THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT IN STUDYING THE SCRIPTURES
The sixty-six divinely inspired documents that constitute our Bible are the totality of God’s revelation to mankind. Every specific text must be studied in the light of its context, and no immediate text is to be understood in such a way as to conflict with the total text of divine scripture.
The faithful student of the Scriptures will spend careful time with the text to discover its meaning. He knows that a text taken out of context becomes a pretext! He will determine the author, the original recipients, the time and place of writing, and the purpose for which it was written. The text may be read from several versions, parallel or closely related passages will be considered, word studies will be done, and reliable commentaries may be consulted. The only agenda with which the sincere student approaches any specific text is to determine, “What is God saying in this passage of Scripture?”
Immediate context is shown to be extremely important when we see that Matthew 18:20 is a wonderful text, but that it is not about the Lord’s presence when only two or three are present for worship! Likewise, I Corinthians 2:9 is an amazing text, but it is not talking about heaven! In context, Matthew 18:20 is talking about Christ being present when two or three are agreed with reference to the discipline of a sinning brother. First Corinthians 2:9 is talking about the unveiling of God’s grand scheme of redemption, which, in the days of the Old Testament prophets, involved matters which “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man . . .,” and needs to be studied in the light of the verses that precede it and follow it, along with such passages as I Peter 1:10-12 and Ephesians 3:1-13. The context of the respective passages is not about worship and heaven, and the words of these verses should not be taken out of context and applied to these matters! And while there is absolutely no biblical authority for the use of instrumental music in the worship of the New Testament church, Amos 6:5 in context is not a text against the use of the instrument in Christian worship.
As an example of how an immediate text should be “unpacked,” consider Peter’s quotation of the prophecy of Joel on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32). Look at just a few statements from that quotation.
First, “And it will come to pass in the last days . . .” To determine the meaning of “the last days” compare the phrase with Hebrews 1:1-2 and Isaiah 2:2-4.
Second, “I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh. . .” In the light of Luke 24:44-49 and Acts 1:1-8, along with the events that transpired at the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48; 11:1-8), what does this statement mean? It cannot mean that every single person in the entire world from the Day of Pentecost onward would have the Holy Spirit poured out on them.
Third, “And your sons and your daughters will prophesy. . .” That there were women prophets in the first century church and that women may teach the word of God today is unquestioned (see Acts 21:9; Titus 2:3-5). But in what sphere did they do/are they to do this work? What restrictions were/are placed on them? (cf. I Corinthians 14:34; I Timothy 2:11-15). Too, with reference to prophetic teaching, I Corinthians 13:8-10 must be brought to bear on this text. Remember that no immediate text may be interpreted in such a way as to conflict with the totality of God’s revelation!
Fourth, “[W]hoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” When seen in the light of Acts 2:38, 22:16, Romans 10:11-17, and Matthew 7:21, it is not difficult to determine what it means to “call on the name of the Lord.”
As students of the Scriptures and especially as preachers of the gospel, let us be faithful to the context of Scripture and present the word of God in all its radiant splendor and convicting power!
(Note: The preceding essay appeared in the July 2016 (Volume 1, Number 2) issue of the electronic magazine “On Preaching And Ministry,” at the request of its editors, Jeff and Dale Jenkins. With some slight revision and additions, and with the editors’ permission, I ran it as this week’s edition of “Hugh’s News & Views.”)
August 30, 2016