Lesson 2 - Biblical Context




Having discussed the importance of properly categorizing our beliefs on various biblical doctrines, we can turn our attention to actually learning how to study and interpret God’s word so that we can understand, teach, and even defend those beliefs.  The next few lessons will help us develop some key skills necessary to properly study God’s word.

This lesson, while a bit shorter than some of the other lessons, is perhaps one of the most important lessons of the program.  There is nothing more important than understanding the overarching Biblical context of God’s word – that is, understanding the key message of God’s word and learning how to view God’s word in that context.

To be able to properly interpret the Bible and understand its message, you really must look at all scripture through three top-level contextual filters:

·      The Central Person of the Bible

·      The Central Theme of the Bible

·      The Central Command of the Bible

Whether you are reading a historical story in scripture, a psalm or other poem, a prophecy, or a specific command, you have to see and understand what you are reading based on these three filters.


The Central Person of Scripture


Who would you say is the central person of scripture?  Would you say that it is God?  That is a really good guess and no one would argue that it is at least partially correct.  Some may even argue that it is THE right answer to the question.  However, there is a slightly more specific answer to the question at hand – at least as it relates to interpreting scripture.  The central person of scripture is actually Jesus Christ.

Of course, Jesus IS God – and he is obviously the central person of the New Testament.  The first four books of the New Testament are his gospels and all the books that follow relate directly to his death, burial, and resurrection.  However, what about the Old Testament?  Can we really make the same claim about the Old Testament?  Is Jesus also the central person of the Old Testament as he is the New Testament?  Certainly, we can all agree that the Old Testament is leading us and directing us towards Jesus and the cross, so from that perspective, we can say “yes” he is.  In fact, Lessons 5-8 of this course will specifically show us how this is the case.

However, Jesus’ centrality in scripture goes far beyond just the fact that the Old Testament points us forward to Jesus.  In reality, the Old Testament is just as much about Jesus as the New Testament is about Jesus.  Consider these rather bold statements:

Jesus is all through the Old Testament.

Jesus speaks all through the Old Testament.

Jesus physically appears in the Old Testament.

How can we make such bold statements? Nowhere is the name of Jesus mentioned in the Old Testament, so how can we say – or know - that Jesus is all through the Old Testament?  Jesus was not born until the gospel accounts of his birth in Bethlehem, so how can he be speaking throughout the Old Testament?  And if Jesus did not come on the scene until Bethlehem, how can we say that he physically appeared in the Old Testament?  The answer lies in the Old Testament accounting of God himself.

In the Old Testament, God reveals himself by his personal name, Yahweh (Note: many people use the King James Version name of God, which is Jehovah; for purposes of this lesson, Yahweh and Jehovah can be used interchangeably).   Yahweh is the LORD of the Old Testament.  He is the central divine entity of the Old Testament.  He is Almighty God, the Great I AM of Israel.  However, when we think of God from the perspective of the Trinity, how do we classify Yahweh?  Is he God the Father?  Is he God the Son?  Or is he God the Holy Spirit?

Yahweh is actually God the Son - Jesus Christ – at least he is Jesus before having taken on human form in Bethlehem.  How do we know this is true?  Because Jesus said so himself.  Jesus claimed equality with Yahweh on numerous occasions in the New Testament.  In particular, he made this claim directly in John 8:56 when he responded to the Pharisees by saying “Before Abraham was, I am.”

Jesus further answers this question in John 6:46.  He says in that verse that no man has seen the father except the one that came from the father.  We know, however, that Yahweh revealed himself on several occasions in the Old Testament. We call these appearances of God in the Old Testament THEOPHONIES – which literally means appearances of God.  So if these Theophonies are appearances of God, and if no man has seen God the Father, then who were they seeing when they saw appearances of Yahweh in the Old Testament?  It was not God the Father, and so Yahweh cannot be God the Father.  Who then, is Yahweh?  He is Jesus before he took on humanity.

Jesus repeatedly claimed for himself many of the qualities that Yahweh claimed in the Old Testament.  He also made many of the same promises of blessing and hope that Yahweh made in the Old Testament.  He presented himself as the Son of God, performed miracles proving himself to be the Son of God, and repeatedly claimed equality with God.  It is precisely because of this that he was crucified – not that he claimed to be the messiah, but that he claimed to be God.

