to be studied and what was the writer’s background? In the Apostle Paul’s case, he grew up as a fervent Jew, an up-and-coming young man who seemed destined to take a position as a Jewish leader. He had studied under the great Rabbi Gamaliel, and it appeared he had close ties with the Jewish powerbrokers of his day. He was likely instrumental in the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, as indicated by verses in Acts:

“At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at [Stephen], dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul [later, “Paul”]. . . . And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”  [Acts 7: 57-58; 8: 1a.  NIV]

“Meanwhile, Saul [Paul] was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest [in the capital city of Jerusalem] and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way [early name for the Christian movement], whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” [Acts 9: 1-2. NIV]

I find it amazing that he had such high standing with the Jewish leadership that he could go to Jerusalem and talk to the high priest. It should be noted that Paul was also a Roman citizen due to his birth in a Roman city of Tarsus (in what is now Turkey) and was a person who felt comfortable with traveling around the Roman Empire.

After his conversion on the road to Damascus as presented in Acts 9: 1-31, he became a learned and vocal proponent of Jesus the Christ as the Son of God. It was through Paul that God developed for us the initial theology of God as expressed in the persons of the Father, Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit. He also gave us the groundwork for what was to become the church – both the Universal Church and the local expression of the church as the ecclesia (or ones who are gathered for a purpose).

> What is the message of the entire book or letter?  And what is the message in the section of the book that you are examining? For instance, if you were to read Ephesians and Colossians, one after the other, you would discover many similarities. However, the emphasis between the two books is different. It could be said that the message of Ephesians is “The Church, of which Christ is the Head” whereas the message of Colossians could be summarized as “Christ, who is the Head of the Church.” Do you see the difference? Read those two books with those summaries in mind, and you’ll see what I mean.

> Examine the times in which the book was written.  What was going on in the Roman Empire at the time? What about in Judea, the province set aside by the Roman Empire for the Jews to keep peace among that set of people? Where was the writer as they wrote? For instance, in the case of Paul, where was he as he wrote and what was going on politically and culturally in the cities that he was writing to, for instance? Was Paul helping establish a church in a city or was he in prison?

> Consider the culture of the writer and of the readers. What were their customs? What was important to them? Ponder the culture of a rough, cosmopolitan seaport city like Corinth with a major center for the worship of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, a goddess of fertility, passion – and you get the idea. Athens was a center of philosophers and thinkers. Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire with its politics, grand buildings and statues of leaders as well as temples to Roman gods and goddesses.

> Importantly, consider who is reading the original writing. What were they thinking as they read the letters? How would they understand what they were reading in light of their culture and the practices of the citizens in the city in which they lived? When the writers of the New Testament wrote, they considered their audience and wrote accordingly.

Why is all this so important? We are about to engage in about a three-blog study of marriage according to Paul in Ephesians. I will be concentrating on what he wrote at length in the letter to the Ephesians as he wrote to encourage believers in that part of the Roman Empire. Contrast that with the passage in I Corinthians 7 with selections below:

“Now for the matters you wrote about:  It is good for a man not to marry. . . .” [v. 1] 
“Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife.”
[v. 26-27]
“What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; . . . For this world in its present form is passing away.”
[v. 29, 31b]

If one were to take these verses as they are without the consideration of the guidelines I gave you above, these passages would be difficult. But you see, I Corinthians is the earliest of Paul’s letters that we have (yes, there is an earlier letter to the Corinthian church, but that is lost to time). In these passages, Paul is expecting for Christ to return any day – his return is imminent. So to Paul, it’s important that believers not bother themselves with the everyday aspects of their lives. Instead, they should forego marriage or behave as if they aren’t married in order to devote more time to reaching others with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The book of Ephesians is a letter written about five years after I Corinthians. By then, Paul realizes that Jesus Christ hasn’t come thus far, so he needs to give instruction for married couples who are struggling in their relationships. Are the teachings in I Corinthians invalid? Not at all, but they need to be understood from the sense of urgency that Paul originally had. Ephesians tempers the earlier immediacy of his conviction presented in I Corinthians with an examination of marriage in the current life of the church.

All this is an example of why it is important to understand scripture using the guidelines above. In our coming study of marriage as presented in Ephesians 5, we will be looking at the scripture as teachings that apply to us today. We also will be looking at the principles behind those teachings so we can appreciate and develop in our relationships. Won’t you join me later this week?

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