Reading Within the Context
When I was was about 15 years old, I discovered a surprising Bible study technique when I began reading from an RSV instead of a KJV. The RSV was organized by paragraphs, not verse by verse. When I started reading the Bible by context, it began to make more sense to me. I found I could better remember Bible verses based on how they fit into the context, knowing who said it and in what circumstance.
When we read the Bible by context, this often opens up an understanding of what specific passages were intended to mean, rather than what we would like them to mean. Context is the key to understanding so many Bible passages that could be interpreted in various ways.
When Jesus, Peter, Paul or any apostles quoted passages, their use of the passages was always faithful to the context in which they were written. To truly understand what God intended us to learn from His word, we need to learn to read by context.
It is a common practice in our community to create a class or exhortation by selecting a theme we want to examine and explain, and then looking for Bible verses to support our idea. Sometimes we hear a verse used so many times in a certain way, we never even examine the context to see how well our understanding fits. The danger of this approach is that we might put a spin on Bible passages to support our pre-existing ideas or wishful thinking, rather than studying a section of scripture to find out what God intends us to learn from the entire context.
Many times, the understanding turns out the same, but other times a very different meaning is revealed. We have to stay true to context to be “rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15 ESV). Here are a few examples of how context changed the meaning of passages from what I had previously heard expounded.
FRIENDSHIP WITH THE WORLD
I can’t begin to count the number of times this passage was quoted at young peoples’ gatherings and CYCs to warn the youth not to have any nonChristadelphian friends. It seemed so simple and true:
I still remember how shocked I was when listening to a Bible class one day, and the brother explained the context. I should have read more carefully because it is so clear. James 4 begins:
James isn’t warning anyone about not having friends. Instead, he is reprimanding the believers of all ages to quit quarreling and fighting among themselves because they were judging each other on how well they were living in relation to the Law of Moses. James goes on to exhort:
These believers were mainly Jews who got caught up in works of the Law and judging one another in keeping the rituals of the Law. This led to arguments and fights, and when they acted like this, they were behaving like the world and had become friends of the world. What a contrast to Abraham, who James mentioned earlier in chapter 2:22-23 because he lived by faith, and his actions were based on his faith, so Abraham was called “the Friend of God.”
So, James’s use of “friendship with the world” isn’t really about who our friends are but how we behave.
Are we acting like Abraham, the friend of God, in our dealing with one another, or are we judging, arguing and fighting about ritual procedures like those of this world who have no relationship with God? The most meaningful and faithful exhortations from Bible passages come when we explain the meaning within the context, as God intended.
“I KNOW MY REDEEMER LIVES”
This passage in Job 19 was one of my biggest surprises in Bible study. It’s a great example of lifting a verse out of context and by our wishful thinking, putting a spin on the verse that we would like it to mean, not what it actually means.
For years I had listened to Handel’s Messiah and heard exhortations and Bible classes that indicated Job was hoping for the day that Messiah, Jesus Christ, would redeem him from all his troubles. This was such a standard explanation of this verse that it even made it into our green hymn book as #394.
But when you study the context, you will be as surprised as I was. Job had been through grievous trials and continued to suffer without any understanding of why. The only answer his friends had was that God was punishing him for some great sins he had committed, but Job knew this was not true.
As his friends pushed him to confess and repent, Job became more defensive and hoped for the day when he would be vindicated. Job became convinced God was wrong to treat him this way and that one day someone, probably an angel, would show God that He had been wrong about Job and treated Job unfairly.
Job lamented that no one could arbitrate his case:
As Job became more desperate and confident of his innocence, he declared:
As time went by, Job realized that he might not be vindicated in this life, and hoped for the day when his defender, his witness, would plead with God and convince God that He had been wrong about Job.
When we come to Job 19, it is no surprise that Job lets loose his feelings about how God had denied him justice, treated him unfairly, and considered Job His enemy:
The context of Job 19 is about how Job feels God has unjustly ruined his life.
So, when we come to verse 25, “I know that my Redeemer lives,” Job isn’t thinking about God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who will declare the righteousness of God, but instead, Job thinks his redeemer will justify Job before God and show God how wrong He was about Job!
Job probably thought, Job’s truth must eventually be revealed by an angel who was aware of his righteousness; God would finally understand Job had been right all along. No wonder Elihu was angry at Job because “he justified himself rather than God.” (Job 32:2). Elihu challenged Job, “Do you [Job] say, ‘[M]y righteousness is more than God’s?’” (Job 35:2). Indeed, in this case, careful reading by context indicates an entirely different meaning to a commonly misused verse.