Paul actually confirms Jesus’ identification with Yahweh in his letter to the Philippians.  In Philippians 2:10-11 Paul says, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  When he wrote this, he was actually referencing Isaiah 45:22-25 where Yahweh declared that everyone will bow knee to and swear allegiance to him.  Paul was identifying Jesus as Yahweh. 

Our conclusion, therefore, is that Jesus is the Yahweh (or Jehovah) of the Old Testament.  Before he took on humanity in a manger in the town of Bethlehem, taking on the name of Jesus, the Son of God existed as the second person of the Trinity.  He was not yet in human form, but he was still Almighty God – and he had a name - Yahweh – the great I AM.


Yahweh revealed himself physically on numerous occasions in the Old Testament.  Because we know that Yahweh was the pre-incarnate Jesus, we can look at these stories not just as appearances of God, but as appearances of Jesus Christ himself.  The following lists some of the Theophonies that we know are Yahweh – and so we are certain they are Jesus.

In Genesis 15, Yahweh appeared to Abram (Abraham) and made a covenant with him.  Although he had caused Abram to fall into a deep sleep, he physically appeared in the form of a firepot and passed through the middle of the covenant sacrifice.

In Genesis 18 Yahweh appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre to discuss his plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their iniquity.  This was a physical appearance and Abraham even prepared and shared a meal with him.

In Genesis 32, Jacob physically wrestles with someone all night long.  At the end of the struggle, Jacob acknowledges that he had seen the face of God – and lived.

In Exodus 3, Yahweh reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush.  This is the first time we hear the name of God mentioned.

Exodus chapter 33 tells us that Yahweh would speak to Moses face to face like one friend would speak to another.

Then, of course, there are specific visions of Yahweh, such as Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel’s visions as well.   These cannot be God the Father and they are not God the Holy Spirit, so they must be appearances of Jesus before taking on a human body.

While the Theophonies listed above are clear appearances of the pre-incarnate Jesus, there are other appearances that many scholars believe are likely to be appearances of Jesus as well.   Among those most likely to be appearances of Jesus are the following.

Based on references to Jesus and Melchizedek in Hebrews, the appearance of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 is likely to be Jesus. 

The description of the 4th man in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3) suggests it was probably Jesus.

There are also a number of others that are potential appearances of the pre-incarnate Jesus, including when Joshua saw the commander of the Lord’s armies and numerous places in the Judges such as with Gideon.

The conclusion is simply this:  Just as Jesus appears throughout the New Testament, Jesus appears throughout the Old Testament.  Just as Jesus is clearly the center of the theme of salvation in the New Testament, Yahweh – which is Jesus – is clearly the center of the theme of salvation in the Old Testament.  The central person of the Bible is Jesus. It is all – Old Testament or New – about Jesus.  Therefore, whether you are reading Leviticus or Romans, you have to first understand that the context of what you are reading is Jesus Christ.


The Central Theme of the Bible


In much the same way that there is a central person of scripture, is it possible that there is also one sentence or theme that summarizes the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation?  In other words, can we simplify all of scripture into one thematic filter through which we can interpret any scripture?  The answer is yes.

We have already said that the Central Person of Scripture is Jesus Christ.   The Central Theme is about why Jesus came.  It is about why Jesus did what he did.  It is about for whom Jesus did it.  The Central Theme of the Bible can be stated as follows:


God is creating for himself a people to glorify his name that is saved through faith in Jesus Christ.


All of scripture can be viewed from that perspective.  Everything in the Old Testament is pointing towards salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. Everything in the New Testament is pointing back to Jesus Christ on the cross – and the point of that salvation is to glorify God.  Repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, God states that the reason he does what he does is for the sake of his own name – whether that is punishment of sin or forgiveness of sin, it is all to glorify his name. 

There are pictures and portraits of our salvation in Christ that are painted all throughout scriptures.  Lessons 5-8 of this course will go into great depth to point out this very fact – just as Jesus himself did on the Emmaus road on the day of his resurrection.  The following, however, is just a brief summary of the many pictures of salvation in scripture.

