Context is Everything

In our current Christianity – especially in the Western World – we have learned to quote Bible verses and make Scripture references to prove our points of view. We should indeed use the Bible when considering our beliefs. But I’ve found that often the verses are pulled out of context. (By often, I don’t mean the majority of the time, but instead that it happens more than it should.) We’ll use verses like 2 Timothy 3:15-17 to ‘prove’ that the Bible is the inspired word of God, yet neglect entirely what the point of the verses were: the conclusion to the first part of the chapter, which was about those who would rise up and promote heresy and ungodly living. Yes, the verse says that the Scripture is the inspired word of God, but no, that isn’t the point of the verse.

In the New Testament times, the Jewish scholars – called rabbis – would debate the Scripture with one another. When they debated, they would quote a verse or a passage. But, when they quoted the verse or passage, they didn’t mean just that verse or passage. They knew that their opponent would know the verse, and know the context of the verse. So, they would quote the verse – sometimes part of the verse – and the other rabbi would then pull it up in their mind as to what the context is, what the chapter is about, what the book is about, and where it is located in the whole schema of the Scriptures. Out of that context, the rabbi would then know that the point being made is not simply about that one verse, but rather the whole context gives a more full and complete argument. Therefore, to respond simply to that verse would completely miss the brunt of the argument.

I try to do this in ALL of my writings. I’ll admit, I am unsuccessful. Yet, especially when I’m trying to make a point, I will use a verse or passage knowing that the context supports the argument being made. I think this is so necessary for our time. We need to be willing to dig into the texts of the Bible for multiple reasons.

First, we need to see that when Scripture is being referenced or quoted in other parts of the Bible, that reference is not simply there because they want to quote one part of a verse. The reference is there because they expect if you don’t know the verse you will look it up and see the context and get the bigger picture and the fuller argument being made.

Second, we need to dig into the Scripture so that we too can make these sorts of arguments. When we’re debating, when we’re discussing, when we’re teaching, when we’re learning, when we’re apologetic-ing – ANY time that we quote the Bible we need to use the context of that verse and make sure that it is the context making the argument and not one specific verse. It has taken me years to overcome the many verses pulled out of context (like John 3:16) that we have this “understanding” of what this verse means, and when we come to it, we read this understanding into it, but when we read up to it or after it, we understand that is the context. How many times have I seen it in myself? I’ll be tracking, and then suddenly a verse that I have quoted and known and put to memory will come up, and I’ll say, “What?!? That’s what that verse means?”

How about I give a couple of examples and then end.

“Wives, submit to your husbands…” Ephesians 5:22. I’m expecting that you know the verse, and you know the following couple verses. What comes before this verse? Do you know? Paul just finished speaking about how we’ve come out of darkness and into light. Darkness and light are metaphors for two different kingdoms. The way that Paul concludes this introductory thought is by saying, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”. This is the verse directly before, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” What is the context telling us? Just like everyone submits to everyone else, so too should the marriage relationship be one of submission one to another. What comes after this verse/passage? “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” This plays in perfectly with what I just said: the point is that the relationship is one of submission unto one another – the husband even submitting himself unto death on behalf of his wife! What comes after that? We find Paul giving advice to children and parents, to slaves and masters, and finally to bear the full armor of God. This passage is the commencement of Paul explaining what it means to be children of the light, who have come out of darkness. He concludes the whole thought with the “put on the full armor of God” passage.

Let us try another. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” Matthew 7:1. What is the context? We are in the sermon on the mount, where Jesus begins with these beatitudes, basically clarifying what it means to typify the kingdom of God. Then, he gives two examples of what these traits look like: salt and light. From there, Christ tells us that He fulfills the Law (a rabbinical way of saying that He is teaching it in its purest form), and that our righteousness needs to exceed the Pharisees’. How does that happen? Jesus spends the next 13 ‘teachings’ explaining what it means. The first six are in relation to the Law and the way that we understand and obey it. The next seven are in relation to our daily lives and attitudes. At the beginning and at the end of these teachings we find the phrase “the Law and the Prophets”. This teaching on judging others is the second to last of these teachings on what it means that our righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees. From there, Jesus explains that the gate is small, and the path is narrow that leads to life. How do we get onto this path? We live in righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees’. How do we know we are indeed on that path? Jesus explains that we will know by our fruit. Then He ends by giving the parable of two builders: one wise and one foolish. So, when we come to judging others, this is the context. We find verse 7:5 saying, “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Jesus is actually telling us to judge! He is distinguishing between the unrighteous judgment and the righteous judgment, though. So, 7:1 fits in with the whole context – a comparison of the two “righteousnesses” (one true, and one false) – and also stands as an introduction to what it means to righteously judge your brother.

So, in conclusion, I would highly recommend that we start seeking to understand the context of these verses and passages we quote as “proof texts”. Many false doctrines have entered the mind of believers simply because they haven’t gone and looked at the context of the verses quoted. This will save you from falling for much deception – not all – and will give you such a firm foundation in your faith. Hopefully this helped someone. God bless you all!

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