Reading the Bible in Context: Part 1

This post is part of an ongoing series on reading, interpreting, and studying the Bible. Click here for all the posts in this series.


Perhaps you’ve heard the joke about the man who wanted to discern God’s will for his life. He let his Bible fall open on the table, and, with his eyes tightly closed, jabbed at a point on the page with his finger. He opened his eyes to read what the Lord had “revealed” to him. It was Matthew 27:5: “Judas went and hanged himself.” 

He was stunned. Surely he must have gotten something wrong. Perhaps he should try again. He repeated the procedure, Bible falling open, blindly picking a verse. This time, he randomly picked Luke 10:37: “You go, and do likewise.”

* * *

It is a basic commonsense reading practice to pay attention to context. We do it with books, with poetry, with the newspaper, even with a letter from a friend. We would scoff at someone who presumed to pull a single line from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and attempt to explain its meaning clearly apart from the lines surrounding it. It’s challenging enough to do this with the entire poem before you! 

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What if someone presumed to read Anna Karenina by daily flipping to a page at random, plunging her finger onto the page, reading a sentence or two at will, and closing the book until its appointed literary roulette the following day? It would be laughable. She may know a few names, perhaps stumble on a plot point or two. Over time, she may piece together some of the story or themes. But her grasp of these would be limited, and she would surely miss the power of the story arc, the intricacy of language, the shifting character development. She would miss the message of the book as a whole. She would miss the story.

Why do we think we can treat the Bible this way? 

I want to talk today about the importance of context. We talk about context in relation to the Bible in two important senses. 

  • The immediate context—What words, thoughts, arguments, etc. surround the verse or verses we read? 
  • The Redemption-story context—How do these verses, this passage, and this book fit into the big-picture, overarching story of Scripture?

We’ll talk about the first one, the immediate context, this week. 

Why Is the Context of Scripture Important?

Simply put, we need a context to understand the full meaning of words.

We realize this quickly when we drop into the middle of a conversation. We get confused: Wait, what happened? Who was that? What did they do? Why were you there? We ask someone to back up and explain what came before. We need a summary of the back story. We need caught up. 

Can you sort through these questions without stopping to ask for some context? To some extent, yes. If you listen carefully, your friend may retrace her steps and reexplain. You may be able to piece together the details. But you also run the risk of catastrophically misunderstanding her entire story.

So it is with the Bible. We can drop into the middle of a book like the middle of a conversation. We may be able to piece together the correct meaning. Or we may completely misunderstand. This could be avoided if we take the time to pay attention to the context of what we're reading. This does not require a seminary degree or advanced skill. As I said last week, you do not need to be an expert to study and understand the Bible well. 

It does require us to pay attention. We recognize that we’re dropping into the middle of things, and then we are careful as we listen. We’re wary of jumping to conclusions. We look for clues. We ask good questions. In short, we look for the context.

Practices to Read the Bible in Context

Reading well is a skill. Understanding the flow of an argument is a skill. Seeing the big picture around a sentence—and its role within that picture—is a skill. But these skills can be learned and developed. If this is a struggle for you, be encouraged—you can get better at this.

Becoming a better Scripture reader will not come all at once, but we can take steps in the right direction. The practices I’ve outlined here are suggestions to get you started. Other basic reading and reading comprehension skills are also helpful here. 

  • Work your way through an entire book of the Bible from start to finish instead of choosing verses at random. Pay attention to how what you read yesterday relates to what you’re reading today.
     
  • Read a book of the Bible the whole way through in one sitting. You may miss some details, but the larger themes and repeated portions will stand out better. Remember, these books were originally listened to aloud.
     
  • As you seek to interpret or apply a specific verse, read the verses that come before and after, the entire paragraph, or the entire chapter. Look for clues that would indicate a connected flow of logic, the borders of a story, or the bounds of an illustration. 
     
  • Ask—How do the verses I’m reading connect to those that came before and those that come after?
     
  • Use basic Bible study tools, like the book outline or notes in your study Bible. These outlines will trace the basic skeleton of the book and help you to see how the part you’re reading fits in with the whole. Good study notes should also help with this. Use these as a tool when you get lost or are struggling.

There’s another important practice I haven’t mentioned. We’ll talk about that next week…