There’s no book on earth that compares to the Bible. It has been described as ‘God’s message in human words’, because it’s His complete written communication given in a way we can understand. Since its purpose is to express eternal truths – relating to God’s character, and His will and purposes for all humanity – the underlying message of His Word transcends any culture and endures the passing of any age.

The richness of God’s message is conveyed in a variety of literary styles, which the first article in this series identified as narrative, poetry and discourse. These varying styles engage our interest and help to amplify the meaning of God’s communication to us. Narrative is easy to identify, as it simply recounts historical events. We’re familiar, too, with the feeling that pervades poetic language. But what do we mean when we refer to discourse?

What is discourse?

Discourse is a writing style that lays out and develops ideas to reach a definite conclusion and provoke a response in the reader. Written discourse tends to be arranged in paragraphs, each paragraph gravitating around a particular thought that advances what precedes it and prepares for what follows.

Although discourse represents around 23% of the Bible – the least in content of the three main literary styles – it characterises fundamental parts of God’s revelation, both in the Old and New Testaments. Some of the Lord Jesus’ spoken ministry is recorded in this style, and we find it too in the Old Testament law and the New Testament epistles. Discourse passages engage us intellectually and, for that reason, we find them challenging. But since these passages disclose such essential teaching, by which we are to understand God’s will and apply it in our lives, we’ll surely benefit from approaching them in a way that helps us to draw out that vital communication which is to inform our lives for Him.

So how should we prepare our minds to get the most from these passages? First, we must recognise that discourse differs significantly from narrative and poetry, since the key messages of neither narrative (as information about events that have already occurred) nor poetry (which speaks so powerfully to the universal human condition) depend on the prevailing culture of its human author. One way in which discourse is so different is that it always arises from a particular occasion to serve a particular purpose in the author’s mind. So discourse always hangs on its specific context, both in terms of historical setting and literary intent. That means seeing the content in the light of its context is essential if we are to unpack discursive passages and discover the message God is conveying to us.

Historical context

Historical context is the collection of circumstances that prevailed at the time the passage was written. This includes the identity of the writer and his readers, and the occasion which caused the passage to be written. It may also include the cultural or political background, the type of society or geographical features of the place where the recipients lived. All of these circumstances come together to form the historical background to the passage, and give us clues about what the writer was trying to explain, and why he expressed his ideas in the way he did.

Some understanding of historical context is essential in getting to the heart of the New Testament epistles. If we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, we discover that he was writing to a church of God populated by Jews and Gentiles.(1) They were seeking to serve the Lord in the city-heart of a godless empire, surrounded by idolatry and lasciviousness,(2) where they knew persecution.(3) But the

joining of Jews and Gentiles in shared service was under strain, and Paul was compelled by the Holy Spirit to affirm the mercies of God, which they both enjoyed through the universal efficacy of the gospel – justification received by faith through the atoning work of Christ,(4) without whom neither Jew nor Gentile could boast or stand before God.(5) So, as divisions appeared in the church(6) – expressed in terms of circumcision, holy days and what to eat(7) – Paul’s desire was that they unite in undergoing a single common experience of becoming a living sacrifice, and enjoy all the resultant blessings.(8)

Knowing something of this historical background helps us to see their church situation as Paul knew it to be. It brings the letter to life, not as a dry theological exposition, but the apostle’s heartfelt plea written to address very real problems. It also guides us in the vital first step of interpretation: to understand what Paul’s words meant to those who first read them, because it’s only by understanding what the letter meant to them that we can set proper boundaries for what it means for us, that we might apply it in our lives in response to the challenge of Romans 12:1-2.

The value of historical context seems pretty clear in our handling of the epistles, but how do we approach Old Testament discourse, since we are not under law but under grace?(9) Again, historical context helps us, for the law that God gave to Israel was the framework by which He entered into covenant relationship with them. Under the old covenant, God took Israel from among all the nations and made them a unique people for Himself. He would be their God and they would be His people, and the law provided the stipulations under which that covenant relationship would be maintained.(10) So the law revealed the character of the lawgiver, and by its keeping the people became more like Him.(11)

Seen in that context, the law helps us to learn about the character of God, which He desires to be reflected in His people. When we come to a law like Leviticus 19:9-10, we discover that God cares for those in need, whether by material poverty or by lacking a place of belonging. Then we notice the same principle articulated throughout Scripture,(12) and so a law about agricultural practice opens up the heart of God and the response He sought in Israel. As with the epistles, once we’ve learned what the Israelites were to appreciate from this law, we’re helped to discern the eternal principle, originating in the character of our unchanging God, and determine its application for us today.(13)

Literary context

Alongside historical context, our approach to any passage of discourse must respect its literary context. Although the division of Bible books into chapters and verses helps us find passages quickly, it can encourage us to lift a verse from its context and make it stand alone, entirely uncoupled from all that goes before and after it. We’ve noted above that discourse is characterised by the progression of ideas towards a logical conclusion, so any verse in a passage of discourse must always be read in the context in which it appears. That means both the immediate context of the verse in its paragraph and the wider context of the paragraph within the entire work, so that the immediate thought can be traced as part of the developing argument leading to the conclusion and response.

Take the well-known verse in Romans 8:28,

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (ESV)

Extracted from its context, that verse may lead a reader to the false conclusion that any hardship in this life must only be short-lived, or worse still, that we should not expect to undergo trial at all, since God ensures that all things are worked together to achieve a good outcome for us. Yet the context of Romans 8 expressly anticipates suffering in the believer’s life(14) and recognises the reality, even in the lives of spiritual giants like the psalmist, that serious hardship may accompany deep spirituality.(15) Set in its proper context, verse 28 takes the eternal perspective, directing our gaze beyond the deepest adversities of this life to see the counsels of God fulfilled in us, resulting in glorification for those who cannot be separated from Christ.(16) The preceding chapters have been building up to this, and it gives us reason to take heart, as the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf even when the here-and-now becomes too much for words.(17)

Despite the intellectual challenge that discursive texts present, God has adopted their style for our benefit, to convey much of the rich theology He reveals to us. Learning to handle them well will deeply enrich our understanding of His message – a message that first came to the original recipients in their day, but comes now to us in ours. So be encouraged to take hold of these deep passages of Scripture with a renewed sense of purpose, to seek out God’s eternal truth and apply it faithfully in our lives.

References: (1) Rom. 2:17; 11:13; 9:24 (2) Rom. 1:18-32; 13:13 (3) Rom. 12:12,14 (4) Rom. 4:22-25; 5:6-11 (5) Rom. 3:21-31 (6) Rom. 16:17 (7) Rom. 2:25; 14:5; 14:2,20 (8) Rom. 12:1-2; 14:19 (9) Rom. 6:14 (10) Ex. 19:3-6 (11) Rom. 7:7-14 (12) Ps. 68:5-6; 113:7-9 (13) Acts 2:45; Gal. 2:10 (14) Rom. 8:18 (15) Rom. 8:35-36; Ps. 44:22 (16) Rom. 8:29-39 (17) Rom. 8:26-27

James Needham, Birmingham, England