Interpreting Scriptures By Context
A text without a context is a pretext.” Almost all false teachings are based on a disregard of context, the use of isolated, so-called “proof texts” to support an unscriptural point of view.
Tear a text out of its context and we can make the Bible say that there is no God (see psalm 14:1). I once heard a man support the false theory of reincarnation by using the text, “ye must be born again.” Because they are ignorant of what the Bible says on the subject, many people think that the text, “thou shalt not kill,” legislates against capital punishment.
Satan took a text out of context when tempting the Lord Jesus. Having twice been foiled by the Lord’s use of the word of God, Satan used it himself but used it deceptively. If thou be the Son of God,” he said, “cast thyself down: for it is written, he shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands, they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone” (Matthew 4:6). He was quoting from psalm 91:11-13. What the psalmist said was this: “for he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all they ways. They shall bear thee in their hands, lest, thou dash thy foot against a stone. Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder “the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. The devil conveniently ignored the context of the quotation. It spoke of his destruction.
There are three circles of context that demands attention.
1. First, there is the immediate context. The verses’ and chapters immediately surrounding a verse should be examined to determine its significance. That context invariably sheds light on the text.
We must remember that chapter breaks and parentheses in a subject under discussion may disguise the true context. John 7:53 states, “And every man went unto his own house.” There the chapter ends, and they’re all too often, our reading ends. The very first verse of the next chapter reads:: “Jesus went unto the mount of olives. “Except for that regrettable chapter break, we would read: “and every ma went unto his sown house. Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.”
How much more significant that is?
The same thing occurs in Matthew 16:28 where the Lord says, “verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” There the chapter ends. If we read on, however, to the first verse of the next chapter we have an explanation of what has, to some, been a very difficult text. Chapter 17 tells the story of the transfiguration. There, Peter, James, and John saw the Lord in his glory. Moses and Elijah were present, representing the Law and the prophets, the disciples were present representing saints of the church age, and the whole incident prefigured the coming kingdom age when the Lord will be seen in his glory by all.
In Genesis 17 we read of a new revelation of God given to Abraham. The context is significant and, again, it is blurred by a chapter break. The last verse of the previous chapter reads: “And Abram was four scores and six years old when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram.” We are apt to forget that when we begin our reading again in chapter seventeen. This chapter begins: “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God, walk before me, and be thou perfect.” This is the first use of that lovely name, El Shaddai – the omnipotent one who satisfies. The content shows that God had not spoken directly to Abraham for thirteen years, the fruit of his impatience in the matter of Ishmael. The time had now come, however, for Isaac to be born. Since Abraham’s faith needed revitalizing, god broke the silence with a fresh revelation.
Examine the context of the three parables of luke 15 and discover how the immediate context sheds light on the passage. The chapter begins with the words: “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes them.” The stories of the lost sheep, the lost silver, and the lost son were directed especially to the publicans and sinners. But that pungent appendix to the story of the prodigal, that sketch of the elder brother – surely that was directed especially to the Pharisees and scribes. The disciples of the Lord Jesus were also present. We have, thus, three groups of people. To the disciples these were parables of faith; to the publicans and sinners they were parables of hope; to the scribes and Pharisees, they were parables of love.
In some of Paul’s writings, in the epistle to Hebrews, and the book of Revelation, we find passages inserted that interrupt the flow of the narrative or argument. We must detect and mark such parentheses and take them into account when looking for the true context. The parentheses are important and are inserted where they are for adequate reasons, but they do interrupt the discussion at hand.
Take, for example, the entire passage in Hebrews from 5:12-6:220. This is a parenthesis, one of the great warnings passages of the book. The writer has just introduced the subject of Melchizedek (5:5-10)). His Hebrew readers are going to find that what he has to say about this king-priest is very explosive material indeed. He is forced to distress because of their dullness, but he comes back to his theme in the opening verse of chapter seven. Note how the entire digression is bracketed by the name of Melchizedek. Each of the five warnings passages in Hebrews is an interruption of the book’s main argument. Noting this will greatly help n reading, understanding, and interpreting the book.
So then, the immediate context needs always to be carefully examined in interpreting a passage of scripture.
