Introduction to Historical-Cultural Context

If you had to choose your favorite character in the Bible, some of you might choose the apostle Paul. His passion for serving Jesus Christ continues to challenge us. In our New Testament we have thirteen letters traditionally attributed to Paul. In the last chapter of the last letter he wrote (2 Timothy), Paul verbalizes his feelings about coming to the end of his life:

6For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim. 4:6–8)

As Paul concludes the letter, he repeats a simple message to Timothy, his friend and coworker. “Do your best to come to me quickly,” he writes in 4:9. Then in 4:21 he adds: “Do your best to get here before winter.” We can tell that Paul wants Timothy to come visit him, but only an understanding of the historical-cultural context lying behind these words can reveal the depth and emotion of Paul’s plea.

Most evangelical scholars believe Timothy is ministering in Ephesus while Paul is imprisoned in Rome. They are hundreds of miles apart. Travel by ship was considered dangerous from mid-September through the end of May and was completely closed down from early November to around early March. Both Paul and Timothy know this, of course. If Paul sent the letter of 2 Timothy by Tychicus in the summer, Timothy probably has little time to make the long journey to Rome. The historical background of this passage helps us see what Paul is really saying to his young friend: “Put things in order in Ephesus and get on a ship as soon as you can. If you don’t leave now before winter sets in, the shipping lanes will shut down and you won’t arrive in time. Timothy, do your best to get here before they put me to death. Come quickly, my friend, before it’s too late.” Knowing the historical-cultural context of this passage makes it come alive with emotion and intensity. Paul is not merely asking Timothy to come visit. He is more like a father pleading for his son to come to him before he dies.

To grasp God’s Word we must understand the meaning of the text in context and apply that meaning to our lives. Context takes two major forms: literary context and historical-cultural context (commonly referred to as “background”). In this unit you will learn about historical-cultural context as we ask and answer some important questions. Why do we need to bother with studying the historical-cultural background of a passage? Is it really important? What exactly is involved in studying historical-cultural context? Are there any pitfalls along the way? What tools are available to help us get the job done? Our goal in this unit is to show you how to study the historical-cultural context of a passage and to persuade you that knowing the background of a text can help clarify its meaning and reveal its relevance to your life.

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