How to Read the Bible in Context
Every American child is familiar with the bizarre behavior of revolutionary war hero Yankee Doodle. He once stuck a feather in his hat and—Yankee Doodle went to town… riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni.
Now, that is bizarre. I mean, what is that song even about? It doesn’t make sense. You know, there is a lot of “macaroni” in the Bible, too. Stuff that makes no sense to me. In the past, whenever I’d encounter this “macaroni,” I’d skip over it. Or, I’d come up with my own interpretation.
As it turns out, within the culture of Yankee Doodle’s day, macaroni had nothing at all to do with pasta of any type. But how can we be expected to know that? We’re more than 200 years removed from his day! This is the same problem I encounter with the Bible. Think of it. We are not 200, but 2,000–3,000 years removed from the original authors of the Bible. Our culture is totally different. So how did I ever expect to understand this outside of a Jewish reading of the text?
A year ago, I learned that, in the Yankee Doodle song, macaroni really meant a fancy, dandyish style of gentlemen’s attire. Here are the rest of the details. When the yanks were en route to meet the British in battle, and they stopped at a farmstead. They looked so pathetic in their farmer clothes, so the farmer’s daughter plucked the chickens and stuck the feathers in the yanks’ hats to dress them up a little. That’s the legend behind the song.
That’s it. A little bit of cultural context and it all starts to make more sense. But here’s the problem. I make macaroni out of the words of Jesus, and the rest of Scripture, all the time. There is an original meaning. There is an original context. I don’t always know it, but I shouldn’t just make stuff up. Because you know what? Jesus doesn’t talk like me. He didn’t come speaking English, and He doesn’t come from my culture, so I need to stop trying to make Jesus seem more like me and instead start trying to be more like Jesus.
So... what’s the solution? How do I get past all this macaroni? Well, I’ll be real with you, it’s going to take some effort. It’s going to take work. But we can begin by learning more about the culture, the history, the geography. Let me tell you a few ways I’m learning to do this.
Step One: Get the context. There’s a popular expression in seminaries and Bible colleges that says, “Don’t read a Bible verse.” That is to say, read the whole chapter, or a group of chapters. Understand what surrounds the passage and get the big picture before trying to understand each brush stroke.
Step Two: Research. Another popular expression says, “Never read the Bible alone.” Which is to say, get help. Read commentaries. Read articles online. Do some real research. You have access to the entire McKee library. Plus, there are a remarkable number of Bible resources freely available online.
Step Three: Share. In the book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses about the importance of sharing what God has done for them. He tells Israel that He has done His marvelous miracles in Egypt “that you may tell in the hearing of your son, and of your grandson, how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I performed My signs among them, that you may know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 10:2). By teaching others and sharing with others what God has taught you and done for you, you will come to internalize who He really is. So please share with others.
Step Four: Apply what you’ve learned. I hope you’re feeling hungryafter all this talk about macaroni. Not only hungry for pasta, mind you, buthungry to do good. To discover. My friends, this is our Lord. Jesus of Nazareth. Our King and our Savior. Let us pay close attention to His words and understand His culture. May we walk in the dust with Him, sit at His feet like the disciples of old, and learn from Him.
Anthony during his year as a student missionary in Cambodia
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