Adam was the first man from whom all human life came.  He failed the test in the Garden of Eden and as a result death comes to all humans through his disobedience.  As it says in Romans 5, Jesus Christ is the new Adam.  Jesus passed the test of obedience in the garden of Gethsemane and as a result of that obedience new life comes to all who believe in him.

In Genesis 6, God passed judgment on all humankind.  Through Noah and the ark, God saved Noah and his family.  Similarly, God has passed judgment on all humankind because of its sin. Through Jesus Christ, however, we are adopted into God’s family and are saved.

The Bible tells us in Genesis 15:6 that Abraham believed (had faith in) God and so that faith was credited to him as righteousness.  Through faith, we are all given Christ’s righteousness.  In faith, Abraham was willing to be obedient to God’s command to sacrifice his only son.  This became a foreshadowing and picture of how God would sacrifice his son, Jesus, so that we could be forgiven.

In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestled with God all night.  With one touch from God, he was made lame, but at the same time he was also given a new name – Israel.  Jesus wrestled with God’s will in the garden and came up victorious – but he too was maimed through the crucifixion; and as a result he was given the name above all names.

Joseph was betrayed by his own people and was believed to be dead. After many trials, he was lifted up – and at just the right time, he returned from what seemed like the dead to save his family.   Jesus was betrayed by his own people and killed.  He literally returned from the dead to save all who believe in him.

Moses showed the Israelites in Israel how the blood of the Passover lamb would save them from the plague of the Death Angel.  Jesus is our perfect Passover lamb, whose sacrifice saves us from death.  As a result of the Passover plague, Moses was able to lead God’s people out of the slavery in Egypt so that they could worship God.  Jesus delivers God’s people out of the slavery of sin so that they too can worship God.  Moses was a prophet with the people in the wilderness and was a mediator for them so that God would dwell with them in the tabernacle.  Jesus is our prophet and mediator so that God can dwell within us.

Joshua led God’s people out of the wilderness into the promised land and then led them in battle to drive their enemies out of their land.  Jesus leads people out of the wilderness of sin into the promised land of salvation, helping them drive out sin from their lives.

David slay Goliath, the enemy no one could defeat.  Jesus defeated the ultimate Goliath – the undefeatable enemy – death.  David was the greatest King Israel had, but even he failed.  Jesus on the other hand, the Son of David, is our King of Kings and Lord of Lords who will never fail.

When Solomon turned from God, it divided God’s Kingdom and separated the nation of Israel – this is a picture of how our sin separates us from God.  And yet, just like God reserved and saved one tribe, Judah, even though they didn’t deserve it – and through that tribe, Judah, Israel eventually came back as one – so God saves all of mankind, even though we don’t deserve it, through the lion of Judah–Jesus.

Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish and then preached to the Ninevites, who repented and were saved.  Jesus spent three days in the belly of the earth so that those who repent may be saved.

When Daniel was cast into the lions’ den, God sent an angel to shut the lions’ mouths.  In 1 Peter 5:8, we find that the devil is a lion, seeking someone whom he can devour.  Christ shuts his mouth as he protects his people.

The kings of old showed us how impossible it is to keep the commandments of God in our own strength.  Jesus came and showed us how, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live for God.  Likewise, the prophets foretold of one who would save us from our failure to keep the commands of God in our own strength.  Jesus is the fulfillment of those prophecies – the one who saves by grace rather than by works.

Certainly, there are moral lessons, wisdom lessons, and historical background settings all throughout the Bible that are not direct pictures of our salvation in Jesus Christ.  However, even those stories relate in some way to God’s ultimate purpose for his people.

What we can conclude from all of this is that God desires to save his people so that his name can be glorified.   He accomplished that through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, but everything that is written in scripture ultimately has that one thought as its overarching theme.   In other words, everything God inspired to be written can be understood through the filter of the central message of the scripture – Salvation by faith through Jesus Christ.


The Central Command of the Bible


When Moses stood before Yahweh on Mount Sinai and listened as God spoke – and wrote - out his commandments, we say that God issued The Ten Commandments.

