An Old Testament example often given of this principle is that of Moses striking the rock, as God instructed him, to produce water for the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:8-12). The first time Moses struck the rock was in obedience to God’s instruction, but the following blows seem to have not been commanded and the situation changed immediately. An action that was in obedience to God in one context became one of disobedience when the context changed.
Consideration of context in our behavior applies just as much today as it did in this Old Testament example. Christians understand, of course, that many Old Testament injunctions such as the command to sacrifice an animal if one sins were laws given to the physical nation of Israel under the Old Covenant. Such commands applied in full force at that time – to the people to whom they were given – but the New Testament makes it clear that Christ fulfilled many of those laws and they do not apply to Christians today (Hebrews 10:10, etc.).
But beyond this obvious example, there are many other instances where context affects both if and how we keep various biblical instructions. Consider a few small examples:
1) Although we are told to bear with and overlook the failings of others (Proverbs 19:11, Romans 15:1, etc.), we are also commanded never to tolerate or overlook our own failings (James 4:7-10, 1 John 1:6-9, etc.). Overlooking problems is biblical in the one context, but not in the other!
2) Some New Testament commands have in mind the context of the Church while others apply to our relationships with people outside the Church or to all people. A very basic example of this is found in what Paul instructs us regarding teaching and admonishing one another (Romans 15:14) and speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19). Looking at the context of these instructions, we find that it is one of interacting with fellow believers – not instructing or quoting scriptures or hymns to every stranger we meet!
3) A more subtle example is that of the command to confess our sins to one another (James 5:15-16). While this principle clearly applies only within the context of the Church (as we can see by reading the passage in which the command occurs), it also has a more specialized context. The indiscriminate confessing of our sins to any or all our spiritual brothers and sisters would not only be unwise, but could be hurtful to those who do not need to know our sins. The specific context of James's instruction seems to be one in which a believer has not only sinned, but who also is sick. Perhaps the sin and the illness are connected (Psalm 32:3-4; 1 Corinthians 11:30, etc.), but in any event the command to confess our sins is “…so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). There are times when confession may also be valuable and proper in the context of accountability discussions with trusted spiritual friends and advisors, but the context should always be one that is chosen with wisdom and care.
4) The New Testament repeatedly tells us that we should pray for one another (1 Timothy 2:1, Ephesians 6:18, James 5:16, etc.), but the apostle John makes it clear that there are some situations in which we should perhaps not pray for others: “If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that” (1 John 5:16). The “sin that leads to death” is probably one of the continuous willful sins of those who adamantly reject God. But we should notice that John does not say we must not pray for such individuals, just that he is not saying we need to do so. The apostle is simply showing that context affects our prayers, too.
In these few examples we see some vital patterns. We must always discern the context of any biblical command. Was it clearly one applying in the past only or one that applies now? Does the command apply to our behavior toward ourselves or to others? Does the command apply only to our relationship with those within the Church or to all people? Does the instruction apply in all situations or only in specific ones? Is the instruction actually a command or simply a counsel?
As Christians we must always remember that context in understanding and application are equally vital – the importance of context applies just as much when we are deciding how to apply a scripture in our lives as it does to understanding what the scripture is saying!