In my previous entry, I wrote about the starting point of Bible study being the recognition of the author behind the printed page. My basic idea in these entries is to determine how we should work with the raw material of the Bible to build a structure in which we can live. From the raw materials of the Bible, we create very detailed systems of belief and ethics. All too often, I’m left wondering how my minister uses those raw materials to build a “house” for the Christian faith.

In this entry, I’m concerned with how I try to understand the first readers of the Bible. My basic idea is; it cannot mean now what it did not mean then. My explanation of the New Testament for the 21st century cannot get too far from how a 1st century reader would understand it.

As much as I can, I have to figure out who the writer was talking to, where they were and what their situation was. Understanding the first reader’s perspective is relatively easy in a book like Philemon but considerably harder with a book like Hebrews. Some of Paul’s letters really spell out what the situation is for the first readers and give important clues for modern readers to use in explicating the Bible for themselves. With the book of Revelation, the reader has to make some educated guesses about why the book was written and who was even reading it to make the most sense of it.

If we can understand the writer’s big idea behind the book and how he wanted the readers to change because of that big idea, then we get a better sense of how the book’s big idea should motivate us to act, think or change. I think the most important thing for me to remember with the Bible is that I’m reading someone else’s mail. If I know something about the addressee, then I have a better grasp of what the letter actually means. I need to try and put myself in the shoes of the 1st century reader as I explicate the Bible. The 1st century reader provides me with a point of reference and a boundary for my own explication. If I go too far afield, then I’m missing the lessons God wants me to live out. (As an aside, I believe God motivated the writing of the Bible to benefit all people into the far future. However, the understandings of the first readers should powerfully impact how we read it too.)

I have some more thoughts for the next couple of entries. Thanks for reading.