Equally, important is the context of the book itself in which any given passage is found. One great example of this is the book of Ecclesiastes, a favourite hunting ground for cultists in their search for proof of texts. Any text from Ecclesiastes must be interpreted in the light of the scope and purpose of the book itself. Ecclesiastics gives us the viewpoint of man “under the sun” and underlines, by the repeated phrase “vexation of spirit,’ the frustrations and follies of the person whose whole life is dominated by this world.
The book was written by Solomon, probably toward the end of his misspent life. He was disillusioned and disappointed with the fruits of his carnality and backsliding. When he considered the real issues of life in the light of his weakness and worldliness, the book of Ecclesiastes was the result. It records the perspective and the prospects of a worldly-minded man. It is therefore a book inspired by the Holy Spirit to reveal the futility and shortsightedness of worldly philosophy and ambition. It records the despair and cynicism that result when life is bounded by the things of time and sense. That which is “under the sun” cannot meet our deepest needs. We must fix our sights on the next world, not this one if we are to be truly fulfilled.
Since that is the scope and purpose of Ecclesiastes, any text taken from this book must be conditioned by its author’s viewpoint and must, therefore, be handled with caution. On no account must a text from Ecclesiastes be allowed to contradict clear statements of truth found elsewhere in the Bible. Thus, when Ecclesiastes 9:5 says, “The dead know not anything” (a favourite proof-text of the Jehovah’s Witness Cult), we must remember that this is not a true statement of fact. The worldly man indeed says that “the dead know not anything” but what the worldly man says is not true. Luke 16:19-31 makes it clear that the dead know a great deal.
We must also consider the context of the Bible. Because truth has been revealed progressively, no one passage of scripture can be considered in isolation from other passages related to it. That is why concordance is such a valuable Bible study tool. We should use it to see what light cross-references shed on a subject. This is especially true when studying a doctrine, a topic, or an aspect of prophecy.
For instance, four kinds of baptism are mentioned in the baptism: Typical Baptism, Preparatory Baptism, Water Baptism, and Spirit Baptism. Any reference in the Bible to baptism should be examined to see just what kind of baptism is meant. Failure to differentiate between texts that refer to water baptism and texts that refer to Spirit baptism can lead to all kinds of confusion.
Leaven is mentioned in Mathew 13:33 in an important context. Some think that leaven symbolizes the gospel permeating society. That this is not so can be seen by gathering together other references to leaven in Scripture. Look, for instance, at Genesis 19:3, Exodus 12:8 and 12:19, 1Corinthians 5:6-8, Mathew 16:6,11-12, mark 8:15 (compare Mathew 22:23,29). It is evident that leaven, in the Bible, uniformly stands for something evil; it especially stands for evil doctrine. There is no reason to make an exception in Mathew 13:33.
How often in everyday affairs we see a person’s words or actions taken out of context and given an unfair and biased twist, by the news media. It is possible to destroy a person’s character and career in that way. Careful consideration of context will teach us to give thought to the time, place, and circumstances that give rise to a given communication. That is important in the mundane things of life and also in the Scriptures. Holy solemn a thing it is to misrepresent something God has said by failing to consider the context of His words.
THE SURVEY PRINCIPLE
We must see the whole before becoming too immersed in its parts. Such a principle can be applied in many areas of study and endeavour, and it is vitally important in Bible study. Before we become too engrossed with verses and texts we need to get the broad outlines of the Bible firmly fixed in our minds. That includes the overall themes and contents of the various books, why they were written, how they relate to other books, why they were written, how they relate to other books of the Bible, how they relate to history, and so on. In other words, one of the primary goals of the Bible student is to understand the whole before interpreting the parts.
The Bible contains 1,189 chapters, 23,214 verses, and 773,692 words. Taken in total they present a magnificent picture of God’s dealings with humankind and with His ultimate purposes for the human race. But to those just beginning to study the Bible, the size, scope, and variety of the Scriptures can be confusing.
Think for a moment of a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces all needing to be fitted together, each one with its proper place about the whole. The sensible thing is to look at the overall picture on the puzzle box before trying to fit the individual pieces together. Green pieces can then be seen to belong to these trees, or this lawn, or that little girl’s dress. Blue pieces can be seen to belong to a fragment of sky, or a pond, or a blue car. Red pieced belongs to the barn yonder, or those flowers, or to that train on the skyline.
The sensible way to approach the Bible is similar: get its major features, book by book, well sorted out before going too far.
