The Bible Was Not Written to You | Jesus’ Creed
Have you ever received an SMS that was not intended for you? A few years ago, I was texting a man who was a dear friend and mentor. We corresponded about a job opportunity and made arrangements for future appointments. I deeply admire and respect this friend. At one point I asked a question and he answered right away with “As you wish, my dear.”
And I froze. I watched the text message for a very long 60 seconds. I reread previous posts looking for any evidence that would explain this answer. It was at the end of those really long 60 seconds that he texted back and said, “So sorry … that last text was for my wife …” and then explained the background. It was a funny story at the end (and I know his wife, which made her more entertaining). We had a good laugh and that’s it.
The point is, without context, a message can be confusing, even damaging. This is also true of the Bible. Many times we read the Bible looking for what this means to me, how it applies to me, and how I can benefit from it under the circumstances of my current life. The problem with reading the Bible this way is that the Bible was not written for you.
The Bible was written for communities of people living in the ancient world in order to transmit the story of Yahweh, then of Jesus and of the Church. These communities all faced their own specific problems and conflicts. As we approach the reading and especially the interpretation of the Bible, we must consider the context.
The context provides clarity (Reggie Joiner’s Orange Curriculum for Youth uses this phrase as a result of week 2 in the “Explained” series). Without context, there can be confusion or even harm, like receiving a text message or reading an email that is not intended for you and trying to interpret it and apply it to your own life.
Consider Philippians 4:13. I have worked with young people for thirteen years and this is the most common verse I have seen used on senior invitations, covers and posters. I even heard about it at gatherings, Christian clubs, and prayed in prayers before sports games.
” Because I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.
“What does this verse mean? For many people this means “I can do anything, anything, anything with God giving me strength.” My question is “something? Can you win the basketball game you are chosen to lose? Can you fly through the air like a bird? Can you pass the test when you haven’t studied? Can you mend your parents’ relationship when they are already divorced? Can You Cure Someone’s Terminal Cancer? It is only when we know the context of these words of Paul that we can fully understand and interpret them.
How do we do that? How to determine the context of the text? Here are five quick words that can get you started.
- To get to the context, we want to know who wrote the text? For many Bible texts, we do not know who wrote them. But we can, to the best of our ability, know who the scholars believe they wrote it down or at least what ideas they have about the author.
- What did the author write? Is it a letter to a group of people or to a single person? Is it a poem? Is it a story?
- Where was it written from and where was it read?
- What time? If it is the NT, how many years before or after was Jesus written? If it is OT, can you determine if it was before or after exile etc. ?
- Why did the author write? What does or does the author want to accomplish?
When we look at the context of Philippians 4:13, we see that Paul wrote the letter from prison. (Who) He wrote the letter to the Church of Philippi, a Roman colony (Acts 16) and he sent the letter with Epaphrodite in the early 1960s. (What where when).
He wrote the letter to say “thank you” to the church for the financial gift it gave him and to encourage them in the persecution they were facing (Why). This information can be found in any commentary on Philippians or in an “Introduction to the New Testament” book. The Bible Project also has some great video resources that can give you basic background to most of the Bible books. https://bibleproject.com/?gclid=CjwKCAjwyo36BRAXEiwA24CwGSuvf0U90yrW8Iv2vqaVqL5vZyl9Qd5klHpK_lGFOY7ztAi1mIZC4xoCpIIQAvD_BwE
Now to Philippians 4:13. “Because I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. These words are part of Paul’s concluding remarks. He finishes the letter and he speaks of contentment.
How I praise the Lord that you care about me again. I know you’ve always been worried about me, but you haven’t had the chance to help me. Not that I’ve ever been in need, because I’ve learned to be content with whatever I have. I can live on almost nothing or everything. I have learned the secret to living in all situations, whether it is on a full stomach or an empty stomach, with a lot or a little. Because I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Nevertheless, you did well to share with me my current difficulty. (Philippians 4: 10-14 NLT)
Here in this context we can see that Paul is not telling the church that he can do anything or everything for all places and all times. He tells them that he can be satisfied with a little or a lot, whether he is free or in prison. He learned a secret in the midst of suffering and that secret is contentment. It is this contentment that he is referring to when he says that he can “do everything by Christ.” Once we know that Paul wrote from prison and wrote to persecuted Christians and wrote about contentment, then that gives us a lens through which to look at Philippians 4:13. This lens helps us realize that these words do not apply to all situations in our life, and that they were not written to address our specific situation, but these words can explain how we suffer and how we let’s practice contentment. These words can give us comfort and hope when things aren’t going the way we want them to. We can find contentment in the midst of suffering when we interpret and apply Philippians 4:13 in context.