This is the second post in a series titled “Properly Interpreting the Scriptures.” Read the first post.
The first principle we must understand when interpreting Scripture is the context of the passage, or you could say understanding the passage’s place in the Bible. Everything that is said or done has some form of context. We speak words within the context of a sentence. Each sentence is placed in the context of a conversation. Even conversations take place in the context of particular circumstances. We might say something in one context that we would never say in some other context. For instance, while visiting a doctor we may speak freely and openly about a physical and potentially embarrassing problem, but we would never speak of that in the same way while addressing a large audience. Another example is that our words and language might be different when confronting an unrepentant, habitual sinner than they would be if we were confronting a repentant, sorrowful sinner.
Every verse in the Bible has context. It has historical context, which has to do with culture, time, author, audience, the geographical and political situations, as well as the occasion and purpose of the writing. There is also literary context, which is a crucial part of a contextual understanding. Literary context speaks of how the meaning of words is found within the context of sentences, and how a sentence finds its context in the other sentences that surround it. As Gordon Fee points out in How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth, a key question to always ask is, “What is the point?” This question can only be answered if the literary context is understood.
Discovering Historical Context
To properly gain historical context we must generally get some outside help. Good tools would be a Bible dictionary, Bible encyclopedia, and perhaps some good commentaries that provide reliable historical background of people and places. Understanding context is like being a detective searching for clues and gaining knowledge about all that surrounds the text.
For example, it is both interesting and helpful to have some historical understanding of how strangers were treated in the society and time period in which Abraham lived. If we simply overlay our present-day attitudes about strangers into Abraham’s day, much of the narrative found in Genesis 18 makes no sense at all and would seem to be very odd. What we can learn from historical custom is that Abraham was acting according to accepted practices when he greeted strangers by running out and bowing before them, feeding and protecting them. His hospitality was consistent with honorable character in his day. Without historical context we are left thinking that Abraham is rather strange and obsessive in his behavior. Learning about such customs shows he was acting honorably with great passion in relation to strangers.
Another example of the importance of historical context can be found in the story of Jesus as he met the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Historically the Jews had developed a hatred for the Samaritans who were a mixed race of Jews and non-Jews. The Samaritans had withdrawn from the worship of God in Jerusalem and established their own worship at Mt. Gerizim. As a result of these events, many Jews would have nothing at all to do with Samaritans. It is helpful to know this when we read of Jesus, as a Jew, reaching out in love to the Samaritan woman at the well, and eventually going into her village to minister to a multitude from this outcast group. One truth learned is that Jesus’ love has no boundaries when it comes to people groups; His compassion is broad.
Historical context helps us to see more clearly the circumstances around events in time that we are not familiar with. To ignore historical context is to try and fit the whole of Scripture into our own context, which can lead to misinterpreting God’s Word.
Discovering Literary Context
Literary context is discovered by studying the words that surround a passage. What is the author trying to say? How does a passage flow from a larger passage or book? Why was this particular book written? Is it a letter, a narrative? Is it poetry or wisdom literature? The effort to understand literary context can most often be done by the person studying the passage, many times without a great deal of outside help. Doing this requires reading much more than one verse at a time, not picking a single phrase and expounding upon it alone.
A common phrase repeated from the Bible is found in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in My name, I am among them.” Many times this verse is referenced in relation to prayer meetings. Someone may say, “I’ll pray with you, for God is present where two or more are gathered!” A closer look at the context reveals that Jesus is speaking here of the process of church discipline. From the context it seems that Jesus is teaching about the importance of having multiple people involved in the process of bringing a brother or sister in Christ to repentance through confrontation. And this “two or more” is a key part of going to a sinning brother and determining his current state of continued rebellion or repentance. To say that God only hears prayers where two or more are gathered would be to ignore literary context. As biblical counselors we must pay careful attention to the context of passages that we teach to others.
In the next post of this series we’ll look at what it means to properly understand the meaning of words in Scripture.