"Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers. Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness."
II Timothy 2:14-16
The epistles and books that make up the Bible we use today can be confusing sometimes, especially when there are traditions that originated centuries after it was written that don't seem to line up. For example, a question I received when preparing for this blog went something like this: "If the Bible is against alcohol, why are there verses about drinking and being merry?" (Don't worry, we're going to cover that topic later.) Questions like these are only compounded by seeming contradictions between different authors.
So how do we accurately interpret the Word of God?
The stance I learned in a New Testament class, and one that I still use today, is that of historical perspective. I resist the urge to try to interpret scripture in a present-day sense and instead study the passage based on the audience back then and the period when it was written. Then I see how the lessons taught to that audience can be applied to us in today's time. Doing this takes a little more work because you have to look at and verify historical content as well, but in my experience, approaching studying this way brings out the Spirit of the Word in its clearest sense.
One of my favorite examples to explain this method of studying is from the first letter to the Corinthians. In I Corinthians 9, Paul uses the imagery of a race to get his point across. If we just look at this at face value, we do get a good lesson: run the race and you can win the incorruptible crown. When you look at the history around this analogy, there is so much more that can be learned.
Corinth was a bustling port city at the time this epistle was written. The church in Corinth was not a rural church like so many I have preached at but a church in the middle of a large urban population that was full of temples to pagan gods and carnal things. It was also the location for a series of competitions comparable to our modern-day Olympics. When Paul used this analogy to teach a lesson, he was taking something that the population at that time knew a lot about and used it to help them understand the truth about Christianity and how to obtain eternal life. Isn't it much more satisfying knowing the background around the verses? I feel like there is so much more substance for those trying to understand the scripture, not to mention those who are looking for examples on how to witness or preach to others.
Of course, the most important thing to do when studying scripture is to pray for clarity and understanding. As we move into next week's topic -- music in church -- pray for clarity for all of us going on this journey together. See you next week!
Lain Tomlinson is a preacher, musician, and former university instructor out of Lebanon, Tennessee. He grew up in the Missionary Baptist denomination and now preaches throughout middle Tennessee.