Paul the Apostle was author of half the New Testament. My favorite of his epistles is Philippians. We’ll use it to illustrate the importance of understanding the context of the text.
Paul was in the midst of his second missionary journey when he received the Macedonian Vision (Acts 16:6-10). Upon this call, he and his team immediately went into the Western Hemisphere. Here they won Lydia to Christ, the first European convert, and baptized her at the Zygaktis River.
Before long, the enemy responded to this incursion into his territory. Paul and Silas were arrested, whipped, and thrown into jail. But as they were singing hymns at midnight, God sent an earthquake that set them free and led to the conversion of their jailer. After they were released, they continued on their journey.
Now Paul is in jail in Rome, under house arrest. This is not his Mamertime Dungeon experience, but his first imprisonment. It lasted for two years, during which he wrote Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians, as well as Philippians. He is writing from jail to the place where he was first in jail. The fledgling church in Philippi can expect the same treatment their founder received.
In this context, the Apostle makes this remarkable request: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
When we understand the setting of this exhortation, it becomes even more relevant to our lives. Where are you in jail today? About what are you “anxious” tonight? Will you take these steps to peace?
In the interest of time, we’ll not try to interpret a passage from Peter, James, or Jude. But we will look at a text from John’s letters, as it also illustrates the importance of knowing the context of the text.
John, the beloved disciple and best friend of Jesus, was pastor in Ephesus on the western coast of modern-day Turkey. This city was called Lumen Asiae, the Light of Asia. Surveying its ruins gives us a sense of its grandeur and magnificence.
To these believers, John wrote the first epistle bearing his name. He began this way: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:1-4).
Why was it so important that he emphasize the physical and eternal nature of Jesus?
Because he was dealing with an early form of Gnosticism. This was the first heresy confronting the Christian church. It denied that the physical Jesus was the divine Son of God. John, the last living apostle, was the best person on earth to refute this heresy.
If he were here today, he would tell you that Jesus was and is God. Despite The Da Vinci Code and other modern-day attempts to make Jesus man rather than Lord, he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Is he your teacher, or is he your Master?
We’ll close our study with the most fascinating and controversial book in the New Testament: the Revelation.
The Revelation was given to John on Patmos, the Alcatraz of the ancient world. It begins: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw–that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (Revelation 1:1-3).
Here we learn these facts about the book:
- It is a “revelation,” an unveiling.
- Its subject is Jesus: “of Jesus Christ.”
- It comes from God: “which God gave him”
- It is intended for his “servants,” his followers.
- It regards “what must soon take place.”
- It is a vision of what John “saw.”
- It is a “prophecy,” with application to their lives.
- It is for their day, as “the time is near.”
How are we to understand this book? Here are the scholarly options:
- Preterist: the book was written for first-century Christians and should be interpreted in their context.
- Continuous historical: the book forecasts all of Christian history.
- Symbolic principles: the book describes theological truth using symbolic language.
- Postmillennial: the Church will usher in the Kingdom of God on earth, after which Jesus will return to reign for a thousand years.
- Amillennial: the “millennium” (Revelation 20:1-6) is symbolic rather than literal.
- Historic premillennial: Jesus will return to reign for a thousand years before eternity begins.
- Dispensational premillennial: there will be a “rapture” of the Church, seven-year Great Tribulation, and thousand-year reign of Christ on earth.
- Apocalypticist: Revelation intends to use symbolic language in communicating its message of the victory of God’s people over their persecutors, but also forecasts the end of history.
Whatever our approach to Revelation, we should never forget its ultimate message: “We win!”
Do you need the peace of God? The purpose of God? The power of God?
It is an interesting fact that Philippi and Ephesus, the leading cities in their parts of the world, no longer exist. They are ruins, not inhabited.
But the prison island of Patmos, where John was exiled and left to die, is still a worshiping congregation today.
No matter how prosperous your city or how hopeless your prison, what matters is that you trust it to God.
Will you do that today?