In the classic movie Back to the Future, a teenager from the 1980s enters a time machine (a modified DeLorean car) and speeds down a flaming path back to the 1950s. The town is the same, but everything has changed. Girls wear ponytails and bobby socks and say things like, “Isn’t he a dreamboat!” Guys have oily, slicked-back hair and wear letter sweaters and baggy pants. As a car with white sidewall tires pulls into a service station, uniformed attendants rush out to fill the tank, clean the windshield and check the oil. Gas is 19 cents a gallon, and Cokes are 5 cents. As we watch the movie, we are struck with how odd life used to be and how much things have changed!

We also realize how many things are the same. Being a teenager is as awkward now as then. We still have school, homework, parties, friendships and first love. People still cruise down the road with their favorite music blaring from the radio. Little boys will always tease their sisters, and although Coke is no longer 5 cents, people still love to drink it. What’s so different?

We have a similar experience when we read the Bible. Many things seem strange or unfamiliar. People wear sandals, ride camels, and live in tents. They offer animal sacrifices and consider pork “unclean.” They worship on Saturday and work on Sunday. When a woman can’t have children, she allows her husband to marry her female servant. What a different world!

Of course, many things seem just the same. The people in the Bible struggle with temptation and have difficulty trusting God. So do we. We identify with Job’s suffering, even though he lived 4,000 years ago. Husbands still need to love their wives, and children still need to obey their parents. Many times we feel that the biblical writers are speaking directly to us, giving us encouragement, comfort, and hope.

Again and again, the Bible shows us how God was patiently and mercifully caring for His people and calling them to love Him and one another.

The strange-yet-familiar feelings we have when reading the Bible (or watching a movie about the 50s) are a result of historical distance. Although we have much in common with the people in the Bible, there is a 2,000- to 4,000-year gap between us. They lived in a different time, place, and culture, and they spoke a different language.

We cannot ignore this historical and cultural distance if we want to understand and apply the Bible.

Time Travel

In a sense, studying and applying the Bible is like entering a time machine. We must cross the barriers of time, language, culture, and geography in order to understand the people of the Bible and how God’s Word applied to the situations they faced. How we do that is the goal of this section.

Then, when we have understood how God’s Word applied to the people of that century, we reenter the time machine and return to the 21st century. Now we are able to reflect on how Scripture applies to our time and culture and the problems we face. That will be the goal of later sections.

Our time machine is constructed from the various tools available to the modern student of the Bible. With these tools we can cross the barriers that separate us from the biblical world.

Crossing the time barrier.

Because the events of the Bible took place thousands of years ago, we have one obvious problem in understanding those events— we weren’t there!

Therefore, we often lack important information regarding the historical context in which those events took place.

Almost every New Testament letter was written to address a particular problem or set of problems in their new relationship with God through Jesus: The Galatians were seeking to be justified by law; the Corinthians wanted answers to questions about marriage, spiritual gifts, and meat offered to idols; Timothy needed to know how to restore order to a church.

Unless we understand these problems or questions, the letters are like listening to one end of a telephone conversation. We hear what the author is saying, but we don’t know why he is saying it. The same is true when we read the Psalms and prophets. We know only half of the story!

For example, in John’s first epistle he writes:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God (1 john 4:1-3).

This passage has often been misinterpreted as a test for demon possession. As a result, it has also been misapplied. We are told that whenever we encounter someone who may be demon possessed, we are to “test the spirits” by asking the person, “Has Jesus Christ come in the flesh?” If the person is possessed by an evil spirit, he or she will respond “No.” But if the person answers “Yes,” then we can rule out demon possession.

This is a classic case of interpreting a passage apart from its historical context. A careful reading of the text reveals that John is not giving a test for demon possession but rather for telling a genuine prophet from a false prophet (v. 1). And the false prophets he has in mind were ones who were denying that the divine Christ had truly become human, since they believed that “flesh” and matter were evil.

How do we know this? There are several ways to learn about the historical context of this or any passage. One way is to look for clues within the book or passage itself. In 1 John 2:19 we discover that these false prophets had originally been part of the church: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us” (2:19). John calls them “antichrists” (v. 18). One purpose of his letter is to warn his readers about them: “I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray” (v. 26). There are many other statements in John’s letter, some explicit and some implicit, that give us additional details about the situation his readers faced and why he wrote to them.

