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Bible study

Context is the way God gave us the Bible, one book at a time.  The first readers of Mark could not flip over to Revelation to help them understand Mark; Revelation had not been written yet.  The first readers of Galatians did not have a copy of the letter Paul wrote to Rome to help them understand it.  These first readers did share some common information with the author outside the book they received.

We’ll call this shared information “background”: some knowledge of the culture, earlier biblical history, and so on.  But they had, most importantly, the individual book of the Bible that was in front of them.  Therefore we can be confident that the writers of the Bible included enough within each book of the Bible to help the readers understand that book of the Bible without referring to information they lacked.  For that reason, context is the most important academic key to Bible interpretation.

Often popular ministers today quote various isolated verses they have memorized, even though this means that they will usually leave 99% of the Bible’s verses unpreached.  One seemingly well-educated person told a Bible teacher that she thought the purpose of having a Bible was to look up the verses the minister quoted in church!  But the Bible is not a collection of people’s favorite verses with a lot of blank space in between.  Using verses out of context one could “prove” almost anything about God or justify almost any kind of behavior–as history testifies.  But in the Bible God revealed Himself in His acts in history, through the inspired records of those acts and the inspired wisdom of His servants addressing specific situations.

People in my culture value everything “instant”: “instant” mashed potatoes; fast food; and so forth.  Similarly, we too often take short-cuts to understanding the Bible by quoting random verses or assuming that others who taught us have understood them correctly.  When we do so, we fail to be diligent in seeking God’s Word (Proverbs 2:2-5; 4:7; 8:17; 2 Timothy 2:15).

One prominent minister in the U.S., Jim Bakker, was so busy with his ministry to millions of people that he did not have time to study Scripture carefully in context.  He trusted that his friends whose teachings he helped promote surely had done so.  Later, when his ministry collapsed, he spent many hours honestly searching the Scriptures and realized to his horror that on some points Jesus’ teachings, understood in context, meant the exact opposite of what he and his friends had been teaching!  It is never safe to simply depend on what someone else claims that God says (1 Kings 13:15-26).

I discovered this for myself when, as a young Christian, I began reading 40 chapters of the Bible a day (enough to finish the New Testament every week or the Bible every month).  I was shocked to discover how much Scripture I had essentially ignored between the verses I had memorized, and how carefully the intervening text connected those verses.  I had been missing so much, simply using the Bible to defend what I already believed!  After one begins reading the Bible a book at a time, one quickly recognizes that verses isolated from their context nearly always mean something different when read in context.

We cannot, in fact, even pretend to make sense of most verses without reading their context.  Isolating verses from their context disrespects the authority of Scripture because this method of interpretation cannot be consistently applied to the whole of Scripture.  It picks verses that seem to make sense on their own, but most of the rest of the Bible is left over when it is done, incapable of being used the same way.  Preaching and teaching the Bible the way it invites us to interpret it—in its original context–both explains the Bible accurately and provides our hearers a good example how they can learn the Bible better for themselves.

If we read any other book, we would not simply take an isolated statement in the middle of the book and ignore the surrounding statements that help us understand the reason for that statement.  If we hand a storybook to a child already learning how to read, the child would probably start reading at the beginning.  That people so often read the Bible out of context is not because it comes naturally to us, but because we have been taught the wrong way by frequent example.  Without disrespecting those who have done the best they could without understanding the principle of context, we must now avail ourselves of the chance to begin teaching the next generation the right way to interpret the Bible.

Many contradictions some readers claim to find in the Bible arise simply from ignoring the context of the passages they cite, jumping from one text to another without taking the time to first understand each text on its own terms.  To develop an example offered above, when Paul says that a person is justified by faith without works (Romans 3:28), his context makes it clear that he defines faith as something more than passive assent to a viewpoint; he defines it as a conviction that Christ is our salvation, a conviction on which one actively stakes one’s life (Romans 1:5).  James declares that one cannot be justified by faith without works (James 2:14)—because he uses the word “faith” to mean mere assent that something is true (2:19), he demands that such assent be actively demonstrated by obedience to show that it is genuine (2:18).  In other words, James and Paul use the word “faith” differently, but do not contradict one another on the level of meaning.  If we ignore context and merely connect different verses on the basis of similar wording, we will come up with contradictions in the Bible that the original writers would never have imagined.

