I have heard people reading the same passage of the Bible and coming away with totally different meanings and applications. This has always been strange to me given that the author of the passage had a very clear message they were proclaiming. Some attribute this disunity of understanding to the Spirit of God speaking different things to different people. I am open to this understanding, because God is powerful and can do amazing things, but to the original recipients, the author was trying to address specific needs so there was a point they were trying to get across. As a student of the Bible, you read a passage and seek to understand its historical context. The following task is to study the message presented and try to determine its intended meaning, one which is consistent with the message of the Bible. The work of comparing the context of a given passage with the rest of scripture is the second area to be discussed in this series. It is called the literary context A passage should always be read in its current context. It is so tempting to read a verse or even a few words of scripture and take it as gospel, but this is not the way the Bible is meant to be read, studied and applied. The following passages can be misunderstood: “The love of money is a root of all evil” 1 Timothy 6:10 “Train a child in the way he should go” Proverbs 22:6 “In all things God works for the good of those who love Him” Romans 8:28 “Confess with your mouth… and believe in your heart… and you will be saved” Romans 10:12 “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear” 1 Corinthians 10:13 “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” Romans 10:13 “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak” 1 Corinthians 14:34 “I know the plans I have for you… plans to give you hope and a future” Jeremiah 29:11 These verses must be read in their context. You must seek to understand what the original author wanted the original recipients to hear. This requires going beyond the historical context.
Here is how you do it:
1. Seek the Immediate Context This means look at the verses near the text you are studying. Study the paragraphs, stanzas and verses before and after the text. These verses frame what the given text is focused on. For example, Isaiah 58:11 says, “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” This verse has amazing promises, but the immediate context in verses Isaiah 58:9-10, 12 show that there are conditions attached that limit the application of those promises. The immediate context is the easiest way to correct the practice of running ahead with one verse.
2. Seek the Book Context You must learn to read the book, containing the text being studied, as a whole and trace the flow of the ideas presented in that passage. This is the way the original recipients first received the text. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 seems to suggest that women are not allowed to speak in a church setting at all. This has been used to relegate women to the background of public church services and worship. However within the same book, 1 Corinthians 10:4 suggests that women both prayed and prophesied within the same church. They were not prohibited from speaking. The context of the book is the best way to trace the problems and solutions raised by the author. Writing an outline of the book can help you to follow the flow a little easier.
3. Seek the Remote Context This means you should seek to discover how this passage fits into the context of the rest of the Bible. There are three ways to check this: A. Author – What does this author say about the subject in other books. Some people think 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 teaches two different resurrections, one of the dead and one of the living. This promotes a view a multiple resurrections and judgements to come. Using book context, we find 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3 teaches that there is only one resurrection on the day of the Lord. Since Paul is the author of 1 Thessalonians we can look at his other writings to see what he says about the subject. 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 teaches that Jesus will return to punish the wicked and bless the righteous in a seemingly single event. Focusing on the author is great for studying certain groupings of books such as the books of Moses, 1 & 2 Kings and Chronicles, Luke-Acts, the writings of Paul, Peter and John. B. Testament – How is the subjects brought up by this text viewed throughout the rest of this Testament. As you expand outward and look at the entire New Testament, John 5:28-29 speaks of the resurrection as one event happening that will affect everyone in the grave at the same time Using the Testament Context is great for Gospel Parallels, Acts vs Pauline epistle studies, Deuteronomist history vs. Chronicles studies & The Law vs. the Prophets. C. Bible – How is this subject used and discussed in every part of the Bible. Finally, you can examine all of the Bible to see what is said about the subject in question. For example, when you read the passage in Daniel 12:2-3, it again suggests that there will be an event where all who lie buried will be raised, some to life and some to everlasting life and others to everlasting contempt. This context is great for theology, studying OT prophesy fulfilled in the NT & the NT use of OT stories. In Steve Kinnard’s book, Getting the Most from the Bible , he lays out some great guidelines for using scripture to interpret scripture:
1) No passage of scripture may be interpreted in such a way as to contradict another one. John 10:35 and the Scripture cannot be broken—
2) Always interpret the more obscure passage in light of the clearer one. Jesus stumps the religious leaders of His day in Matthew 22:41-46 as he speaks about the nature of the Messiah being the son of David and the Lord of David, but in Revelation 22:16, Jesus more clearly states that He is both the root and offspring of David, which the religious leaders did not understand. Again, Mark 13:14 speaks cryptically about the ‘abomination that causes desolation’, but Matthew 24:15 tells us this is the prophecy written about by Daniel (3 times in 9:27; 11:31, 12:11), and Luke 21:20 clarifies that they are talking about foreign armies surrounding Jerusalem.
3) Read the Bible extensively and study it regularly so that you will know its general ideas. (Mark 12:28-33) Jesus quickly points to a summary of the Old Testament (Acts 2:16-35) Peter knows his Old Testament Prophecy (Acts 7) Stephen knows his Old Testament Jewish History What do you think about historical context? Is it helpful for your bible study? For additional studies, visit Brian’s blog.