The English word “context” is derived from two Latin words meaning “to weave threads” (contextus, from con- 'together' + texere 'to weave') and so our word signifies that which is connected or woven together.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT IN BIBLE STUDY
The expression “context is everything” applies in many areas of life, and it certainly applies in the study of God’s Word. Every beginning student of the Bible soon finds that many statements cannot be taken from their biblical setting and understood or used in isolation. On the other hand, even experienced Bible students sometimes forget the need to seek context in everything that is studied and especially in looking at difficult or puzzling verses. Context can be more than just reading the chapter in which a verse appears and there are, in fact, a number of different aspects or dimensions of context that all play a part in the successful understanding of scripture. As Miles Coverdale, sixteenth century translator of the English Bible, wrote:
“… it shall greatly help thee to understand scripture, if thou mark not only what is spoken or written, but of whom, and unto whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstance, considering what goeth before, and what followeth after." — Miles Coverdale, Preface to the Bible, 1535.
This article looks at four of the most important aspects of biblical context with examples and suggested study helps.
The first and perhaps most important aspect of maintaining context is that of seeing and interpreting every part of the Bible in the light of the whole. Some verses, such as John 3:16, may be clear in isolation, but even then taking in the other verses relevant to this very clear statement expands our understanding and appreciation for its meaning. In many other cases overall context clearly is needed for proper understanding.
In 2 Kings 2:1 the Bible tells us that Elijah was taken up by a whirlwind “into heaven”. It is easy to misunderstand this statement without overall biblical context. But when we put other relevant scriptures together we see that from the biblical perspective, there are three heavens (2 Corinthians 12:2). Over nine hundred years after the time of Elijah, Jesus Himself said “… no man has ascended up to heaven….” (John 3:13), meaning the heaven of God. So 2 Kings is evidently talking about the “heaven” that we would call the sky or the atmosphere - just as the Bible speaks of the "dew of heaven" (Genesis 27:28, 39, Deuteronomy 33:28).
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul frequently stresses that salvation comes by faith alone, yet comparing this understanding with the writing of James who states that faith without works is dead, we get the whole picture. In fact, if we look further into the writings of Paul himself, we find statements which back this up. Take for example: “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (Rom. 2:13). So overall context shows that we are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is never alone – living faith leads us to right behavior and good works.
Study Helps: For beginning students, putting everything together that the Bible says on a given subject can seem like a daunting task, but there are many study helps such as concordances and topical Bibles that make this task much simpler. Even the marginal references found in many bibles can be helpful in pulling important scriptures together for overall context.
It’s easy to think of the books of the Bible as being all essentially the same when it comes to studying its message. But the Bible contains many kinds of formats that we must keep in mind if we are to successfully understand what it is saying. Think of the phone book – it’s not all the same format: white pages, yellow pages, blue pages, all with their own format and different kinds of information. The books of the Bible not only have different types of literature – prose, poetry, messages, lists, etc. – within the overall book, but even within individual books. Take, for example, some of the things said in the Book of Psalms where David exclaims “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God” (Psalm 58:6). Such an example may be easy to see as poetic language which obviously is not meant to be understood literally, but when we remember that about 30% of the Hebrew Bible is written in poetic form it can help us better understand sections of the prophetic books, for example, where sections of narrative text are mixed with sections of poetic text. Older translations, such as the King James version, tend to obscure this fact by printing everything in the same format. More recent translations, such as the English Standard Version and New International Version, make a big difference by printing different literary formats in different fonts and layouts.
But it’s not just the Old Testament where this principle applies. Take for example, 1 John 1:2: “The Elder unto the well beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth. Beloved, I wish above all things that you may prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.” These verses are often taken out of context as though they indicate that prosperity and physical health are things to be highly sought in the Christian life and are of great importance. In reality this is just a common letter opening expression of that day and age, just as we might write something like “I hope this finds all well with you” at the start of a letter to a friend today.
Study helps: Different translations often help to clarify changes in format in the original texts, but not always. If wording is still unclear, try checking different commentaries on the book in question, though remember that commentaries, by their very nature, may give the personal views of their authors – so you may wish to compare several.
Ecclesiates 7:28, out of context, makes a seemingly startling statement: “While I was still searching but not finding - I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all.” At first sight this sounds like a very sad situation, but if we look carefully at the immediate context, we see that the section beginning in vs. 26 is talking about prostitutes who snare unsuspecting men. All Solomon is saying here is that although there may be “one in a thousand” men who resist such a woman (clearly using an idiomatic expression for a round number), he found not a single upright woman in this group. Other verses in this book - Proverbs 12:4, 31:10, etc. - show this is certainly not a condemnation of all women; and the Bible talks of many upright women, of course.
In the New Testament, a scripture with which most Bible readers are familiar is found in the Book of Matthew: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20). While this verse is frequently taken to mean gathering in church fellowship, the actual immediate context is about correcting someone for a problem (vs. 15-18), and asking God’s help in the process (vs. 19). The teaching here is quite different from how it is often understood out of context.
Study Helps: This kind of contextual setting doesn’t usually need tools, though good commentaries can sometimes help if the verse just isn’t making sense. Also remember your Bible’s marginal references – sometimes they will point to a similar section of scripture where the same point is explained more clearly.
Sometimes only knowledge of the cultures in which biblical stories are set can help us to understand exactly what a biblical narrative means. In Genesis 15: 9-21, for example, in the story of God sealing his covenant with Abram, God instructed Abram to take various animals and sacrifice them, dividing them into halves in such a way that someone could walk between the halves of the carcasses. Genesis then states: “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram …” (Genesis. 15: 17-18a). This strange event is understandable when we realize that in many ancient Near Eastern cultures, land ownership “contracts” were sealed by the participants dividing sacrificed animals or walking between the parts of the animals. Without this cultural context the details of the story would be difficult to understand, but knowing the background helps us to see that God was simply utilizing the legal practices of the time in order to confirm his promises to Abram/Abraham.
In the New Testament, the story of the women who anointed Jesus’ feet and head (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:1-8) can be much better understood in cultural context. When we understand that a “denarius” was the average wage earned by a laborer for a full long day of work, and that the perfume used by the women would have cost upwards of 300 denarii – almost a year’s wages (Mark 14:5), we begin to realize the sacrifice these women, who were not rich, were making in their gifts.
Usually cultural context does not affect our understanding of doctrine or principles of living, but it can frequently illuminate the biblical stories and make them more understandable and real to us.
Study Helps: Carefully selected background books can help with understanding cultural context, but many are very detailed and it can be difficult to find the information needed. This is an area in which the internet shines. Doing a search for “dividing animals in sacrifices,” “biblical sacrifices + ancient Near East” or just “Genesis 15: 17-18” may find information on the background for the example used here. It is often worth doing a quick online search for background information (being careful to evaluate the quality of the site, of course) when cultural context is not clear.
Keeping these four types of context in mind can answer a good many questions about the scriptures and make them seem less puzzling. They can also deepen our understanding of the scriptures and make them more meaningful to us.