Chapter 6

From Location to Inspiration

The role of historical and literary context in preaching.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, I learned the important lesson of context in a life changing way. During the summer of my sixteenth birthday I begin working for the Chicago Park District. This journey lead me to active duty at the pool in Sherman Park. This beautiful park is an entire square mile of space in the midst of the poverty ridden, inner city area. The park was and is occupied and controlled by one of Chicago's most notorious street gangs. As an outsider to this community and its gang culture, I was at a clear disadvantage while trying to fulfill my duties to serve and protect the patrons of the swimming pool. The tenured employees had to give me a detailed account of the gang's beliefs, rivals, structure, and sayings. All of this information was critical for me to interpret the various situations I would be faced with in this violent and aggressive context. Here I learned that context controls content.

The whole truth

In order to be accurate in our preaching, each communicator must have a clear understanding of two contextual realities. First, we must understand the historical world from which the text proceeds. Mastery of the historical context requires that we study the customs of the biblical characters, their worldview, politics, geography, science, art, and daily life in order to understand what the Scripture means. Second, we must understand the literary structure from which the text is derived. The words that proceed and follow the passage that we seek to interpret are vital to understanding the intended meaning of the biblical text. Without these two critical components, the preacher can never expect to arrive at a historically honorable, biblically accurate, theologically sound conclusion about the text.

History resolves the mysteries

We must remember that two things never change. God's identity never changes. Man's depravity never changes.

Our attempt at faithful preaching requires that we do what's necessary to bridge the gap. This gap is the space between the world of the biblical author and the world of the modern listener. An eternal truth must be mined out in the author's world and then brought safely across the bridge into our current society. This means that we must be students of biblical history. There are at least four mysteries that face us in each text which studying history should enable us to resolve. First, there is the why mystery. This mystery raises the question: "Why was this text written by the author?" Secondly, the how mystery. This mystery asks: "How did the writer's culture influence what he wrote to his audience?" The who mystery is the third. This mystery raises the question: "Who was the intended recipient or recipients of the original text?" Finally, there is the what mystery. This mystery addresses the question: "What happened as a result of the passage being written when it was?" Answering these questions deliberately will give us the knowledge required to navigate the biblical world in pursuit of proper understanding and application in our own.

Word processing

The literary context of any passage of Scripture is comprised of the words or thought units which proceed and follow the text. These words, as they are grouped and ordered, hold within them the key to understating correctly what's being said in the various portions of Holy Scripture. We must process each of these words from the whole down to the part. Read and re-read the entire book that your text is in. Read and re-read the entire chapter that your text is in. Read and re-read the entire section that your text is in. Then read and re-read the chapter before and after your text. As you do, pay close attention to grammar, word order, word usage, and thought repetition. All these facts must inform how you interpret the text before you apply it. The passage must be understood in context to the content of the book it's housed in. The interpretation must be an explanation of the context's influence on the meaning of the passage. The application must be a modern translation of the timeless truth derived from the content of the passage in context of the communicative goal. Processing the words of the text in their literary context will assist us in discovering the lasting meaning of the passages content.

Now we can inspire others with biblical truth

Only after the proper respect and research is given to the historical context and the literary context of our passage can we hope to inspire people with God's truth. We must remember that two things never change. God's identity never changes. Man's depravity never changes. In short, God will always be strong and we will always be weak, but his truth can make the difference in our lives. So as we traverse the bridge from the past to the present, God's Word can and will bring the needed power to transform each hearer. The journey is a figurative act of connecting the communicative dots so that the bigger picture can be recognized, embraced, and acted upon. The connections must bring us forward in time from then to now. The connections must bring us forward in space from there to here. The connections must bring us forward in reality from was to is. When this happens dead letters will become living truth!

Study diligently to proclaim faithfully

The principles highlighted in this article are changeless necessities to each faithful, biblical preacher. This demands that we take the time in our study, so that we are prepared when it's time to stand for God. God gave us his Word. God called us to preach. God demands that we do so with diligence, fidelity, passion, and sensitivity to his will for us and for our audience. But, if your passage is presented out of historical context, it will not be trustworthy. If it is presented out of literary context, it will not be true. So, we must work to give verifiable credence to the conclusions in our sermons from what history documents. Additionally, we must labor to contextualize the writer's words, so that we understand the thematic truth which is being shared, while also comprehending the specifics of the line of reasoning used to impart that truth. The world of the text matters. The words in the text matter. These help us to bring shape, form, and clarity to God's great message of salvation so that people's lives may be eternally changed.