Worldview: Reading the Bible in Context

There’s an old joke about a fellow who decided to read his Bible more in order to find God’s will for his life. He opened his Bible and randomly put his finger on Matthew 27:5: “And [Judas] went and hanged himself.” Certain this was not God’s will for him, he tried again and hit on Luke 10:37: “Go and do likewise.” “Surely not,” he thought, so he fanned the pages again and landed on John 13:27: “What you are going to do, do quickly.” We chuckle at the ill-fated outcome of his Bible study, but it does raise the serious issue of how we use the Bible for discipleship and growth in the Christian life.

The desire to know God’s will for our daily life is certainly one of the major goals of Bible reading, but we sometimes hurry too quickly toward practical application without carefully considering the author’s message to his original audience. Our doctrine of biblical inspiration holds that God guided the original author in such a way that he wrote precisely what God intended him to say. Thus, for those who hold a high view of the inspiration of the Bible, the desire to know God’s word for us begins by first knowing the biblical author’s intended meaning for his ancient audience. The Bible was written for us, but it was not written to us.

Words, sentences and even entire paragraphs of text gain their meaning from the context in which they are used. The English word “ring” can refer to a piece of jewelry, a particular kind of sound, or it may be a command to perform an action. The specific meaning intended for the word is determined by the context we give it in a sentence. Context determines meaning. If we are to accurately understand the original meaning of the biblical authors, we must be aware of the context of their words.

One type of context to watch for is historical context. When the biblical authors wrote, they referred to people, places, historical events and various cultural and religious practices. Often, they do not explain the meaning or significance of these references but, rather, assume a common knowledge with their readers. If I say to someone today, “9/11 profoundly changed the United States,” I am assuming that my listener knows that “9/11” is shorthand for the horrific attack on New York City in 2001.

Likewise, biblical authors assume much common knowledge between themselves and their readers. Because of our historical distance, we may be ignorant of this assumed information, which can lead us to miss the author’s point. When Jesus told the Laodiceans (Revelation 3:14-16) that He wished they were either cold or hot and not lukewarm, we may think that Jesus desires people to either take a stand for Him (hot) or against Him (cold) but not to be halfhearted about their faith (lukewarm). We assume this because in our culture “hot” is regularly used metaphorically in a positive sense (“He’s on fire for the Lord”) and “cold” negatively (“She gave me the cold shoulder”). But Jesus is clearly alluding to Laodicea’s historical setting and the bad-tasting lukewarm water that came into Laodicea via aqueduct. Cities closer to the nearby mountains had good cold water for drinking, and many enjoyed bathing in the hot geothermal baths near Hierapolis, but Laodicea’s lukewarm aqueduct water was good for neither. Both the “cold” and “hot” imagery are positive in the historical setting of Laodicea; only the “lukewarm” image is negative. Jesus is not wishing for anyone to be against Him. Rather, He is calling for all to be useful in some way, either cold or hot, but their lukewarm state makes them useless. Historical context information can be found in Bible dictionaries, Bible background commentaries, and in the footnotes of high-quality study Bibles.

Another type of context to consider is literary context. Unlike historical context, being a good student of literary context doesn’t require outside resources, but only a perceptive reading of the Bible itself. Literary context refers to the ever-widening thought-units that surround a specific passage — sentences, paragraphs, discourses, book, author and extending to the whole Bible.

Literary context is like an onion; if the sentence you are reading is the center of the onion, it is embedded in and surrounded by layers of context that actually give the meaning to the words. Ignoring literary context — which usually happens when we hastily extract and quote Bible verses out of context — often results in distorting the original inspired meaning given by the author. Habakkuk 1:5 is often quoted in sermons as God’s promise to save many people if we will be faithful to the Great Commission. “Look at the nations and watch — and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe even if you were told.” But the context shows that the “amazing” thing God is going to do is raise up the wicked Babylonians to judge Israel.

Often the broader context of the New Testament is important in having a complete understanding of a particular topic. When Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7), He is not saying that we should ask for anything we want or that God gives us everything we want. The immediate context shows that He is simply making the point that God is a generous giver. We must consult the broader context of the New Testament to see that God only gives us what is good (James 1:17), that we must ask with right motives (James 4:3), and that He only gives to us according to His will (1 John 5:14-15).

Bible study that honors the divine inspiration of its authors will seek to understand the meaning they intended via careful consideration of the historical and literary contexts of the text.

— Curtis K. Horn Jr. is professor of Christian studies at North Greenville University.