Monday, July 3, 2017

The Importance of Context

Matthew 4:9 “…All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”

This was a verse that was actually printed on one of those "daily inspiration" calendars.

At first glance, this verse sounds pretty inspiring, but there’s just one problem…  Do you know what it is?

Yup.  These words seem pretty uplifting and comforting until you realize that it was Satan who was speaking!  This knowledge makes that particular verse a little less inspiring doesn’t it?

Thus, we see that there is a danger in taking even just a single Bible verse out of context.

Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

2 Timothy 2:15  Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

The Apostle Paul admonishes us to handle God’s Word in the correct way.

Many, it seems, when they study the Bible look at it in such a way that every Bible verse is independent of the rest of the text.  They may even attempt to interpret a single verse on its own, without any kind of reference to what came before or after.  While many of our Bibles are indeed subdivided into books, chapters, and verses, we understand that single verses are part of a greater whole.

It’s been said that people can use the Bible “to prove just about anything”.  With an irreverent, scattershot approach that certainly can be the case!

For example:   Jesus said, “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” in John 15:14. Jesus told Judas, “What you do, do quickly” in John 13:27. Judas, we are told, “departed, and went and hanged himself” in Matthew 27:5. Finally, Jesus said, “Go and do likewise” in Luke 10:37. By selectively using quotes, we arrive at a conclusion that we know is incorrect – that Jesus wants followers to commit suicide.*

In a more serious and tragic real-world example we know that in our nation’s own history that the Bible was used in such a way by some to attempt to justify slavery.  While it is true that slavery is mentioned in the Bible, the New Testament did not teach Christians to enslave one another (In fact, in Philemon, Paul wrote with the intention of freeing the runaway slave Onesimus).

How many souls have been misled due to taking verses out of context, whether intentionally or otherwise?  How many false doctrines have been founded based upon twisting God’s Word to say something actually contrary to God’s will?  We see that not taking context into consideration could lead to serious consequences.

2 Peter 3:15-16 ...And consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.

Therefore, as good students of God’s Word we need to consider each of the following in regards to context:  What is the immediate context?  Who is speaking?  Who is being spoken to?  Is it found in the Old or New Testament?  What is the historical, geographical, and cultural context?

Immediate Context

If you are having difficulty understanding a particular passage, the solution may be as simple as reading a bit backwards or forwards in the text.

A good clue that further reading might be required is found in looking at the grammar.  Sometimes a verse cuts off the ending of a thought short, perhaps ending in a comma rather than a period.  Obviously, this means you need to read a bit further to get the complete statement.

Likewise, look to see if a verse you’re reading begins with a transition word such as therefore, however, then, thus, moreover, nevertheless, so, etc.  If this is the case, then you probably need to read a verse or two before.  These parts of speech connect ideas in phrases and they don’t usually occur unless they are referring to a previous idea.  In other words, as an old saying goes:  “When you come to a ‘therefore’, you should check to see what it is THERE FOR!”

Let’s return to a verse we purposefully used out of context earlier:  In Luke 10:37, Jesus can be quoted saying, “Go and do likewise.

Go and do what???

The usage of the word “likewise” implies that Jesus is referring to something he had said earlier.  If you go back far enough in this chapter, you see that Jesus was having a conversation with a “certain lawyer” who was questioning Him (Luke 10:25-29).  Reading further, we see that Jesus answers the man’s questions by telling him the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-36), essentially teaching that we should treat all with mercy and love.  So at the conclusion of this conversation, Jesus told the lawyer that he should “go and do likewise” – meaning that he should follow the example of the Good Samaritan in the parable.

As you can see, when we’re examining smaller passages, we must be aware of their place within context of the larger paragraph, chapter, or even the entire book!

Who Said It?

Some people think that you can just take any scripture from the Bible and safely assume that it is God speaking.  Indeed, the Word of God is inspired by God, but consider the fact that not everyone who speaks in the Bible is an inspired writer!

I’ll never forget the sermon in which our longtime preacher, John Baxter, made a very provocative statement attention:  “Not everything in the Bible is true.”  The tense uneasiness in the congregation was almost audible as his words hung in the air for just a moment – surely meant for emphasis – that felt like an awkward eternity.  One might think that this was a sacrilegious declaration, but as he would go on to point out, sometimes within the context of a passage we find that the person speaking is unreliable.

As we saw earlier in Matthew 4, it could very well be the devil speaking within in the context of a passage!

In Matthew 12:24 the Pharisees said that Jesus was aligned with Satan.  But we know that the Pharisees were unreliable because they often plotted against Jesus and sought to “entangle Him in His talk.” (Matthew 22:15)

Colossians 2:21 tells us, “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle…”, but we see that this was Paul quoting rules of men in this passage, comparing them to the grace of Christ’s law.

Job’s wife famously said, “Curse God and die” in Job 2:9 - clearly this is not godly advice!

Compare these examples to a verse like John 14:6 in which Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.”   We know that we can trust these words since they came from the Son of God Himself!

We can also trust the words of the Apostles, knowing that these were men who were appointed by Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Thorough study reveals that their teachings align with the rest of Scripture.

1 Corinthians 14:37 If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord.

To Whom Was It Said?

Likewise, it is important to notice to whom a statement was made in Scripture.  Who was the intended audience?

In Genesis 6 we see God giving the instructions for the building of the Ark.  Who were these instructions given to?  Noah, of course!  Obviously, God does not expect us to build an Ark today.  These directions were intended for Noah alone as we can easily discern based on the context.

Applying this same logic, we can easily differentiate between statements meant for a particular individual, a specific group or for everyone for all of time.

