After you have studied the content of your sermon text, you should look at how your text relates to three different contexts: its historical/cultural context, its literary context, and its theological context.
A book that provides helpful guidance in studying these contexts is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. These authors have also written more technical books that cover the same ground: Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors by Douglas Stuart, and New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, by Gorden Fee.
1. Examine the text’s historical and cultural context.
History is “a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes.”
Culture is “the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.”
Both the historical and the cultural context can be important for interpreting a biblical text.
So let’s begin with the historical context. Thomas Long, quoting from John Hayes and Carl Holladay, mentions two ways a biblical text relates to history. First, the text itself has a history. Second, the text may refer to historical figures or events. It may have history in it.
(a) Learn what you can about the history of the text.
The text was written at a certain time in history to a particular audience.
Then after it was originally written, it may have been incorporated into a larger document at a later date.
It is not always possible to determine when a text was written and to whom and how it was incorporated into a later document. But you should try to learn as much about the history of the text as you can.
Books that are introductions to the Old Testament and the New Testament can be helpful at this point, as well as study Bibles, and the introductory sections of good commentaries. For example, If your text comes from 1 Corinthians, an introduction to 1 Corinthians will tell you that Paul probably wrote this letter from Ephesus when on his third missionary journey in A.D. 54.
The website Bible.org has some helpful introductions to some of the Old Testament books and to each of the books of the New Testament.
(b) Review the history in the text.
You should also learn as much as you can about historical figures and events referred to in the text, and how historical events were interpreted by the biblical authors.
Here again, consult introductions to the Old and New Testaments, study Bibles and commentaries.
Also identify any locations by using Bible maps and atlases. Bible Hub has an online Bible atlas that can be helpful.
Thus, if you are preaching on 2 Kings 18 and 19, it will be helpful to know something about Sennacherib. The New Bible Dictionary has a good article on Sennacherib. Wikipedia has a helpful article online. Commentaries on 2 Kings 18:13 on Bible Hub have quite a bit of information.
(c) Study any aspects of culture that are relevant to the text.
Now let’s move on to the cultural context. Michael Gorman suggests some questions relating to culture that you can ask about your text.
“What were the chief characteristics of the people … addressed by the passage?
“What ancient events, customs, values, and beliefs are mentioned or alluded to in the text and must be understood in order to comprehend the text?
“What situation seems to have prompted the author to write this text?”
If you are preaching on 1 Corinthians 8, you will need to know something about “food sacrificed to idols.” Here a Bible dictionary can help. The New Bible Dictionary has a helpful article entitled: “Idols, Meats Offered To.” On the Bible Hub website, Ellicott’s commentary gives an explanation of how meat offered in pagan sacrifices was then sometimes offered for sale in the marketplace. Thus a Christian might purchase such meat or be served this meat at the home of a friend.
2. Examine the text’s literary context.
There are several things to note about a text’s literary context.
(a) Identify the genre of the book in which the text appears.
The first task is to identify the genre of the biblical book in which the text appears. You need to determine what kind of literature the biblical book is.
In his book, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, Sidney Greidanus distinguishes between literary genres and literary forms that may occur within those genres. He lists the following as genres: Hebrew narrative, prophecy, psalms, wisdom, apocalyptic literature, gospels and epistles. He categorizes the book of Acts within the genre “gospels” as a special case, given that it is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke.
Greidanus also lists a number of literary forms that appear within these genres, such as law, lament, parable, miracle.
Study Bibles or introductions to the biblical books will help you determine the genre to which the book you are dealing with belongs. Commentaries can help you identify the literary form of your sermon text.
(b) Use principles appropriate to the book’s genre to study the text.
When studying a sermon text, it is important to use principles that are appropriate to the genre of the book in which the text appears. You should not approach a psalm in the same way that you approach a narrative. You should not approach apocalyptic literature (Revelation) the same way that you approach one of the letters of Paul.
The books by Fee and Stuart referenced above will help you understand the principles appropriate to the various biblical genres. Sidney Greidanus provides good guidance in this area as well.
If you do not have access to the books by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, I have listed links that you may find helpful on this page.
(c) Determine how the text fits into the overall scheme of the book and into the author’s argument.
Some questions Gordon Fee suggests asking are the following: What is the point of this passage? How does it fit into the overall scheme of the book? How does it fit in this part of the author’s argument?
If dealing with a gospel, use a synopsis of the Gospels to compare your sermon text with parallel passages in the other Gospels. A couple of synopses are available online.
Michael Gorman suggests asking the following questions:
“For the larger contexts:
- Where does this passage occur in the structure of the book, and what significance does this position have?
- What has ‘happened’ (whether in narrative, argument, etc.) in the book so far?
