I have always been one for details. When I study a passage I tend to break things down as small as possible. When you do that there is only so much information you can handle at a time. What is the background? Who is speaking? Where are they located and how might that affect the message? What does it say in Greek? What are the common words and themes in this story? There is so much to be learned by a study like that but there is also so much to be lost. When we get so entwined in the details of the text there is often a tendency to miss the broader context and how those verses advance the story that is being told. This is especially true of the Gospels which are narrating a story that is trying to take is somewhere. Each story and teaching advances the narrative and that can be missed when we get caught up in all the details of one story at a time.
We have been taught to do things this way from the sermon to the classroom. When you hear a sermon that is narrative based it usually centers on one story and is torn out of its larger context. The result is we know the details of the story of the money changers, Jesus’ healings, his triumphal entry, and the mount of transfiguration but we have never understood the scope of just how interconnected those stories are. When you go to a 13 week class on Luke you get this story and that story each week but rarely hear that the author is taking us somewhere by the placements of the stories (the larger context). The result is we have missed the big picture!
Recently I have started studying larger blocks of text, looking for their interrelations. Instead of asking about all the nuances in the details you begin asking questions like: “What are the overarching themes? How does this story advance the overall story? Where is the author taking us (in the story, not in geography)? What does this have to do with what just happened and how does it move us closer to what is about to happen? When you begin asking these questions you start to realize a couple of things:
1) The paragraph breaks, verse divisions, and section headings are often not very ideal. The New Testament was originally written in a text that had basically no punctuation or even spaces between the letters. They didn’t have all the nice clean breaks we have placed in the text that make artificial mental boundaries in our study of the text. We fragment things rather than look at the text as a whole/unit.
2) The stories are far more connected that you might have imagined. When you study a gospel like Mark this way you begin seeing ties between the stories that do something you may never have imagined – the stories teach us things about each other! That’s right. The stories in context actually shed light on each other and help us gain a better understanding of the individual parts. In other words the author is purposefully taking us somewhere by the stories he tells and the order in which he tells them. Why are the gospel stories often in slightly different orders? Because they are each trying to make their own point.
3) There are broader geographical themes that you miss when you study one story at a time. In Mark Jesus does miracles on the west (more Jewish side) of the Sea of Galilee and then crosses the sea and does similar miracles on the east side of the sea, closer to and even including Gentile crowds. You miss that if you only study one story at a time. Why does Jesus feed 4000 and 5000? Different sides of the sea, different crowds and cultures, which sends a message that we don’t get if we read the gospels flat. Which is the next point.
4) We tend to read the Gospels flat. We don’t catch the broader contours of the narrative landscape. Translation makes this difficult. We often miss repeated words and phrases because they are not always translated the same way in the same chapter. You see this when Jesus teaches the parable of the sower. The crowd is standing on the “ground” (NIV translates “shore”) and the parable is about seed that falls on the “ground”. We end up reading this parable flat because we don’t see the connection in English.
5) The broad themes begin to jump out. In Mark is it the kingdom of God, authority, and discipleship. You don’t really notice how many times these things are mentioned when you take it one story at a time or one story in isolation.
There is more I could toss out there but the gist of what I am trying to say is that I think it is important to zoom in on a text and also to zoom out on the broader context. We have normally thought of context as the couple of verses before and a couple verses after but that is not really true to real context (especially in the Gospels). When you start to look at the big picture the Gospel starts making sense in ways that never stood out before. More on that later.