The Importance of Context

My phone rang the other day and the caller was a friend from Florida. When I said hello, she didn’t give a personal greeting or acknowledge me by name (we hadn’t spoken in probably three years or so). She just started talking about the details of a situation I was not familiar with. As she continued talking my mind was scrambling to make sense of what she was saying. She sounded as if I should know of the matter she was discussing. I was wracking my brain to keep up with the details spilling out. I was also trying to remember an email or text I had missed and there were a lot of clipped answers on my end. 

Finally, after a long pause she said, “Are you following what I’m saying?!” I said, “Well, actually, no. I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.” She started laughing hysterically on the other end and said, “This isn’t ____________ is it?” I said, “No, you got the first name right but not the last one.” She had dialed the wrong number and began relating things the other party would have known.

After we both had a good laugh, she gave me some background on the situation. When she filled in the blanks, what she had said earlier made sense. I needed … context. Lack of context leads to confusion and misunderstanding; even a simple message is obscure without context. But with the proper context, what is hazy becomes clear. Nowhere is this more important than in studying the Bible. All of God’s revelation is given within some kind of context, and it is vital to understand that context so that we get the message correct. If we don’t do the background work our understanding will be off the mark. Here are a few elements that help establish the context of a passage:

Old or New Testament. This is a basic building block of context. These two covenants are vastly different (see article 2/11/18). The law of Moses as a legal document is limited to God and the Jewish nation. The covenant of Christ as a legal document covers all men (i.e., all men are accountable for either keeping or breaking it) but has special application to saints who willingly submit to it. While some background principles of Mosaic law may undergird various elements of Christ’s covenant, we cannot randomly cite Mosaic statutes and ordinances to justify our practice today. This failure to consider context leads to fundamental flaws in worship and morals.

The Speaker. Scripture accurately records conversations and observations, even those that are erroneous. So we must determine whether the speaker is communicating by inspiration or just offering a human viewpoint. An obvious case of this is Job’s three friends who have a lot to say that is recorded without immediate critique. At the end of the book God condemns their words: “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has” (42:7). This does not mean that everything spoken by Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar was wrong, but their words should be cited cautiously.

The Stated or Implied Purpose of a Book. It is not unusual for NT writers to clearly state the purpose of their correspondence (Heb 13:22; 2 Pet 1:12-15; Jude 3; 1 Jn 1:1-4; Rev 1:1-3; etc.). In First Corinthians Paul is responding to direct questions they posed in a letter, and he also addresses things he had heard from members of the church there.

Conditions or Situations of the Times. Revelation foresees a great storm of persecution breaking upon the church. Various epistles including 1 & 2 Timothy, 2 Peter, 1 John and Jude address false doctrines spreading late in the first century. Paul’s comments on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 are shaped by some “present distress” (7:26). But sometimes the background conditions are not expressly stated; they must be inferred from various observations made by the writer (cf. Col 2:8-23; compare 1 Th 4:13-19 and 2 Th 3).

These are by no means exhaustive. We often must account for linguistic context – how a particular writer uses a word; what definitions words have across the scope of the NT. We must have a basic grasp of the flow of first century history and how the church developed through those decades. Not every time frame of the first century reflected conditions met elsewhere in that century – just as is true of America in the twentieth century.

One huge contextual mistake made by many moderns is to read into Scripture elements of current culture that were completely foreign to people of that day. Our ego-centrism assumes that everyone in history should look at things the way we do. The idea that Christians would own slaves, that women weren’t (and still aren’t) allowed to publicly address a gender-mixed assembly, that homosexuality was (and is) an abomination, or that God used Israel as an instrument of punishment upon wicked cultures (though He doesn’t now) is positively anathema to people of Western sensibilities. So much so that it is often a stumbling block to belief in God.

This also happens doctrinally. Calvinists read Scripture and see original sin, unconditional grace and eternal security everywhere. They do so because they interpret everything they read by a preconceived mindset and ignore the context. But beware: We can do the same thing. We may skim over something that doesn’t fit our worldview or Bible-view and assume that somebody somewhere can answer the contradiction. On we go blissfully unaware that we are in error.