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Context, Context, Context September 9, 2009

Posted by TJ Friend in General Principles.

The first and most important thing to understand about studying the Bible is context. It is fundamental to proper interpretation. Context actually determines meaning. Taking scripture in context allows the text to speak for itself instead of us forcing unnatural interpretations into it. By disregarding context it is possible to make the Bible say almost anything. Many sins and injustices have been justified by singling out isolated verses from the Bible irregardless of their context.

Words and ideas are defined by their context. Take for example the word “trunk”. This one word on its own is vague and could mean many different things. It could refer to a tree trunk, or an elephant’s trunk, a large chest, or the trunk of a car. In order to understand what this word means, we need to read it and understand it in its context. The meaning is not found simply in the individual words, but in  the combination and interrelation of those words.

In the study of the Bible their are basically three spheres of context to be aware of. First is the immediate context. If you read a verse, at the very least you should read the paragraph it is in. The goal here is to recognize the role of the individual verse in this bigger unit of thought. Usually though, there is a larger group of paragraphs that make up the entire section. Part of interpretation is understanding where these breaks in thought are located. The chapter divisions can be helpful in determining where the natural breaks in the text are. But it is important to know that the chapters were not added to the text until 1227 and are not inspired. They are good guidelines, but we need to look and read for ourselves to find where the different sections begin and end.

The literary context is the bigger context of how a large section of text fits into the book in which it is written. Here the goal is to understand the main idea of a bigger block of text and see how the big pieces fit together. For example the first 11 chapters of Genesis make up one big unit of thought. It shows the creation and the big picture of how the world and humanity and sin came into the world. This ends with the destruction of humanity with the flood and the scattering of all the peoples at the Tower of Bael. Once we get to chapter 12, there is a shift from humanity in general to the story of one man, Abraham, and his family. For the rest of Genesis the story follows Abraham and his descendants. Understanding the bigger context allows for a better interpretation of the smaller contexts. You can take the small contexts and see how they contribute to the bigger idea. You may ask why there is so many chapters devoted to Joseph and not the other sons of Israel.  As you read you can see that the story of Joseph helps bridge the gap from how his family made it over to Egypt.

Finally there is Biblical or canonical context. Each book of the Bible fits into the overall theme of the Bible. As you read a book try and discover what it’s big picture ideas are and how these fit into the rest of the Bible. Looking at Genesis again, we see that the book sets up the essential need for a savior and gives the starting point of the people group which this messiah would be born out of.

The message of the Bible is not just found in the individual verses. The verses are small ideas that fit into the ideas of the paragraphs which make up the ideas of the different sections which make up the idea of the book. These bigger ideas and themes are just as important as the individual verses and need to be understood. But you cannot understand the idea of a paragraph unless you actually read the whole paragraph. Or you can’t understand a book of the Bible unless you read the entire book. The Bible is not a series of quotes that you can use prove doctrine or justify behaviors. The Bible has a message and it sets forth a construct of how  you are to live and act. We are so overly concerned with the small details of the text that we miss the actual message it is trying to present.

Why is it that people forget how to read when they come to the Bible? What would it look like for someone to read a novel like some people read the word. First they would open up to a random chapter and then read one or two pages before setting it down. Then the next day they would read a different couple pages, which may or may not be in the same chapter. They may actually stumble across an exciting scene or dramatic dialogue and then just read those parts over and over again. They flip through the book hoping to come across something that strikes them and have little to no intention of finishing the book. The important thing is reading the parts that are interesting and captivating.

An author spends time and effort to put forth their ideas orderly and comprehensively. When you read a novel or any book you start at the beginning so that you can understand the background and the characters and the plot. If you neglect these parts because they seem boring or unimportant then you are missing out on the overall impact of the story and its message. When we read the Bible we need to read it in an effort to understand the context and the message that it is trying to convey.


The next time you rent a movie open up to a random scene and watch five minutes. Based on what you see try and guess what the movie is about. Remember what you think about the movie just based on that clip, then watch the movie from the beginning and after the movie is finished go back and rewatch the same scene to see if it is any more meaningful.



1. Jackie & Craig - October 30, 2013

Thank you for this helpful article

2. Jackie & Craig - October 30, 2013

Thank you for helpful articles

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