When learning how to study the Bible, you’ve probably heard the expression “context is king”, meaning context is the arbitrator that rules a particular interpretation valid or not. But how do you use context to decide between possible interpretations?
While there are several kinds of context — historical context, cultural context, theological context, geographic context, etc. — all of which are helpful in our studies, I’m discussing the literary context here. The literary context is simply the flow of thought which comes before and after.
Consider how context changes the meaning of the phrase “It’s 6 o’clock”.
What does “It’s 6 o’clock” mean?
Situation 1: It’s 6 o’clock. You have a soccer game that starts at 7 pm. Your coach requires you to be there 30 minutes early and it takes 40 minutes to drive to the field. You are home babysitting your little sister and your mom promised she’d be back in time to drive you to your game. You’re sitting on the front steps in your uniform and your little sister is playing in the grass. You’re mom finally pulls in the driveway.
You say, “MOM, it’s 6 o’clock!” What do you mean? “You’re late!”
Situation 2: You were late for school in the morning and missed breakfast. You didn’t have enough money to buy lunch at school, but your best friend shares 1/2 her sandwich with you. With band practice after school, you didn’t have time to get a snack. You get home in the carpool at 6 pm. When you walk in the door, you discover your mom working on the computer and there seems to be nothing cooking in the kitchen.
You say “Mom, it’s 6 o’clock!” What do you mean? “I’m hungry! Where’s dinner?”
Situation 3: Your family has been running around all week, with conflicts and commitments every night. Finally, it’s Friday and everyone has a chance to stay home. You pick up everybody‘s favorite pizza with two side orders of bread sticks. You bring everything home, set the table, kick off your shoes and everyone is ready to eat and play a game, except Dad is not home yet. You calls his office.
When he answers, you say, “Dear, it’s 6 o’clock.” You mean: “Why are you still at the office?”
Situation 4: Your teacher tells you on Monday that you’ll have a science test on Friday. Monday night you have soccer practice, so there’s no time to study science because you have to get everything else done. Tuesday night you study a little bit, but the test is so far away you don’t want to wear out your brain cells. Wednesday night you forget to bring home your science book. Your mom tells you that you have to spend all Thursday studying for science. Thursday after school you come home, get a snack, and go next door to hang out with your buddy. As you go out the door, your mom says, “It’s 6 o’clock!” She means: “Why are you leaving when you haven’t studied for your test?”
You say, “But, Mom, it’s 6 o’clock.” You mean: “I have plenty of time.”
Authors intend for their words to be understood and actively use context to ensure understanding happens. Communication is a two-way street: The author “pushes” context and the reader “pulls” his meaning from it. Every Bible student must learn to read in context, looking for the coherent meaning. Essentially you must learn to continually ask yourself as you read: “how do the parts relate to the whole and the whole relate to the parts?”
“If you ignore the logical relationship between my sentences when you interpret my words, you will be like someone who picks up a beaded necklace but leaves behind the string–all you will have left is a handful of disconnected pieces. The string that you must not leave behind is the coherence.” – Ron Julian, The Language of God, page 103
Levels of Context
Biblical authors never intended their words, verses or paragraphs to be read in isolation. While we may wish to examine each bead in the necklace, our job as interpreters is to understand the beauty of the entire string. That means we use all the levels of context available to us:
- Near (immediate) context is what comes just before and/or just after the verse.
- Far (remote) context is the preceding and following chapters and/or the rest of the book.
- The context of a word or phrase is a sentence.
- The context of a sentence is a paragraph.
- The context of a paragraph is a chapter or book.
- The context of a letter or story is the historical setting, intended audience, and occasion.
- As you study, consider several the possible meanings for a word/phrase/verse.
- Try each of those meanings in context, making sure sure you read far enough back and forward to get the flow of thought or events.
- Evaluate and eliminate options using the 5’Cs, your observation skills and asking interpretative questions, including the 5Ws and H.
- Answer the question: What does this verse mean in its context? If you can’t answer in your own words, you’re not done studying.
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