The casual reader of the Bible might easily think that, because the book of Jeremiah immediately follows the book of Isaiah, the two are closely related in time. They are separated by about a century. When Isaiah wrote, the international scene was dominated by Assyria. When Jeremiah wrote, Assyria was just a bad memory and Babylon was the threat. The ten-tribed nation of Israel had been uprooted and its peoples scattered; only Judah remained to face the threat of Babylon imperialism. The situation had changed significantly.
An even greater change exists between Malachi and Mathew. When Malachi wrote, the Jewish nation had been regarded from exile but the future was dark. About a century had passed since Haggai and Zechariah had preached to the returned remnant of Israel, and a new set of sins had taken root in the land. Between Malachi and Mathew lies a gap of some 400 years. When Malachi wrote, the Persians still controlled the world. When Mathew wrote, Persia was gone, Greece was gone, the Maccabees were gone, troublesome Egypt and Syria had been laid low, and Rome ruled the world.
In the Gospel, we read of sets and parties unknown to Malachi. We read of scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, Herodians. We read of Palestinian cities with Greek names. Hebrew has become a dead language, the language of scholars, and the Scriptures are being read in Greek. Moreover, the common language of the people is now Aramaic. We discover an Idumean on the throne of David. We are confronted by a governing religious body known as the Sanhedrin. Even the Temple is not the same one known to Malachi. In Mathew, we find public worship carried on mostly in synagogues. A vast and cumbersome collection of interpretations (both oral and written, later known as the Talmud) is growing and even replacing the Scriptures in popular and scholastic circles. Such sweeping changes must be grasped if the Bible is to be intelligible. A panoramic view of the Bible will keep students from getting lost as they approach this or that passage of Scripture.
The Lord Jesus used the Bible survey approach with those two discouraged disciples of His when He joined them (seemingly a total stranger) on the Emmaus road (Luke 24). They poured into His ears a sad story of their crucified hopes. They were so confused. They had thought that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, but Calvary had finished all that. True stories of resurrection had been buzzing about Jerusalem since dawn but no one surely could take them seriously.
The Lord’s answer was to give them a survey of what the Scriptures said about Christ. “Beginning at Moses and all the prophets. He expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Luke 24:27). In that way, He gave them a proper perspective. They had thought only of a sovereign Messiah; He showed them a suffering Messiah. They had thought only of One who would be crowned. He showed them One who could also be crucified. He replaced their ignorance with the truth. The larger picture revealed a Redeemer as well as a Ruler.
The survey approach to the Scriptures puts things in perspective. It saves the student from ridiculous and sometimes grave errors. In Zechariah 3, for example, we read of Joshua standing before the Lord in filthy garments. One preacher expressed his astonishment that Joshua, after being such a notable leader, after having had such good training under Moses, and after having led Israel into the Promised Land, could so have allowed himself to run down as to appear before God in such a disgraceful condition. Had he known his Bible better, he would not have made such a glaring error. There are two notable Joshua in the Old Testament; one was a soldier, the other a priest, one was a captive in Egypt, the other a captive in Babylon, one loved at the time of the exodus, the other a thousand years later at the end of the exile.
Similar mistakes can be made with the various Marys and Herods of the New Testament. There were three Marys at the cross: the Lord’s mother, Mary Magdalen, and Mary the wife of Cleopas. Mary of Bethany interestingly enough was not there. She had already performed her burial rites (Mathew 26:7; Mark 1:13; John 11, 12:1-9), had been commended for it by the Lord, and was anticipating the resurrection. Mary the mother of Mark is not mentioned in the Gospel nor is that other Mary who resided in Rome and who befriended Paul and his companions.
As for the Herods, they were a complicated family. There was Herod the Great, who massacred the male children of Bethlehem; Herod Philip 1, whose wife Herodias and whose daughter Salome left him to go off with Herod Antipas, the Herod who murdered John the Baptist and before whom Christ was sent for trial. There is Herod Agrippa 1, who martyred James and planned the execution of Peter and who was eaten up worms. There is Herod Agrippa 11, the “last king of Jews,” who heard Paul’s defence before Paul was packed off to Rome to appear before Nero.
