Monday, November 23, 2009

The Big Picture

I am currently studying Preach My Gospel, and I'm in Chapter 2: "Effective Study." Near the end of the chapter are "Study Ideas and Suggestions," which provide bulleted lists of ways in which to make your scripture study more effective. Missionaries are encouraged to mark their scriptures, to use study resources (Topical Guide and Bible Dictionary, among others), to apply and live what they learn. These are all good ways to make scripture study more meaningful, but I was most impressed by the heading that encourages missionaries to


I think that members and missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are great at reading individual verses closely and remembering them--in no small part because of the scripture mastery program in Seminary. Without looking at your scriptures, I bet that most readers of this blog could tell me the content of the following scripture references--and perhaps quote them:

a) Isaiah 53:3-5

b) 1 Cor. 15:29

c) 1 Ne. 3:7

d) D&C 82:10

e) Moses 1:39

We know what these verses say, but how many of us know the context and background in which they were given? The scripture from 1 Corinthians, for example, is about baptism for the dead, a point which most Church members know. What they don't remember--or at least don't talk about--is that Paul offers baptism for the dead as a defense of the doctrine of the resurrection: this is an important point because it helps us understand that 1) the resurrection was a more controversial topic than baptism for the dead, and 2) that the resurrection is the only reason that baptism for the dead even matters. Or take the scripture from Doctrine and Covenants Section 82. You might know that it promises "I the Lord and bound when ye do what I say," but do you know when and where this promise was given? This section of scripture was revealed in 1832 in Jackson County Missouri, when the Saints were struggling to establish Zion in accordance with God's directive. The statement is a reminder that his promises regarding Zion were only binding if the Saints were obedient, and verse three of that section--"unto whom much is given much is required"--has a similar meaning: having received the promise of Zion, much was expected of the Saints.

I'm not suggesting that it's a bad thing to read and remember such verses by themselves, only that it would be better if we understood what the verses meant in their original context before we apply them to our own lives. To this end, I want to promote some of the scripture study advice in Preach My Gospel:

"Get an overview by reading the book, chapter, or passage quickly. Seek to understand the context and background.

Try writing the main idea of the passage in a sentence or short paragraph.

Review the sequence of events and the culture. Read the historical information in the Bible Dictionary and the chapter and section summaries." (23)

Having dispensed a prescription, let me provide a sneak peek at some of the payoffs. You've already heard me give a big-picture breakdown of D&C 20; let me provide one here for the book of Matthew.

If you were to read the Book of Matthew through quickly with an eye for the book's structure and not just the content of individual verses, you might notice some interesting coincidences. For instance, you would see that some variant of the phrase "when Jesus had made an end" (Matt. 11:1) occurs five times in the book: 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1. The phrase occurs five times because the book of Matthew is a text with seven parts: a prologue (birth of Christ), an epilogue (death and resurrection of Christ), and five "books." These books are (roughly):

Book I, "Introduction to the New Kingdom of Christ" Matthew 3-7
In the sermon on the mount Christ explains the difference between the old Kingdom (Mosaic law) and his new kingdom (higher law)

Book II, "The Power of the Kingdom" Matthew 8-10
Christ performs miracles

Book III, "Reactions to the Kingdom" Matthew 11-13
Christ condemns and rebukes the Pharisees, others who reject his Kingdom

Book IV, "Leadership of the Kingdom" Matthew 14-18
Christ instructs apostles, takes Peter James and John to the Mount of Transfiguration

Book V, "Future Triumph of the Kingdom," Matthew 19-25
Christ anticipates the last days

Each of these "books" begins with a narrative, moves to a sermon, and closes with "when all these things were ended." Why does it matter that you understand the big picture of Matthew's narrative? Because it helps you understand why he chooses to write Christ's story in the way that he does. (As compared to John, for instance, whose gospel has a completely different structure, audience, and purpose.)

Anyways, I could say a lot more...but I feel strongly that we will understand the scriptures better and be more effective advocates for truths of the Restoration if we strive to see the big picture when we read scriptures. Try it out!


Becky said...

I too am studying Preach My Gospel and I have LOVED the way it has helped me to understand the scriptures more. BUT...are there other books that you use to accompany you? How do you know some of this history?

Jenny said...

I'll just start counting YOU as one of my additional resources when studying the scriptures.