 

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One must be very careful with word-studies, and should entirely avoid the usual sort of word-study sermons: These are equivalent to preaching from a dictionary rather than from the Bible!  Thus some ministers preach on the different “kinds” of love in different passages, agapao love versus phileo love.  But the distinction between these two “kinds” of love had virtually disappeared by the New Testament period, so they are often (probably even usually) used interchangeably!  Tracing all the uses of a particular word in the Bible is helpful for finding out the different ways that word can be used.  It should never form a sermon outline, however (the exception might be some passages in Proverbs), because that is preaching from a concordance rather than from a text studied in its context.

One should also avoid determining the meaning of words by their etymologies.  That is, you cannot break a word down into its component parts and always come up with its meaning, and you usually cannot determine the meaning a word has by looking at how it was used centuries earlier or how the word originated.  For a contemporary example, if one of my students called me a “nice professor,” they might intend it as a compliment.  But if I were committed to understanding words according to their origins, I could grow very angry.  In English, “nice” is a friendly term; but its Latin source means “ignorant” or “foolish.”  So I could misunderstand someone calling me “nice” as that person calling me “ignorant”!  We know that English does not work that way, and we should not expect ancient languages to work that way, either.

For example, some take the Greek word for “repent,” metanoieo, and divide it into two parts, of which the second, noieo, is related to thinking.  Therefore, they say, “repent” simply means a change of mind.  The problem with this interpretation is that the meaning of words is determined by their usage, not by their origins!  The New Testament generally uses “repent” not in the Greek sense of “changing one’s mind” but in the sense of “turn” in the Old Testament prophets: a radical turning of our lives from sin to God’s righteousness.

Another example of this problem occurs when interpreters speak of the Church as the “called-out ones” based on the Greek word for church, ekklesia.  We are, to be sure, “called-out,” but we know that for other reasons, not because we can determine that from ekklesia.  Some divide ekklesia into ek, meaning “out of,” and kaleo, which means “call.”  But ekklesia had already been used by Greeks for centuries to mean an “assembly” or “gathering”; Jewish people who knew Greek spoke of the congregation of Israel in the wilderness as God’s ekklesia.  So the New Testament does not make up a new word to call Christians the “called-out-ones”; rather, it uses a standard term for an assembly, and probably the first Christians thought especially of God’s own assembly in the Old Testament, his people.

People can twist Greek the way they can twist English, Hausa, or anything else.  When Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that John 1:1 calls Jesus “a God” because there is no definite article (“the”) in front of “God” there, they neglect several factors, of which I will briefly summarize two.  First, “God” does not always have a definite article in John’s Gospel; the God who sent John the Baptist does not have a definite article (Jn 1:6), but Jehovah’s Witnesses never say he was simply “a god.”  Second, grammatically “God” is a predicate nominative in “the Word was God,” and predicate nominatives usually omit definite articles.  Even without moving any further, we can see that the Jehovah’s Witness interpretation here is based on a lack of knowledge of Greek.

Some people speak of zoe as the “God-kind-of-life,” but zoe refers to human life just as easily.  Some misinterpret Greek grammar, claiming that “faith of God” must mean “the God-kind-of-faith”; it could mean that, but in context probably means “faith in God.”  Some claim that “now” in Hebrews 11:1 means present-tense “now”; but the Greek term there means “but” or “and.”  Someone once claimed to me that Christians would all become Christ, because he would come with “ten-thousands of himself” in Jude 14.  The person’s error was simple–”ten-thousands of him” is the appropriate way to say in Greek, “ten-thousands belonging to him”–but it led them into a serious doctrinal error.  More often than not (there may be some exceptions), when someone comes up with an interpretation based on Greek or Hebrew that contradicts what one would have thought from reading the rest of the Bible, they may be reading into the Greek or the Hebrew something that is not there.  It is helpful to learn Greek and Hebrew for yourself, but if you cannot, sticking with a couple good translations is usually safe.

The most common anticontext Bible interpretation method is practiced by cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses by also widespread in churches of most denominations.  We read into the text what we already expect to find there, because of our doctrine or because of how we have heard a story told!  How often have we read a Bible story only to realize that part of the story we always heard is not in that passage?  How often have we read our doctrine (maybe even a correct doctrine, supported by other texts) into a text or texts that did not really address the issue?  When this happens, Christians from different groups can no longer use the Bible as a common basis for seeking truth, because we are all “sure” of our own interpretations, which we sometimes cannot defend from context!  It is important enough to respect the Bible enough to let it speak for itself.  If our doctrine is not in a passage, we do not need to read it in; our doctrine is probably in some other passage–or else respect for the Bible’s authority may require us to fix our doctrine.  In this way we are open to fresh discoveries in the Bible each time we study it.  At the same time, this does not mean that we throw away everything we have already learned and start with nothing each day.  We build on what we have already learned, and go back and change particular interpretations only as we study the text as honestly as possible and find a need to change.  This way we can also dialogue with other honest Christians around the Scriptures.

