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BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (8): Context! Context! Context!

When investing in real estate, the keys are location, location, location.

The three laws of education are repetition, repetition, and repetition.

In interpreting the Bible, the first three rules are context, context, and you guessed the third one!

Why Is Context So Important?

The late Johnny Ramsey, one of my teachers at the Sunset School of Preaching as it was then known, used to say:

A text out of context is a pretext.

I think he was right. It is by ignoring the context that people really do make the Bible mean anything they want it to mean. In the previous posts in this series, context is often the key to a proper understanding of the text. Many difficult texts become simple when we put them into context.

In many ways, the division of the Scriptures into chapters and verses has been a help, since it enables us to have a uniform method of identifying particular passages. In other ways, it has made things more difficult for us – simply because we tend to look at the Scriptures “atomisticaly.” That simply means we tend to look at isolated verses (or portions of verses) instead of at the context. We tend to break things down by verses instead of by the thought of the writer.

Levels of Context

There are a number of levels of context. I do not claim that the following listing is anywhere near exhaustive.

Immediate Verse: In a previous post, we saw that even reading the entire verse carefully would negate the use many make of the verse. What happens is that we take a few words from a verse without considering how they relate to the rest of what is said in the verse.

Surrounding Verses: Often even looking at the verse just before and/or just after the verse you are trying to understand makes a difference in how you will understand it. This is even more true if you extend the examination to the paragraph before and/or after what you are attempting to interpret. For example, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1) sounds like an absolute command – until you read the next several verses. To make it absolute would mean that you cannot make any discernment of the spiritual needs of people you encounter. In reality, Jesus is saying we should not set ourselves up as the authorities who have the power to condemn or approve the actions of others – especially when we do not apply the same standard by which we judge them to ourselves.

Context of the Author’s Argument: This is more difficult to apply because you must consider just what the author is trying to “get at” in his overall presentation. For example, I never could understand the passage in Mark 8:22-26 about the healing of the blind man in “stages” until I saw it in its context. Then, I saw clearly, as I show in the post linked here. The context of this miracle not only helped me understand it, but also opened up the entire chapter – and more – to a deeper understanding with significant lessons for today as well.

The Entire Book: When reading a theological book such as Romans, you cannot fully understand it (if we ever fully understand Romans) without looking at the book as a whole. Otherwise, we will likely make serious mistakes in our application.

Other Writings by the Same Author: This is especially true when the other writings address the same, or similar, issues. For example, the letters to Timothy and Titus are all to Paul’s trainees. Though the particular circumstances of each book differ, they are similar enough that each of them contributes to the understanding of the others. I believe you can see this in my series on Sound Doctrine, which is based on these books.

The Tenor of Scripture: In Exodus 34:24, “Jehovah said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.” Sometimes, we must look beyond the exact words to the entire tenor of Scripture. This means we need to be able to put what is said in a particular passage into the overall context of the Bible. When we understand that the Bible as a whole is a revelation by God to us of His own character and the character that He wants to renew and restore in His people, we avoid getting bogged down in the mint, anise, and cummin while we neglect the weightier matters of the law that relate to the heart of God (cf. Matthew 23:23). Jesus appealed to this principle in His encounter with the Pharisees in Matthew 12:1-8 when He said, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7, NKJV).

The History & Culture of the Times: Some passages are much clearer if we know at least some of the non-biblical history in which they appear. The same is true of the particular culture of the day. Remember that the basic history of the Bible spans a period of many centuries and involves evolving cultures. Certainly the cultural setting of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac & Jacob, differs greatly from that of the Greek and Roman cities where Paul did his missionary work. While we do not have to become classical scholars to understand the Bible, some knowledge of these cultures and history of the Biblical world will certainly help us understand some of the things we read.

Context also includes such questions as: Who is speaking? To whom is it said? How would those to whom it was said have understood it? Sometimes, when Jesus spoke the people who first heard Him had no idea what He was talking about; even the Twelve frequently did not understand Him. Yet, to consider what those who first heard Him would have gotten from what He said does help us to have a better idea ourselves.

For example, it is easy for us to read something back into the disciples’ questions in Matthew 24:3 that they could not possibly have meant. When they asked, “When will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” they could not possibly have meant by “the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age” what we commonly understand these things to be. How could they have been asking about His second coming when they did not even understand that He was going away? Yet, we project our understanding back into their question – with the result that we completely misunderstand Jesus’ answer to them.

These are some of the issues that Context addresses. Apart from context, we really do make a pretext out of the Scripture.

Does this mean that we cannot get anything out of the Bible without becoming a Biblical Scholar?

Not at all! It simply means that we need to be sensitive to what is going on around the text we are reading. What has gone before it? What is it really saying? What comes after it? How does it relate to other parts of the section, book, and author where we find it? How does it fit into the overall story of the Bible?

These are all important questions, and they all have to do with context.

Any writing, Biblical or non-Biblical, must be seen in its context for us to truly understand what the author intended to say. If we neglect context, what we read will mean to us what we want it to mean, not what the author intended for us to understand by what he wrote.

NEXT (9): The Pattern of Sound Doctrine

PREVIOUS (7): Silence of the Scriptures

2 Responses

  1. Another great post, Jerry. Since I’ve been following your blog, this has been my favorite series you’ve done. You are truly addressing all of the knee-jerk responses I’ve heard all of my life. I was actually reading some of the posts from this series to my parents this weekend.

    Here is the response I hear more than anything in regards to IM, etc (fill in the blank): “If you love me, you’ll keep my commandments.”


    • Jon,
      When you hear this response, and examine what is said about the “command” in question, many times you will find several layers of assumptions and inferences about something Jesus nor his apostles have said. This happens because we read the Bible as a rule book instead of as a love letter. We parse it as lawyers instead of as lovers of God.

      The problem is that we have heard these things preached so much and so long that we believe they are written in stone by the finger of God! Yet, other God-fearing, honorable people simply do not see or accept the steps in “our” logic that brings us to these conclusions.

      What I am trying to do is to help people to examine their presuppositions and the basis of their inferences. I can make inferences along with the best of people – but I pray God that I never elevate my inferences to a level of equality with what God has actually said!

      If someone wants to commune with one cup, fine! Just do not condemn someone else who prefers to use individual cups. We simply do not have to agree with everything someone else does in order to have fellowship with Him in the Lord.



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