Before beginning a verse study of any passage or book of scripture, a survey is essential. Some books of the Bible will remain a mystery unless their broad outlines are mastered first. A notable example of this is the book of Revelation. Many foolish things have been said about this book by people who have never mastered its major patterns. In the first place, the scenes alternate between heaven and earth, so it is always important to note from what position events are being observed. Then, too, the actual chronology of the book is constantly interrupted by parenthetical sections—some brief, but others extending over a whole series of chapters, some reaching back to amplify past events in the chronology and others anticipating and leaping ahead. Unless these parentheses are discerned and their position in revelation to the overall drama properly understood, the book of Revelation will remain confusing and unintelligible.
If a person decided to drive from Chicago to Los Angeles he would first look at a map of the United State to see which routes best suited his purpose. Next, he would look at some maps to see what special problems he might meet along the way. Finally, he would examine various city maps to decide which bypasses or city highways he should take or avoid. He would thus move from the broad picture to the smaller. That is how we should proceed with Bible study from general to particular, from the overview to the details, from survey to analysis.
Be sure to see the summary of the books of the Bible at the end of this handbook.
At one time in my life, I worked in the purchasing department of a large trucking company. In the shop, one of the mechanics might need a seal, perhaps, for a clutch. If the part was of stock we in the purchasing department had to order it from the manufacturer. That would have been an impossible job for me had it not been for an all-important book supplied by the manufacturer to its customers. This book known as the Part Book was an enormous volume. It contained all the information needed to order any single part of a truck. Its chief feature was the “exploded diagrams” which illustrated each part of the vehicle.
THE IMPORTANCE OF STRUCTURE
The book, for instance, provided a working illustration of the clutch for which the mechanic needed the part. Each part in the assembly was depicted in the diagram in such a way that it showed the part’s exact relationship, not only to the whole assembly but to each part with which it had contact. Looking at such a diagram, it could be seen that first came to this piece, then that piece, then the other piece. In addition to this helpful diagrammatic view of the assembly, showing how the whole thing fits together, each part was numbered.
As long as either the number or the exact position of the part was known, it could be found in the exploded diagram and its function understood.
In the Bible, everything has its proper place. Nothing can be more helpful, in understanding the significance of any part of the Bible than to get at its underlying structure—to work out, so to speak, an exploded diagram.
Everything God does is perfect. In nature, for example, no two snowflakes are alike, yet each one is built on an identical six-pointed pattern. No two oak leaves are identical, yet each one can be easily recognized by its form. The same is true of God’s word. Because each part is perfectly structured, the structure of a passage will often help solve problems connected with it. For example, when we structurally analyze the difficult warning passage of Hebrews, they resolve their difficulties. The importance of the structure of the Bible extends not only to verses and phrases but to whole chapters and entire books of the Bible. Frequently the in-wrought structure of a passage takes the form of intervention, alternation, or a combination of both.
Look at the parallelism to be seen in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:12-32) as indicated in the conjunction Bible by E.W. Bullinger.
A. The younger son (12-16)
1. His penitence (17-20A)
2. His father’s compassion (20b)
3. The younger son’s confession (21)
4. The father’s gifts (22-23)
5. The reason— “for” (24)
B. The elder brother (25-27)
1. His penitence (28a)
2. His father’s entreaty (28b)
3. The father’s gifts (31-32a)
4. The reason—“for” (32b)
The structure reveals the beauty and symmetry of the parable. It emphasizes the difference between the two brothers and brings out the two-pronged moral of the parable. The Lord’s audience consisted of two classes of people, the publicans and sinners (verse 1) and “the Pharisees and scribes” (verse 2). The first segment of the parable is addressed to the publicans and sinners, who easily identified themselves with the prodigal son, the second segment of the parable is equally clearly directed at the scribes and Pharisees, who could not fail to see themselves in the structure of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17).
A. Commands one and two: thought (2-3)
B. Command three: word (4-6)
C. Commands four and five: deed (7-12)
C. Commands six, seven, and eight: deed (13-15)
B. Commands nine: word (16)
A. Command ten: thought (17).
The structure reveals the symmetry of the Decalogue. It is divided into two major segments. The first segment is controlled by the phrase “the Lord thy God,” the second segment by the phrase “thou shalt not.” The first five commandments are a summary of our duty to God; the second five, our duty to other human beings. In each case, our duty extends through thought, word, and deed.
