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Context is vital. Without it, we can’t communicate with one another. The meaning of our words is determined by their context, the setting or background in which those words are spoken. Consider, for example, the words steel sinks. If you hear these words at Lowe’s or Home Depot, you would assume there are steel sinks available for purchase, whether for your home or workshop. But what if you hear these words spoken by a professor lecturing on material sciences and engineering? You would assume the professor is describing the material properties of steel. Steel is denser than water, so steel sinks to the bottom of a body of water. Context determines the meaning of our words.
This is no less the case with God’s Word. It is divinely situated within an ancient historical context. We also have to pay attention to the grammatical and theological context of the Bible. But it’s definitely important to consider the historical context when reading Scripture. Obviously, we do not need to understand all the intricate historical, cultural, and social details behind Scripture to believe its primary message. God’s story of redemption in Christ is simple and clear. But understanding the ancient context provides at least two advantages for readers of the Bible.
The first is that it helps us become better readers of the text. How so? By reminding us how far removed we really are from the ancient setting of Scripture—some two thousand years. If we forget this contextual distance, we will read God’s ancient text through our modern glasses, and this will inevitably lead to misreading the text. A good example of this is how we, as Americans, can read Philippians 2:12 through our Western, individualistic glasses: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” From our perspective, “your” means “my,” and we assume this text calls me—as a lone individual—to work out my salvation. But from an ancient perspective, “your” primarily meant “ours,” not only because this word is plural in the Greek (better translated in Texan talk as “y’all”) but also because the ancient mind-set was far more communal. Back then, no one believed a person had his own private relationship with God. Personal relationship, yes, but private relationship, no. Working out our salvation was—and still is—a joint effort in the church. We need one another to reach the end, all the while knowing that our perseverance depends ultimately and sovereignly on God (Phil. 1:6; 2:13). If you have interpreted Philippians 2:12 in this exclusively individualistic way, don’t be discouraged. Even the best interpreters are guilty of reading their modern presuppositions into God’s ancient Word. Nevertheless, it’s a good reminder of how easily our interpretation of Scripture can be misguided by our own context.
The second advantage to understanding the ancient context of Scripture is that it adds color to our reading of the text. Just as the background of black velvet brings out the beauty that already resides within a diamond, so, too, context can draw out the beauty of God’s Word. It’s just as beautiful without it, but the background helps us see its beauty more vividly.
You may be thinking to yourself, “OK, but I never liked history, and I find memorizing facts and dates boring.” Point taken. My students say this all the time. But don’t sell yourself short. You know more about the Bible’s historical context than you might think. You may not know specific details about Alexander the Great’s Hellenization of Israel in 332 BC, the Maccabean Revolt in 167–165 BC, or even the Roman general Pompey’s conquest of Israel in 63 BC—all pivotal events in Israel’s history. Perhaps you have never read the Pseudepigrapha or Apocrypha, noncanonical texts written during the four hundred “silent years” between Malachi and Matthew (otherwise known as the Intertestamental Period). But even if you lack knowledge in those areas, you more than likely know that God’s people in the first-century world were eager for a messianic king. They were eager to be liberated from Roman oppression. And they were eager for God’s kingdom to be established on earth. You may not be an armchair biblical historian, but you have received enough doses of Bible background from your pastors and teachers to get the big picture.
And yet, it’s hard to deny that a deeper understanding of the historical context enhances that same picture. To give one example, have you ever wondered why people spread palm branches before Jesus at His triumphal entry into Jerusalem at Passover (Matt. 21:8–9; Mark 11:8–10; John 12:13)? The Old Testament prescribes palm branches only in celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:40), not Passover. So, to answer the question, we need to look elsewhere. We turn, then, to the Maccabean Revolt in 167–165 BC, where the palm branch played a significant role.
The revolt began with a prominent Jewish family taking a stand against the Syrian forces, especially King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who issued decrees prohibiting Jewish religion—the Scriptures were to be destroyed, the Sabbath and festivals were no longer to be observed, the food laws were to be abolished, and circumcision was no longer to be practiced (1 Macc. 1:41–64). The national identity of the Jews was in grave danger. Antiochus even erected a small altar on the great altar of burnt offering in the Jewish temple. There he sacrificed pigs in the supreme insult to Judaism.
But in 165 BC, Judas Maccabeus (“the hammer”) and his warriors destroyed every Syrian detachment sent after them. This left Antiochus no option but to surrender. Shortly thereafter, Judas and his troops moved into Jerusalem and rededicated the temple on December 14, 165 BC. The people celebrated for eight days. They lit a menorah with only one day’s worth of olive oil, but it miraculously stayed lit the entire time. They also celebrated in the manner of the Feast of Tabernacles with “beautiful branches and also fronds of palm” in thanksgiving “to [God] who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place” (2 Macc. 10:6–7). In commemoration of the event, a new festival was added to the Jewish calendar: Hanukkah (meaning “Dedication”; mentioned in John 10:22).
Sometime later (141 BC), Judas’ brother Simon Maccabeus entered Jerusalem and drove out all Syrian forces, granting the Jewish people complete independence. And guess what they did? They celebrated with palm branches (see 1 Macc. 13:51). Branches even appeared on several coins made by the Maccabeans, Herod, and later rebels who revolted against Rome in the Jewish–Roman war (AD 66–70) and the Bar Kochba revolt (AD 132–35). But after these failed attempts, the Romans celebrated their victory over the Jewish nation by inscribing branches on their coinage. Talk about salt in a wound. At any rate, the palm branch became a loaded national symbol for the Jewish people. It symbolized an intense desire to be liberated from Roman oppression by a messianic king who would rule the nations with all power and authority.
All of this enhances our reading of John 12:13: “So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, ‘Hosanna [“give salvation now”]! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’” National Israel viewed Jesus as the Davidic king of Psalm 2 who would, like Judas and Simon, enter Jerusalem and destroy Roman opposition. They wanted this “King of Israel” to establish God’s full and final reign on earth. But Jesus didn’t meet their expectations. Our King entered Jerusalem not to drive out the Romans but to allow them to drive nails into His hands and feet and fix Him to an old, wooden cross. Our King was indeed victorious, not through a heroic battle against Rome but through death and resurrection. Our King certainly liberated captives and set prisoners free, not from the oppression of earthly rulers but from the spiritual oppression of sin and death. And our King gloriously ushered in His kingdom, not in Jerusalem fully and finally but in the church slowly but surely.
The gospel of our King did not line up with nationalistic Jewish expectations. Many people from the same crowd that laid down palm branches questioned Jesus’ statements about His impending death on a cross (12:31–34). And, in response, Jesus did not entrust Himself to them because “they still did not believe in him” (v. 37). Sadly, they allowed their cultural context to determine Jesus’ own words, to their great dismay. But for those of us who believe in the countercultural message of the gospel, for those of us who see Christ’s glory through the shame of the cross, for those of us who long to be liberated by the only living and true God, Christ entrusts Himself to us and we receive the wonderful privilege of sharing in the power, authority, and ultimate victory of our eternal Lord, both now and forever.