When Moses sat down to write down the law of God – the Torah - we generally say that he penned approximately 613 commands of the Mosaic Law.

The difficulty associated with keeping all of these commands is immense.  In fact, it is impossible.   That is why we need Jesus, his forgiveness, and his righteousness, because we cannot possibly keep the law perfectly as he did.  However, even in the Old Testament, the wisest saints understood that there was one central command – maybe two - that stood out above all others.  This central command – or perhaps two central commands – serves as the foundation for all acts of obedience.  The Israelites actually turned this command into a prayer that they would say at least twice per day.  It is found in Deuteronomy 6:1-9, with a focus on verses 4-5.  These verses are often called “The Shema” – which is the Hebrew word for hear or listen.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord:

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.


Love God with everything – heart, soul, mind, strength – everything.  The faithful Israelites taught it to their children, wrote it on their walls, and put it on their jewelry – just as Moses commanded them.  It became ingrained in every aspect of their lives.  We ought to respond the same way.  We need to meditate on this command and learn what it means.   We need to practice it in every part of our life.  It is the one command that rises above all others.

Jesus acknowledged this command as being the Greatest Commandment of the Law in Matthew 22:34-40

“But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


When asked about the greatest command in the law, he responded with the Shema.  However, Jesus took their question one step further and added a second-greatest commandment – Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.  He specifically states that these two commands are central to all of God’s commands for us.

Love God. Love Others. If we think about it, this makes sense.  Think about the Ten Commandments.  The first commandment says “I am the Lord Your God, you shall have no other gods before me.”  If I put all my heart and soul and effort into loving God – will I disobey him in any way?  Probably not.  Will I have place anything in greater importance to him?  Again, the answer is no.  Will I misuse and abuse his name? No. Will I misrepresent him?  No.   If I love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, then every aspect of my life would be centered on and ultimately controlled by him.  There is nothing that I would do to displease him.

Now think about what Paul says in Galatians 5:14 – the whole law is summed up in one word – love your neighbor as yourself.  If I love my neighbor it is not likely that I will steal from him.  Similarly, I will not do anything to intentionally harm him. I will not lie to him.  I will not covet his wife.  In other words, every moral aspect of the law can be fulfilled if we simply considered the consequences of our actions on the other person – and then loved the other person enough to make the decision not to harm them.  This is the essence of the nature and character of God towards us, and how he wants us to relate to each other.

We can take this one step further.  Consider Jesus’ own words right before he died.  Jesus says in John 13:34-35 that he is giving his disciples – and therefore us - a new command.  That command was to love one another – not as we love ourselves (which is what the Mosaic Law required) - but as he loved us.  Jesus loved us enough to give his very life for us.  He did this in order to bring us salvation.  He did this for our benefit and good – at great personal sacrifice to himself.  This goes beyond merely caring enough about the other person to refrain from doing them harm.  Rather, it actively seeks the good of the other person even when doing so would be a great personal cost.

Ironically, the Apostle John figured out that it is really not so much a new command after all, but rather just a new way of understanding the old, original command.

1 John 2:7-11 he says:

“Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you: because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth. He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.”


Likewise, in 2 John 1:5-6 he says:

“And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, that, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it.”


John understood the heart of what God wants from us.  He understood that love for God and love towards others is the secret to keeping all of the commands of scripture and is ultimately the secret to knowing the heart of God.  It’s always been the same – we just have to understand it new and fresh sometimes.

Essentially then, everything we need to know in order to keep the commandments of God, can be accomplished by loving God and by loving others.  As such, whatever we read in scripture, whatever command or oracle or story – we need to read it through that same understanding that what God expects of us is to love God and to love others.


In conclusion, these three filters – the Central Person of Scripture, the Central Theme of Scripture, and the Central Command of Scripture – form the foundation from which we study scripture.  We read scripture in light of those filters.  They inform how we interpret and understand scripture.  If we read scripture in a manner that is inconsistent with those filters, we are likely to draw incorrect conclusions from what we read.  However, if we understand how these three filters drive everything God has revealed to us, then we are ultimately on the right path towards an appropriate interpretation of scripture.