Home > Apologetics, Christianity, Exposition, Theology > The important of context in interpreting the Bible

The important of context in interpreting the Bible

Location, location, location. The same principle that echoes throughout the real estate agent profession must be echoed in the halls of churches today. Location, location, location; or, in other words, context, context, context. Without context, the Scriptures mean whatever you want them to mean. I can take a verse out of any part of Scripture to justify nearly any action. Wanton, unrepentant sin? “Free in Christ” (Galatians 5:1). Moralistic living? “God gave those commandments for a positive reason!” (Exodus 20). And so on.

Context determines what a verse means, how a verse is limited in scope, to whom the verse is intended, etc. All the time, I see people who say that 2 Peter 3:9 applies to every single person, “…not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” As beautiful as a statement that this would be, it does not align with the rest of the Scriptures when it is ripped out of its context. And it’s immediate context is this:  “Simon Peter, a bondservant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ…” When we see the verse in context, we clearly see that this letter was written to believers. But these misinterpretations happen throughout the Scripture; I’m sure most people have a coffee cup with Jeremiah 29:11 on it, although that was a passage of Scripture directed towards the Israelites who had been enslaved by the Babylonians.

Now, what sort of context is important? Here’s a list:

  • Immediate surrounding verses. Many verses of Scripture, especially in the New Testament letters, are only parts of a sentence. Paul would go for (what are now) verses at a time to finish a sentence. It is important to see the whole sentence, break it down, examine it, and then determine what it is saying as a whole before ripping one section out of it.
  • The audience and purpose of the book. To whom was the letter or prophecy written? Is this a historical piece? Is it poetry? The audience limits who are the beneficiaries of the contents.
  • The author. How does the author in his works use the terms in the verses you are examining? How does he define them elsewhere?
  • The covenant. The New Testament is written under a different covenant than is the old, namely the Covenant of Grace. So the commands found through Leviticus and Deuteronomy do not have the same positive weight as they did for the Israelites. Grace reigns for the believers now; not works.
  • Relatedly, historical position. When was the book written? At what point in time? This determines the unique cultural things found in Scripture. Although our cultural norms should never elevate beyond Scripture’s commands, there are some gray areas that seem strange to our American culture, e.g. sheep-herding.
  • The whole counsel of God. This is the end-all of context. How does this verse mesh with the rest of Scripture. Scripture cannot contradict, so how do the various verses interact? How is atonement defined throughout Scripture? How is holiness defined? How is chosenness defined? “God is love” is true, but that does not mean that God is only love, for the rest of Scripture declares him to be a Consuming Fire, a hater of evildoers, and a merciful God to his people. All of Scripture defines itself.
I do not believe this is complete, but it is a starting point.

A maxim:  Do not use one verse to support your theology.

A video:  Never Read a Bible Verse

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  1. Angie
    April 15, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Very edifying. Thank you for sharing!

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