It’s All About Context


The post for this week was developed by Mark Hathaway.

I believe there is great value in personal study as opposed to always relying on the labors of others. However, I am not an advocate of ignoring the commentary of learned men and women. I would however suggest that first we do the work, then when we have satisfactorily discovered all we can, and built conclusions on the information discovered, we then compare our findings to those of another man, making adjustments in our conclusions as necessary.

I think the practice of study helps to clarify understanding as well as increase the likelihood of retention. I believe the harder we work at studying, especially the Bible, the greater our satisfaction at having understood the meaning of the text.

I am just an average man, with average intelligence, and average (sometimes less) ambition. I am no scholar; in fact, I have very little formal training. I have however discovered the joy of studying. My goal today is to share with you some of what I’ve learned about how to study the Bible.

Here are the three most important rules to apply when studying the Bible, listed in order of importance.

  • Context
  • Context
  • Context

So, now that we’ve established that context is critically important, what do I mean? There are three areas of context I think are important. Let’s go through them one at a time.

Literary context

This is probably the single biggest violation of the context rule committed by Bible teachers and (dare I say) even Pastors (not mine thankfully)! When looking at a particular verse or passage you need to be careful to notice the verses above and below. You should also take note of how that verse relates to the chapter it is in, surrounding chapters, and even the book of the Bible. It is a wrong practice to decide on a point that you want to make, then go on a hunt for verses you can pick that seems to support your point. The Bible is not about what you think, but rather about the very specific message God wants to communicate to mankind. Additionally, we need to consider genre to keep our passage in its literary context. Is the passage found in narrative, prophecy, a poetic book, gospel, or epistle? The genre dictates our study approach. More on genre later. As a way of illustrating a violation of literary context let’s construct our own absurd example. Let’s (incorrectly) assert that Jesus, in telling the parable of the good Samaritan was actually suggesting that we should ignore someone in need. The way we would do this is pull two verses out of their literary context and shove them together.

“Then Jesus answered and said: A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Then Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:30, 37b.

The truth about this passage is found by keeping Luke 10:37b in its context. If we consider Luke 10:36, and all of 37, not just the second or “b” part, we discover Jesus’ clear instruction.

“So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves? And hesaid, He who showed mercy on him. Then Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise.

Jesus was not instructing one to ignore someone in need; his imperative was to go and “show mercy” on or to help those in need! I admit that this example was a silly one, but often times Bible teachers unwittingly change God’s message by pulling scripture passages out of context in order to make some topical point.

Cultural context

Another mistake that is easy to make is to pull a verse or passage out of its cultural context and insert it into our own cultural environment. Doing so can easily distort the meaning of the text. We should be asking, “What was the culture of the original audience?” Are there language nuances we need to consider? Are there idioms or sayings they would have understood but are unknown to us? These types of cultural issues have a significant impact on correctly understanding the text. Let’s look at an example of cultural context that will deepen our understanding of a biblical text.

“So Jesus again said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” John 10:7-9

So considering a door in our culture, maybe we see in our mind’s eye a solid piece of wood with a doorknob. Or maybe we make the translation to something that looks like a modern day cattle gate. If that’s the case, then why did Jesus pick that analogy?

The Shepherds of Jesus’ day would construct a sheep pen with walls of stone. They would plant thorny vines that would creep up the walls to help keep intruders out. When they put their sheep away for the night, the shepherd would lay across the doorway. The sheep couldn’t leave, and no intruder could enter without encountering the shepherd. The sheep were safe!

Historical context

This one is so closely related to cultural context that we could combine them into one concept, with the exception of a glaring difference. The original audience would have understood any references made to distant or near past events mentioned by the biblical author. For example, when Jesus said :

“…there shall be no sign given them except the sign of Jonah who was in the belly of the fish for three days…” Matthew 12:39

If you did not know the historical account of Jonah, you may not understand the Lord’s intended meaning. You may conclude that Jonah was a worm, so maybe Jesus is saying He’s headed for the permanent accommodations of the grave. But if you know the historical account, you know that Jonah did indeed spend three days in the belly of a great fish, but afterwards was spit out upon the ground. Jonah’s stay in the fish’s digestive tract was not his final resting place, after he was deposited on the shore, he preached in Nineveh, and witnessed a great revival. Jesus was telling them He would die, but then be raised again to life and would preach again, which is exactly what He did.

To keep the Biblical passage we are studying in context takes hard work. We must dig for the facts, and exercise our observation skills if we hope to come to a correct understanding of any Biblical passage. Let’s shy away from the “well I think this passage means….” approach, in favor of discovering exactly what God intends to say to us.

I strongly believe following the context, context, context rule consistently would greatly increase our accuracy when it comes to Biblical interpretation.

How about you giving it a try?

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