- Of what major section is this unit a part?
- What appears to be its function in the section and in the book as a whole? How does this passage appear to serve the agenda of the entire work?
“For the immediate context:
- What is the subject of the paragraph or two immediately preceding this passage? How does this material lead into the passage at hand?
- Does the material following the passage connect directly to it or help explain it?
- Does this passage work in connection with its immediate context to achieve a particular rhetorical goal?”
3. Investigate the text’s theological context.
Finally, we come to the theological context of the text.
Theology is the study of God and his mighty works of creation, providence and redemption. Two kinds of theology that complement one another are biblical theology and systematic theology.
Biblical theology deals with the process of God’s revelation of himself and describes the history of redemption (the Bible’s salvation story) that culminates in Jesus Christ.
Systematic theology organizes in a logical way what God has revealed throughout Scripture on a variety of topics.
(a) Locate the text in the history of redemption (the Bible’s salvation story) that culminates in Jesus Christ.
Here we are concerned with Biblical theology. The structure of the history of redemption can be viewed in a number of ways.
One way is in terms of the covenants of the Bible. So one can ask how the text relates to the biblical covenants. For example, the significance of events that take place during the reigns of David and Solomon cannot be understood apart from the covenant God makes with David in 2 Samuel 7.
One can also ask how the text relates to the kingdom of God, as it is anticipated and as it arrives in redemptive history. The earthly kingdom of David points forward to the manifestation of God’s saving rule in Christ. During Jesus’s earthly ministry, there is both a sense in which the kingdom of God has come (Luke 11:20) and a sense in which the kingdom is coming in the future (Luke 22:16).
For more information about biblical theology, see this page.
(b) Determine what God is doing or saying in the text and/or what the text reveals about God and his will.
Here we are primarily concerned to relate the text to systematic theology.
To see how the text relates to systematic theology, we can ask what God is doing or saying in the text or what the text reveals about God and his will. We can also reflect on what doctrinal questions the text answers.
So, for example, in the book of Esther, God is not overtly mentioned. Yet the book is a powerful statement of God’s providential care for his people.
Or, to use a New Testament example, 2 Corinthians 3:18 helps us understand God’s gracious work of sanctification.
For information about systematic theology, see this page.
(c) Consider how the text might relate to the creeds and confessions of the Christian church.
The ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed) are short summaries of Christian doctrine that are widely accepted throughout the Christian church. You can consider how the sermon text might support doctrines expressed in these creeds.
You can also reflect on how the text supports doctrines summarized in the confessions of faith that were written at the time of the Reformation, for example, the Augsburg Confession, Luther’s Small Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.
By studying the historical and cultural, literary, and theological contexts of your text, you increase the likelihood that you will interpret the text accurately.
Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Fourth Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2014. ↑
Stuart, Douglas. Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. Fourth Edition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. ↑
Fee, Gordon D. New Testament Exegesis: Handbook for Students and Pastors. Third Edition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. ↑
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Eleventh Edition. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc, 2003. ↑
https://www.livescience.com/21478-what-is-culture-definition-of-culture.html, accessed on 4/4/19. ↑
Long, Thomas G. The Witness of Preaching, Third Edition. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Digital. 102. ↑
https://bible.org/seriespage/1-corinthians-introduction-argument-and-outline, accessed on 4/4/19. ↑
https://bible.org/series/ot-introductions-outlines-and-arguments and https://bible.org/series/new-testament-introductions-and-outlines, accessed on 4/4/19. ↑
https://bibleatlas.org/, accessed on 4/4/19. ↑
Wiseman, D. J. “Sennacherib.” In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, & J. I. Packer (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary. Third Edition. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996. Digital. 1075–1076. ↑
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sennacherib, accessed 4/4/19. ↑
https://biblehub.com/commentaries/2_kings/18-13.htm, accessed 4/4/19. ↑
Gorman, Michael J. Elements of Biblical Exegesis: A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001. 68. ↑
Martin, Ralph P. “Idols, Meats Offered To.” In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, & J. I. Packer (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary. Third Edition. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996. Digital. 497. ↑
Greidanus, Sidney. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988. 23. ↑
Ibid., chapters 9-12. ↑
Fee, Gordon D. New Testament Exegesis. 145–146. ↑
Online synopses of the Gospels: Itemized Inventory of the Synoptic Gospels (Greek and English); NET Bible Synopsis of the Four Gospels. ↑
Gorman. 70-71. ↑
For the Augsburg Confession and the Small Catechism, see: http://bookofconcord.org/augsburgconfession.php, and http://bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php. For the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort, see: https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions. For the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, see: https://www.pcaac.org/resources/wcf/. ↑