Tools for Reading the Bible // #1 – Context

March 23, 2017

Let’s just be honest… reading the Bible is tough.

Reading the Bible is not like reading the news or your favorite novel… it’s reading something ancient, translated and interpreted, and then trying to find meaning and purpose in it.  This is just overwhelming to most of us, especially if we haven’t had formal training on how to do this properly.

But reading the Bible is crucial to our discipleship.  It’s the method God uses to communicate with us.  If we want to hear from God, we must read his Word!  So, what should we do?

In the next three posts, I will present to you the three rules for reading the Bible.  That’s right, just three.  Following these three rules will help you to understand the Bible every time you sit down to read it.

Rule #1 – Context

We often will sit down to read the Bible, like good little Christian boys and girls, but we don’t know where to start.  So we’ll start with some of our favorite verses, or we’ll read along until we find a verse that seems to say something helpful to us.  Something practical and useful, like how to be more humble or what to do when our kids are giving us grief.  But in this search for the practical, we often ignore the context of the passages we love.

There are two reasons why we do this.  The first is what I call “The Problem of Early Christian Bible Marketing”.  Back in 1551, after the printing press was invented and the Bible started to be mass produced, a French printer named Robert Stephanus invented this little things called “verse numbers” in the New Testament to help sell his version of the Bible.

These verse divisions caught on and have since become universal in their usage, but the original text of the Bible did not have these divisions!  Today, because we’re so used to seeing those divisions, we tend to think they’re just part of the Bible and we tend to allow those divisions to also divide the way we read the Bible.  It becomes easier for us to take a verse and pluck it out of the narrative or letter we’re reading and then interpret it independently of the surrounding context.

The other reason why we can tend to ignore the context of passages is because our western culture has shifted so dramatically that the way we take in and interpret information has been adversely affected.  Essentially, most westerners, on the whole, just don’t like to read, or read long passages of books or texts.  T. David Gorton writes in his book Why Johnny Can’t Preach, that “societal changes reflected in a decline in the ability to read (texts) and write…”

Here’s the danger:  If we don’t read the context of a passage, we run the risk of taking a story, a single verse, or even a couple words, and pulling them out of the greater context of the Bible, thus giving those words a completely different meaning than intended.

Here’s an example:

“And he said to him, All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  – Matthew 4:9

Wow!  What an amazing promise from God!  Reading this verse alone, it seems that if we just fall down and worship, we will get everything we want?  Money, power, fame, love, success… the world is our burrito.  But hopefully you can already see the problem.  This verse raises more questions than answers.  Who should we worship?  What will we be given?  Who is speaking?

If we read the larger story around it, we find the answers to these key questions.  This is during the temptation of Jesus by the devil!  Satan is promising Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would only fall down and worship him.  After reading the context, this is clearly not a verse that we can claim as a promise from God!

Here’s another example:

Suppose you have a good friend named Joe who has a son named Isaac.  Isaac has been getting into trouble recently… his grades have been slipping, he got caught looking at pornography, and Joe, his dad, even found a small bag of marijuana in his drawer.  Joe comes to you seeking advice and you direct him to a very applicable Bible verse for this situation… Genesis 22:2:

“He said, Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

Does this sound like good advice for Joe?  Heck no!  At the arraignment hearing you will be implicated for conspiracy to murder!

Context is crucial when reading the Bible.  If we don’t understand the surrounding verses, and especially the greater story that God is telling in all of scripture, we run the risk of easily misinterpreting much of the Bible.

Let’s look at one more example of why context is so important.  This one is much more subtle.  One of the most popular verses amongst Christians today is Jeremiah 29:11.  It reads, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”  We love this verse… we write it on our walls, stitch it on pillows and Bible covers, and make it our life verse.  However we must ask this crucial question…

Is this a promise from God that we can claim for ourselves?

Is this verse really saying that God knows the plans that he has for ME?  Does he have plans for MY welfare?  Is he promising ME a future and a hope?  Let’s look at the context of the passage:

Jeremiah 29:1 reads:  “These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.”  Verses 2 and 3 offer a little more context about when the letter was penned and who delivered the letter.  Then verse 4 begins the content of the letter which extends through verse 28.

This means that our verse — Jeremiah 29:11 — is in a letter written by the prophet Jeremiah to the Israelite exiles living in Babylon.  The promise of plans for welfare, a future and a hope was meant for them, not for us.

Does this mean that God does NOT have plans for us?  Does he NOT seek our welfare?  We cannot conclude that from this verse alone.  All that we can say is that THIS VERSE is not a verse that we can claim as a promise for us today because the context reveals it is a promise for a particular people (the Israelites) at a particular time (after their exile into Babylon).  Any other reading of this verse would be a misuse of its intended purpose.

One more note about context…  while it is absolutely crucial to understand single verses of the Bible in light of the surrounding paragraphs and stories, it is equally as important to understand those verses and stories in the context of the ENTIRE BIBLE.  The whole Bible is a huge story of what God has been doing throughout history to redeem his people.  If we fail to understand the big story of the Bible, smaller stories and individual verses can seem to have a very different meaning than what the author originally intended.

A good example of this is the story of David and Goliath found in 1 Samuel 17.  This story is action-packed and almost has a pygmalion, “rags to riches” flavor to it.  American’s especially love these types of stories.  A nation is attacked by an evil enemy.  Large giant taunts them.  Little farm boy who no one expects to do anything steps up to represent the nation and fight the giant.  To everyone’s surprise, the boy wins!  (And chops off the giant’s head too!)  C’mon… what’s not to like?

Typically, we might read this story and attempt to apply it to our own life in this way:  There are tough circumstances in our life, like the giant.  But with God’s help we can conquer those giants and be victorious like David.

Without the context of the whole Bible, it’s easy to interpret this story in this way.  It’s a positive message, and it’s right in-line with all the other “self-help” stuff we see out there today.  If you write a book about this you’ll be the next Depak Chopra.

There are a couple of problems with this though, and the first is obvious:  What happens when I seek God’s help to defeat “my Goliaths” and it doesn’t work?  Does that mean God isn’t powerful enough?  Does He not love me?  Is He not real?

The second problem brings us to our context issue.  The context of the entire Bible is about one thing:  The redemption of humankind from sin.  This means that David’s fight against Goliath illustrates this theme as well.  We might read David’s story this way:

A nation is under attack from a brutal enemy that will inevitably destroy them.  From this nation, an unassuming young boy rises up to be the representative for the entire nation and defeat the enemy that no one could defeat, thus saving the people of God.

Isn’t this Jesus?  Isn’t this our savior who had no stately form or majesty (Isaiah 53:2), became the representative for all of God’s people, and defeated sin and death, the enemy we could not defeat (Romans 5:12-15)?  This story is about Jesus!

Context is the first rule for reading the Bible for a reason… it is, by far, the most important.  So, as you read the Bible take the extra time to read the context… read the surrounding paragraphs, read the whole chapter, and read it in the context of the book you’re reading and the whole of scripture.  This will give you a much better understanding of what the Bible is all about.

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