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The Importance of Studying God’s Word Contextually

  • Kristi McLelland Contributing Writer
  • 2022 25 Feb
The Importance of Studying God’s Word Contextually

When the Lord gave us the Bible, He gave us the best and truest story ever told. Each story is like a pearl, beautiful and of great price on its own. But what's more beautiful is stringing the biblical pearls together. Through the Bible, we know who the Living God is, what He's like, and what it is to walk with Him.

In 2007 the Lord opened the door for me to go study the Bible in Egypt and Israel, and since then, I have become a lover of Israel and all things in the Middle East. When we study Scripture in this context, by figuratively traveling back to the biblical world, we can get a better understanding of what the biblical authors meant by what they wrote and a better sense of what the biblical characters were experiencing. In this, we discover an ancient and ever truth: not only is the Bible the best story ever told, but it is also the truest. These things actually happened. 

One thing I love about taking people to the places where these things actually happened – whether virtually or physically – is that it’s like going home with Jesus. When you are dating someone and starting to get serious, what do you do? You go home to meet their family. There is just something about getting to know them more completely as you get to know their family history and background. Studying the Bible contextually is like getting to know Jesus in his Jewish world from 2,000 years ago.

The Word of God Is Living

The Bible was given to us by the living God for us to experience together. It was given to us that we might know who the living God is, what he’s like and what it means to walk with Him. We never actually just read the Bible, we interact with it. It is living and active and so are we. In the mouth of the Jews, they would say that anytime we touch the sacred Scriptures, it is life with life. And life with life produces what they would call eternal life, the good life, the marrow of life. I’m a marrow of life kind of girl. If there’s an adventure to take, I want to take it. I’ve discovered that the Bible itself is an adventure. In some ancient way is something that is actually happening to us as we interact with it. 

Scripture tells us that “the Law of the Lord is perfect; it revives the soul.” But we don’t get very excited about reading the book of Leviticus, so how is it that the Law of the Lord revives our soul? We need to think about our posture, the way we approach the Word of God when we come to the biblical table. 

As we come to the Scriptures, we are not orphans, not fatherless, we don’t have to open it up and dig something out to feed ourselves. We are not alone in the moment. When we open the Word, we do so as sons and daughters and we posture ourselves to receive. Rather than having to feed ourselves, we are readying ourselves to receive, to inherit, to take in whatever it is the living God is getting ready to say and do as we interact with Him through the Bible.

I am an Old Testament nerd. When I hear people say that the living God is angry in the Old Testament, but then Jesus shows up in the New Testament and is kind, I have no idea what they are talking about. The manifold love of God is seen and known from Genesis through Revelation. 

When the Word is described as radiant light, I think about how the prophets of Israel never went out and found the Word of God, it always came to them. It says over and over, the Word of the Lord came to them, the Word of the Lord came upon them. 

Feasting on God’s Word

Rather than feeling this pressure to open up our Bibles as if we have to go get the Word of God to feed ourselves, it’s a relief to understand that the Bible was given as a feast to us. We don’t so much want to read it as we want to eat it. The Jews talk about feasting on Scripture. The best food is experienced with the people you know and love. This is part of the gift of the Bible. We are meant to feast together on these words that are “more precious than gold, sweeter than honey from the comb.”

For Jewish people, when they read the Bible, they want to embody it. They don’t just speak in terms of knowing the Bible, they want to flesh it out.  In Israel, Rabbis will visit kindergarten glasses and have the children taste honey, then will say to them, this is what the Word of the Lord tastes like. It is good for you; take it in and it will do its work. We are in agreement with the Rabbis and sages of Israel in this. That the Scriptures really are as sweet as honey from the comb. And that we don’t have to go get it -- there is no striving and straining. We are sons and daughters of God, pulling our chairs up to the biblical table with a holy and high Father ready to feed us the honey, to give us the feast. It has transformed my faith life to approach the Bible in this more Sabbath way, and to realize that I am not alone in the moment, that God is more faithful than I will ever be. I am trusting His faithfulness to be proved in my life. The invitation is for me to live forward in faithful obedience to Him. 

Taking in God’s Word

One of the commitments I made when COVID hit and I could no longer take people to Israel, in order not to lose my mind, was to not take in more news or social media compared with my time in the Word of God. I wanted to let His voice and His perspective be the voice that ruled and reigned in my heart during the middle of a pandemic. I’ve been able to hear from Him, to feel Him and perceive Him because I just keep coming back to that biblical table. I’m trusting Him to give me the honey, to illuminate the pearls, and to show me what He’s like in the midst of uncertainty. 

A few months ago, one of the young teens at our church wanted to be baptized and asked me to do the honors. I was delighted to do so, but for the month before her baptism, I asked her to commit to reading the Sermon on the Mount every day for the entire month. This was her spiritual preparation before her baptism. I promised to do this as well, and once a week we would get together for ice cream and talk about what God was showing us. We had lots of great conversations, along with lots of reading. The last time I sat down with her, just a few days before her baptism, she said “Miss Kristi, I feel like the Sermon on the Mount is getting inside of me.” 

Through the repetition of eating, the Word was becoming part of her. I noticed that we both had our Bibles with us, but neither of us needed to open them as we discussed many of the points of the passage. All of the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount were now inside of her. 

The Word of the Lord is meant to be inside of us, to travel with us. These pearls of great price, the stories that the living God chose to have written down and given to us, have been feeding the church for 2,000 years. It transforms our relationship with the Bible and with God Himself when we shift our thinking from needing to read it and study it, to eating it and interacting with it, to approach it as a feast prepared for us to take in.

The Scriptures are meant to be feasted upon, not just read from afar and understood. They are meant to be experienced together, as a community. Every time we open up our Bibles, the living God is present as Father and Shepherd, and he wants to take us somewhere.  And I am along for the journey -- I want Him to take me anywhere He wants to take me! 

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/pcess609 

Kristi McLelland is a professor at Williamson College in Nashville, Tenn., and serves as a biblical culturalist, teaching God’s Word in its cultural, historic, linguistic, and geographic context. After more than 10 years leading biblical studies trips to Israel, she has now launched the Pearls podcast, bringing her contextualization to the AccessMore curated content platform. Learn more about Kristi at