We have to be honest regarding the context by carefully seeking to understand the whole chapter, not just one verse.
“I WILL SEND FISHERMEN AND HUNTERS”
In Jeremiah 16:16, God declared He would send for fishermen to fish Jews and then hunters to hunt them from every mountain and hills and holes of the rocks.
This passage is used by many brethren in Bible prophecy classes and witnessing pamphlets to teach that God would bring the Jews back to Israel in the latter days. Many Bibles that have subtitles through the chapters label verses 14 to the end with something like “God will restore Israel.”
However, when you read all of Jeremiah 16 and fit verse 16 into the context, it has a very different meaning. You find it is all about God casting the Jews out of the land of Israel for their sins, not saving them.
God had seen enough from His people and their refusal to respond to His grace, mercy, and kindness. Jeremiah is told not to take a wife and have children in Israel because the mothers and fathers and their children in the land will,
In verse 6, “Both the great and the small shall die in this land. They shall not be buried.” In verse 9, God will
All because in verses 11-12,
Therefore, God says in verse 13:
It’s clear the context is not about the wonderful re-gathering of Israel in the latter days, but the destruction by the Babylonians in the days of King Zedekiah. God will send fishermen and hunters to find and catch the Jews hiding in the land and take them captive to Babylon. For as God says in verses 17-18,
The only verse in Jeremiah 16 that mentions the Jews will one day return to Israel is verse 15, but that is only to indicate how bad the Babylonian captivity will be; they will no longer talk about the day when they were redeemed from Egypt, but they will remember when God brings them back from:
Careful Bible reading by context helps us understand what God intended us to know, which is not always what we would like the passage to teach.
HEAPING COALS OF FIRE ON THEIR HEADS
At the end of Romans 12, in verse 20, Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22,
Many have interpreted the coals of fire as some sort of painful experience that would burn away evil from a sinner by afflicting their conscience. That’s a weird form of tough love. The problem with this is that all of Romans 12 is about positive things we can do to show our love to others and help them. In verses 9-10, Paul reminds us to
In verse 14, Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” In verse 17, he continues,
“Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”
And then in verse 19, Paul exhorts us to
“not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’ says the Lord.”
Both Proverbs and Paul suggest that by showing kindness, patience, and the love of God to others, we can soften their hard heads and allow God to mold them into the image of Christ.
The context of Proverbs 25, in verses 17- 20, is all about being kind, considerate, and honest to our neighbors. Nothing in Proverbs 25 or Romans 12 deals with putting our neighbors through some sort of painful experience. So, what are the coals of fire?
It seems a way to understand them is in the framework of the method for softening metal by putting coals of fire on the metal until it is soft enough to re-form. Both Proverbs and Paul suggest that by showing kindness, patience, and the love of God to others, we can soften their hard heads and allow God to mold them into the image of Christ.
CRETANS ARE ALWAYS LIARS, EVIL BEASTS, LAZY GLUTTONS
I knew there had to be something wrong with the way I had heard this passage explained. Most expositors suggested Paul was aware of the commonly known characteristics of Cretans, that they were “always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12 ESV).
For Paul to tell this to Titus, and then follow it up in verse 13 with “this testimony is true” sounded a lot like what we would call “racism” today, and I knew from the rest of the Bible that God is not racist and shows no partiality. So, what’s going on here? Context is the key. As Paul lays out the suggested qualifications for elders, he warns Titus:
These believers of the circumcision party were causing trouble in the ecclesias by bad-mouthing some of the Gentile believers so that they would appear better themselves. Paul says, “they must be silenced.” Paul then goes on to identify “one of the Cretans, a prophet of their own” who slandered the Cretan Gentiles claiming they are “always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”
This “prophet of their own” was one of the circumcision party who was causing trouble among the believers in Crete with his racist claims. When Paul says, “This testimony is true.”, he is not calling the Cretans liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons, but referring to the circumcision party believer who was spreading this nasty rumor. That’s why Paul goes on to say in verse 13,
When someone explains a Bible passage, and the explanation does not seem to fit with the character of God or the rest of the Bible, examine the context again to see if there is a better way to understand the passage.
Let’s be cautious to always consider our understanding of all Bible passages by carefully placing them in the context that they were written. It takes extra time to study this way, but we can be more confident we are faithfully explaining God’s word the way He intended.