I have a child who spontaneously asks, “Hey Papa, do you remember that thing? You know, that thing?” When I request more description for “that thing,” the child gets frustrated. But unfortunately, I have no idea what the question refers to unless I can get some context.
Similarly, if we isolate a chapter from the literature surrounding it, we’ll skew our observations. Thus, the first thing to observe is the whole book in which we find the passage. I call this step “the book overview.”
We could address many issues during the book overview, but I find four most helpful.
- Author: Who wrote the book?
- Audience: To whom did he write?
- Occasion and Purpose: Why did this author write to this audience at this time? What was going on in their lives?
- Structure: How does the book progress? What order is there to the stories or ideas?
The best way to answer these questions is to read the book 5 or 6 times and observe the book’s themes. In addition, you can get more background by searching the entire Bible for names of key people and places connected to the book you want to study. For example, when you study First or Second Thessalonians, you should begin by reading passages in Acts that mention Thessalonica. You can also learn about Old Testament prophets from the books of Kings or Chronicles (e.g. 2 Kings 14:23-27 will help acquaint you with the prophet Jonah).
Sometimes there are also details outside of the text that will help answer the overview questions, so you may want to read a good overview article or Bible dictionary. Just make sure the resource gives the most weight to evidence from within the Bible. For example, many commentaries teach that two different people wrote Isaiah 1-39 and Isaiah 40-66. However, the Gospel of John states clearly that the prophet Isaiah wrote both the first part (John 12:39-40) and the second part (John 12:38). A good scholar will trust such evidence from God’s word.
Now all four questions might not have clear answers. We don’t know who wrote the book of Judges. There’s some debate on the precise audience of Galatians. John leaves no doubt about the purpose of his Gospel (John 20:31), first letter (1 John 5:13), and third letter (3 John 9-10), but with the second letter we can only infer a purpose. There’s usually not one right way to outline a book’s structure.
But if we go as far as we can on these questions, we’ll be able to place the book within its historical context.
When my child asks if I remember “that thing,” I ask some clarifying questions. What thing? When did you see it? Where can I find it? Who was with you?
We should do the same with the book overview.