Reading the Bible in context is foundational to the interpretation and application of its biblical truths. To be a serious student of the Bible, we must move past reading without tools and resources and be equipped with the knowledge and education to study it accurately and thoroughly.
One of the tools we use in studying the Bible is reading it from the lense of its original context. What is context, and why does it matter? Let’s find out!
The Oxford Dictionary defines the Word context as, “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” It also defines it as “the parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning.”
Context clarifies the meaning of the “event, statement, or idea”; it’s that simple.
So why is context so important to keep in
mind when studying the Bible?
The Bible is the Word of God; accurate, and infallible. Knowing the Bible is God’s communication with His people, then we must interpret and apply it in its original intent. Studying the Word in its original context keeps people safe from making it say what they want. It keeps people safe from applying it wrong and leading others into deception.
What happens when we study the Bible out of context or even take specific verses out of context?
For example, Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” When examing this verse out of context, many people have taken this verse to mean they can do anything they put their minds to. This verse is used as a motivational quote to encourage many on following their dreams, winning a race, or accomplishing something of significance.
That interpretation is the furthest thing from what this verse means. First, this verse comes from the book of Philippians, which is a prison epistle, a letter Paul wrote when he faced imprisonment. He was not writing from a place of chasing his dreams or accomplishing great feats; he was speaking from a place of contentment. He was content to serve God’s Will even if that meant doing it from jail and possibly execution.
Notice the previous verse, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance, and need.” He is speaking of being content with whatever the Lord has allowed in our lives. There will be seasons of plenty and abundance, but there will also be seasons of hardship and suffering; Paul, depending on Christ, has learned to be content with it all.
The point is trusting God in all circumstances and knowing when the world brings hardship; we can press on in Christ. Subsequently, when we are in abundance, we can hold fast to Christ and live rightly in humility and selflessness.
This example shows how vital it is to consider context as we study the Bible. A great way to grow your Bible study skills and understand the context of the passage you are reading is to check out my previous post on the Inductive Bible Study Method. This method will help you gain the confidence to pull out the context and gain greater Bible Knowledge.
So how do we go about reading the Bible in context? Remember, context is “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.”
When studying the Bible, there are
multiple types of context to consider.
Metanarrative of scripture
The Bible was written by real people, during real points in history. Historical context helps us to understand the Bible deeper by examining what was going on historically during the time of its writing. Understanding the historical period it was written in gives fresh understanding to the original meaning of the passage. Understanding who was in power, how various countries were running, how certain people groups were treated, for example, gives deeper meaning to the passage you are studying. For example, in the Old Testament, there was a period when kings ruled over the Israelites. The way these kings ruled had a lot to do with Israel’s worship of God and their straying from Him. Eventually, the Israelites would be led into exile because they allowed wicked kings to lead them away from God. To better appreciate why they were led into exile, it would be prudent to discover who the kings were throughout history, how they interacted with their people and other countries, which ones honored God and which ones led them into idol worship.
These are specific examples, but they illustrate why knowing what was going on in history sheds meaning on the stories and passages of the Bible.
Cultural context is “all aspects of life, the totality of meanings, ideas, and beliefs shared by individuals within a group of people. Culture includes language, values, norms, customs.”
People, culture, values, and customs make up the setting that shed light on the right interpretation of the Bible. We do well to examine those
Continuing the example above, one would do well to research Israel’s culture when the strayed from God. What was going on in the traditions and customs of the Israelites? What did they value? Those are great questions to dig deeper into learning why Israel strayed from God.
There are various literary genres throughout the books of the Bible; those genres include history, poetry, narrative, law, wisdom, prophecy, gospel, and letter.
Knowing what genre each book falls into is vital. For example, the book of Psalms is a book of poetry. If one reads the book of psalms within the context of the genre of poetry, then it makes sense to see metaphors, hyperbole, similes, and symbolism. Because there are metaphors and symbolism within the book, it is essential to interpret the psalms with that in mind. If the book of psalms is read without that context, one would potentially be confused by the exaggerated language.
Metanarrative of Scripture
I have talked about the metanarrative of scripture ad nauseam in a previous blog post, but I will quickly tie it into our talk on context.
Understanding the metanarrative or overarching story of scripture makes the whole of the Bible come alive. When we understand how the gospel is seen throughout the entirety of scripture, the Old Testament and the New Testament make sense in light of each other.
In Bible study, the term “context is king” is widely used and for a good reason. Context colors the way we accurately interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. It takes discipline, research, and diligence to dig in and do the work of discovering the various contexts we just discussed, but when you do the Bible comes alive in a way you have ever experienced.