Consider the Context
by Bryan Gibson
Imagine a foreigner coming upon these words to the 18th Amendment: “This article shall be inoperative unless it has been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several states…” To make any sense of this at all, he would need to at least read what comes before and after this statement. In other words, this statement won’t mean anything to him unless he reads it “in context.”
What if we said to someone, “to prove to the possum it could be done?” That would not make much sense, because that’s only the punch line. But if we supply the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road,” it makes a lot more sense. The first phrase can only be understood “in context.” Considering the context is something we do all the time—even if we may not realize it.
People often get upset because they are “quoted out of context.” One sentence may have been lifted from what they said and given an entirely different spin. In some cases, maybe their full statement was given, but nothing was said about the circumstances they were in when they said it—something that could greatly change the meaning of what was said.
Let’s keep all this in mind when we study the bible. It is so easy to lift a bible passage out of context, if we’re not careful. The temptation is to isolate a particular verse or phrase, but we need to make sure we read what comes before and after. Follow the train of thought. It may be necessary in some cases to read the entire book to fully understand the context. In other cases, it may be necessary to read information supplied in other books of the Bible.
Let’s break this down further and look at some things crucial to understanding the context.
Who said it?
There may be times when Satan or a false teacher is quoted (see Colossians 2:21, then read vv. 20-23):
20 If ye died with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, do ye subject yourselves to ordinances,
21 Handle not, nor taste, nor touch
22 (all which things are to perish with the using), after the precepts and doctrines of men?
Obviously, we need to know that verse 21 was not a command that Paul was giving so that we are not led astray. Aside from this benefit, it just aids our understanding in general. For example, consider Philippians 1:12: “The things that happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel.” It helps to know that Paul is writing, because we can now determine what “things” he is talking about. We can go to the Book of Acts and get a detailed account of the things that happened to him leading to his imprisonment in Rome. Answers to the questions discussed below help us to put the passage in the proper context so that the intent of the writer, who was inspired by the Holy Spirit, can be understood.
To whom is it said?
As and example, consider John 16:13 and Acts 1:8.
13 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak from himself; but what things soever he shall hear, (these) shall he speak: and he shall declare unto you the things that are to come.
8 But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
Jesus is talking only to His apostles in these two verses. If we miss that, we could make some serious errors in application. The application may not always be limited to the “target audience,” but we won’t know that until we have “done our homework.” So let us look to see who is addressed. Christians or unbelievers? Elders or evangelists? Individuals or the church? Women or men, or perhaps, both? Certainly, some things apply to all Christians. But we should never make that assumption about all passages.
Are there any circumstances that might affect the meaning of what is said?
As an example of this, some of the instructions given in 1 Corinthians 7 seem a bit strange, until we get to verse 26:
26 I think therefore that this is good by reason of the distress that is upon us, (namely,) that it is good for a man to be as he is.
The “present distress” no doubt had some bearing on the instructions given in this passage. Anything that might be revealed about the circumstances of either the writer or the readers should be useful. Going through trials? False teachers in their midst? Circumstances of their conversion? Location of author at the time of writing? We need to think these things through, and then make the interpretation based on the meaning that is being conveyed by the passage and the qualifiers of the context.
What is the subject under discussion?
Many people look at 2 Peter 1:20 and mistakenly think that the subject of this passage is study and interpretation of the Bible. But when you read the full context (vv. 16-21), it becomes clear that the subject is the origin of Scripture. To understand the Scriptures, we need to follow the train of thought, just like we do with any other form of communication.
2 Peter 1:16-21
16 For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
17 For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when there was borne such a voice to him by the Majestic Glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased:
18 and this voice we (ourselves) heard borne out of heaven, when we were with him in the holy mount.
19 And we have the word of prophecy (made) more sure; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts:
20 knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation.
21 For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.
In fact, verse 20 indicates just the opposite from the interpretation generally given since "private interpretation" is not talking about the average person being able to understand it. "Private interpretation" would mean that only a select few could, or were qualified to, understand it. Verse 19 is encouraging them to take advantage of the scriptures that they have accessible to them. To use this verse to deny people their rightful access to the scriptures is about as far from the Holy Spirit's meaning and intent here as one could get.
Much more could be said on this topic, but we will close with this important observation. Nothing is more important in bible study than a hunger to know the truth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Those who hunger for the truth will be glad to put in the additional effort to read the entire context to better determine the meaning of the writers who were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
What are the conditions of salvation given by Jesus?