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Context is the way God gave us the Bible, one book at a time.  The first readers of Mark could not flip over to Revelation to help them understand Mark; Revelation had not been written yet.  The first readers of Galatians did not have a copy of the letter Paul wrote to Rome to help them understand it.  These first readers did share some common information with the author outside the book they received.

We’ll call this shared information “background”: some knowledge of the culture, earlier biblical history, and so on.  But they had, most importantly, the individual book of the Bible that was in front of them.  Therefore we can be confident that the writers of the Bible included enough within each book of the Bible to help the readers understand that book of the Bible without referring to information they lacked.  For that reason, context is the most important academic key to Bible interpretation.

Often popular ministers today quote various isolated verses they have memorized, even though this means that they will usually leave 99% of the Bible’s verses unpreached.  One seemingly well-educated person told a Bible teacher that she thought the purpose of having a Bible was to look up the verses the minister quoted in church!  But the Bible is not a collection of people’s favorite verses with a lot of blank space in between.  Using verses out of context one could “prove” almost anything about God or justify almost any kind of behavior–as history testifies.  But in the Bible God revealed Himself in His acts in history, through the inspired records of those acts and the inspired wisdom of His servants addressing specific situations.

People in my culture value everything “instant”: “instant” mashed potatoes; fast food; and so forth.  Similarly, we too often take short-cuts to understanding the Bible by quoting random verses or assuming that others who taught us have understood them correctly.  When we do so, we fail to be diligent in seeking God’s Word (Proverbs 2:2-5; 4:7; 8:17; 2 Timothy 2:15).

One prominent minister in the U.S., Jim Bakker, was so busy with his ministry to millions of people that he did not have time to study Scripture carefully in context.  He trusted that his friends whose teachings he helped promote surely had done so.  Later, when his ministry collapsed, he spent many hours honestly searching the Scriptures and realized to his horror that on some points Jesus’ teachings, understood in context, meant the exact opposite of what he and his friends had been teaching!  It is never safe to simply depend on what someone else claims that God says (1 Kings 13:15-26).

I discovered this for myself when, as a young Christian, I began reading 40 chapters of the Bible a day (enough to finish the New Testament every week or the Bible every month).  I was shocked to discover how much Scripture I had essentially ignored between the verses I had memorized, and how carefully the intervening text connected those verses.  I had been missing so much, simply using the Bible to defend what I already believed!  After one begins reading the Bible a book at a time, one quickly recognizes that verses isolated from their context nearly always mean something different when read in context.

We cannot, in fact, even pretend to make sense of most verses without reading their context.  Isolating verses from their context disrespects the authority of Scripture because this method of interpretation cannot be consistently applied to the whole of Scripture.  It picks verses that seem to make sense on their own, but most of the rest of the Bible is left over when it is done, incapable of being used the same way.  Preaching and teaching the Bible the way it invites us to interpret it—in its original context–both explains the Bible accurately and provides our hearers a good example how they can learn the Bible better for themselves.

If we read any other book, we would not simply take an isolated statement in the middle of the book and ignore the surrounding statements that help us understand the reason for that statement.  If we hand a storybook to a child already learning how to read, the child would probably start reading at the beginning.  That people so often read the Bible out of context is not because it comes naturally to us, but because we have been taught the wrong way by frequent example.  Without disrespecting those who have done the best they could without understanding the principle of context, we must now avail ourselves of the chance to begin teaching the next generation the right way to interpret the Bible.

Many contradictions some readers claim to find in the Bible arise simply from ignoring the context of the passages they cite, jumping from one text to another without taking the time to first understand each text on its own terms.  To develop an example offered above, when Paul says that a person is justified by faith without works (Romans 3:28), his context makes it clear that he defines faith as something more than passive assent to a viewpoint; he defines it as a conviction that Christ is our salvation, a conviction on which one actively stakes one’s life (Romans 1:5).  James declares that one cannot be justified by faith without works (James 2:14)—because he uses the word “faith” to mean mere assent that something is true (2:19), he demands that such assent be actively demonstrated by obedience to show that it is genuine (2:18).  In other words, James and Paul use the word “faith” differently, but do not contradict one another on the level of meaning.  If we ignore context and merely connect different verses on the basis of similar wording, we will come up with contradictions in the Bible that the original writers would never have imagined.

 

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