James Meehan - The #1 Mistake When Reading the Bible
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Well, what's up, Bible Nerds? In this episode of Bible Nerds 101, we are continuing our conversation about how to read the Bible wisely by remembering that Jesus is King and context is everything. Last week, you got to hear from a fellow Bible Nerd, Caitlyn, as she showed us what it means to read the Bible through the lens that Jesus is King.
This week we're talking about the other half of that statement, that context is everything. I think one of the most obvious examples of needing the context in my life was back when I was in middle school and my entire identity was based on whether or not I was in a relationship or not. Because if I was dating somebody, then dear goodness gracious, everything was amazing. Until it wasn't, because I don't know if you know this, but middle school relationships can be a whole lot of drama and not very much positive things at all, but that's just me. Maybe for you, it's completely different. But all that being said, I remember so many different occasions where I would get a text message from the person I was dating at the time, and all of a sudden, all of the bells in my mind went off of, oh shoot, this is not good.
Have you ever gotten that message that says, "We need to talk," and there's nothing else? All of the fear, the panic, the anxiety begins to swell up inside of you as you are wondering, what is it that this person wants to talk about? Is our relationship over? Is something literally on fire right now? And I remember like receiving that message and thinking, okay, it could be this or this or this or this or that or that. Anyway, it is really, really bad, and I don't want this thing to happen. You know, I would often try to present myself as very composed and stoic when those emotions would be going like, "I'm fine, it's fine, everything is fine," when in reality, nothing was fine, why? Because I didn't know the context. And so those words, "We need to talk" created all sorts of confusion in me, because I didn't really know what they meant. I just assumed it was a bad thing.
Now, if however, I had just seen the trailer for the latest video game that my friends and I were excited about, and after watching it, I get a text message from one my friends that I game with and they said, "We need to talk," I would automatically assume it's, "we gotta talk about how amazing this new game looks," because there's different context there. What is context exactly? Context is all of the things around a thing that give meaning to the thing. When it comes to reading the Bible, the context is all of the information that gives meaning to what it is that we're actually reading. And when it comes to the Bible, there's two primary categories of context. The first category is the biblical context, and the second category is the historical context.
So the first kind of context, the biblical context, this is everything else in the Bible that gives meaning to what we're reading. So if you read a verse, the context is the verses around it, the rest of the paragraph, the rest of that chapter that that verse comes within, the rest of that entire book. It's whether or not it's in the Old Testament or the New Testament, and the rest of the overarching biblical story. All of that is the biblical context that gives meaning to the different verses that we might be reading. That's the first kind. The second kind of context is the historical context. This is the time, the people, the place, the language, the culture that this part of the Bible was originally written in and who it was written to. It's things like where in history did this take place? Like, was this 1,000 years ago, 2.000 years ago, 3,000 years ago? What language was this written in? What was the culture of the people that originally wrote this and who was reading it for the first time? How do all of those different factors and events shape what the author might have meant and what the original audience would have read?
That's the historical context when it comes to reading the Bible. So what I wanna do with that in mind is look at a few different examples of how understanding the context changes everything. The first example is from Philippians 4:13, one of the most famous verse in all of the Bible where the Apostle Paul writes, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me". So when Paul says he can do all things, what does he mean when he says all things? Does that mean that I can do literally whatever I want when I want, because Jesus gives me strength? Like, if I pray for my football team to beat their football team, does that mean I'm going to win? If I get that text message from the person that I'm dating that says, "We need to talk," does me being able to do all things through Christ who strengthens me mean that if I pray hard enough and long enough and I believe in my heart that it won't be a bad thing, that it won't actually be a bad thing they're messaging me about?
Well, if we wanna know what Paul means when he says that in verse 13, we've gotta read the verses around it. So if we look at the rest of that paragraph, starting in Philippians 4:10, here's what we read. "How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn't have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little, for I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength. Even so you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty".
So what does Paul mean when he says, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me"? Does that mean that he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants? Well, this context tells us no. What the context, the rest of this paragraph is showing us, is that even in difficult circumstances, Paul has learned the secret to be content. Why, because Christ gives him strength. What's interesting about the letter of Philippians is that Paul actually wrote this while he was chained up and in prison because of his faith in Jesus. So this isn't a verse that is declaring that only good things are going to happen to you. It's a verse that shows us that when we have a relationship with Jesus and we remember that he has the power to transform our lives from the inside out, to make us right with God, that changes everything, that even in the worst circumstances we still have what matters most, a relationship with Jesus.
So that's the first example where understanding the context helps us better understand what the author is meaning with what they're writing. The second example works, you're gonna look back at the Old Testament in Leviticus 19:19, where we read this. "You must obey all my decrees. Do not mate two different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two different kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven from two different kinds of thread". The other day, I was having a conversation with one of the guys in my Switch group, and we were talking about this verse in particular, and he checked to see what his shirt was made of, and he found out that it was 97% cotton and 3% elastic. His immediate reaction was to yell out, "Oh gosh, am I doomed because I'm wearing this"?
