Editors note: Read also Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.


Be Aware of Historical or Cultural Background Issues

The 66 books of the Bible often assume a reader’s familiarity with various cultural practices, geographic markers or political figures. Thus, when an untrained reader simply opens up the book of Isaiah and starts reading about nations that no longer exist and obscure political alliances, he or she might simply close the Bible and say, “This is too hard to understand.”

As with any historical document, the reader of the Bible will need study aids to delve into the nuances of background issues. Of course, some of the books of the Bible assume little knowledge on the part of the reader and are quite accessible. The Gospel of John, for example, is often distributed as a stand-alone evangelistic tract for this reason.

Depending on one’s familiarity with the Scripture, some background issues may be more or less transparent. Do you know what Passover is? Then you shouldn’t have trouble with John the Baptist’s description of Jesus as the (Passover) lamb (John 1:29). Are you familiar with Israel’s 40 years of wandering the wilderness? Then Jesus’ 40-day stay in the wilderness, where he was tested but did not sin, takes on added significance (Matt 4:2; Luke 4:2).

Related: Free PDF Download of A Guide to Expository Ministry

As you study the Bible more, you will have less need to consult commentaries or study aids for the answers to basic questions. There are many introductory surveys of the Old and New Testaments, as well as books specifically on backgrounds, which provide a wealth of information to the curious student.

In discussing Bible back-grounds, we also must note two important caveats. First, one can become so enamored with outside historical, cultural, political or archaeological matters that he essentially ends up using the Bible as a springboard for extrabiblical trivia. The study of ancient Near Eastern culture, while fascinating in its own right, is not the purpose of Bible study.

One must always ask: “Did the biblical author really assume that his readers would know this fact?” And, “If he assumed his readers would know this fact, was it important for the meaning that he was trying to convey?” If the answer to both of these questions is “Yes,” then the background issue is indeed worthy of consideration. Unfortunately, in attempts to provide something “fresh” to their congregations, too many pastors are readily taken in by far-fetched interpretations based on some speculative background issue. A pastor’s time would be better spent meditating prayerfully on the text to discover genuine text-driven applications.

A second error one must avoid in background issues is to neglect them. [tweetable]In order to understand and apply a text faithfully, one often must have some awareness of the author’s historical or cultural assumptions.[/tweetable] One cannot understand the denunciations in the Minor Prophets, for example, without knowing something of Israel’s prior history and relations to surrounding nations. And, while much of this historical background can be garnered directly from other biblical documents, an uninitiated reader will need the help of a more mature reader’s summaries. A study Bible, such as The HCSB Study Bible or ESV Study Bible, provides brief but helpful comments on relevant background issues.

Pay Attention to Context

[tweetable]Any portion of Scripture must be read within the context of the sentence, paragraph, larger discourse unit and entire book.[/tweetable] Attempting to understand or apply a particular biblical phrase or verse without reference to the literary context is virtually guaranteed to result in distortion. Unfortunately, in popular Christian literature and preaching, there are many examples of such failure to respect the context of a passage. One of the most painful exhibits of such hermeneutical failure is a preacher who bullies and blusters about the authority and inerrancy of Scripture while practically denying its authority through his sloppy preaching.

Related: The Expositors Summit conference at SBTS 10/28-30

It often has been said, “A text without a context is a pretext,” meaning that a preacher will be inclined to infuse a text with his own biases if he does not allow the context to direct him to the authorial intent. I have found this true in my own life. When I am given the opportunity to select a text for a sermon, I sometimes already have an idea of what I want to say. But, as I go back to the text and study it within context, prayerfully meditating over it, the direction of my message often shifts. Holding tightly to the text calls me back to the inspired author’s meaning. I tell my students to hold onto the biblical text like a rider in a rodeo holds onto a bull. And, I also warn them that the only persons in the rodeo ring not on bulls are clowns.

When preaching the Bible, I want to be able to place my finger on specific words and phrases in the text to justify my exhortations. As a congregation, you should be persuaded by the words of Scripture, not by the rhetorical ability of a preacher. [tweetable]The power of a sermon or Bible lesson lies in its faithfulness to the inspired text.[/tweetable]

Read the Bible in Community

We live in an individualistic age. Yet God created us to live and worship and grow spiritually together in community. The author of Hebrews writes that we should not neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:25).

Only as we live out our faith in Christ together do we come to understand with depth and clarity what God has done in and through us (Phlm 6). Similarly, we see that God has structured the church as a “body” and that every member of that body does not have the same function (Rom 12:4-5). Some are more gifted as teachers (Rom 12:7). Others are more gifted in showing mercy or serving in some other way (Rom 12:8). While all God’s people are called to read and meditate on his Word (Ps 119:9, 105), some are specially gifted in explaining that Word and exhorting others to believe and obey it (Eph 4:11-13).

If we neglect God’s grace to us in the gifting of other believers, how impoverished we will be! Reading the Bible with fellow believers helps us to gain insights that we would otherwise miss. Also, our brothers and sisters can guard us from straying into false interpretations and misapplications.


Robert L. Plummer serves as associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary


This excerpt was taken from A Guide to Expository Ministry. You can download the complete PDF of this Guidebook for free here.
Expository preaching is a call to deliver from the pulpit what has already been delivered in the Scriptures. A Guide to Expository Ministry, edited by Dan Dumas, calls for the recovery of this kind of preaching in local churches. The book also encourages faithful, qualified pastors to apply the demands of expository preaching to their lives and to their preparation. Lastly, the book provides practical help for all of God’s people to become more effective sermon listeners, Bible readers and church members.