Most of us lack essential information about the world as it was when the Bible was written. For instance, when we look at Hosea 10 we hear about Beth Aven, Ephraim, and Gibeah. But what do we really know about these places? Do we even know where they were located? For our interpretation of any biblical text to be valid, it must be consistent with the historical-cultural context of that text. Our goal, then, is to understand the historical-cultural context of the biblical passage as clearly as possible in order to grasp the meaning of the passage.
There is also a cultural distance. So we must discipline ourselves to determine carefully the significance of the customs and concepts of the biblical world that are foreign to us. We cannot simply pick up the Bible and read it like today’s newspaper.
A lack of understanding the geography will lead to a challenge as well. For example, we would not see the significance of Jonah heading to Tarshish when God called him to go to Assyria, unless we know something of the geography of that area and time.
One of the biggest challenges is language. The biblical writers wrote in the languages of their day—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—languages that are inaccessible to most people today.
The distances between the various biblical worlds and our own require careful historical study if we are to understand those worlds and what people wrote in the Bible.
The Divine Factor
After hearing all of this, you may be asking, “What role does the Holy Spirit play?” The Bible is first and foremost God’s Word to His people. However, the Spirit does not add new meaning to the biblical text; instead, he helps believers understand and apply the meaning that is already there. Therefore, the Spirit plays a large role. Apart from the Spirit, we can come to some understanding of the Scripture, but we will not be persuaded of its truth and will not apply it to our lives.
Let’s break this down some more:
1) When it comes to biblical interpretation, having the Holy Spirit does not mean that the Spirit is all you need. The Spirit does expect us to use our minds, proper interpretive methods, and good study helps to interpret the Bible accurately.
2) The Spirit does not create new meaning or provide new information. We rely on the Spirit to help us grasp the meaning of God’s Word.
3) The Spirit does not change the Bible to suit our purposes or to match our circumstances. We cannot expect the Spirit to change the meaning of the Bible to correspond to our feelings. The Spirit brings the meaning of the Bible to bear on the reader.
Even with all this, don’t think that every time that you pick up your Bible you have to do an in-depth word study or observe fifty details in the text. Sometimes you need to be still and enter into the living presence of God, where you can drink deeply of his Word and respond in heartfelt worship.