Identify the context!
Ever come across verses such as “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…” (Mt 18:9), “As he [Elisha] was traveling up the road, some young boys came out of the city and made fun of him, saying, ‘Go on up, baldy! Go on up, baldy!’” (2 Kg 2:23), or “Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like clusters of grapes” (Song 7:7) and wondered, “What’s that about?”
Or perhaps you talk with a friend who mentions a so-called discrepancy in the Bible and wondered, “They do have a point.” For example, Proverbs 26:4–5 appears to offer contradictory advice: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you yourself also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own estimation.” So which is it? Answer a fool, or not!
Encountering difficult verses like these mentioned above will provide road bumps in our spiritual journeys if we don’t consider the context. We must ask, “What comes before this verse?” and “What follows?” Without asking these, we run the risk of coming to wrong interpretations.
In fact, many religions make this error. They rip Scripture out of context to support their weird beliefs. Jehovah’s Witnesses, in their New World Translation, interpret John 1:1 to support their claim that Jesus was “a god” rather than “God” because of the lack of a definite article (i.e. “the”) in the verse.
Tragically, Jehovah’s Witnesses fail to ask, “What follows this verse?” If they did, they would notice that just thirteen verses later it says this “Word” refers to Jesus (Jn 1:14). And we know John’s purpose statement for writing was, “… so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). Remember to identify the context when reading Scripture.
Types of Context
In their book, Living by the Book, Howard and William Hendricks identify five types of context (pg. 227–28). Literary context asks, “What words come before and after?” Historical context, “When is this occurring?” Cultural context, “What was the situation like?” Geographic context, “Where did this happen?” And theological context, “What was the writer’s relationship with God like?”
So when you read the Bible and feel puzzled, identify the context of the verse. Figure out what verses come before and after. In doing so, you’ll come away with a better perspective on what this passage means.
Scripture and/or notes quoted by permission. Quotations designated (NET) are from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://bible.org All rights reserved.