Oct 12Context, Does It Really Matter?

-David Blackwell, Program Director

I think context is one of the most important ideas when it comes to writing, speeches, movies…really anything. Think about this, you hear that someone has taken a giant tanker truck and filled someone else’s house full of water. You simply can’t believe that someone would play such a horrible prank. Then you discover the context – the house was on fire! Appreciation begins to overwhelm you at the thought of a public servant putting themselves at risk to save a family and their home.

When it comes to Scripture, this same appreciation can be missed if we don’t give due attention to the context.

Here is a quick example:

Acts 17:16-34 is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. Take a minute and read through that part of the Bible, especially if you don’t know the story I’m referencing.

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Okay, thanks. Now you can keep reading.

The context of this passage gives clarity around the boldness of Paul, the uniqueness of the message of the Gospel, and reveals Paul’s broken and gentle heart for the Gentiles.

Check it out:

This passage comes roughly 25 years after the crucifixion of Christ. Paul is in Athens, Greece at the Areopagus. There are some very interesting ideas that can be deciphered from this place as a location for Paul’s sermon. One interesting fact about his location is its ties to Ares, the Greek god of war. Suffice it to say, this was an important historical place for the Greek people. Also, from this vantage point you would have been able to see multiple temples to many false gods. If this sparks some interest, I would encourage you to further study the location and folklore around the gods, the geographical location, and its historical significance.

This sermon also comes roughly seven years after Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus. Paul has already been on one missionary journey and has experienced some hardships, to say the least. We know that he has been beaten, stoned, and imprisoned twice. In this particular setting, he is a Jewish guy in a foreign town, bringing a roughly 25 year old message of what it means to have life. Greek people hearing this message would most likely have had a measure of fear and trepidation at the thought of this “new” God in whom they were supposed to live, move, and exist. Paul doesn’t attack the idea that the Greek people are religious. In fact he acknowledges they are religious in many aspects. The Greeks were very devoted to their many gods, and believed that if they didn’t appease them, there would be great danger and misfortune in their future. Knowing this, Paul continues his speech with the idea that the One True God is not made by men, has no needs that must be met, does not live in temples, is sovereign in His rule, and gives life and breath. This “new” God is to be sought after and He is not far from any one person. The implication Paul is making to the Greek people is that their gods are man made, needy, far off and distant, aren’t sovereign, and don’t give real life. Paul even mentions that the Greek poets almost got it right and acknowledged the familiar idea to them that “we are his offspring.” The difference being, we are created by a god…just not their gods. Could you imagine the thought that went through the Greek mind – “Oh my, this man better watch out. This message is not going to sit well with the gods. I mean, look around. We can see temples all around us that are intended to keep the gods happy. The gods may hear this man and take revenge on all of us.”

Paul continues with the idea that in God we will live, move, and exist. In him we LIVE (we are resurrected into a new life; that life powers over death), we MOVE (we are set in motion; sent in a direction), we EXIST (we are steadfast and strong in that direction and continue on in it)*. What a powerful line of ideas – the Gospel taking people from death to life, the Gospel giving people the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit leading people in truth. Then Paul says that they must repent, meaning they must change after perceiving something new. This idea most often implies a change to something true from something false. Paul uses the resurrection of Jesus to assure the legitimacy of this new God, and to prove his power as a day of justice is coming. Paul communicates all of this while being direct, but also gentle. He makes it clear to the Greek people that it cannot be both their gods and God. Remember, a Greek person must constantly live to please their gods, so by believing this new message, their lives must change dramatically. And isn’t that the message of the Gospel – that God came down to make dead souls come to life, and continue on steadfastly a new and eternal life. To me, there is no bigger change than from death to life.

How amazing is it that our understanding of this passage can grow immensely by being clear on the context? By gathering historical references, understanding Paul’s life, digging deeper in to the words used, and with the Holy Spirit guiding us in faithful study, the Scripture goes from a silent movie in black and white to a vivid high definition movie with surround sound. Hopefully this will prove beneficial as you continue to grow deeper, closer, and wider in your knowledge of God, His Word, and His work.

*Definitions for these words were discovered using a concordance, a tool we may be able to look in to further in a future blog post!