Context, context, context. Students of the Bible have it drilled into their heads to interpret Scripture “in its original context.” But many preachers relate to context like I relate to a mechanical tool: I know it’s supposed to be useful, but I don’t quite know how to use it.
While attending 2019 Simeon Trust Workshop in Indianapolis, I was struck by the practical value of literary context. Knowing the “melodic line,” the central theme(s) of an entire book, often sheds light on individual pericopes; seeing the forest enhances knowledge of each tree.
Take the Gospel according to Mark. What is the central message that runs through the book? Strategies can help us discern this melodic line, but each requires attentive pre-reading. If I begin reading a biblical book the week of my first sermon in that book, I’m behind schedule. But if I have a pretty good idea of the book’s central theme, I’m less likely to chase intriguing details of a given passage that may lead me astray. If those details bear no relation to the central message of the book, they are not likely the main focus of a passage.
Two brief examples. In the story of the paralytic (Mark 2:1–11) several intriguing components are potential sermon fodder. Do I preach about friendship and loyalty? Or do I focus on faith? Or maybe the need for dogged determination to get to Jesus?
Each may be worthy of some consideration. But if I’m largely correct about the melodic line of Mark––that it focuses on who Jesus is (especially 1:1–8:30) and what it means to follow him (after Peter’s confession and the turn to Jerusalem, 8:31–16:8)––then I can more quickly spot the main idea of the story. It’s about Jesus’ identity. As the long-promised Son of God, he has divine authority to forgive sins.
Let’s pick something more obscure: the conversation coming down the Mount of Transfiguration (9:9–13). What’s the focus? Resurrection? The disciples’ confusion? The enigmatic “Elijah” to come?
I’ll have to wrestle with all of the above. But the melodic line helps steer me to a big idea: Following Jesus means suffering with him. The glory on the mountain was real, but it remains veiled for now. Resurrection glory is coming, but not yet.
More questions remain, but I’ve got a start. The surrounding context confirms this discipleship focus. In this life, following Jesus means dying to self (8:34–9:1). Following Jesus is eternally worth it, but we can still face faithlessness, helplessness, and frustration (9:14–29).
Discerning the melodic line helps me preach better; it also helps my people listen well. In my first sermon in the series, I can give them a heads up: “As we move through Mark, keep these questions in mind: What does this passage say about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him?” The melodic line helps them see familiar narratives not as isolated stories but as events purposefully chosen to serve Mark’s broader narrative. Seeing the forest helps us glean more from each tree.
Nathan Lugbill is the Senior Pastor at Castleview Church