As a Bible teacher and study tour leader, I have had the privilege of hiking with thousands of Jesus followers in the lands of the Bible where Abraham, Ruth, David, Jesus, and Paul lived. It has been thrilling to watch group after group experience the pilgrim excitement of walking in the same places where Bible characters walked and to realize that their stories were set in real times and places. Many have returned home from places such as the wilderness of the Negev desert, the ancient streets of Jerusalem, the springs of En Gedi, and the villages of Galilee with a greater hunger for God’s Word.

Seeing firsthand the context in which God revealed his redemptive plan has led them to a deeper faith and understanding of God’s story. It has helped them to apply God’s Word to their lives. Often they have said, “I will never read the Bible the same way again.” I know their experience, for that has been my journey too.

Unfortunately, I made an assumption about understanding the Bible that turned out to be completely wrong. I knew it was helpful to study and understand the Hebrew Bible and the life of Jesus in the context of where and when particular events occurred, but I assumed that Paul, the great teacher who traveled throughout the Roman Empire, was more like a philosopher who spoke in the abstract with little awareness of the context of his audience. Then I visited the world that he was so passionate about—Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth, Athens, and Rome. And I discovered that the same experience of context that is helpful for understanding the Hebrew Bible applied to Paul’s part of God’s story too.

Although God’s revelation is timeless and relevant to people throughout history, that revelation takes place in a cultural context— the unique circumstances and conditions—in which his people lived. Abraham cut up animals to seal a blood covenant much as the ancient Hittites did. The design of the temple of the Lord built by Solomon in Jerusalem was familiar to the neighboring cultures of God’s people. In Corinth where people displayed clay and marble body parts as votive offerings to the pagan god of healing, Paul described the community of faith as a body made up of many parts.

God had a unique purpose for communicating his message through these culturally familiar concepts and practices that made the point of his message strikingly clear and relevant. Thus the cultural setting in which he placed his revelation is useful for not merely knowing what words mean but for understanding the message and application of the Text, much like the study of the language of ancient culture provides for the interpreter.2 By learning how to think and approach life as the people of the Bible did, modern Christians will deepen their appreciation of God’s Word.

Like the biblical writers before him, Paul communicated through the context of his world—its metaphors, manner of communication, historic events, and cultural practices—to address its problems and issues. The more we know about his world, the more clearly his teaching and letters speak to us in our cultural setting.

 

Take your group on a trip to ancient times, places, and customs with trusted Bible scholar Ray Vander Laan as your fun and engaging tour guide. Filmed in Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Greece, these powerful videos explore what it meant to follow Jesus in the first century—and what it means to follow him today. Each of the 16 volumes provides visually stunning video sessions as well as an easy-to-follow discovery guide that illuminates Jesus’ teachings and helps participants understand the context in which he lived and preached.

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