Reading the Bible in Context
Have you ever heard someone say, when disagreeing with someone else about the significance of a particular statement in the Bible, “You’re taking that out of context”? Perhaps you’ve said that yourself. Indeed, everyone seems to know that taking a verse in the Bible “out of context” is a bad thing, but apparently a lot of people do it any way. We need to understand what it means to take a statement out of context and how to avoid doing so. To put the matter positively, we need to learn how to take biblical statements in context.
There are several kinds of “context” in the Bible that need to be appreciated if we are to become proficient at reading what it says in context. This article will discuss the two most basic contexts.
Words in Sentence Context
In human languages generally, a word can have different meanings. This is true of many words in the Bible. For example, the Hebrew word kabôd and the Greek word doxa, both commonly translated “glory” in Scripture, can mean wealth (Gen. 31:1), splendor (Esther 1:4; 5:11), greatness (Ps. 19:1), honor (Gen. 45:13; Num. 24:11; etc.), praise (Joshua 7:19; 1 Sam. 6:5), brightness or shining, especially manifesting God’s presence (Exod. 16:7, 10), or God’s full nature or essence that cannot be directly seen (Exod. 33:18, 22). Notice that the same word can have seemingly “contradictory” meanings depending on how and where it is used: Moses could see and had seen many times God’s “glory” in the sense of the bright light manifesting God’s presence, and so had the Israelites (from a distance). Yet Moses asked God to see his “glory,” meaning a full, unfiltered sight of God’s essential nature, something God told him he could not see and live (Exod. 33:19-23). This is not a real contradiction, just a different use of the word.
It may seem confusing that a word such as “glory” can have different meanings, but in most cases one simply needs to see how it is used in a sentence to know which meaning applies. For example:
“Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men” (Matt. 6:2 NKJV).
“And yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matt. 6:29 NKJV).
Here in Matthew 6, the word “glory” (Greek, doxa) has two different meanings, which are easily recognized by their sentence contexts: to “have glory from men” refers to honor, whereas Solomon’s “glory” clearly means his splendor.
Reading a whole sentence often clarifies a partial sentence that some religious group likes to quote by itself. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses often quote the words “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50); they argue that this statement proves that human beings cannot inherit God’s kingdom (which they interpret to mean living forever in heaven) as physical beings. But they are not even quoting the entire sentence, which reads, “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50 ESV). The second part of Paul’s sentence makes it clear that what is wrong with us is not that we are physical beings, but that we are “perishable”; our bodies age, die, and decay. What we need is for our bodies to be raised from the dead with immortality.
Sentences in Passage Context
Just as we read words in the context of the sentences in which they appear, we read sentences in the context of the passages in which they appear. My favorite humorous (okay, silly) example involves the following three sentences from the Gospels, including two sayings of Jesus:
Then he went away and hanged himself (Matt. 27:5b NIV).
“Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37 NIV).
“What you are about to do, do quickly” (John 13:27 NIV).
The maxim “A text without a context is a pretext” is relevant whenever someone takes a statement and tries to apply it without regard for how that statement functions in the larger passage in which it appears. A more serious example is the Mormon use of Amos 8:11-12 to prove that Christianity became apostate after the death of the first-century apostles. Here is what Amos 8:11-12 says:
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (Amos 8:11-12 ESV).
Is God here warning of an apostasy in Christianity, roughly a thousand years after Amos’s prophecy? To answer this question, one only need read a bit further in the same passage:
“In that day the lovely virgins and the young men shall faint for thirst. Those who swear by the Guilt of Samaria, and say, ‘As your god lives, O Dan,’ and, ‘As the Way of Beersheba lives,’ they shall fall, and never rise again” (Amos 8:13-14 ESV, emphasis added).
Clearly, “that day” to which Amos referred was not an apostasy in Christianity in the second or third century AD. This spiritual famine was experienced by people worshiping false gods in the northern kingdom of Israel based in Samaria centuries before Christ came. They practiced idolatry that was infamous in Dan, a city in the far north of Israel, and Beersheba, a city in the south part of Judah.
There are other kinds of contexts to be considered, notably book context (the message of the book as a whole and where the passage fits into the book) and covenant context (whether a biblical text reflects the situation under God’s covenant with Abraham, the Law covenant that God made with Israel through Moses, or the new covenant in Christ). The more you read the Bible, the easier it will become to understand statements in these different contexts. Reading words and sentences in their immediate context will always be foundational to an accurate reading of the Bible.
For Further Study
Guthrie, George. “Word Studies.” A lecture in Guthrie’s course, How to Study Your Bible. This is an excellent article, discussing the ranges of meanings of words, how context determines meanings, basic elements of word study, common fallacies or mistakes people make in word study, and steps to follow in word studies.