“Stop, you’re killing me!”
Which of the following scenes produced the statement above?
- A teenage boy won’t stop tickling his little sister.
- A middle-aged woman just scored 75 points against her Scrabble partner.
- A masked man is beating a defenseless elderly woman.
Does it matter? Absolutely! In the first two cases, the statement is meant to be teasing and playful. But the last scenario is life and death and someone needs to call the police!
Context does indeed matter in our daily life and in our study of God’s Word.
Unfortunately, many Christians fail to consider the context of a biblical passage before they come to a conclusion about what it means. As one of my seminary professors used to say, “A passage can never mean what it never meant.” In other words, every verse in the Bible has the same meaning today that it had when it was written. It may have unlimited applications depending on the individual and her circumstances. But God’s meaning never changes.
But here’s our problem: “the Bible was written in a foreign language to people who lived a long time ago in a different part of the world with a different way of life.”[i] In order to discover the original – and therefore current – meaning, we must consider the original context of the passage.
Biblical Context to Consider
Although numerous volumes have been written on the subject, there are a few things we can quickly consider to help us deal correctly with God’s Word.
- Literary Genre – Is the book you are studying poetry, wisdom, prophecy, narrative, or apocalyptic literature? The genre of the book affects the interpretation. For instance, narrative simply tells us what happened and not necessarily what we are supposed to do in a given situation. And wisdom literature, like Proverbs, states general life principles and not solid promises of God.
- Literary Context – Every sentence is part of a paragraph. Every paragraph is part of a larger passage. Every passage is part of an entire book. We cannot assign meaning to a verse without considering the greater context. For instance, knowing that Jacob stole the birthright from his brother Esau in Genesis 25 and Esua’s blessing from his father in chapter 27 helps us understand why Jacob was afraid of him in chapter 32.
- The Context of the Book – It matters who the author was, who he was writing to, and why he was writing. For instance, knowing that the author of the book of James was the half-brother of Jesus and not James the Apostle, definitely changes the way we understand the letter.
- Historical-Cultural Background – Every book of the Bible was written in a specific time in history, to a specific people, in the midst of a specific set of circumstances. We cannot accurately understand them outside of that context. The political climate, current customs, and speech idioms are just a few of the things that impact the original meaning of a passage. For instance, the book of Hebrews is packed with references to Jewish religious practices. Its rich meaning will be lost on us unless we go back and study things like the Day of Atonement and the Levitical priesthood.
A few resources to help with context
We cannot begin to cover everything here, but if you’d like to look deeper into the context as you study, here are a few suggestions:
- Read the introduction to a Bible book in your study Bible.
- Get a good Bible Dictionary. I have a copy of Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible.
- Another great resource is the two-volume set of The IVP Bible Background Commentary.
- Bible handbook like the classic Halley’s Bible Handbook
Have you ever misunderstood God’s Word because you failed to consider the context? What is a verse that you think is regularly taken out of context?
[i] Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Klein, Blomberg, Hubbard, Word Publishing, 1993, pg. 155.