Notes to growing Christians
Making new discoveries
Let’s continue to think about how to improve and develop our Bible study abilities.
We saw last month that questions about the text, which move beyond the ‘who, what, where’ enquiries to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ issues, will help to take us deeper into the meaning of Scripture. Whenever we stop and say, ‘That seems odd to me’, we are likely to encounter the text freshly, make new discoveries and see better how the truth applies to our lives.
Take as an example Philippians 3.10, a famous verse. ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.’ We get the general idea, but it is in danger of washing over us and not affecting our lives in any perceivable way. Then perhaps we are struck by the oddness of the order. Why does Paul put the resurrection before the cross? I wouldn’t have written it like that.
But, in the context, it becomes clear that the only way to be sustained in the sufferings which are inevitably a part of all Christian life and ministry is to know the power of the risen Christ living within us, by his Holy Spirit. Then we shall live in the light of the coming resurrection of all God’s people to the life of the eternal kingdom. Paul hasn’t got the order wrong. I’ll never hold on in the sufferings if I don’t know Christ’s resurrection power. So, a careful reading not only shows me the meaning, but teaches me the application from the text itself. Now I know why the verse is there.
In reading the New Testament epistles, it is important to keep the thread of the letter’s major purpose foremost in our study. The paragraphs are not disconnected pieces of theological instruction; they are all working to achieve the purpose of the letter. So, when we travel back to Corinth or Ephesus, or when we put ourselves in the shoes of Timothy or Titus, we begin to realise why the apostle wrote these particular things in this particular letter.
Moreover, this knowledge of their context helps us to apply the truth to our context much more directly, as we observe the parallels between their situation and ours.
Let me try to illustrate. Have you ever wondered why the most extensive teaching about marriage in the New Testament is in Ephesians? Did they have special problems in that church? The answer is probably ‘yes’, when you relate the letter to the wider Ephesian context of Acts 19. The city, which dominated the province of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), was itself dominated by the temple of Diana, one of the wonders of the ancient world. She was called the queen of the cosmos and the saviour of the world. In this predominantly feminist environment, Paul’s instructions about marriage were about as counter-cultural as they could be. But what a vital witness it would be when Christian couples demonstrated what it was to live according to their Maker’s instructions.
Why is it that the emphasis on self-sacrificing love, as the mark of authentic gospel spirituality, was so much needed in the letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians? The letter’s context certainly reveals that it was a church much impressed by supernatural gifts and charismatic personalities, in the midst of a glitzy ‘happening’ city. For them the gospel of a crucified Saviour would seem downbeat and out of touch. But that was what turned the world upside down and it remains the only message by which anybody in Corinth, or anywhere else, can be saved. That self-giving love would be the means by which Corinth could be transformed, if God’s people lived by God’s priorities. That is why the tongues of men and of angels, gifts of prophecy and faith, and even martyrdom, without love, amount in the end, to nothing (1 Corinthians 13.1-3). The answers are all in the text, but we do have to dig a bit deeper than a superficial reading allows.
David Jackman is the past President of the Proclamation Trust.