The Bible is strange. The events in the Bible are so far removed from us that they might as well have happened in outer space. Reading the Bible can feel like reading about an alien race and culture. We need to interpret what the authors were communicating in their time and place to see how relevant it is for us now.
God proclaims himself to our hearts and our senses. Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God; the sky above declares His handiwork.” And yet, there is something nature cannot tell us. What the Bible is telling us about is something we could not know otherwise, namely, God’s redemption that he has accomplished in real history.
When we read any book, we have to understand what is being said in its context. The Bible is no different. To be good students and readers of the Bible, we must pay attention to the various contexts in which it was written. We find a host of practices and ideas of life that seem foreign and alien to what seems normal today. How do we make sense of these ancient peoples whose vision of the universe was so different from ours? Is God’s Word untrue, since it uses analogies and images from that time?
Christians from the past have pointed out that God condescends to speak to us like a parent to a child. God is not condescending in a demeaning way, but he speaks according to the ability of his people out of his love and care for them. He uses the language of the times and places in which he is speaking to accommodate us.
The authors of the Bible spoke in the language of the common people. These authors wrote in their native language, whether it was Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. They used the cultural conventions of their times and places. These authors assumed the cultural thought world in which they lived. The Bible’s cosmology (i.e., vision of the universe) is taken from the ancient Near Eastern world.
Through the pages of Scripture, God uses images and pictures to give us a fuller vision of who he is, what he has done, and what he will do to save us. Using illustrations people will understand is not being dishonest. God is rather realistic. When Jesus came into the ancient world, he used images and metaphors from their day-to-day affairs. God accommodated his language to human conventions, using genres and ways of speaking that were common to the unique time and place of people.
It is common for people today to look for answers to the kinds of questions that we are familiar with. If we are looking for the Bible to be our life coach, unveil the secrets of science, or even tell us how to practice politics, it will constantly disappoint us. The Bible’s primary job is to demonstrate how God is working in real history for our redemption. Once we see this, how it applies to our lives today will come into better focus.
The eternal Son of God condescended to dwell among us (John 1:14), not to answer all of life’s questions, but to redeem us from sin, death, and hell. Scripture, which is an eyewitness testimony to Jesus, is authoritative because it testifies on his behalf concerning his specific work of redemption (John 5:39–40). This is clear if we have the patience to read the Bible in its context.