How the Context of a Scripture Offers a Panoramic View Of God’s Character: An Excerpt from Living in the Underground Church

Most of us would agree that to understand a passage of scripture we must understand its context. In fact, this is why many people do not read the Bible very much or very deeply on their own: They think they cannot understand it fully or correctly unless the context is first explained to them by a professional like a pastor, or by Bible study notes or commentaries and books written by theologians.

Pastors and theologians reinforce this idea by filling their sermons and books with information about scripture that is only available outside of scripture: cultural insights, historical information, theological commentary, and word studies. The unspoken message is clear: Context is necessary for proper scripture reading, and context is the domain of professionals.

As I was writing this, for example, I heard from a sister in our ministry how she has established a weekly gathering of mothers from her neighborhood to read the Bible according to the method described in this book. “Except we don’t do the context question,” she added. She did not need to explain why. To her it was simply obvious: She and the other mothers are not pastors or Bible scholars; therefore, they do not know enough to provide the necessary context for the passages of scripture they read each week in their study.

But there is another kind of Bible context that is readily available to everyone. It is the most important kind of context of all. This kind of context requires no professional training or theological background to discover. In fact, professionals are often more likely to overlook or neglect this kind of context because it seems so basic.

The kind of context commended here is simply a deep attentiveness to all the information about a passage that is available from inside scripture itself.

By “deep attentiveness,” I am not referring to anything mysterious or supernatural. I am referring to the practice of consciously asking and answering each of the following questions as simply and straightforwardly as possible each time you read a passage of scripture:

  • Who is speaking?
  • Who is being addressed?
  • Where are they located as they are speaking, and why are they there?
  • Why are they speaking, according to the scripture (e.g., What is the presenting issue)?
  • How does this passage of scripture connect to the scripture directly before it?
  • How does this passage of scripture connect to the scripture directly after it?
  • How does this passage of scripture connect to other scriptures in the Bible? Are there any other scriptures that:
    • use the same or similar wording?
    • involve the same people, place, or time?
    • make reference to this scripture, or to which this scripture makes reference?

Every question given here except the last one can be answered by someone opening a Bible for the first time. The last question gradually becomes answerable to more we read, even when we read with no outside help or coaching.

Yet it is surprising how seldom these questions are asked. One reason why is that many of us take up the Bible to read because we are seeking a direct word from God to address our present situation. Perhaps the most extreme form of this is people who open the Bible to a random page, point, read the verse, and receive it as God’s direction.

But we must remember that the primary purpose of scripture is not to give us guidance but to reveal God’s character. To say it a little differently, God did not create the Bible as a way of passing notes to us supernaturally to tell us what to do. As the writer of Hebrews put it:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.[5]

This is why Christ tells the disciples that he is the way, not that he shows the way.[6] When we read the Bible to find God’s direct word to us in our present situation, we are actually ignoring or overlooking God’s self-revelation, which is the whole meaning and purpose of scripture. There is no way to ignore or overlook God’s self-revelation and yet receive his guidance in our present situation.

That is because God’s self-revelation is his guidance: As he reveals his character to us in scripture, we come to know him. As we come to know him, we are then able to identify his presence and work in our lives and in the world around us, and we then know how to act so as to submit to and advance that. Understanding context in the scripture is the prelude to understanding our life as context for God’s work. The context for God’s work changes across countries and centuries and cultures, but his character remains the same. His activity in any context is thus identifiable, provided we learn to recognize it in as many different contexts as possible. Scripture is where we learn to do this.

So, when it comes to the Bible, life in the underground church is a three-step process, not a two-step one. Here is the erroneous, incomplete two-step process:

We read a scripture –> That scripture reveals God’s presence and direction in our present situation

Here is the correct, complete three-step process:

We read a scripture –> That scripture reveals God’s character –> Because God’s character is unchanging, we are increasingly able to recognize God’s presence and direction in our present situation

When we read the Bible according to this three-step process, we can see why context is so crucial: We cannot fully understand God’s character or actions in any scripture passage without it. In fact, the role of context is not to provide us with historical or cultural background information about the passage of scripture we are reading. It is to provide us with as panoramic a view as possible of God’s character in the passage of scripture we are reading.

Consider a simple example: Jesus’ sending of the twelve disciples in Matthew 10:1-4:

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.

These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.[7]

Using the list of context questions noted above, we can see that some are quite easy to answer:

  • Who is speaking? Jesus.
  • Who is being addressed? The twelve disciples.

