You will not understand everything the Bible says unless you understand what those words of Scripture meant to the original hearers. I used to believe that I did not need to understand what was going on in the contemporary world of those who wrote and first read the Scriptures. Then I realized God did not deliver His Word in a vacuum. He wrote to people. Only by understanding what those original people took from the message can I begin to apply God’s Word to my life.
You cannot understand Jesus without understanding culture
Take Jesus’ parables for example. What if I lived in a remote part of the world that had never seen or heard of sheep? I would not understand what it meant for Him to be a good Shepherd. Many people do not understand His statement in John 10:10 “I am the door.” Any application you want can be applied to this passage if you do not accept what He was talking about. Shepherds then slept in the doorway of the sheepfold to protect these defenseless animals from wolves. Living with them so closely, the sheep learned the shepherd’s voice and found safety and followed Him everywhere.
Okay, that was easy.
What about Jesus’ story of the wheat and the tares? (Matthew 13:24-30). Say you grew up on a tropical island and only knew about palm trees, passion fruit, and pineapples. You had never seen or heard of wheat—or tares—for that matter. So, you and a few others get together for Bible study. Reading this parable by Jesus, you know that whatever He is saying is important, so you discuss it.
“What is wheat?” someone asks.
“I think He is talking about people,” a good-guesser says.
“I bet He is, because at the end it sure sounds like he is talking about people.”
“Well, who are the wheat?”
“I think that probably means ‘white.’ Don’t you think?”
“Oh, that makes sense! And the tares must be the people ‘torn’ away from another country—like slaves.”
“Like black people?”
“I think so.”
“Okay, so Jesus says to let the whites and blacks live together—don’t separate them.”
“Oh, and look at the end, it says he’ll throw the tares into the fire.”
“So only white people go to heaven? Right?”
Of course, that is a little extreme, but I am making a point. You cannot just guess your wait into truth. We need to study God’s Word.
Bible study means background study
We cannot just base our understanding of God on assumptions. We depend on God’s Word in its proper application and interpretation. We need to know the background behind passages such as I Corinthians 11 (hair length), I Corinthians 14:34-35 (women in ministry); I Timothy 2:11-15 (should women be silent?), and many more.
Your personal walk with God will continuously grow as you studying God’s Word in its original context. Don’t be just a church goer or just a Bible reader. Be a student of Scripture and a living disciple of Jesus Christ. Tools such as Bible dictionaries, books on manners and customs of the Bible, and scholarly commentaries (not Matthew Henry or Adam Clarke, but series such as the New International Commentary on the New Testament or Word Biblical Commentary), will help refine our understanding about the life and times of the people who wrote and first heard God’s Word. As a Bible teacher, parent, or hungry student of God’s Word, build your library with books that help you understand these lost cultures.
Most importantly, let God speak to you as you read and investigate His Word every day.