October 10, 2012

Context Matters

In biblical interpretation, context matters – a lot. The context of the passage dictates how it is to be interpreted. In missing this crucial point many Texts have been snatched out of their original context and given meanings they were never intended to have. Each Scripture or passage only has one meaning, not many. It cannot mean one thing to me and another thing to you. Either you, or I, or both are wrong. There can be many different applications of a passage, but only one meaning.

Contexts to keep in mind when looking at a specific passage:

  • Context of the whole Bible. What is the big picture and over all story? How does this passage fit with the whole story? The Bible is not an instruction manual that we consult when things aren’t going our way. It is not God’s love letter to us. It is God’s self revelation to us of His will, His character, His glory, His sovereignty, His story, and how He displays His glory through choosing a people for Himself to love and save.
  • Context of the letter or book you’re reading. What is the cultural setting of the addressed people? What was the intent of the human author in writing it? To whom was it written? What was going on there?
  • Context of the passage itself. What topic or idea is being explained or debated? What people group is being addressed (Christians, unbelievers, Pharisees, etc.)? It’s helpful to keep the passages directly before and after the section in question in mind while interpreting.

Two texts I hear/have heard misinterpret most often are the story of David and Goliath & Phil. 4:13. In both cases the story or context has nothing to do with us in any way being the heros or focus of the story. But, in our narcissistic culture, they get snatched kicking and screaming out of their contexts and taught in a way that makes us look good or helps us look within ourselves to do something really awesome. We love to think that God is on OUR sideline, cheering US on in OUR pursuits, you know, He’s there just in case we need Him.

In the story of David and Goliath, we become David, facing down our giants. With God’s help and a few smooth stones, we can defeat our bullies, overcome our hardships, conquer our fears, or defeat the opposing football team that beat us earlier in the season so we can go to the state playoffs. You get the point. In actuality this story (that really happened) is a picture of how Christ defeats our enemies (sin, Satan, death) for us as we look on like scared, paralyzed Israelites. If you consider all WE gain from HIS victory… this is a much better story.

In Philippians 4:13 Paul says “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” I can’t help but think of how much disappointment this verse must cause people when it is misinterpreted to them. One of the most grievous misuses of this Text I see in my part of the country is in the area of sports, which happens to be a very influential god down here. A runner falls behind in a race. A boy stands on the free throw line at the end of the fourth quarter with his team down by one. Insert any underdog in any sport, ad nauseam. Then all they have to do is continue to think to themselves “I can do all things through Christ,” and boom! supernatural strength. Given this meaning the verse simply is not true and can’t bear the weight we place on it. The Bible is not a magical book from which we can pick and choose verses to chant for good luck.

The context of Philippians 4 is suffering and contentment. Paul is saying that he can endure all kinds of suffering and be content in any situation through Christ’s strength. This is much better news than “Jesus will help you win your sporting event” because hard times are coming for us all!

The point being, read the verses in context and allow them to say what they say instead of forcing them to say what you would like them to say. We trivialize the Bible when we make it about us. It does TALK about us, but that is NOT the same as us being the point of it. Christ is always the point of the Bible.

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