by Rob Tims
On vacation, the six of us piled into the van and drove to a senior adult community in Spartanburg, SC, to visit my wife’s grandmother. It may not sound to you like the kind of place 4 kids under the age of 12 would enjoy, but you’d be sorely mistaken. There are no commodities more greatly prized in a senior adult community than children. Nothing brings their great-grandmother more joy than to parade her great-grandchildren around to the neighbors, and nothing brings the children more joy than the compliments, attention, and baked goods they receive as we make the rounds. Add the opportunity to drive their great-grandmother’s golf cart around in the community and to eat dessert with every meal in the community dining room, and you’ve got a great three-day weekend on your hands.
That said, it is a rather unusual community to live in for a few days, if you are closer to 40 like my wife and I are. There’s no getting around it: everyone is old. Quite old. Many are deaf. Some are legally blind. All are limited in their ability to walk. There’s no way around it: everyone is old.
This reality was on my mind when my wife made the following comment to her grandmother: “I saw your old neighbor yesterday.”
I coughed up a piece of iceberg lettuce, shocked at what I perceived to be my wife’s insensitivity to her grandmother and the other seniors in the community. “Of course her neighbor is old. You have to be old to live here.” That’s what ran through my head, but fortunately I didn’t say it before my wife’s next sentence. “You know, the one I met last time we were here but who has since moved to an apartment from the home next door to you?”
Ah, relief. My wife had meant “old” as in “former,” and I had wrongly interpreted “old” to mean “aged.”
What a difference context makes when interpreting what people say.
Context is equally important when it comes to interpreting the Bible. One of the more dangerous things we can do while interpreting the Bible is to presume that our reading and understanding of it is the accurate reading and interpretation. Even the translations we read are the result of thousands upon thousands of people interpreting the Bible for us, and we bring our own set of experiences and prior understandings to every text we read. So how can we overcome the dangerous power of presumption when it comes to interpreting the Bible? These two things are essential first steps.
First, remember that the Bible was written in particular historical moments. No part of the Bible can ever mean for us what it never meant to the original writers and recipients. That all of it was written within the context of other languages and cultures creates a great but surmountable challenge, but this also makes the Bible very beautiful and powerful. God’s Word is not merely “other” but came to us in our midst and revealed the love and holiness of God to us. But there is more to Bible interpretation than its historical context. If we limit our interpretation to its unique history, then to study it is to reduce it to a merely historical book that only has value to people who like or study history.
That’s why we need to remember a second key principle in interpreting our Bible: the Bible is relevant for eternity. God has spoken in context, but what He said has meaning and value for eternity. This gives us great courage, for it means that God’s Word speaks to us again and again in our own history and context. But if we divorce this eternal meaning from historical context, the Bible becomes nothing more than a set of rules or propositions to believe and follow.
Holding these two principles together guides us to make wise interpretive decisions. Consider Deuteronomy 22:6-7 from the HCSB: “If you come across a bird’s nest with chicks or eggs, either in a tree or on the ground along the road, and the mother is sitting on the chicks or eggs, you must not take the mother along with the young. You may take the young for yourself, but be sure to let the mother go free, so that you may prosper and live long.” The reason you are likely not following this law is that you’ve made an interpretive decision that the Bible, though eternally relevant, has some historical particularity to it that should come into play when it comes to interpreting it and living according to it.
So when you’re reading (and therefore interpreting) your Bible, ask these two questions: do I understand the historical context, and how is this passage eternally relevant? Asking these questions with great tools like a study Bible will go a long way in helping you not only understand the Bible, but obey it as well.
Rob Tims is husband to Holly and father to Trey, Jono, Abby Jane and Luke. He’s the author of Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt, and manages the team behind smallgroup.com at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville. He writes regularly at RobTims.com and blogs every Friday at Forward Progress.