The Lord Jesus recognized this division of the Decalogue into two major segments. When challenged by a lawyer he replied: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the fire and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mathew 22:37-40). We would incline to divide the commandments into groups of four and six, linking parental obedience with man’s duty to man. The structure shows that God links it otherwise. The phrase “the Lord thy God” ties this commandment on to the first four, about our duty to God. The reason lies in the fact that parents stand in the place of God to a child as far as obedience is concerned.
There are countless examples of the structural base of scripture. Those interested in pursuing it through the various books of the Bible and into almost every chapter and verse should examine it. The dispensationalism is regrettable, his handling of the structure of the Bible is fascinating.
It is not necessary, however, to restrict oneself to the introversion-alternation technique for discerning the structure of a passage of scripture. Careful examination of any passage will yield results. Care must be taken to analyze the main thought in a passage and its subordinate thoughts. These should be tabulated and studied. Such a structural analysis can then become the basis of teaching what the Bible says. Once the structure is exposed, often all that is needed to obtain a workable outline is to put meaningful captions to the various parts of the structure.
Let us try this with Psalm 90, the famous psalm attributed to Moses. The first thing to do is to read the psalm over and over again until its major themes are fixed firmly in the mind. Constant reading of the text is vital.
What is the writer saying here?
What is his major topic?
How is he handling his theme?
What are his arguments?
Where and why and for how long does he digress from his subject?
How is illustrating his theme?
What supporting statements does he make?
How can I capture in capsule form, the major division of this passage?
These and similar questions will soon begin to yield results. Reading Psalm 90 in this way will show that the psalm has three main divisions. The Right Perspective (1-6). The Real Problem (7-12): The Resulting Prayer (13-17). The thing to do, at this point, is to mark off these divisions in the psalm itself and to write them down on a sheet of paper with their appropriate captions.
Having determined the major divisions of the structure and having given each division an appropriate title go back and break down the first segment into its divisions. These divisions are not to be arbitrarily imposed on the text: but are to be thrown out of the text itself by paying strict attention to what is being said. Reading and rereading verses 1-6 will show that the right perspective about which Moses speaks is threefold. He is impressed by the Sovereignty of God (1-2) by the sympathy of God (3-4), and by the Severity of God (5-6). Mark these divisions and write them down under the first caption: The Right Perspective.
Each of these three subdivisions can now be examined for structure and message. We discover that related to the sovereignty of God, Moses is awed by the fact that we have A Tremendous God (1a). A Tender God (1b), and A Timeless God (2). It is along those lines that he examines the sovereignty of God and adds to the perspective from which he writes the psalm.
With this start, try your hand at breaking down each verse in the psalm into its underlying structure. Then, if you like, compare your results with the following analysis of Psalm 90 (derived from a verse-by-verse, phrase-by-phrase, and, sometimes, the word-by-word examination of the psalm).
Keep in mind that the structural approach is the exact opposite of the survey approach. In a Bible survey, you are looking for broad outlines, great movements, and overall themes. In structural analysis, you are breaking a passage down into its parts to see how the passage is put together.
The Right Perspective (90:1-6)
A. The sovereignty of God (90:1-2)
1. He is a Tremendous God
2. He is a Tender God
3. He is a Timeless God
B. The sympathy of God (90:3-4)
1. He knows the Tyranny the Tomb His over Him (90:3)
2. He knows the Tyranny that Time His over Him (90:4)
C. The severity of God (90:7-15)
The Real Problem (90:7-12)
A. Our Lives are so sinful (90:7-8)
B. Our Lives are so Short (90:9-10)
C. Our Lives are so Serious (90:11-12)
The Resulting Prayer (90:13-17)
A. A Fresh Evidence of the Moving of God (90:13)
B. A Fresh Endowment of the Mercy of God (90:14-15)
C. A Fresh Expression of the Might of God (90:16)
D. A Fresh Effulgence of the Majesty of God (90:17)
Structural analysis can be used by the Bible teacher in two ways. As it stands, it is far too detailed to try to expound to a congregation. People simply become weary and confused in trying to follow all the ins and outs of such an outline. The teacher therefore can deal only with the main topics if the structure is to become the basis for a single message. Or, if the whole psalm is to be studied, three messages can be made out of it.
I SHALL STOP HERE FOR NOW, TILL THE NEXT UPDATE.
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