Context, Context, Context
In terms of interpreting and understanding the Bible, we often hear the word context use. By context, I mean the historical setting of the passage, the genre, the circumstances surrounding the passage in general. All of this and much more must be taken into consideration to properly interpret the Bible. I remember, in my freshman year of college, Dr. Mark Gibbs opened our New Testament survey class with this statement, “Context is king!” He went on to explain that if we do not take a given passage within its context, we can essentially make the Bible say anything we want. My favorite way to illustrate this point is the story of the man who played Bible roulette. The man desired to hear from the Lord, so he sat down and grabbed his Bible, closed his eyes, opened it, and looked down reading these words, “then he went away and hanged himself,” of course the passage referred to Judas Iscariot. Then the man repeated the process, and read, “go and do thou likewise.” As corny as the joke is, the point is clear, scripture must be read and interpreted in its context.
Now, what are the various contexts of a passage? The following is not an exhaustive list, and some others may list the same ideas with different terms; nevertheless, the point is the same. The various contexts are literary, historical, and cultural. To dive into any of these various contexts, one only needs to ask the basic questions: who, what, when, where, how, and why? When interpreting a passage, it is important to consider which testament it is in. Is it the New Testament or the Old Testament? Is the passage part of the Old Covenant of the law or the New Covenant of grace? The testament question is an example of “when?” However, one must go much deeper. For example, if you were studying Ephesians, you need to consider the following questions: who wrote the book, when did he write it, who did he write it too, where was he when he wrote it, why did he write it, and what did he say? At this point, you are thinking, “how do I answer all these questions?” It is not as difficult as one may think. Biblical study sources are vast and many. For example, assuming one is studying Ephesians, a Bible dictionary would provide background information about the town of Ephesus and its inhabitants, history, culture, etc. There are plenty of inexpensive options for Bible dictionaries such as the classic Smith’s Bible Dictionary or Holman’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, while writing this blog I googled these two sources and one can purchase both, online, for less than twelve dollars. If you desire to find good sources, its not hard thanks to modern technology. Moreover, a scholarly commentary will provide insights into the specific passages in Ephesians, as well as author, date, audience, and purpose. While there is no shortage of commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and a variety of other resources, one must be cautioned about the quality of a source. When selecting a commentary, make sure the author has the proper educational credentials. Moreover, if you are an evangelical as me, consider the faith background of the author because it will most certainly influence his or her interpretation.
Finally, I believe it is helpful to give an illustration of a well-known passage taken out of context. Jesus said, in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Now, I’ve heard countless people take this one verse, out of context, and come up with this, “see a church only takes a few people and Jesus is with them.” Well, that is not necessarily untrue. However, in context, by reading the preceding verses, which reveal Jesus’ conversation with the disciples, he is clearly speaking about church discipline against a sinning brother who refuses to repent. This is the danger of what I call, “one verse preaching.” We must remember every verse is tied to either the verses before it or after it, or both. If I had one lesson for Christians, regarding their Bibles, it is this “context, context, context.”