As we discover the historical context of a book or passage, it is also a good idea to read related passages in the Bible. For example, Psalm 51 was written by David after his adultery with Bathsheba. We can read about David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11­–12. (The heading over Psalm 51 tells us why it was written. When such information isn’t given, a Bible dictionary or commentary will often mention related passages.) Similarly, if we study the book of Philippians, we will want to consult the book of Acts, which provides information about the founding of the church at Philippi (see acts 16).

The more we know about the historical context of a biblical passage, the better equipped we will be to understand the message of the author. Such information can be like finding missing pieces of a puzzle. As they are put into place, the whole picture becomes much clearer.

Crossing the language barrier. The fact that the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek instead of English creates a significant barrier to understanding its message. Anyone who tries to learn these languages quickly realizes how difficult they are to master. Fortunately, those who are experts in biblical languages have crossed this barrier for us by translating the biblical languages into modern English. In fact, there are numerous Bible translations to choose from.

Each type of translation has strengths and weaknesses. A formal-equivalence translation follows the wording of Hebrew or Greek as closely as possible, but such wording often sounds awkward in English.

A free translation is more concerned with clarity than exact wording. Such translations are easy to read but give the impression that the Bible was written in the 21st century. For example, in the original Living Bible’s translation of Psalm 119:105, the word lamp is rendered as “flashlight”!

The careful Bible student will take advantage of all types of translations. Each one can provide insights into what the author originally said in his own language.

Crossing the cultural barrier. The events in the Bible took place in many different cultures: Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Jewish, Greek, and Roman (to name a few). It is not uncommon, therefore, to read about customs or beliefs that seem strange to us since they are so far removed from 21st-century culture.

What were household gods and why did Rachel steal them from her father (genesis 31:19)? Why did Jonah fear the Ninevites? Who were the Samaritans, and why was there such hatred between them and the Jews (john 4:9)? What was Corinth like, and did the Corinthians face special temptations because they lived there? As we understand the answers to such questions, we receive new insight into how God’s Word applied to their particular actions, fears, conflicts, and temptations.

Imagine we are studying Amos, and we come across the following verse: “On the day I punish Israel for her sins . . . the horns of the altar will be cut off and fall to the ground” (amos 3:14). This verse is meaningless to us in the 21st century, but a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia will help us understand what Amos meant.

If we look up the word altar or horn we discover that the altar in the temple had horn-shaped projections at each of its four corners. The sacrificial blood was smeared on these. In Old Testament times, many Jews believed the altar was a place of refuge. Those seeking safety would come to the temple and grab the horns of the altar. Amos is warning that the Israelites will flee to the altar and find its horns (that is, its protection) are gone!

It is impossible to study the Bible without becoming immersed in ancient Middle Eastern culture.

As we become more familiar with ancient Middle Eastern culture, we are better able to cross the barrier between our world and theirs.

Crossing the geographical barrier.Some people are fortunate enough to visit Israel. When they return, they report that the Bible comes to life in ways they have never experienced before. Those of us who have not visited the Holy Land can also have this experience in a more limited way. As we learn about biblical geography, many Bible passages take on new meaning.

For example, in Amos 1:3–2:16 the prophet condemns Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Judah, and Israel. At first it may seem that Amos mentions these cities and nations at random, but a closer examination reveals otherwise. The first three are the capitals of nations unrelated to Israel. The next three are relatives of Israel. Judah, the seventh, is Israel’s brother nation to the south. Finally, Israel itself is named.

The effect on Amos’ audience would have been staggering.

The Israelites would have cheered at his judgments against the heathen nations. But as his words came closer and closer to home—Ammon, Moab, Judah—they would have begun to sweat. With the words “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent” (2:6), they were caught in Amos’ coil of condemnation.

There are several ways to become familiar with biblical geography. Many Bibles include maps. A good Bible atlas or Bible dictionary can also supply valuable information about unfamiliar places.

Careful Reading

Imagine that you have entered the time machine and have completely crossed the barriers of time, language, culture and geography. You are in Corinth in the first century. You are dressed in Greek clothes. You speak Greek fluently and know the surrounding culture and geography. You are even a regular visitor in the church at Corinth and are intimately acquainted with the people and problems in the church.

