by William J. Stewart
Have you ever received someone else’s mail? There have been times when we’ve received envelopes addressed to the former occupant of our house. Of course, the accepted practice is to write “Return to Sender” or “Not at this address” on the envelope and send it back through the postal system. Hopefully, through time, the stray items no longer show up in the mailbox.
I want us to consider the idea of reading other people’s mail. “What!!!???”, you might exclaim. Allow me to explain. Years ago, I was fortunate to hear an excellent lesson on being “Led By The Spirit,” taught by brother Marty Pickup at the Florida College lectures. Throughout the lecture, brother Pickup reminded us that when we open the Scriptures we are “reading other people’s mail.” The thought has stuck with me, and I believe expresses an essential approach to correctly study and understand the Bible.
To illustrate, consider the address which appears in some off the New Testament books:
- · “To all who are in Rome…” (Romans 1:7)
- “To the church of God which is at Corinth…” (1 Corinthians 1:2)
- “…to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Philippians 1:1)
- “…to Timothy, a true son in the faith…” (1 Timothy 1:2)
- “…to Titus, a true son in our common faith…” (Titus 1:4)
- “…to the pilgrims of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia…” (1 Peter 1:1)
- “…to the elect lady and her children…” (2 John 1:1)
- “…to the beloved Gaius…” (3 John 1:1).
Do you see that none of these were written to you or I? When we read the Bible, we are reading someone else’s mail! And God intended it to be so. He chose to reveal His will through these letters written by inspired men to both assemblies and individuals. There is no apostle or inspired writer to pen a letter to the church which is meeting at Kingston, nor does there need to be. In the record which has been preserved from the first century, we find “…all things that pertain to life and godliness…” (2 Peter 1:3). In the letters which are compiled in our Bibles, we find things “…profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16). These letters can profit God’s people today, just as those to whom they were addressed benefited.
Why is it important to acknowledge these documents were originally someone else’s mail? In reading and developing an understanding of what is written, it is vital that we consider the historical context. Who was the instruction given to? What did this or that phrase mean to the original recipients? What were the circumstances that surrounded them, and how did that affect what was written to them? Are we in the same circumstance as the primary reader or hearer?
Consider a few simple illustrations of this from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. In 4:17, 19, Paul wrote, “…I have sent Timothy to you…” and “…I will come to you shortly…” Friend, do not expect Timothy to be stopping by soon, nor will the apostle Paul darken our door. They are not coming to us. This was to and for the original recipients, the Corinthians church. That was a simple, perhaps even silly example, but it demonstrates the point—we need to consider the historical context and condition of the primary audience when reading the Bible.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gave varied instructions about marriage. Of the one who has a virgin daughter, he said, “…he who gives her in marriage does well, but he who does not give her in marriage does better” (v 38). Of the widows, he stated, “…she is happier if she remains as she is, according to my judgment—and I think I also have the Spirit of God” (v 40). So, it is best for Christians to remain virgins and widows, and not to marry? Earlier in the same context, Paul indicated why he said such things. It is not that he was opposed to marriage, nor that he thought it was unwise for Christians to marry, but he stated, “…I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is…” (v 26). If married, remain married; if single, remain single. This was not instruction for all time and all circumstances, but given due to the calamity and tribulation which was upon God’s people at that time.
In chapter 14, Paul wrote, “Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy” (v 1). He proceeded to give instruction for the use of spiritual gifts in the assembly” “If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret … Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge” (v 27, 29). So, we should have prophets and tongue speakers in our assemblies? Not according to 13:10, for “…when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.” The Corinthians were in a time when perfect revelation had not yet been complete. The perfect will of God is here; we have complete revelation, and no longer use the partial revelation through tongues and prophecy.
It is “…living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword…” (Hebrews 4:12), and is the message “…given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16). But we are reading other people’s mail, and must take this into account as we learn to “…rightly divide the word of truth…” (2 Timothy 2:12) and “…understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17). Place statements in their historical context; understand phrases and words as they would be understood in the time the text was written, and determine whether our circumstances are on par with those whom the text was written to. Doing this, we will better comprehend the holy book, and faithfully obey God’s will for us.