Studying the context, we know that John 14:25-26 was directed at the Apostles specifically to prepare them for the forthcoming Day of Pentecost (Acts 1-2).

These are very specific, time-bound circumstances Jesus was relating to those directly present.  Thus, we see that not every passage is meant for Christians today.

However, we know that John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” – is meant to be a broad statement directed toward all of mankind henceforth.  We all have the chance at salvation through Christ’s love for mankind.

Old or New Testament?

Along these same lines, it’s also imperative to consider which part of the Bible you are reading from.  The Bible is divided into two Testaments (Laws or Covenants), the Old Testament and the New Testament.  It is only through a thorough study of the Bible as a whole that one can clearly see that teachings of each Testament are meant for completely different groups of believers of completely different times.

A mature student of the Bible understands that today we are under the New Testament, not the Old Testament.  In fact, two entire books of the Bible – Romans and Galatians – were written by Paul to address the fact that salvation from sin is through the Gospel of Christ, not through the Law of Moses.

Galatians 2:21  I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.

We are taught that the Old Testament came to an end as Christ died on the cross, ushering in the New Testament in its place.

Hebrews 9:15-16 And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.

The transition between the Old Testament to the New Testament can be very confusing for unstudied believers and unbelievers alike, leading to some unfortunate misunderstandings.

Christians should know that the Old Testament laws – including those pertaining to worship – were done completely away with.  Therefore we cannot use the passages out of context from the Old Testament to justify the continued practice of outdated worship such as observance of the Sabbath or circumcision.  In fact, we are explicitly warned that we can no longer follow any part of the Old Testament that has been put away.

Galatians 5:3-4  And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.

On the other hand, a favorite ploy of those seeking to make believers out to be hypocrites is to point out that they don’t follow the “whole” Bible.  They might say, “You don’t believe in gay marriage because of Leviticus?  Well, I bet you ignore the part where it commands to not eat shellfish!”
Such a statement reveals a lack of understanding regarding the continuation of certain aspects of God’s Law throughout the Bible.  Diligent students of the Scriptures understand that some laws are consistent throughout the entirety of God’s Word, extending onward even into the present New Testament age.  Various forms of sexual immorality – including homosexuality – are forbade by God in both the Old and New Testaments.  These have always been wrong in the eyes of God… along with various other sins that no reasonable person would ever debate such as lying, idol worship, murder, etc.

Meanwhile - as we have already established - the majority of laws found the Old Testament are not upheld by Christians because they were repealed in the New Testament.  For example, Acts 10:9-16 does away with dietary restrictions, while 1 Timothy 4:1-5 also speaks against such.  Likewise there are social laws pertaining to crime and punishment, warfare, slavery, circumcision, animal sacrifice, feast days, ritual cleanness, etc. observed by the Israelites that Christians are under no obligation to uphold under the New Testament.

It is Christ and His New Covenant that, thank God, we are under today.

Hebrews 1:1-2  God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets,  has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds.

Historical, Geographical, and Cultural Context

In many ways, the Bible is an historical book.  Despite what skeptics may suggest, the events contained within the Bible took place within the real world.  In fact, archaeologists have been known to use the Bible’s geographical descriptions to find various ruins – which serve to further the Bible’s credibility as an historical text.

Within the pages of the Bible we read of descriptions of life in ancient Egypt, Babylon, and the Roman Empire.  Notable historical figures such as Pharaohs, ancient kings, and government officials are mentioned within the text, sometimes even interacting within Biblical characters directly.
Therefore, it would certainly be beneficial to learn about the history, culture, and even geography of events in the Bible.

Examining a map of the region allows one to gain an appreciation for the journeys of the Israelites as they wandered the wilderness, Jesus’ earthly ministry through ancient Israel, and Paul’s missionary journeys around the Mediterranean.

Similarly, gaining an understanding of the culture of the times provides perspective of the times and helps one to gain new insights into Biblical truths.

In regards to cultural context, a good example is Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.  To fully appreciate the impact of this parable it helps to know just who the Samaritans were.

During Jesus’ time the Samaritans had complicated relationship with the Jews that extended back to Old Testament times (Samaritans are mentioned as far back in the Bible as 1 Kings).  Apparently the Samaritans would associate themselves with the Jews when convenient, taking advantage of their common heritage and worshiping God.  However, the Samaritans had a reputation of abandoning the Jews when they were being persecuted or conquered, reverting back to idol worship.  Thus, the Samaritans were considered social outcasts at best, hated enemies of the Jews at worst.  The Samaritans were considered a “mixed race” and subject to much racist and nationalistic ridicule by the Jews.  This knowledge makes one realize how shocking Jesus’ parable must have been to the original audience; He made a “no good” Samaritan the hero of His story!

Obviously, some of this may require additional study in supplementary resources such as a Bible dictionary or atlas.


When you set out to read any secular book, you don’t just flip to the middle, read a single sentence, and then turn to some other random section and do the same.  Yet how many Bible studies must look like this to an outsider?

If all of our Bible study consists of selective quotes then we’re definitely going to miss out on the author’s intended purpose and probably misinterpret what was meant to be said!

Of course, the best way to study the Bible in context is to read it as it was meant to be read…  As a whole.

Acts 20:27 For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.

Starting with Genesis and concluding with Revelation, reading the Bible from cover-to-cover as an ongoing narrative reveals the cohesive, epic story of God’s love for mankind, humanity’s ongoing rejection of God, and God’s longsuffering, ultimate plan for the redemption of the human race through His Son, Jesus Christ.

* Excerpt from : “Keeping the Context