As you are gathering for worship in a nearby home, a messenger comes to the door with a letter from Paul, the letter we now call 1 Corinthians. You unroll the scroll and begin reading the letter (in Greek, of course!). Does the fact that you have successfully crossed the barriers of time, language, culture, and geography mean that you will automatically understand what Paul is saying to the Corinthians? Not necessarily.

The apostle Peter was one of Paul’s contemporaries and still found some things in his letters “hard to understand” (2 peter 3:16). Of course Peter’s difficulty may have been that Paul was unclear in places. But even when Paul writes clearly, our success in understanding him (or any other author) will depend on how skillful we are at reading.

One aspect of learning how to study the Bible focuses on acquiring reading skills.

As we read, our first goal is to answer one primary question: What did the author mean to convey to the original readers? (The question of what the passage means to us today will be covered later.)

You can discover the meaning of the author by following five guidelines:

  • Identify the type of literature you are studying. A cult expert was giving a lecture one evening at a local church. A few cult members heard about the lecture and decided to attend. About halfway through the meeting, one of them stood up and began arguing that God the Father has a physical body like ours. He “proved” his point by quoting passages which refer to God’s “right arm,” “hand,” “eyes” and so on. The speaker asked him to read aloud Psalm 17:8: “Hide me in the shadow of your wings.” “But that is simply a figure of speech,” he protested. “Exactly!” replied the speaker.

The biblical authors communicated in a variety of ways—through stories, letters, poems, proverbs, parables, metaphors, and symbols. Each type of literature has its own unique features. We must identify the type of literature and language an author is using in order to interpret his meaning correctly. If we assume he is speaking literally when he is speaking metaphorically, we end up with nonsense.

  • Get an overview of the book. An overview helps us discover meaning in two ways. First, it enables us to discover the main theme of the book as we observe repeated ideas. Second, an overview helps us discover the structure of the book—how the parts of the book contribute to the overall theme. An overview is like looking through a zoom lens. Begin with a panoramic view by reading quickly through the book, finding repeated ideas or words that tie the book together. When it isn’t possible to read the entire book, skim through its contents, paying particular attention to chapter or paragraph headings.
  • Next, zoom in closer by looking for major sections or divisions within the book. Each section will focus primarily on one subject. Once you have discovered that subject, try to summarize it by briefly titling the section. Now you are ready to focus on the details of the landscape—the paragraphs, sentences, and words.
  • Study the book passage by passage. Once you have an overview of the theme and structure of a book, begin studying it passage by passage. In our modern Bibles a passage can be a paragraph, a group of paragraphs or a chapter. Realize, however, that the Bible did not originally contain chapters, paragraphs, or verses (or even punctuation!). These are helpful additions to our Bibles, but we need not be bound by them.
  • Be sensitive to the mood of the book or passage.The Bible is more than a collection of ideas. The biblical authors and characters were people like us with passions and feelings. Sorrow and agony permeate Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane. Galatians radiates the heat of Paul’s anger toward the Judaizers and his perplexity over the Galatians. Psalm 148 is bursting with praise.While this is a more subjective aspect of Bible study, it can give us rich insights into the feelings and motivations of the biblical authors or characters. This in turn will add depth to our understanding of what they are saying.
  • Compare your interpretation with one or two commentaries. Once you feel you have understood the main subject of the passage and what the author is saying about it, compare your interpretation with that of one or two good commentaries. They can give you additional insights and can serve as a corrective if you have misunderstood something the author has said. But do your best to understand the passage on your own before consulting commentaries.

Back to the Future

Now we are ready to reenter the time machine and return to the 21st century. As we travel from the biblical world back to our own, we must recross the barriers of time, culture, language, and geography.

In the broadest sense, this is what application is all about. We seek to apply what we learned in Jerusalem, Ephesus, or Corinth to our present-day needs in Chicago, London, or Hong Kong. We take the message originally spoken in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and communicate it clearly in our own language. We take the truths originally spoken in a different time and culture and apply them to the similar-yet-different needs of our own culture.

One important step in preparing to make this return journey is to reverse the process of seeing God in the details. Now we need to find general principles that underlie the specific rules and requirements of Scripture.