Graeme Goldsworthy in his preface to Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture laments the neglect of biblical theology in evangelical preaching. He argues that in drawing out the deeper theological implications of scripture in our sermons our audience gains better access to the foundation of Christ in all scripture.
If I were to write a book like Goldsworthy’s, I might entitle it: Preaching all of History as Redemptive History. In it, I would lament the neglect of historical context in evangelical preaching.
Indeed, the use of God’s redemptive history as it plays out in the lands of the bible, in artifacts, and in the texts of the cultures surrounding the biblical text is woefully inadequate in today’s evangelical churches.
I must admit, of course, that there are plenty of preachers and teachers of the biblical text who are fully aware of the greater historical, archaeological, geographical, and cultural context of the Bible. Some might even allow that knowledge to change the way they read the text, but often, this information gets filed into the interesting factoid drawer. Rarely, does the original application to the texts first recipients become the apriori stance of the text being exposited.
How does the pastor or student allow scripture to steep in geography, text and artifact? How does the lay teacher give his audience a greater vision of God’s Redemptive history – – He or she has to preach it of course!
To that end, I want to offer seven ways to gain access to the greater historical context of scripture when preparing for a sermon and teaching.
1. Get a Good Atlas and locate yourself each and every time you read or teach the text
The lands described in the biblical text are in one way small — the majority of action takes place on a small strip of land in the eastern Mediterranean — but in another way very vast. The places and people groups referenced span an area the size of multiple empires where geography, topography, and needs based on location change rapidly. God not only choose this strip of land as the primary scene of his action in redemptive history but he also choose specific locales within that area for specific events. Every word of scripture was written by an author either in a specific place or about a specific place. Let your audience see where they are!
Start with the Zondervan Atlas of the Bible by Carl G. Rasmussen as a quick reference, then go on to work on the extensive and exhaustive study guides offered by Biblical Backgrounds which can be obtained for free to accompany their (well worth the expense) study maps and atlases. Finally the most comprehensive historical geographic study to date can be found in Anson F. Rainey’s The Sacred Bridge.
2. Get a good timeline and locate yourself each and every time to read or teach the text
Scripture tells us the greatest story ever told. But the arc of that story carries over a wide swath of redemptive history. Having an eye towards the greater arc of redemptive history does two things for us: First, it clarifies the greater narrative progression of individual biblical events. And Second, it allows us to plug pertinent extra-biblical data into the greater rubric of redemptive history.
Part of the reason some people have a difficult time when confronted with extra-biblical data regarding ancient cultures is that they fail to see how scripture has coexisted with, communicated with, and confronted contemporaneous worldviews. A timeline helps to pull all that data together to reveal the consistent progression of God through history.
Study Bible timelines frequently do not convey enough of this data to be particularly useful. If you already took my advice above and purchased Regions on the Run from BiblicalBackgrounds.com then you already have a fantastic 4000 year overview of God’s redemptive history.
3. Include photos in your sermon and personal study
The ancient world was rich in symbolism and iconography. Jesus frequently taught using images that were immediately available in the environment surrounding him. If you never show your congregation what specific artifacts, locations and events might have looked like you are missing important opportunities to make scripture more concrete.
No one, has collected images related to the biblical lands and text better, or more cheaply, than The Pictorial Library of Bible Lands. Many images in your study bibles have likely come from this vast collection. Not only do they cover almost the entire eastern Mediterranean world but the vast majority are enriched with significant textual references, captions and descriptions. You can also find fantastic visuals at holylandphotos.org and Ritmeyer Archaeological Design.
4. Engage with ancient material remains
Likewise, if all you are doing is reading about the construction of the temple, or threshing grain, or how we are mere vessels of clay, but never look at a proposed architectural reconstruction of the temple, or what a threshing floor looked like, or an ancient potters kit which allowed a pot to be thrown into existence, you are missing valuable opportunities to place yourself, in a very real way, within the text. Does it matter that the golden calf was, as Brad Gray has put it “likely no bigger than a Chihuahua?” Does it matter that the average family slept in a room (all together) that was as big as your current king size bed? Yes it does! Make scripture real! Show your audience, even if it is just yourself.
The photo collections at BiblePlaces.com is a good place to start but you can also find thousands of photos of individual artifacts at the websites of the individual museums (such as the Israel Museum, Louvre, or British Museum) that house them.
5. Read extra-Biblical texts
Scripture was not composed in a vacuum. It frequently communicated through, with and against the various texts produced by the cultures surrounding the Israelites. Rather than suppressing these extra-biblical texts we need to continually attempt to understand how God’s self revelation related to these contemporary cultural expressions. Studying these non-biblical texts is often a master class in God’s gracious condescension. In studying these contemporary cultural expressions we are reminded that God met us where we were and consistently and repeatedly called us to a new place throughout redemptive history.
Arnold and Breyer’s Readings from the Ancient Near East: Primary Sources for Old Testament Study is a good, economical, place to start. Context of Scripture is the comprehensive multivolume university standard and John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament gives a good rubric for connecting these extra-biblical cultural expressions to scripture.
6. Travel to the Near-East
If the above suggestions are good, then, walking the text and actually visiting Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Greece and Turkey is even better. Nothing else makes scripture as real and visceral, and it has the added bonus of allowing you to record visuals and connections for yourself.
There are many good places to turn to when looking for guided tours. Ray Vander Laan has, for years, been the best guide to travel with on a short term trip. Many of his former students now lead trips of their own. As for me, if and when I go to turkey, I will travel with Brad Gray over at WalkingTheText.com. If you want an extended trip nothing can replace enrolling for a semester at Jerusalem University College to get a master class on the Historical Geography of the Bible. Of course, you can also always volunteer for an archaeological excavation. Many, like the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, offer college credit as well as weekend guided tours.
7. Subscribe to Biblical Remains
No Really! This isn’t just a shameless plug. It is my mission to make the biblical text more real and visceral for a our society. A society that is far removed from scripture’s original ancient context. I plan on making 2014 BiblicalRemain’s most active year to date! The best way for you to stay abreast of our new content is to have it delivered to your email the day it is published. I promise to keep your email private and you can unsubscribe whenever you wish. Just enter your email below, hit subscribe, and you’re all set.
Ultimately, if, on any given Sunday, you are only displaying your study notes on the giant projector screens, you’re wasting valuable real estate. More than likely, your audience already has your outline in their weekly handout or are more than capable of following along on their own. It is the job of every preacher, lay teacher and student to bring their audience into a deeper appreciation for and understanding of scripture. There is no better way to do that than to make scripture more real and concrete by exposing its greater context. Preach it! Turn scripture into something that is tied to the reality of the great arc of God’s redemptive history then and now.