How to use context to increase understanding of the Bible

Here is the cartoon associated with this posting.

As we study a biblical passage, we start by reading it through several times, perhaps making a quick grammatical analysis, and working on the meaning of the words that occur within it. We begin to ask the usual journalistic questions, Who? What? When? Where? How? and Why?

For the answers we seek, we look within the text and then within the context. Limiting our inquiry to the text itself is a big mistake. In fact, taking passages out of context is one of the most frequent mistakes we all make in Bible study. This saying should be inscribed on a bookmark and placed in every Bible on the planet: “A text, taken out of context, becomes a pretext.”

What is context and how does it help?

The Oxford English Dictionary reveals that the word ‘context’ comes from the Latin preposition con, meaning ‘together’ and the verb textere, meaning ‘weave.’ It defines context as: “the parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning.”

Context can extend in either direction all the way to the beginning and end of the document. A wider context might include all of the same author’s works. External context could include the historical background, cultural background, and literary background of the document with the text under consideration. In this posting, however, we are considering only the internal context.

 Factors obscuring context

For ease of reference, the books of the Bible were long ago divided into chapters. Occasionally, the chapter divisions obscure the context. For instance, the first verse of First Corinthians chapter 11, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ,” goes with the paragraph ending chapter 10 rather than the first paragraph of chapter 11. Someone divided the chapter just one verse too soon.

In the 16th century, when Robert Estienne divided the biblical books into verses, context once again took a hit. Translations that present each verse as a separate paragraph (such as the KJV and the original NASB) contribute to this atomization of the text. The untrained reader tends to stop or at least pause at the end of each verse, which creates a barrier to seeing the verse connected to its preceding and following context.

When we combine this with the tendency of our modern culture to communicate in soundbites, we may find it surprising that context still exists at all. Not everything can be expressed in the 155 characters of a Tweet, and every Tweet must stand alone, disconnected from any extended discourse.

Looking for context clues

The first task in examining the context is to determine its limits. Where are the definite breaks in context before and after the verse you are studying (“the target text”)? In biblical narratives, context breaks usually occur with a change of location or change of time. In the prophetic books, the author frequently either begins or ends a context by citing his authoritative source: “This is what the Lord says” at the beginning, or “says the Lord” at the end. In the epistles, context breaks nearly always involve a change of subject. In biblical poetry, context usually includes the entire poem, though stanzas are often discernible by the use of repeated phrases or a change of subject.

Within the context delimited in these ways, look for the words that occur in the verse or paragraph you are studying (“the target text”). Synonyms of those words are also significant. You should also try to discern the flow of the context. In other words, how do the words that come before lead up to the target text, and what relationship do the words that follow have to it? For instance, is the structure question-and-answer, condition-result, or command-purpose? Is the target text part of an extended list of items? In the narrative, is the target text a part of the description, a dialogue, or an action scene?

Any attempt you make to undertake such an analysis will help you to examine the context, mainly because it will slow you down enough to look carefully at what the biblical author is writing, not only in the target text, but within the surrounding sentences and paragraphs.

Example of examining the context

Philippians 2:12-13: Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

Immediately, this sentence prompts at least three questions: 1) What does it mean for me to work out my salvation? 2) Why should I do it with fear and trembling? 3) Should we understand from this verse that God does not want us to be secure in our salvation, that it is a mental puzzle for us to work out until we reach a somewhat tentative solution?

The preceding context extends back at least as far as Philippians 2:1, in which Paul gives a list of the benefits we Christians have from being united with Christ: Our union with Christ gives us encouragement, His love gives us comfort, we share together in the Holy Spirit, and we have tenderness and compassion.

Then, in Philippians 2:2-4, Paul urges us to remain united in our thinking, our love, our spirit, and our purpose. He warns us to avoid being self-seeking and instead enjoins us to consider others as better than we are, to focus on their needs and not just our own.

