National Bible Week is an ideal time to pause and reflect on how much the Bible means to us. A Sunday School teacher during my high school years had such an infectious love for the Scriptures that it sent me on a lifelong study that gets richer each year.
I particularly enjoy how much spiritual discernment there is to gain by understanding a little of the Bible’s history, geography, context, and cultural practices. In and of itself, these things wouldn’t mean much. As Mary Baker Eddy, who built her life on the Scriptures, commented: “Take away the spiritual signification of Scripture, and that compilation can do no more for mortals than can moonbeams to melt a river of ice” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 241).
But knowing a little background draws me into its deeper meaning. I want to study the Bible’s books, stories, poetry, and parables more – like a dear friend you want to spend more time getting to know. One insight that has been a significant lesson for both professional and personal reasons came from studying each of Paul’s seven authenticated letters (First Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Romans). Not only was he addressing a distinct issue in each, but he also spoke to his audiences differently, according to whatever the local needs were. This was a helpful example for me in my business career when I was frequently invited to address audiences from varying industries and backgrounds, as well as adapting ideas and language to friends and family members.
For instance, Paul wrote to the Galatians who were a warlike people, some of history’s earliest mercenaries. After Paul had earlier preached to them and converted many, he left to continue his missionary work only to discover their mercurial nature resulted in switching quickly away from his teachings (see Galatians 1:6). Knowing this helped me understand why his letter to the Galatians begins with sharp corrective declarations (see 1:8, 9). Yet it ends with the tenderest expression of love, as Paul writes: “Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. I wish I were with you right now so I could change my tone. But at this distance I don’t know how else to help you” (Galatians 4:19, 20, The New Living Translation).
What a lesson in confronting evil but always loving the individual.
In Athens Paul shares the Gospel message with a highly intellectual audience used to philosophers who favored literate arguments and rhetoric (see Acts 17:15-32). Paul quotes their own poets, establishing his educational credentials so they would even listen to him, another lesson in adapting language and ideas to the audience, whether one or many.
When Paul entered Philippi, he found no synagogue there, which was his usual place to start preaching the Gospel. Philippi was a Roman colony built for returning military veterans. Since Jews didn’t serve in the army, they weren’t in Philippi, thus no synagogue. Paul goes instead to the river looking for Jews and finds Lydia and her women friends. After hearing Paul share his love for Christ, Lydia became Europe’s first Christian convert (see Acts 16:14, 15). Again, he adapted his message to his audience.
Another insight that means a lot to me is from John’s Gospel, which is thought to have been written more than 40 years following Paul’s letters. There we learn of Christ Jesus’ teachings with the seven “I am” statements, one of which is his declaration: “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7). In the ancient world and today, Bedouin shepherds use three-sided pens to protect their flock at night, which I have seen a number of times while touring the Middle East in the past three decades. When Jesus used this metaphor for his pastoral society, people would have understood the analogy immediately, knowing a shepherd lies down across the pen’s opening to “close” the fourth side. Only then do the sheep settle down to rest. That image has been helpful many times to quiet my thought when stirred over something, realizing that Christ is there to both quiet the flock and keep the “wolves,” or any perceived dangers, at bay.
The goal for all this Bible study to me is simply to know God more, to feel His presence. As the Bible’s treasures are unlocked, we echo the prophet Jeremiah’s words: “God told them, ‘I’ve never quit loving you and never will. Expect love, love, and more love!’ ” (Jeremiah 31:3, “The Message”).