Reading the Bible In Context
When I was in college, my friends and lecturers would sometimes joke that I was a ‘Contextual Christian’. The reason that they said this was that for nearly every discussion, essay or post that we did, I would raise the topic of historical and cultural context. For years now I have enjoyed learning about biblical history; I find it brings the world and characters of the Bible to life in my mind, I can understand the people and the messages of the Bible so much more clearly when I can understand the world that existed around them. I also like to understand the lens that we interpret the Bible through. I found an article this week that summarised and explained why historical context is so important, and I thought that it was worth sharing with all of you.
Context is the way God gave us the Bible, one book at a time. The first readers of Mark could not flip over to Revelation to help them understand Mark; Revelation had not been written yet. The first readers of Galatians did not have a copy of the letter Paul wrote to Rome to help them understand it. These first readers did share some common information with the author outside the book they received.
We’ll call this shared information ‘background’: some knowledge of the culture, earlier biblical history, and so on. But they had, most importantly, the individual book of the Bible that was in front of them. Therefore we can be confident that the writers of the Bible included enough within each book of the Bible to help the readers understand that book of the Bible without referring to information they lacked. For that reason, context is the most important academic key to Bible interpretation.
Often popular ministers today quote various isolated verses they have memorized, even though this means that they will usually leave 99% of the Bible’s verses unpreached. One seemingly well-educated person told a Bible teacher that she thought the purpose of having a Bible was to look up the verses the minister quoted in church! But the Bible is not a collection of people’s favourite verses with a lot of blank space in between. Using verses out of context one could ‘prove’ almost anything about God or justify almost any kind of behaviour–as history testifies. People have misused the Bible to justify genocide, slavery, racism, child abuse… really any number of things that we would today agree is not what Christians are now called to do and be. But in the Bible God revealed Himself in His acts in history, through the inspired records of those acts and the inspired wisdom of His servants addressing specific situations. He took the imperfect world that people lived in and gave them guidance on doing better, being better within their times. We say that we live in a broken world today, but so did they.
People in our culture now value everything ‘instant’: from two-minute noodles to fast food to schemes like Afterpay and so forth. Similarly, we too often take short-cuts to understanding the Bible by quoting random verses or assuming that others who taught us have understood them correctly. When we do so, we fail to be diligent in seeking God’s Word (Proverbs 2:2-5; 4:7; 8:17; 2 Timothy 2:15).
One prominent minister in the U.S., Jim Bakker, was so busy with his ministry to millions of people that he did not make time to study Scripture carefully in context. He trusted that his friends whose teachings he helped promote surely had done so. Later, when his ministry collapsed, he spent many hours honestly searching the Scriptures and realized to his horror that on some points Jesus’ teachings, understood in context, meant the exact opposite of what he and his friends had been teaching! It is never safe to simply depend on what someone else claims that God says (1 Kings 13:15-26). Hear what others have to say, their understanding can help inform your own. We can learn from other people, but don’t just assume that their knowledge (or your own) is completely correct. Always keep learning. It’s okay to admit that you were wrong about something and change your mind because you have learned something new. It’s called growth. We do the best we can with the information we have.
I discovered this for myself when, as a young Christian, I began reading through the whole Bible, repeatedly. I was shocked to discover how much Scripture I had essentially ignored between the verses I had memorized, and how carefully the intervening text connected those verses. I had been missing so much, simply using the Bible to defend what I already believed! After one begins reading the Bible a book at a time, one quickly recognizes that verses isolated from their context nearly always mean something different when read in context.
We cannot, in fact, even pretend to make sense of most verses without reading their context. Isolating verses from their context without attempting to understand them, or to justify our pre-determined beliefs disrespects the authority of Scripture, because this method of interpretation cannot be consistently applied to the whole of Scripture. It picks verses that seem to make sense on their own, but most of the rest of the Bible is left over when it is done, incapable of being used the same way. Preaching and teaching the Bible the way it invites us to interpret it (in its original context), both explains the Bible accurately and provides our hearers a good example how they can learn the Bible better for themselves.
If we read any other book, we would not simply take an isolated statement in the middle of the book and ignore the surrounding statements that help us understand the reason for that statement. If we hand a storybook to a child already learning how to read, the child would probably start reading at the beginning. That people so often read the Bible out of context is not because it comes naturally to us, but because we have been taught to read books beginning to end, except when it comes to the books of the Bible. We read almost everything else as a whole, but with the most important text we’ll ever read, we think the parts that are quotable are the only parts that matter.
Many contradictions some readers claim to find in the Bible arise simply from ignoring the context of the passages they cite, jumping from one text to another without taking the time to first understand each text on its own terms. To develop an example offered above, when Paul says that a person is justified by faith without works (Romans 3:28), his context makes it clear that he defines faith as something more than passive assent to a viewpoint; he defines it as a conviction that Christ is our salvation, a conviction on which one actively stakes one’s life (Romans 1:5). James declares that one cannot be justified by faith without works (James 2:14)—because he uses the word “faith” to mean mere assent that something is true (2:19), he demands that such assent be actively demonstrated by obedience to show that it is genuine (2:18). In other words, James and Paul use the word “faith” differently, but do not contradict one another on the level of meaning. If we ignore context and merely connect different verses on the basis of similar wording, we will come up with contradictions in the Bible that the original writers would never have imagined.
So, a fun activity for you this week. Try to read the Bible without going in and assuming what it means from what you have learned. If a verse doesn’t make sense, don’t just skip it until you find a nice quotable one. Do some research, try to find out if you’re missing something that could help you understand. And if you think you understand it well, research the verses you think you know, find out about the world that they were written in. You will find that your understanding of the Bible may not only deepen, but maybe even change.
Introduction, conclusion and edits by: Lauren Mead
Sourced from: Dr. Craig Keener, The importance of context in Bible study, viewed 15 October 2021,