Why the Background of a Passage Matters
By Mark Becton | February 7, 2022
Topic: Biblical Studies—Hermeneutics—New Testament
Seminary introduced me to the term sitz im leben. This German phrase means “place in life.” When studying Scripture, the concept encourages you to consider the context of a passage. That involves more than seeing where a verse sits in a chapter or where the chapter falls in the book. It looks at where the writer sat when God inspired him to write and where the first readers were seated when they read it.
Here’s why that is important. Ephesians 1:3–10 announces that God ordained our salvation before creation. And believing that all Scripture is a record of God’s activity in our salvation means He also predestined the Word we hold and read. All that took place in the Old Testament pointing to Jesus, all in the Gospels fulfilled by Jesus, and all in the rest of the New Testament describing the Spirit’s work adopting and conforming us to Jesus were God’s predestined “plan for the fullness of time.” God ordained and stewarded every action and every recorded word with a wonderful aim that we might know him intimately (John 17:1–3).
Therefore, when studying Scripture, we want to understand the times surrounding each action. God purposed those times to help us better know his holiness, our fallenness, and his grace in our time. Therefore, when studying the background of a text, I ask the following questions. They help me step into that “place in life.” From there, I can better see what the Father intended me to know about him as I sit in my sitz im leben, my place in life.
Who Wrote It?
Many books of the Bible identify the God-inspired author. The author’s name is either on the book or recorded in the first chapter. Like Psalms and Hebrews, other books require extra help to make educated guesses as to who the author was.
Why is this important to know? One reason is that the relationship between writer and reader reminds us of the emotions behind the words we read. You sense how deeply Paul loved the believers in Philippi because of their history of caring for him. On the other hand, Paul never met the Christians to whom he wrote in Rome. That’s why his letter reads more as a theological textbook. He wants to help those believers, thereby giving them a biblical foundation of what it means to be a follower and a church. His letter to the Romans is still a letter to specific people he plans to see soon (Rom. 15:24), but the tone is different, affecting how we read the book as a whole.
Therefore, identify the backstory of the book. See who God inspired to write it and to whom. Doing so gives you valuable exegetical clues. They make something written thousands of years ago relevant today.
When and Why Was It Written?
Occasionally, this question of date and purpose is answered in the opening verses. Luke does this in his Gospel and Acts (Luke 1:3–4; Acts 1:1–3). He wrote both to help Theophilus gain certainty about all he was taught.
However, if the purpose is not identified in the opening chapter, it will emerge after reading the book several times. G. Campbell Morgan, a prominent British preacher from 1886–1943, confessed, “I read a book through 40 to 50 times before I even start to study it.”1 Reading through a book many times (not necessarily forty or fifty) helps you see it as a single work. You hear the heart of the inspired writer and can see God’s purpose for him writing it.
“Believing that all Scripture is a record of God’s activity in our salvation means He also predestined the Word we hold and read.”—Mark Becton
Identifying when a book was written is more challenging. You’ll need good Bible study tools to accomplish this. A good study Bible can provide this answer. The value of dating a book often appears in its application. Consider when Paul wrote 1 Timothy.
Eusebius claims Paul was martyred during Nero’s reign.2 That not only gives us an approximate date for this letter (AD 64–65), but it also conveys Paul’s aim and emotion as he writes. Knowing he will die soon and that persecution is increasing for some Christian communities, Paul provides timeless encouragement to Timothy. He tells Timothy to endure well (1:3–2:13), especially when drained from dealing with false teachers (2:14–3:9). He then adds how to endure well. It’s by holding fast to Scripture, Paul’s example, and by finding joy in what God called Timothy to do. Preach the Word regardless of the season (3:10–4:22).
What Genre Did the Author Use?
My wife is an amazing cook and host. Though I’m content for her to serve us from the dish she cooks in, Loree brings out unique serving platters and bowls on special occasions. Again, the food is fantastic, but how it’s served makes the experience memorable.
God does the same with Scripture. The message is amazing, but the fact God presents it to us using seven different literary genres makes his message to us even more memorable. God serves His message to us using seven different styles of writing. Those genres include historical narrative, wisdom, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, gospel (a specific type of historical narrative), and epistle.3
For example, knowing the genre matters when studying Psalm 23. In his book Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, Thomas Long identifies the Psalms as “poetic liturgical prayers.”4 Therefore, as I looked at Psalm 23 and the other seventy-two psalms David wrote, I realized I wasn’t just reading the hymnbook of Israel; I was also reading David’s prayer journal. God inspired David to pen and preserve his raw moments with God. Today, I benefit from them as God walks me through my own.
What Are Helpful Tools?
Over time, you’ll be drawn to certain works that provide biblical background. For me, biblical encyclopedias are helpful. They not only give timelines of biblical characters, but they also summarize the history of the places biblical people traveled to or wrote about. Other tools for biblical study are beneficial too. However, you need to know their strengths, weaknesses, and biases when reading them.
Here’s why studying the background is essential. I discovered and wrote the following looking into the background of Jesus’s Gethsemane prayer in Matthew 26:39–44.
The night before his crucifixion, Jesus leads eleven of his twelve disciples to Gethsemane. They have to cross the Kidron brook. I wonder if that’s where Jesus is hit with the full weight of what’s coming. It’s Passover. A census taken thirty years after Jesus’ crucifixion reported 256,000 lambs slain that year for Passover. Their blood splashed on the altar then flowed down a channel to the Kidron brook.5 That night as Jesus steps across the brook, I wonder if he’s envisioning what’s about to happen. He will be the two goats of Leviticus 16. He becomes the true Passover lamb of Exodus 12. Within hours, God will place all the sins of his people on him to be sacrificed and sent away. Jesus will endure God’s wrath so that his blood covers and protects us from it. I can’t imagine the weight of it. Reaching Gethsemane, Jesus begins his long agonizing prayer.
The background adds such depth to the moment. It’s an indelible image painted on my heart. I’m in awe of Jesus each time I recall it.
Don’t miss out on the richness of stepping into the sitz im lebem of Scripture. Don’t bypass the wonder seen when studying the biblical background of different passages. Work hard in learning to see the bigger picture of a passage. You’ll emerge with increased awe over God’s goodness in a text. That awe translates into passion as you describe it in your own sitz im lebem and of those whom God has called you to serve.
- Alfred S. Jorgensen, Ministry International Journal, “Man of the World: The Ministry of G. Campbell Morgan: A Review of Morgan’s Passion for and Use of the Bible in His Preaching,” (https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2000/05/man-of-the-word-the-ministry-of-g.-campbell-morgan). ↩
- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.25; 3:1. ↩
- Capitol Hill Baptist Church, “Core Seminar, How to Study the Bible, Class 4: The Bible’s Genres” ↩
- Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 44. ↩
- William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Volume 2, Revised Edition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 222. ↩