Another Time and Place

Using Usage, Genre, and Context to Understand the Bible

By Christy Krenek

Studying the Scriptures can be both fascinating and challenging. When we open our Bibles we discover a world that is vastly different from the world that we live in now. The Bible was originally written in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) that are foreign to many of us. Then we also must bridge the cultural gap between an ancient agricultural society and our modern technological society. The events in the Bible occurred within an ancient theocracy (a kingdom where God is king) compared to our modern systems of government.

Before we can interpret any verse or chapter in the Bible, it is vital that we examine its usage, genre, and context so that we can discover the author's intended meaning and possible moral principle. The usage will give us the basics of what the words are saying. The genre is the type of literature the passage belongs to. The context reminds us that verses weren't originally numbered, chaptered, and separated from each other. Each verse is part of a passage which is part of a singular book, and we miss a lot if we keep our focus too narrow.

Suppose we wanted to closely examine the often-quoted John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

Usage — Words are the integral parts of any language, so we need to especially look at the nouns and verbs that appear in this verse. These words, most often, will greatly facilitate the understanding of the text. "God loved and gave [his only] Son." Think for a moment of a parent's strong affection for their child. Try to grasp what a parent would experience emotionally, mentally, and physically to send their infant into a hostile and murderous world. Jesus' enemies could not have taken Him unless His Father had fully given Him. We might ask ourselves, "Why would God love a worthless and depraved world?" The second part of this verse reveals God's divine promise: "whoever believes [noun/verb] will have eternal life" (verb/noun).

A deeper understanding of the verse comes from asking questions such as:

What is being done? God's grace expressed through love/our belief in Christ.
By whom? God/whoever believes.
To whom? Jesus Christ is sent; fallen mankind receives Him.
Using what to accomplish God's purpose? Christ's death in payment for our sin.

Genre — The Bible contains many different styles of literature — poetry, fiction, history, biography, and more. This is what is meant by genre. For example, a cookbook is read differently from a news article, or an e-mail from an instruction manual. The apostle John was an eye-witness to Jesus Christ. His purpose for writing this gospel was to convince people that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing [they] might have life in His name" (John 20:31). For these reasons, the disciple uses simple, understandable words that carry deep theological meaning (i.e. "The Word became flesh" in 1:14 or "I am the bread of life" 6:35).

In contrast, the apostle Paul, wrote numerous letters and used more graphic and symbolic wording (i.e. "works of the flesh" or "fruits of the Spirit" in Galatians 5:19-23). John is sharing his personal testimony. Paul is addressing the established Galatian churches regarding issues such as false teachers and spiritual behavior (Galatians 1:6-10) and righteousness by faith (Galatians 3:1-4:11). The audience that John writes to are early Christians who had pulled away from the Jewish synagogue. John 3:16 serves as a testimony to non-believers and an encouragement to believers in a time of persecution.

Context — Care must be given so that passages in the Bible are not taken out of context, teaching something false. For example, because of a cancerous tumor in the optic nerve of one eye, I have partial eyesight on my right side. "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away" (Matthew 5:29) is not a literal command to choose blindness. In reading the entire passage (verses 27-30), Jesus uses a figurative example of the gravity of lusting and adultery. Instead, one might find great joy and encouragement in "focusing" upon 2 Corinthians 5:7.

In the verses that precede and follow John 3:16, the apostle focuses upon 1) Jesus being "lifted up" so that we could have eternal life and 2) Jesus being the "Light of the world" Who illuminates lost souls to the truth of salvation in verse 16.

Help is Here

The use of various study aids (bible dictionaries, concordances, and GotQuestions's commentary, BibleRef.com) can be most beneficial in providing insight to Scriptures. But the true journey to understanding God's Word must be through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Jesus knew His disciples would need supernatural help after He returned to heaven. "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and will tell you what is yet to come" (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit enables us to understand God's heart, Jesus' sacrifice for us, and the Bible's wisdom for us.

How wonderful that God would give us the treasure of His Holy Word. The Creator of the Universe longed to share His great love for us (John 3:16) and to give us the gift of the Scriptures — the Living Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:1).

Image Credit: Aaron Burden; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life

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Published 5-22-17