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The Temple of Artemis dominated the ancient city of Ephesus. The third version of this temple (the first two were destroyed) featured 127 sixty-foot tall columns that supported a structure covering an area the size of one and a half football fields (450 ft x 225 ft). The structure carried the distinction of being one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The temple was a place for pagan worship and false hope. With this structure as a backdrop, Paul described Christians as making up God’s household, being the church of the living God (not an idol) and serving as pillars and the foundation of the truth (see 1 Tim. 3:15). Timothy pastored in Ephesus, seeking to win people committed to the temple full of pillars to become pillars of the truth found in Christ. Knowing about the city of Ephesus gives us deeper understanding into Paul’s words to Timothy. How do we discover these nuggets especially since there is so much to know?
First of all, realize that all of us depend upon the expertise of others. No one can be an expert on everything and that includes the Bible. Even the experts consult other experts. A word of caution here: just because someone claims to be an expert on their internet site or blog, doesn’t mean he or she is. Look at credentials and books or articles published by organizations that use editors (not all do, editors tend to mean sources and facts included are verified).
Read introductory comments about the Bible book being examined included in a study Bible or trusted commentary. Consult a Bible dictionary to find out more about the author, the original recipients, and themes identified in the Bible book introduction. For example, knowing the culture and religious practices of Corinth can give you greater insight into the issues addressed by Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth.
Pay attention to the verses before and after the verses upon which you are focusing. Passages don’t sit in isolation, but are part of a larger message. Look for how the section you are studying fits in the larger context. Consulting an outline included in the introduction about that Bible book will give you insight. If one looks at the verses before and after Malachi 3:8-12 (robbing God section), we will see that this section was part of a larger point being made; preparing for the coming of the Lord seen in God purifying His people.
Read the notes about the selected verses found in a study Bible. Many of these notes will address the context of the passage being studied.
Read cross-references and the verses surrounding the cross-reference. For example, the fourth statement made by Jesus on the cross was a quote of Psalm 22:1 (My God, My God why have you forsaken me?) While Jesus only quoted the first verse, reading the rest of the Psalm gives you a greater understanding of the significance of the crucifixion. Jews present at His crucifixion would have been familiar with that Psalm and would have filled in the rest. We do the same thing. For example, think about the phrase “our Father which art in heaven.” Most likely, you automatically added “hallowed be Your name.” When reading the verses around a quoted passage, look for connections between the two audiences.
Consult a resource dedicated to biblical backgrounds. These resources focus on the cultures and practices in Bible times. Biblical Illustrator is a quarterly magazine that features articles that support the ongoing Bible study resources created by Lifeway (Bible Studies for Life, Explore the Bible, and The Gospel Project) and is a great place for diving into the context of Scripture. Several publishers also produce books on the subject that can give you help as well.
Many of these suggestions include the use of Bible study tools such as study Bibles, commentaries, Bible atlas, Bible dictionary, and Bible handbooks. Many of today’s Bible software packages include these types of resources. These software providers make the purchase of these types of helps more affordable and easier to store since bookshelf space is not needed. The search tools are also a big plus. WordSearch Bible (mywsb.com) is one such software that includes these resources in a digital format that can be accessed on multiple platforms (desktops, tablets, and smartphones).
Diving into the context of a Bible passage takes some time and some tools, but both are well worth it. You will discover new insights that will enrich your understanding of Scripture and move you forward in your spiritual journey.
Dwayne McCrary is a Team Leader of various ongoing Bible studies created by Lifeway. He also teaches two ongoing Bible study groups at his church, a group of fifty-year-olds during the 8 a.m. hour and a group of three-year-olds during the 11 a.m. hour. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.