Now thankfully, we were able to have a conversation about the context to help him understand that no, you are not doomed because you, as a Christian living in the modern world, is wearing a T-shirt that's made of multiple different kinds of clothing. And this is one of those things where again, the context changes everything. Because in Leviticus 19:19 we read, this is God speaking, saying, "You must obey all my decrees". Now, here's the really important question. Who is the you referring to in Leviticus 19:19? Is it to you and to me, or is it to a different group of people altogether? This is why we have to know the historical context. And a really great place that you can actually find that is in the YouVersion Bible app. At the beginning of each book in the in NIV translation, there's like an intro chapter that gives some really helpful information.
So we're gonna go there to get a better idea of the context of Leviticus specifically. So from the intro chapter in the Bible app, the NIV version, here's what we read about Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, that these books, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers continue the story of how God formed the nation of Israel to play a special role in his plans for the whole world. Leviticus specifically contains the laws and regulations the Lord gave to Israel. So here's the important thing that we've got to know about Leviticus, is that this was a book specifically written to the nation of Israel. It takes place in the Old Testament, which is all about the partnership that God formed with the Israelites, the Jewish people, and for those of us who are followers of Jesus living in the modern world, we're not Jewish, and so the specific civil and ceremonial laws that show up in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, don't apply to us the same way the commands in the New Testament do.
That's the context for the second example. And as long as we can keep in mind that we are living under the New Covenant, established by God through Jesus, that helps us understand how to read those words. Now we're gonna jump to the New Covenant in Example Number Three in the New Testament, which is one of the, I think, most confusing books of all, and this is the Book of Revelation, where we read in chapter six, John writes this. "When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, 'Come,' then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword". That's Revelation 6:3-4. What in the world does that mean? I think that's a really good question, and that's why it's important to remember that context is everything.
So just to be kind of quick and brief with it, the Book of Revelation has a whole lot of wild and weird things in there that if we don't learn how to read it wisely, can be really confusing and make us think all sorts of things. The Book of Revelation is a specific type of literature. It is apocalyptic literature, that John was saying something important to his original audience, and he's saying something important to us. Then we start to read this book in a whole new way. Now, in order to learn how to do that wisely, I would recommend you check out the Bible Project. They're an incredible organization that does different videos and articles about how to read the Bible as a single story that leads to Jesus. And they specifically have these book overviews that break down all of the different books of the Bible in a way that's really easy to understand with all sorts of cool visuals.
So with that being said, when it comes to the Book of Revelation, start with the Bible Project's videos and allow that to help you better understand maybe what it is that God wants to speak to you through some of the more difficult parts of that book. Because at the end of the day, the entire Bible is a unified story that leads to Jesus and invites us to become like Jesus. Whether it's a verse from Paul, whether it's some weird command from the book of Leviticus, or the craziness of the Book of Revelation, all of it is inspired by God and valuable to help us become who God has made us to be. But in order to get that, we've gotta remember that Jesus is King and context is everything.
So we're gonna get really practical here. How do we learn the context? The first suggestion I would say is, instead of just reading a verse, read the entire chapter. Allow that chapter to help you better understand what that verse might be meaning. The second suggestion I would give to you is, start with that intro chapter in the YouVersion Bible app to help you get an overview of who the author is, who the audience they're writing to is, what the point is that they're trying to make. That intro chapter can be really, really helpful to sort of set the stage for everything you're going to read after that. And then my third suggestion would be to check out the Bible Project's videos. You can subscribe to their YouTube channel, which is absolutely incredible. They've also got a podcast if you wanna dive even deeper, where they break down all sorts of different biblical themes and ideas and questions to help us all become more mature in our faith and more wise readers of the Bible.
Lastly, don't be discouraged if all of this seems really difficult right now. It's kind of like learning to ride a bike, where at first you really need that big wheel tricycle that you can ride on because you don't have great balance, and then eventually you can get a taller bike with training wheels. Eventually you can take the training wheels off all together, and then if you keep at it, maybe someday you'll be riding around on a unicycle doing tricks and all sorts of things. Maybe not that, but the idea is this, is that reading the Bible wisely is a skill that you can develop. And it might start small and it might start slow, but if you keep at it, eventually you'll be a wise Bible reader. Eventually you'll be a true Bible Nerd, and that's our hope for you, is that you will develop some of these skills so that every time you open up the Bible, you'll be able to see how every page and every passage is leading you to Jesus, and inviting you to become more like him. So if you forget everything else, just remember that Jesus is King and context is everything. Take care and stay nerdy.