Teaching students how to properly read, understand, and apply the Bible is a terrifying task considering the Bible has 66 books, hundreds of chapters, and thousands of verses. This task is intensified when our youth ministries are filled with students who have differing cognitive abilities and who come from a variety of family backgrounds. As youth ministers, we are often teaching early on a Sunday morning or in the evening after a long day of school and activities—times when it can be harder for teenagers to focus. It can feel to students as though we are asking them to put together the pieces of a puzzle.
Teaching teenagers about biblical context is one way to help our students better comprehend the Bible. By helping them zoom out to see the context, we equip them to connect the pieces of the puzzle of the Bible.
Jesus modeled using context in Bible study shortly after he rose from the dead. In the gospel of Luke we read, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27). If Jesus used context to help his followers understand how the Bible fit together, then we should expect that it is important for us as well.
To this end, one method we have started to implement in our youth ministry involves a visual illustration to help train students in biblical context. We draw multiple concentric circles on a white board while teaching a biblical text, using each circle to represent a different part of the context.
Below is a walk-through of what this visual illustration of biblical context has looked like in our ministry. Since our group has been studying the Ten Commandments, I’ll use Exodus 20:12 as a sample verse: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
Circle One: Immediate Context
The smallest circle situates a passage or verse within its’ chapter or book. This first step in understanding context helps students realize how each passage of Scripture is informed by what comes directly before it or after it.
In the case of Exodus 20:12, the first circle shows how this commandment fits within the other commandments. This represents the fifth of ten words, or commands, that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is important for students to understand the positive nature of this particular commandment, whereas may of the others represent prohibitions. These are examples of the sorts of things you might help students look for and draw out of the immediate context themselves.
Circle Two: Old or New Testament Context
The next circle helps students see how the verses in question fit into either the Old or New Testament narrative. For instance, how does the story of Jonah fit into the other prophets or how does Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi relate to what Jesus taught in the Gospels.
Thinking about the series I taught my students in the Ten Commandments, the second circle around Exodus 20:12 could include Deuteronomy 21:18-21, which states how disobedience to parents leads to serious consequences. Referencing these verses from Deuteronomy helps students understand that this commandment is not isolated; rather, other books of the Bible in the Old Testament elaborate on the same point.
Circle Three: Whole Bible Context
The third circle represents how these verses fit into the Bible as a whole—one of the most crucial steps as we aim for students to understand the Bible as a single story told through 66 interrelated books. This step also helps guard students from the popular myth in our culture that the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament. By teaching this step, we not only give students a clearer view of the biblical text, but also a clearer view of God by seeing him in both the Old and New Testament.
The third circle in my study on the Ten Commandments could have a New Testament reinforcement of the Old Testament command such as Ephesians 6:1-4 which reaffirms this commandment. Now students understand that this command has stood the test of time. The New Testament confirms that the Old Testament command is important and applicable to those in the New Testament and beyond.
The most significant aspect of teaching students to examine the context of the Bible is to connect the text we are teaching to the gospel. If the gospel really is the good news that Jesus came to save people from their sin, then we should help students understand how the entire Bible points to this truth. One way to do this is by asking students “How do you think these verses connect to the Good News of Jesus dying on the cross and rising again?” In the case of Exodus 20:12, we could show them how, while we all have failed to perfectly obey our parents, Jesus was the perfect Son who always obeyed God the Father (John 8:27-30). Because of his perfect life, his death, and resurrection in our place, we are justified before God and empowered to live in a new way.
Circle Four: Historical Church Context
To help students see how those in the church throughout history have understood and applied these verses, we use a fourth circle. This is the step Bible teachers often skip, leading teenagers to forget that people have been reading these stories and letters for many centuries. There are obviously thousands of years worth of literature and sermons you could draw upon for this circle, so as you plan your lesson you’ll want to consider what to include.
One new resource that is helpful in preparation for this step is Crossway’s ESV Church History Study Bible. The editors of this study Bible have done the hard work of finding quotes from church history that apply to specific biblical texts, making it simple to find references you can use in teaching.
As I taught our Ten Commandments series to my students, I used a book by Kevin DeYoung titled The 10 Commandments that helped with this part of context. In this chapter he had a quote from the 1500’s by John Calvin that I used to emphasize the command to obey our parents: “Nature itself ought, in a way, to teach us this. Those who abusively or stubbornly violate parental authority are monsters, not men.”
Mentioning church history in our Bible teaching reminds students they are not the first ones who have struggled to apply God’s Word to their lives. Thankfully, they can learn from those who have gone before them.
Circle Five: Modern Context
The fifth and final circle represents how the passage or verse you are studying fit into students’ lives today. Often youth ministers, and all Bible teachers, may be tempted to jump to this circle first, ignoring all the others. Sure, students need to know what the text means for them today. However, if they do not first consider context, they will be tempted to twist the biblical text to say whatever they want it to say instead of what it actually means.
Now that you’ve helped students consider the verse in its original context, both in the Old and New Testament, and in church history, you can consider together how it applies to students’ lives today. As many theologians have repeated “The Bible was written for you, but it was not written to you.” It is crucial for students to understand the context of the Bible in order to understand what the Bible actually means. This is so important because a proper understanding of the Bible should lead us to a proper application of the gospel.
Train Your Students to Consider the Whole Bible
Let’s teach our students how the Bible fits together. However, let’s also equip them to handle the Bible for themselves. If we can help them understand these concepts as teenagers, they can utilize these skills for decades in the future as they follow Jesus.