But very quickly, even simple questions become more challenging:

  • Where are they stranding as they are speaking?

Here, Matthew provides no exact answer. If we read the verses before and after this scripture passage (which are two of the context questions also noted on the list), we can see in Matthew 9:35-36 and Matthew 11:1 a few details about Jesus’ location:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.[8]

After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.[9]

The last of our context questions (to which we will return later in this chapter) asks if there are other scriptures that are connected to this scripture. Mark 3:13-19 and Luke 6:12-16 also record Jesus’ sending of the twelve. Mark 3:13 does give a specific location: “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him.”[10] Luke 6:12-13 adds even more details, specifying a time of day:

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.

Part of understanding the context of a scripture, however, is noting what the writer does not say. In this case, Matthew omits the mention of a place. We should not presume that this is because Matthew overlooks the detail or disagrees with Mark or Luke about it. Instead, we should recognize that Matthew may be emphasizing something different here about the character of God than is emphasized in Mark and Luke. We can understand this emphasis in answering the next context questions:

  • Why are they speaking, according to the scripture (e.g., What is the presenting issue)?
  • How does this passage of scripture connect to the scripture directly before it?
  • How does this passage of scripture connect to the scripture directly after it?

If we read only Matthew 10:1-4, the presenting issue for Jesus sending out his disciples is not clear. But if we read beginning in Matthew 9, a picture begins to emerge. Immediately before the scripture this week, Jesus is teaching in a synagogue. The religious leaders had seen him strengthen the legs of a paralyzed man, raise a girl from the dead, give sight to two blind men, and, most recently, heal a demon-oppressed man. Yet they whispered amongst themselves, “He does this through the devil” (Matthew 9:34).

The religious leaders, who God had charged with leading people to him, could not recognize God—even when he stood right in front of them in human form. They even said he was in league with Satan.

Yet wherever Jesus went, God’s people followed him around.

When Jesus saw these people, he was “moved with compassion” because they were “weary and scattered.”[11] It is precisely because of his character—specifically, his compassion and concern for the weariness and scattering of his beloved sheep—that he decides to send out his twelve most fully trained under-shepherds.

Matthew helps us to see that the “sending of the twelve” was not a timeless, formal occasion, such as might be portrayed by an artist’s skillful brush. It was an event spurred by the deep, biting pain that Christ felt upon seeing his lost sheep. Truly, this was more like a harrowing moment in the wilderness than a graduation ceremony on a mountaintop. Jesus gave out rapid-fire instructions: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons” (Matthew 10:8). Do, in other words, whatever is necessary to care for these sheep.

One final context question will bring this aspect of the character of God fully to the forefront of our understanding of this passage:

  • How does this passage of scripture connect to other scriptures in the Bible? Are there any other scriptures that:
    • use the same or similar wording?
    • involve the same people, place, or time?
    • make reference to this scripture, or to which this scripture makes reference?

The phrase in this passage that will gradually come to catch our attention as we read more and more scripture is “sheep without a shepherd.” It is a phrase that goes all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, in Numbers 27:15-17:

Moses said to the Lord, “May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”[12]

What Jesus sees when he looks out over God’s people is exactly what Moses fears: sheep without a shepherd.

As we reflect on the wider context of the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, we may remember that Matthew, in Matthew 2:6, has already prepared us to recognize that Jesus has been sent by God to be the very shepherd that his people lack, the one for which Moses had prayed:

And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah, for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.[13]

And as we think about the wider context of the Bible as a whole, we may come to see that Matthew is quoting Micah 5:2, in which we learn that the shepherd who will come is the Eternal One, God himself:

But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.[14]

These deeper resonances in scripture may not reveal themselves to us upon our first reading. But it is the nature and the good pleasure of the Holy Spirit to bring them increasingly to our remembrance over time, the more we saturate our mind with scripture, and the more we focus on the character of God each time we open a passage of scripture and seek to understand his character in context.

 

[5] Hebrews 1:1-2a, NIV.

[6] Cf. John 14:5-6.

[7] Matthew 10:1-4, NIV.

[8] John 9:35-36, NIV.

[9] Matthew 11:1, NIV.

[10] Mark 3:13, NIV.

[11] Matthew 9:36, NKJV.

[12] Numbers 27:15-17, NIV.

[13] Matthew 2:6, NIV.

[14] Micah 5:2, NIV.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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