Posted By Thomas Perez. December 16, 2010 at 7:09pm.
“Neglect of context is a common cause of erroneous interpretation.”
(A Berkeley Mickelsen).
I. What is Context? Here are some definitions:
A. “That which surrounds and gives meaning to something else.”
B. “The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.” (www.dictionary.com)
C. “Context refers to that which goes before and that which follows after.” (Howard Hendricks, Living By The Book, 225).
D. “When we speak of the context, we are talking about the connection of thought that runs through a passage, those links that weave it into one piece (Walter C. Kaiser, Toward An Exegetical Theology, 71.)
II. Importance of Context
A. It is foundational for proper interpretation Paying proper heed to the issue of context may be the single most important principle for correctly interpreting the Bible or understanding any form of communication, including the Bible.
“The first responsibility of every interpreter is to note carefully what precedes and what follows any verse or passage which he is interpreting.” (Mickelsen, 102).
“Good exegetical procedure dictates that the details be viewed in light of the total context. Unless the exegete knows where the thought of the text begins and how that pattern develops, all the intricate details may be of little or no worth. This ability—the ability to state what each section of a book is about and how the paragraphs in each section contribute to that argument—is one of the most critical steps. If the exegete falters here, much of what follows will be wasted time and effort” (Kaiser, 69).
B. Ignoring it leads to wrong interpretations. Whenever a faulty interpretation of the Bible occurs, it is usually because a passage was taken out of its context.
1. Ex. Ezekiel 37:16-17 Mormonism teaches that the joining of two sticks in this passage refers to the joining of the Bible with the Book of Mormon. But the context of the Book of Ezekie indicates that what will be joined some day are the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Verse 22 states, “And I will make them one nation in the land.” The true meaning is that Judah and Israel will once again be reunited into one nation when God brings His people into their land. However, there are other notable interpretations concerning this passage as referring to the Church & spiritual Israel found within the Church Body of Christ. But when a particular belief narrow’s any passage down to only include their individual ideology, then it becomes an exclusive passage, meant only for that group/cult.
2. Ex. John 14:14 The Prosperity Gospel movement likes to quote John 14:14: “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” Those who teach this claims that we can ask for anything we desire such as money, cars, houses, etc. as long as we tack “in Jesus’ name” at the end of our prayers. They do not stress, though, that to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray according to what Jesus desires not what we selfishly crave. Plus, other texts reveal that answered prayer is based upon praying according to God’s will (see 1 John 5:14–15), praying with an obedient heart (see 1 John 3:22) and praying with right reasons and motives (see James 4:1–3).
III. Tips for Determining a Book’s Context (note: we will get into more detail concerning studying context in regard to literary and cultural matters in later sections. But here are some basic principles for determining the context of a book.)
A. Read the book of the Bible you are going to study multiple times.
B. When reading a book of the Bible try to find out the historical situations facing the author and his readers.
1. Does the book indicate who the author is?
2. Does this book identify who the intended audience is?
3. Does the author of a Bible book state his purpose for writing his book?
a. Ex. John 20:31 “These things have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
b. Ex. 1 John The apostle John gives four purpose statements in 1 John. He wrote this letter so that his readers may have joy (1:4), may not sin (2:1), may not be deceived (2:26), and may know that they have eternal life (5:13).
c. Ex. Luke 1:1–4 and Acts 1:1 Luke’s purpose in writing was to present an orderly account of the life of Jesus and the beginning of the Christian church.
4. Who are the main characters in the book?
NOTE: A good commentary or Bible Survey book can help with understanding the historical situation of Bible books. Recommended sources for this include Encountering the Old Testament by Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer and Encountering the New Testament by Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough.
IV. Tips for Determining the Context of a Word or Phrase
A. Keep in mind that words do not have inherent meanings.
1. Ex. World The term “world” (kosmos) can mean: (1) the world of people (John 3:16); (2) the physical planet (John 17:5); or (3) the organized system of evil in opposition to God.
2. Ex. Saved and Salvation Depending on their contexts, these words can refer to (1) Israel’s deliverance from her enemies (Luke 1:71); (2) deliverance from physical danger (Acts 27:20; Matt. 24:13?); deliverance from physical sickness (James 5:15); and deliverance from sin (John 3:17).
3. Ex. Spirit The word “spirit” (pneuma) is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament. It refers to wind (John 3:8), the life breath (Rev. 11:11), the immortal nature of a man (John 6:63), the perfected spirit of a saint in heaven (Hebrews 12:23), demons (Matt. 10:1; Luke 4:36) and the Holy Spirit of God (John 4:24; Matt. 28:19). In John 3:8 the word pneuma is used twice in the same context to refer to natural wind and the Holy Spirit.
B. Examine the paragraph or chapter context “The context of the paragraph or chapter is sometimes helpful in clarifying a word, phrase, or sentence that is not made clear in the sentence in which it is used.” (Zuck, 109).
1. Ex. Temple Jesus, in John 2:19, spoke of destroying “this temple.” What is this temple Jesus was speaking of? Verse 21 explains that the temple was Jesus’ own body.
2. Ex. Fire In Matthew 3:11 John the Baptist states, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Is this a fire of judgment or a fire of zealous commitment to God? Since verses 10 and 12 are speaking of judgment, the reference to “fire” in verse 11 is probably referring to the fires of judgment. Ultimate Reconciliationists would have a field day with this interpretation, for it reveals the purging of God as a Refiners Fire.
3. Ex. Seeing the Kingdom What did Jesus mean when He said to His disciples, “There are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28). The fulfillment of this promise came in the following chapter with the Transfiguration. Jesus gave Peter, James and John a preview of the kingdom that would be established at Jesus’ second coming.
C. Examine the book context
1. Ex. Sin 1 John 3:6 states, “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” Does this passage teach that no Christian will ever commit a sin? No. Verses 8–10 reveal that John is talking about “practicing sin.” Plus, other passages like 1:8, 1:10, and 2:1 clearly state that Christians do sin.
Paul is probably referring to New Testament prophets in Ephesians 2:20. and 2. Ex. Prophets Ephesians 2:20 mentions that the foundation of the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. But are the “prophets” here Old Testament prophets or New Testament prophets? Since the term “prophets” is used of New Testament prophets in Ephesians
D. Examine parallel passages “Parallel passages also serve as helpful contexts for ascertaining the meaning of certain words or sentences.
1. Ex. Matthew, Mark, and Luke
2. Ex. 1 and 2 Kings—1 and 2 Chronicles
3. Ex. Romans and Galatians
4. Ex. Ephesians and Colossians
5. Daniel and Revelation
6. 2 Peter and Jude
E. Examine the entire Bible’s context Since the Bible is written by a divine author and is unified there can be no passages that contradict other passages.