It is highly recommended, when studying the Bible, that the diligent student pays close attention to the context of any given passage, duly noting who is doing the speaking, who they are speaking to, and what the purpose of the passage is. It is a truism of Biblical understanding that a passage must mean what it has always meant. That is, the message of a passage does not change from place to place, or from time to time. Likewise, and relatedly, each Biblical book had an original target audience for whom the message was first meant and if we fail to understand the original intent, then we must fail to properly apply the passage.
Thus, we do well to learn as much of the culture and history surrounding the books of the Bible as possible, so as to better understand the original intent of the message.
That being said, some take this concept a little too far, thinking to themselves, and sometimes teaching, that the inspired message rarely or never has little or no direct application to ourselves. Such individuals argue that the Bible can and must only ever be understood indirectly, due to the fact that we are obviously not the original audience of any given passage.
But this is not true, and the Bible itself points us to a different viewpoint of Scripture.
In the book of Hebrews, the Hebrew writer is addressing first-century Jewish Christians, who are experiencing discouragement and doubt due to persecution because of their faith. He encourages them to be faithful, telling them, “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by Him. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.’” (Hebrews 12:4-6; ESV)
The writer of Hebrews, for this word of encouragement, quotes from the book of Proverbs, Proverbs 3:11-12 specifically, and tells his readers that the passage is God’s message to them, addressing them as sons.
Historically and contextually, the human author of Proverbs 3 is recognized to have been Solomon, King of Israel, and it is widely speculated that the first few chapters were most likely written as personal exhortations to Solomon’s son and heir, Rehoboam. It is very likely therefore that Rehoboam who was the original “son,” being addressed. Rehoboam, we note, died nearly a thousand years before the book of Hebrews was ever written, and lived under a different covenant than the Christians being addressed in the New Testament.
But the writer of Hebrews looks at the passage not as an indirect message, addressed to a long dead prince of Judah, but rather as a personal exhortation to each of his readers and says as much: “have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?”
This is possible because, while the human author of Proverbs 3 was Solomon, the Divine author was the Holy Spirit who moved Solomon to so write (cf. 2 Peter 1:21), and the intended audience was never a single prince, but rather all the faithful of God, at all times, and in all places. Proverbs, by this light, is not an indirect message for the faithful, but is instead personal guidance from God for each of God’s children.
This is a remarkable thing!
And, once we understand this principle, the whole of the Bible takes on a very personal tone. As we read the New Testament epistles, for instance, we may intellectually understand that 1 Corinthians was written by the apostle Paul to a single congregation of the Lord’s church on the Peloponnesian peninsula of Greece, but we can also know that this inspired letter was meant by God for us to know and understand personally. And though the good doctor Luke addressed his Gospel to the man, Theophilus, a name which incidentally means “Lover of God,” we can know that the Spirit of God is addressing the Gospel message personally to all those who love God with all their hearts, and who want to come to know Jesus better.
So yes, historical context and original intent is vital to understand in properly discerning the message of Scripture, but it should never blind us to the personal application of that message today. Again, this is not to say the message changes from person to person. It means what it has always meant. Rather, when we read the Scriptures, and we properly discern the meaning, we need to understand and know that the message we hear was meant, by God, as an exhortation to us today; and understanding this, we need to apply it properly and personally to ourselves. The Bible is God’s message to you, and you should read and study it as such.
The church of Christ invites you to study God’s word with us, and worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. If you have any questions, including subjects you might like to see addressed, please share them with us through our website: chapelhillchurchofchrist.org
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.