Why is context important when reading the Bible?
The following column is from one of Revolve Church’s elders, Breton Palmer, and addresses the question, “Why is context important when reading the Bible?” It was first published on the website Doctrine and Devotion.
Not too long ago, I watched Casablanca with my brother and wife. After completing the movie, we got on the topic of famous movie quotes and found a list of the top 100. Though I hadn't seen many of the movies represented, surprisingly, I knew many of the quotes. Roughly half of those I could give the cliffnotes version of the plot, the remaining I could at least speculate the tone or meaning of the quote. However, for me to grasp the full depth of the quote (movie or book), I need to know the story from beginning to end, not just the quote. Picture for a moment your favorite movie or book, and you’re discussing it with another person. They mention to you that they had not seen/read it. Would not your first response be that they need to see/read it? If we were extremely passionate about the story we would insist they do so ASAP! We understand they would not grasp the depth of the quote if they don't know the whole story, from start to finish; essentially, if they don't have the context.
Context is extremely important when it comes to interpreting Scripture and many more brilliant than I have written about that topic. Those who are naturally analytic and love the question "why?" gravitate to studying the context. Context is necessary for being intellectually thorough. Further, seeking the correct interpretation of a scriptural passage is extremely biblical, but we must also understand that the Bible is God's story of redemption. The Scriptures tell us the greatest drama ever written. As a story, then, context is not just a term for our minds to engage with. The only goal with Scripture is not to be intellectually thorough, with proper hermeneutical methods arriving at the correct interpretation. Context is also a term for our hearts to engage with, to feel the depth of our connection with the characters (sometimes our brothers and sisters in the faith, other times not). We rejoice in the good, mourn the bad and anxiously wait as the plot "rises and falls".
The danger we can fall into is having many passages of Scripture that we just know the quote, but not the story. We are simply using Scripture as a 5 Hour Energy shot for our Christian journey, instead of making sure we have put in the effort to have our journey supported by enough "rest" and a "healthy diet" of scripture and prayer. Two verses that are probably the most "abused" are Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13.
For the sake of brevity, I will just quickly discuss Philippians 4:13. Most people can quote "I can do all things through him [Christ] who strengthens me" and this encourages them during hard times, or motivates them to take on challenges. I am not desiring to negate these benefits, but the depth of this verse goes much deeper than getting through rough patches or overcoming obstacles. First, Paul was in jail when he penned this epistle (letter) to the church in Philippi. Before you say "see this verse encourages us during hard times" understand this is Paul in jail writing to encourage the Philippian church. He was teaching them this truth to encourage them; that this truth both encouraged Paul and spurred him on to encourage others. Second, the previous verses in chapter 4 mention that verse 13 is the secret to facing both "...plenty and hunger, abundance and need." We don't often think in terms of "facing" plenty or abundance, but this is what Paul is telling us. When we get the full story and not just the quote, we learn that Christ IS our contentment, that he IS our strength. He is always both of these things regardless of whether things are going well or terribly. We shouldn't just dust off the Philippians 4:13 meme when things are tough or when we are in the midst of tackling our next big adventure. Instead, we must call to mind everyday that Christ is all we need, which is why we “rejoice in the Lord!” [See Phil 1:18; 2:17-18, 28; 3:1; 4:4]
In Christ, we have all that we need. In the Scriptures, the story continuously points towards him. Let us strive to know the story and not just the quote.