In Philippians 2:5-11 Paul points to Jesus Christ as the model for translating a right attitude into right action. Jesus did not cling to status or rights but humbled Himself. He was willing to serve, to suffer, and to die for others (for us). That’s why God exalted Him over everyone and everything.

In reality, the context extends back even further. Back in Philippians 1:6, Paul promises, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” In Philippians 1:11 he says that we are “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” In Philippians 1:21, Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” These verses all share the idea that God is working within us to accomplish His good purpose.

The context indicates that working out our salvation does not mean to figure it out but to participate in bringing our salvation to completion. The danger is that we will be conceited and think that we should promote ourselves, advance our own agendas. If we realize that God is at work within us, it should fill us with a sense of unworthiness and humility. Isn’t it awesome that, weak and fallible as we are, God is willing to work on us, in us, and through us?

This should not create within us doubts about whether we are saved, but a willingness for God to use us in His work in the world. Our salvation depends on the power and strength of our Savior. As we trust Him, having repented of our sins and joined Him in a likeness of His death and resurrection (our water baptism), we experience forgiveness and the divine power of a transformed life. God is at work within us, both to want to serve Him and to follow through with that desire with action.

The following context confirms that this is the proper understanding of these verses. As Philippians 3:1-7 indicates, all of the things that Paul could list as spiritual credentials he now regards as “rubbish” for the sake of knowing Christ. They are rubbish because they stand in the way of his depending on the righteousness and holy sacrifice of his Savior.

In Philippians 3:8-11, Paul is willing to suffer the loss of all of those former things for the sake of gaining Christ and His righteousness and experiencing—not at the Last Day but now—the power of His resurrection as well as a share in His sufferings. He anticipates in Philippians 3:20-21 receiving a transformed body that will be like Christ’s resurrected body. In Philippians 4, Paul notes that in Christ we share Christ’s joy (Philippians 4:4), His gentleness (Philippians 4:5), His peace (Philippians 4:6-7), His focus (Philippians 4:8-9), and His power over circumstances (Philippians 4:12-13).

Both the preceding and the following context confirm that “work out your salvation” means to put your salvation to work for God, participating in His work of bringing His initial work within you to completion in a transformed, Christ-like character, living within a transformed, resurrection body that will live forever in fellowship with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

You can do this

Exploring the context should be a standard part of your regular Bible study. You should become so practiced at it that you do it intuitively and almost automatically. You will find that it enriches your study of the Scriptures and greatly aids you in avoiding making terrible mistakes in Bible interpretation.

Want to go deeper?

Here are some resources you may want to look over regarding how to analyze the context:

On a lay level:

T. J. Friend. “Interpretation: Discourse Analysis – Part 1” and “Part 2.”Available on the website, How to Study the Bible: Read, Study, Meditate, Apply. Accessed on 8/26/2016.

Bruce Terry. “How to Study Discourse and Context.” Accessed on 8/26/2016.

On a more advanced level:

Bruce Terry. Discourse Analysis Bibliography. Accessed on 8/26/2016.

_________. A Discourse Analysis of First Corinthians. Accessed on 8/26/2016.

For more on the history of dividing the biblical books into chapters and verses, read the following Wikipedia articles:

Chapters and verses of the Bible

Weekly Torah portion

Eusebian Canons

Robert Estienne

Steve has been a Bible teacher for over 30 years. He has written many articles, more than 20 e-books, and several study guides, most recently, Overcoming: Guide to Understanding the Book of Revelation. His website, DeeperStudy.com, encourages all people to go deeper in their understanding of the Word of God, the Bible, and to become authentic, New Testament Christians who serve a risen Lord.

Posted in bible study, exegesis, hermeneutics Tagged with:
One comment on “How to use context to increase understanding of the Bible
  1. T.J. Friend says:

    Thanks for posting a link to my blog. As to the content of your article, I thought it was really good. You used some good examples and explained the concept of “context” well. Keep up the good work.
    “T”.J. Friend

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