I am currently working on a new sermon series through the book of 1 Corinthians. In doing so, I normally read the ‘Introduction’ section of all of the commentaries that I will be using for that book. The issues discussed in this section are what we could call background material to the book. To be honest, it can be very dry reading, which is why most folks never get around to it (that’s what pastor’s are for, right?) But there is some really helpful stuff for our study of the Word as well. What is that you ask? Here’s what I find most helpful:
- Author and recipients: It is helpful to know who wrote the letter and to whom it was written. What I think is particularly helpful is undertanding the relationship between the author and the recipients. So for example, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to the church at Corinth. He planted that church a few years before he wrote the letter (see Acts 18). Understanding his relationship with the believers there will help us make better sense of his discusson of divisions over leadership in chapter 1 and chapter 3. Likewise, it is helpful to know a little bit about the recipients. The believers in Corinth dwelled in a particularly diverse city, filled with various religions and a reputation for sexual exploits. This helps us understand why Paul addressed these issues in chapters 5, 6, and 7.
- Situation or occassion: It is good to know the circumstances surrounding the writing of the letter or book. Why did Paul write to the Corinthians at this time? We know that the church was probably a few years old and it seems that they were struggling to not look like the culture out of which they had recently been saved. They valued wisdom and rhetoric, they continued to battle sexual temptation, they were divided socially, all issues that Paul addresses in his letter. Also, they had written to him and he is responding to their letter (see 7:1).
- Purpose: It is so easy to miss the forest for the trees when studying books of the Bible. We pull verses out of context and read them and apply them in ways that are not consistent with the author’s original intent. So it is good to begin our study by asking the big question: Why did Paul write this whole letter? Not just this one verse or this one chapter, but why did he write the whole book? Keeping this purpose in mind will help us as we study the individual parts. For example, 1 Corinthians 13 is what as known as the ‘Love Chapter’ in the Bible. In it, Paul describes what true love looks like. Thus, it is a chapter about marriage right? Well, not exactly. Yes, Paul’s teaching there can be applied to romantic relationships, but that is not the focus of the chapter. Paul is writing the letter to help the Corinthians apply the gospel to various areas of their community of faith. Christ is not divided so the Church should not be divided. Christ died to set us free from sin, so we shoud not continue in it. We were given the gift of the Spirit and gifts of the Spirit to build each other up, not to tear each other down. If we keep our eyes on love, the most excellent way, then we will live out the gospel in our practice of the gifts (chapters 12-14). Remembering the overall purpose of the letter can help us better understand and appy the specifics.
And the good news? All of this background information can be found in a good study Bible. Normally they have introductions to every book of the Bible that will cover things like author, recipients, situation, and purpose. As you read and study through books of the Bible, it is good to pause and consider this background material when you begin. It will help you in understanding the meaning.
One word of caution, sometimes background material is used to actually lead away from the meaning of the text. Just because someone quotes someone from history or describes a particular historical issue, does not mean that Paul had that in mind when he wrote. So be careful with that.
Let me recommend a couple of good study Bibles to help with background information:
- ESV Study Bible: Published by CrossWay in various formats and just a great overall tool for studying the Word. (pictured on the left above)
- HCSB Study Bible: I have not used this one as much but it seems to be a great resource as well. (pictured on the right)
Give these resources a try as you seek to study the Word well!