Context, Context, Context

Read John 5:38-40 …

As with real estate the important consideration is location, location, location; when reading the Scriptures, the important consideration is context, context, context. It has been a proverbial saying of many when thinking about what the Scriptures are trying to get across that a verse without context is a pretext to a proof-text. Or, when a verse is lifted from its context any number of ideations may be supported.

A very notable example is when some take the words of Jesus in Luke 12:19 – “… take your ease, eat, drink and be merry” – to be an example of a philosophy of life that we may adopt. Yet in truth, the context of this passage is about a man that says this because of his great blessings but that very night the man dies. The point was never about an individual having personal satisfaction and ease, but about those that fail to store up their treasures with God (12:21).

Looking back briefly to the last couple of weeks, one can see how understanding which of the three big dispensations noted in the Scriptures, or how understanding the genre that a passage may be found in, can deeply influence the understanding of that passage. Lifting a passage from the Mosaic dispensation and applying it during the Christian may prove problematic at best or outright error at worst. Picking up a verse from apocalyptic literature where much is written in figurative or symbolic language and assigning it a concrete or literal meaning may also lead to erroneous understanding and error in application.

When beginning to understand what the context of a segment of Scripture is, some authors describe looking at the immediate context, the near context, and the far context. The immediate context can typically be determined by the 3-4 verses/sentences before and after the segment in question. Except for a book like Proverbs (where many of the verses are self-contained units of wisdom), the immediate verses surrounding the segment in question are typically associated in some fashion.

From there one moves to the near context. How does the segment under consideration fit into the flow of thought as seen in either the immediate paragraph or in relation to the previous or following paragraph? One may also consider the segment in question regarding the purpose of the entire book in which it is found. Some of the Epistles in the NT are so short what is said may easily relate to the purpose of the whole letter. In some of the longer books the relationship between a specific segment and the entirety of the book may be obscure, but still some relationship may be found.

Finally, even with a shorter segment to be considered, there is also a far context that may be brought to bear on the understanding of a passage. If one is looking at a passage by Paul, the other writings of Paul may help shed some light on meaning. Where the passage falls in the overall grand divisions of the Scriptures also may tell a person about how a passage should be understood. Sometimes looking at other instances where a similar word or idea is used may prove helpful in understanding the segment in question. There are also many themes in the Scriptures that the passage may fit into, something that will be given its own thought next week.

Context is simply that important. Without having a context within which to understand a passage of scripture, one is free to assign their own meaning to the text, and once that happens, the Scriptures mean what we want them to mean, not what God wants them to mean.

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