When I was in college, I took an involuntary vow of poverty and majored in history. One of my internships was working as a historical interpreter at Gettysburg National Military Park, site of the great Civil War battle in 1863. Every day of the summer, I gave a ninety minute walking tour of different parts of the battlefield to people who came from all over the world.
One of the biggest lessons I learned during those days out on the battlefield, however, is that the American public is, by and large, historically challenged. I used to think there was no such thing as a dumb question until I heard questions like these that came from actual American adults who graduated from actual American educational institutions:
- “Where were the British Redcoats during this battle?” (About 80 years too early.)
- “Did they hide behind the monuments when they fought?”
- “What street is the Gettysburg Address on? We want to make sure we stop there.”
- And my all-time favorite, asked by a middle-aged, obviously successful American man in a straw hat: “I’ve noticed that all these battles seem to have been fought on National Park land. How did they arrange that?”
Foreign visitors, by contrast, tended to be much more up to speed on what happened and asked great questions. They were more interested in being immersed in the history of the culture they were visiting.
When I became a preacher, I got to thinking that if people struggle understanding the historical context of their own country, whose recorded history is only a couple of centuries old, then what must it be like for them to try to grasp the biblical narrative, given that it is thousands of years old and set in a completely different culture and in a place that you can’t easily visit in the Family Truckster on vacation?
It’s not that people are intentionally ignorant of history, it’s just that they haven’t been properly taught or guided to see it in context. The problem is that getting history wrong can have consequences. Asking a dumb question on a tour might lead to embarrassment, for example, but getting the historical context of the Bible wrong can lead to all kinds of heresy. People need knowledgeable and wise guides who will lead them into a foreign and ancient culture with skill and accuracy (and without snark, which is rule number one for a guide!).
I think that a major part of the preacher’s job is to act as a guide to the historical context of the biblical text. Now, you may not be a history nerd, but there are a wide variety of resources out there these days that can give you the story behind the story of the text. Setting the context can make all the difference between a sermon that preaches ancient biblical truth or a revisionist sermon that simply parrots ignorant pop theology.
An Example from Philippians 3:20
Here’s an example of what I mean. One of the most oft-quoted verses preachers have used to promote the goal of the gospel as getting people into heaven is found in Philippians 3:20 – “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” If our “citizenship is in heaven,” then heaven must be our ultimate home. A lot of Christians use that language casually, like when someone dies: “God called him home.”
Well, we do believe that those who have died in the Lord are with him, but that’s not actually what this verse is talking about, and that’s clear when we understand the context. Paul is writing to the people of Philippi, which was a Roman colony established after Octavian (later Caesar Augustus) and Marc Antony defeated the assassins of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius, on the plains near the city in 42BC. Since it was dangerous to have too many underemployed soldiers hanging around Rome after the war, the city was largely populated with veterans who gained Roman citizenship as a result of their service. Some of these veterans would have never been to the city of Rome in the first place, but they were now Romans nonetheless.
These veterans and their descendants were Roman citizens, but they weren’t expecting to ever go back to Rome. Instead, as Roman colonists, they were to bring the life of Rome to this city on the Macedonian frontier. You see this kind of thing all across the Roman world where colonists built their cities to look a lot like Rome with all the Roman entertainments, architecture, and refinement. The old adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is actually backwards when compared to the historical reality which was, “When anywhere, do as the Romans do!”
As Roman citizens, however, they could always expect help and relief from Rome when they needed it. The emperor could send legions to defend them if necessary, saving them from potential enemies. They were still Romans, even if they never lived in Rome.
So what is Paul saying here? The historical context suggests that while our “citizenship is in heaven,” our actual focus isn’t on going back there. Instead, it’s about colonizing earth with the life of heaven. Heaven is not our ultimate destination, rather it is “from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” He is not coming back to take us away to a faraway heavenly abode, but to take over. We are colonists planting the life of heaven on earth until he returns, which is what we pray for every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer!
That’s what historical context can do. Otherwise, as Ben Witherington III often says, “A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to say.” Understanding the historical context, along with sound exegesis, is critical to responsible preaching that actually gleans what the text meant to those who first cracked open the scrolls before we apply it to peoples’ lives today.
Being a good tour guide involves taking the time to do some thorough historical interpretation. When you do it well, you will open up a whole new world of meaning for your people and they will thank you for it; even if they still choose to wear straw hats and black socks with shorts on vacation!
By the way, there are two commentaries I’ve found that can be especially helpful here: the IVP Bible Background Commentaries on the Old and New Testaments. There are plenty of others, of course, but these are a great place to start becoming a better guide!