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Context: The Key to True Understanding

Last week, I took five of our older grandchildren (ages 13-16) to dinner to discuss communism, socialism, and the democratic/free market system and what Jesus might think of each. After teaching for about five minutes, one of our grandchildren asked a question.

I don’t remember the question, but I asked a question of my own, that got instant laughs from everyone. “Do you want the short answer or the long answer?” They all laughed because everyone in our family knows they’re always going to get the long answer from me. Why?

Because short answers, without context will rarely lead to real understanding.

To illustrate the importance of context, I told them this humorous story before I went any further.

An old Texas rancher was driving his truck, with his prize mule in a trailer behind. Another driver ran a stop sign and hit the farm’s truck and trailer, injuring both the driver and his mule. They were now in court. The farmer was suing for his injury and damages.

The farmer was on the witness stand and the lawyer for the other driver was grilling him. “Mr. Smith, when the police officer approached you after the accident, did you, or did you not tell him what you were, in your own words, “just fine?”

“Well, I did, but you need to know why I said that. “Mr. Smith please just answer the question, yes or no”, lawyer insisted. “Well, it’s a bit complicated, replied the old rancher. The lawyer cut him off abruptly, then asked the judge to instruct the witness to simply answer the question, “yes or no”. The old judge wisely replied, “I’d like to hear Mr. Smith’s explanation.”

“Well, Judge.” The rancher explained, “After we were hit, I was thrown into the ditch on one side of the road and my mule was lying on the other side. The police officer who arrived saw my mule was badly injured, took out his gun and shot him to put him out of his misery. The officer then walked over to where I was lying, his gun still in his hand and asked me, “So, how are you feeling?” What did you think I was going to say?”

Context is everything.

The importance of the “back story”. I was recently asked, “What makes us Christians so sure the Bible is true?” When I started explaining about how the books of the New Testament were chosen, it was obvious this person had very little knowledge of church history. So, I had them first read a paper I’ve written on early church history. Then, we met later to dive into the specifics of how our Bible was shaped and books chosen. If I’d simply answered his question, my answer would have been accurate. However, without understanding my answer in the context of church history, he’d still lack real understanding.

There was a time when most people in America had a basic understanding of the Bible and church history. That’s no longer true. As a mentor and teacher, I’m finding more and more that before I answer a question, I first have to give people the “back story” to set up my answer – context. For instance, even when I’m explaining what I believe about baptism, it’s helpful to explain the opposing views, including how and why  each group came to their conclusions.

It’s not always enough simply to explain what we believe – people need to know “why?” we believe it.

“Turn your ear to wisdom and apply your heart to understanding.” Proverbs 2:2

I’ve listed below several books every mature Christian should own. I’d recommend not just reading them, but studying them. Underline them as you read. When you finish a chapter, close the book and try to recall the key points, characters and arguments. You’ll want to have a few facts and ideas on the tip of your tongue next time the subject came up with those you’re teaching. It’s what I call, having a “working theology” or worldview.

By a working theology, I mean having enough understanding how the Bible, church history, and a Christian worldview works in real life to make them useful to you and those you mentor to make real life decisions.

And don’t worry about having all the answers. Many times, I’ve been asked questions I can’t answer. But, that forces me to either study them myself or, better yet, study them with the men or the grandchildren I’m mentoring.

Finally, if you have a good study Bible, read every footnote on every page. They’ve been written to give context and understanding to the text and are invaluable to every student of the Bible.

My Book Recommendations Church History in Plain Language – Shelley Issues Facing Christians Today – Stolt Christian Beliefs – Grudem (basic systematic theology) Engaging God’s World – Plantinga (an excellent framework for understanding a reformed worldview)

Next week Monday, I’ll post a blog entitled, Eleven Significant Events that Changed Christianity Since 100 A.D. These are the summaries of church history I wrote for my grandchildren. You may want to consider using them to teach your own children or those you mentor in basic church history.

Question: Do you have any books you’d recommend to help better understand the back story of history and theology?

Following Jesus in Real Life

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