Looking At The Context

By Bobby Witherington

“. . . how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I wrote before in a few words, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)” (Eph. 3:3, 4). “Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17). “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). 

These Scriptures are a few among so many which stress the fact that it is possible for one to “understand” the will of God, or that it is possible for a person to “know the truth.” However, even among those who regularly study the Scriptures, there are multitudes who do not know the truth. In fact, there are vast numbers who are described by 2 Timothy 3:7, “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Moreover, the apostle Peter alluded to the writings of the apostle Paul, some of which is “hard to understand,” concerning which he said “those who are untaught and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16).

Hence, on the one hand, we have the plain affirmation by Paul that we can know what he knew if we read what he wrote and, on the other hand, Peter stated that some who read what Paul wrote “twist” those “things . . . to their own destruction.” Moreover, as we have just documented, Jesus said, “You shall know the truth,” and Paul said some are “never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Rest assured, in these verses, Peter, Paul, and Jesus did not contradict one another! By reading the Scriptures, we can come to a knowledge of the truth, but many who continually read the Scriptures never come to a correct understanding of the same. Of course, there are many reasons for this, one being the fact that some simply do not “love” the truth (2 Thess. 2:10), and therefore read the Scriptures in order to prove their own presumptions — not with a fervent desire to actually learn what the Bible teaches.

However, in the judgment of this writer, most people who read and yet fail to come to a knowledge of the truth are not intellectually dishonest. But clearly there is something terribly lacking in their method of Bible study! It is one thing for an intelligent person to read the Scriptures, and it is something else for a person to read the Scriptures intelligently. If it is to be understood, the Bible, like any other book, has to be studied intelligently. Regardless of the curriculum, certain common-sense principles of interpretation must be utilized — one of which is “the law of context,” sometimes called “the law of frame of reference.”

But What Do We Mean By “Context?”

“Context” is defined as (1) “the parts directly before and after a word or sentence that influences its meaning . . .” (2) “. . . the immediate environment, attendant circumstances or conditions; background” (World Book Dictionary). Hence, generally speaking, “context” denotes the “immediate environment” in which a Scripture appears — especially, the verses which precede or follow a particular verse. More- over, “context” may also include the paragraph, or chapter, or the overall subject matter of the book in which a Scripture appears. Also, the broader context may very well include the particular covenant of which a reference is a part, and on occasion may even be affected by the prevailing culture at the time a given Scripture was penned. In other words, “context” may include the “immediate environment” (the Scriptures before and after), or it may include a much broader background. However, most of our difficulties in understanding a given text are due to a neglect to properly analyze its “immediate environment.” And this is the area which will receive the greater emphasis in the remainder of this article.

Examples Which Illustrate the Value of Context

1. Mark 10:9: “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” Based on this Scripture, a mother of Siamese twins reportedly refused to allow surgery to separate the children, and she justified her refusal by citing this passage! However, in context, the Lord was referring to “a man” whom God has “joined to his wife” — this is the union which Jesus said “let not man separate.” This verse, taken out of context, could be misused so as to prohibit surgery to separate Siamese twins, or even splitting wood with which to build a fire!

2. Matthew 19:14: “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” A large number of people cite this reference when they are called upon to justify infant baptism. However, “baptism,” either for infants or adults, is not mentioned even once in this entire chapter. What is mentioned is the fact that some brought “little children” to Jesus that he might “put His hands on them and pray.” In this case, neither the text nor the context says a word about infant baptism.

3. 1 Corinthians 1:17: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel . . .” Baptist preachers (and others) often cite this verse in order to prove that baptism is not a requirement for salvation. However, the purpose of baptism is not the object being considered in the “immediate environment” (context) of this passage. Contextually speaking, there were “contentions” among some at Corinth, some saying “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Paul knew that the validity of baptism is not determined by who does the baptizing, and he did not want to be a party to their partyism. Moreover, Paul’s principle mission was “to preach the gospel” — it was not to baptize. He had baptized “Crispus and Gaius” and “the household of Stephanas,” but he was thankful that he had personally baptized only a few at Corinth, “lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name.” However, the fact remains that all who obeyed the gospel at Corinth had heard, believed, and were baptized (Acts 18:8)! Moreover, even in the context of 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul revealed that in order for one to be “of Christ” (a Christian!) two things had to occur: (1) Christ had to be crucified for that person, and (2) that person had to be baptized in “the name” of Christ. Hence, the seven verses before 1 Corinthians 1:17 gives the context for that verse, and they also necessarily infer that one must be baptized!

4. Matthew 5:48: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Some read this verse and conclude that the Bible contradicts itself. They point us to Romans 3:23 which says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and to 1 John 1:8 wherein we are told that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” They then tell us that “no one is perfect,” so they conclude that Jesus either commanded the impossible or else the Bible is self-contradictory! However, this is another instance in which context is ignored. Granted, each one of us should strive for sinless perfection. But sinless perfection is not the subject under consideration in the context of this verse. Go back to verse 43 and you will note that Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” However, in contrast to what others had “said,” Jesus said, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to them who hate you, and pray for those who spite- fully use you and persecute you” (v. 44). Then in verse 45 we discover the reason for such admonition, it being “that you may be the sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” You see, contextually speaking, the perfection herein required is that we develop the quality of love which God possesses — the kind whereby we are able to love both our neighbors and our enemies.

Concluding Thoughts

There are many other verses which could be readily cited — verses which are taken out of context and used to teach error. Without further comment, we could cite Acts 16:31 from which some mistakenly conclude that one is saved by faith only, or Acts 2:29-31 which certain false teachers use to teach the doctrine of premillennialism concerning the reign of Christ, or Galatians 6:10 which some brethren misuse to teach local church support of human institutions. And the list goes on.

Someone has observed that “a text considered apart from its context becomes a pretext.” And so it does. God’s “word is truth” (John 17:17), but truth handled inaccurately (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15) results in error believed, preached, and practiced. Hence, we conclude by urging one and all to examine every passage in the light of its context. In view of the length of eternity, and the value of souls, too much is as stake for anyone to do otherwise!