What do we make of this? After feeding the 5,000 in John chapter 6 we read:
Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
The people already had a king; why would they need another? Perhaps they wanted to recognize Jesus as the head of the Kingdom of God on earth; if so then why would Jesus resist?
The Background to the Story
Answers to these questions are easy but require an understanding of the context. A few hundred years earlier the Seleucid Empire ruled the Jewish people. Antiochus IV went so far as to desecrate the temple with an idol of the pagan god Zeus.
A group of brothers, the Maccabees, led an enormously popular resistance movement that, against all odds, defeated the Seleucids and restored independence to the Jewish nation. The Maccabees became founders of a dynasty of Jewish kings who ruled the country until the Roman Empire gained control.
This history was fresh in the minds of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus and now, with the Romans in charge, many hoped fervently for a repetition of the miraculous revolt led by a new hero like Judas Maccabeus.
And there was no shortage of men willing to take on this role. One after another they proclaimed themselves to be the expected leader, and many established significant followings and were declared kings. But each time a leader appeared, the Romans destroy him.
So when Jesus attracted thousands of followers, many of them saw him as the political leader they hoped for. Jesus was aware of their intentions and made himself unavailable. His kingdom was not a political one but a community of followers based on his spiritual and ethical teachings.
None of this context can be discovered by simply reading of the Bible. We know these things through other written documents—primarily the First Book of Maccabees and Josephus. Without them, we cannot understand the significance of this episode.
Knowing this context also explains why the Romans were so quick to subdue the Jews during Temple feasts, for rebellious fervor often reached a frenzy during the feasts. And it explains why the Romans killed Jesus and why they mocked him with a crown of thorns—Context!
The Importance of Context
Some insist that the Bible is clear on the main issues. But how can we expect to understand the Bible clearly without learning the context—the culture, issues, and historical background? Our time and culture is so much different from that of the Bible.
It also helps if we understand the purposes of the author.
This is true of any book written outside our own culture and generation. Without context we don’t recognize allusions or the significance of important details. Even novels are more understandable if we know the historical and cultural setting. We may wish the Bible was written in clear language understandable to every age and culture, but it is not.
We must realize that the books of the Bible were not written to us. Each book was written to hearers and readers of that time and place. So to understand a passage we must understand as much as we can about the audience to which it was addressed, the writer who composed it, and the occasion for which it was written.
For example: Paul the Mentor
Paul established a number of churches throughout a large area, and he kept in touch with them by messenger, by letter, and by occasional visit. Some of his letters now form the earliest documents of the New Testament.
When we read Paul’s letters to his distant churches, we might think he served as the authoritative voice of God to establish doctrines and practices that all believers should observe. The truth is: Paul was a mentor to those churches and addressed issues that arose in the congregations.
He wrote the Ephesians:
Masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
Paul addresses a situation that existed at the time; he is not validating slavery. In another situation he says women should be silent in the church because he knew the situation and gave his opinion on how to handle it. He does not describe God’s plan for women in all churches.
Paul didn’t write letters to us, so we must read them in context to understand them. I admire Paul, and many things he says to others are helpful to me as well—just like any other author. But we can’t say about Paul: ‘The Bible clearly says…’ We can only say that Paul says this, to this particular group of people, at this particular time, on this particular occasion. It is his opinion as mentor to that group—Context!
Learning the Context
The Bible is not a simple book, but we can understand it better with research. Reference tools are easily available, but be aware that Bible research tools aren’t equally sound. Choose the best you can and read as widely as possible, and you will understand the Bible better in context.
Next time we will talk about genre as context.
Image credit: Heralder via Wikimedia Commons
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Have a great day! ~Tim