Understanding Literary Context

"It's a dangerous business Frodo, going out your front door...You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to".

Some of you may instantly recognize that quote, but I bet most of you won't.  This is a quote taken from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.  If you are familiar with this story, Frodo, the main character, has just began his long journey of taking the One ring to the elves at Rivendell, and eventually on to be destroyed in Mordor.  Frodo says this quote to his companion, Sam.  It is actually something Frodo's uncle, Bilbo, use to say to him.  For those familiar with this epic story, you know that neither Sam nor Frodo understand just how right Bilbo was.  Understanding the story gives context to the quote.  That's what literary context does for us.  It helps us view a passage or quote in light of the whole story.  Without literary context a simple quote can be taken to mean many things to many people, but in context a simple quote becomes more powerful and meaningful.

It is no different with the Bible.  Literary context in Scripture refers to how a simple passage or verse fits into the rest of the passage, the book, or the Bible as a whole.  As we read Scripture with literary context in mind, it causes us to stop and ask questions about who the author is, what are they trying to communicate, what is the literary genre (narrative, letter, prophecy, etc), and how this passage fits into the whole of Scripture.  Lets look at a few examples as to how understanding the literary context of a passage can help us interpret and teach that passage

I Can Do All Things Through Christ

Philippians 4:13 is an oft misquoted passage.  I played football in high school, and I would often tape my wrists before games.  A lot of times I would write this verse in marker on the tape, "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength".  We often reference this passage thinking Jesus will always give us the strength to accomplish "our" goals.  While Jesus does give us strength, and he does work through us, if you look at the literary context, that's not what this verse is referring to.  In the larger context of Philippians 4, Paul is speaking of contentment not accomplishment.  Christ had given him the strength to endure whatever came his way, and he endured it joyfully for the sake of the gospel.  Whether it be poverty or riches, sickness or health, gain or loss Christ was with him and giving him strength to do what he'd been called to do.  Christ had taught him to be content in whatever circumstance.  That's the main point of that passage.

The Genealogy of Luke

Luke 3:23-38 records the genealogy of Christ.  Genealogy often gets overlooked as boring or non-essential in Scripture.  When reading the Bible, we often skip over long lists of names, especially names so hard to pronounce.  But the truth is that genealogy is a literary device in Scripture.  It is always there for a reason and often conveys a sense of God's faithfulness and covenant keeping.  This particular genealogy of Jesus starts with Joseph, his earthly father, and goes all the way back to Adam.  The placement of this lineage is right before Luke's account of Jesus' wilderness temptation in Luke 4.  This is not a coincidence.  Luke is using genealogy as a literary device to connect Jesus to Adam.  What Adam failed to do when being tempted in the garden, Jesus would accomplish by overcoming temptation in the wilderness.  Jesus was the second Adam who was successful where Adam failed, by being perfectly obedient to his Father and overcoming temptation. So understanding the use of genealogy as a literary device helped add context to this passage and makes Luke 3 and 4 more clear and more powerful.

This is just a couple of examples as to how understanding literary context can enhance your own personal Bible study, and it can add depth to your teaching.  God has used various types of literature to shape his word, and it all matters in helping us understand the Bible.  Understanding literary context helps us not only interpret specific passages of Scripture but it also helps us make sense as to how each individual book of the Bible fits into the whole of Scripture.  So as you read a passage of Scripture, always pay attention to the surrounding passages, the main point of the book, and how that book fits into the whole message of Bible.  I hope this helps you as you study God's word this week.


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