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by Dr. Craig Keener
Have you ever been quoted out of context? Sometimes people quote something you said, but by ignoring the context of what you said they can claim that you said something different—sometimes exactly the opposite of what you actually meant! We often make this same mistake with the Bible. That is how cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons use the Bible to defend their unbiblical teachings.
One of the most important resources for understanding the Bible is in the Bible itself: context. Some readers want to skip immediately to verses elsewhere in the Bible. (Sometimes they do this by using references in their Bible’s margins; yet these were added by editors, and are not part of the Bible itself.) Unfortunately, we can make the Bible say almost anything by combining different verses; even verses that sound similar may in context address quite different topics. Using this method, one would think that “one is justified by faith without works” (Rom 3:28) and “one is justified by works, and not by faith alone” (James 2:24) contradict each other. By contrast, each passage makes sense in a special way if we read it in its context: the flow of thought from what comes before and after the passage we are studying. In context, James and Paul mean something quite different by “faith.” Both affirm that a person is made right before God only by a sort of genuine faith that is expressed in a fairly consistent life of obedience (see our discussion below).
If we ignore context, we will almost always misunderstand what we read in the Bible. Advanced students may wish to skip to later chapters of the book, but because many students assume that they have understand context better than they actually do, we would urge readers to at least sample the next chapter before moving further.
The Importance of Context
Context is the way God gave us the Bible, one book at a time. The first readers of Mark could not flip over to Revelation to help them understand Mark; Revelation had not been written yet. The first readers of Galatians did not have a copy of the letter Paul wrote to Rome to help them understand it. These first readers did share some common information with the author outside the book they received. In this manual we call this shared information “background”: some knowledge of the culture, earlier biblical history, and so on. But they had, most importantly, the individual book of the Bible that was in front of them. Therefore we can be confident that the writers of the Bible included enough within each book of the Bible to help the readers understand that book of the Bible without referring to information they lacked. For that reason, context is the most important academic key to Bible interpretation. (Background, what the writer could take for granted, is also important; we will return to that subject in a later chapter.)
Often popular ministers today quote various isolated verses they have memorized, even though this means that they will usually leave 99% of the Bible’s verses unpreached. One seemingly well-educated person told a Bible teacher that she thought the purpose of having a Bible was to look up the verses the minister quoted in church! But the Bible is not a collection of people’s favorite verses with a lot of blank space in between. Using verses out of context one could “prove” almost anything about God or justify almost any kind of behavior–as history testifies. But in the Bible God revealed Himself in His acts in history, through the inspired records of those acts and the inspired wisdom of His servants addressing specific situations.
People in my culture value everything “instant”: “instant” mashed potatoes; fast food; and so forth. Similarly, we too often take short-cuts to understanding the Bible by quoting random verses or assuming that others who taught us have understood them correctly. When we do so, we fail to be diligent in seeking God’s Word (Prov 2:2-5; 4:7; 8:17; 2 Tim 2:15). One prominent minister in the U.S., Jim Bakker, was so busy with his ministry to millions of people that he did not have time to study Scripture carefully in context. He trusted that his friends whose teachings he helped promote surely had done so. Later, when his ministry collapsed, he spent many hours honestly searching the Scriptures and realized to his horror that on some points Jesus’ teachings, understood in context, meant the exact opposite of what he and his friends had been teaching! It is never safe to simply depend on what someone else claims that God says (1 Kgs 13:15-26).
I discovered this for myself when, as a young Christian, I began reading 40 chapters of the Bible a day (enough to finish the New Testament every week or the Bible every month). I was shocked to discover how much Scripture I had essentially ignored between the verses I had memorized, and how carefully the intervening text connected those verses. I had been missing so much, simply using the Bible to defend what I already believed! After one begins reading the Bible a book at a time, one quickly recognizes that verses isolated from their context nearly always mean something different when read in context. We cannot, in fact, even pretend to make sense of most verses without reading their context. Isolating verses from their context disrespects the authority of Scripture because this method of interpretation cannot be consistently applied to the whole of Scripture. It picks verses that seem to make sense on their own, but most of the rest of the Bible is left over when it is done, incapable of being used the same way. Preaching and teaching the Bible the way it invites us to interpret it—in its original context–both explains the Bible accurately and provides our hearers a good example how they can learn the Bible better for themselves.
If we read any other book, we would not simply take an isolated statement in the middle of the book and ignore the surrounding statements that help us understand the reason for that statement. If we hand a storybook to a child already learning how to read, the child would probably start reading at the beginning. That people so often read the Bible out of context (I will offer examples below) is not because it comes naturally to us, but because we have been taught the wrong way by frequent example. Without disrespecting those who have done the best they could without understanding the principle of context, we must now avail ourselves of the chance to begin teaching the next generation the right way to interpret the Bible.
Many contradictions some readers claim to find in the Bible arise simply from ignoring the context of the passages they cite, jumping from one text to another without taking the time to first understand each text on its own terms. To develop an example offered above, when Paul says that a person is justified by faith without works (Rom 3:28), his context makes it clear that he defines faith as something more than passive assent to a viewpoint; he defines it as a conviction that Christ is our salvation, a conviction on which one actively stakes one’s life (Rom 1:5). James declares that one cannot be justified by faith without works (James 2:14)—because he uses the word “faith” to mean mere assent that something is true (2:19), he demands that such assent be actively demonstrated by obedience to show that it is genuine (2:18). In other words, James and Paul use the word “faith” differently, but do not contradict one another on the level of meaning. If we ignore context and merely connect different verses on the basis of similar wording, we will come up with contradictions in the Bible that the original writers would never have imagined.
Levels of Context
Most of us agree that we should read the Bible in context, but how far should we read in the context? Is it sufficient merely to read the verse before and the verse after the one we are quoting? Or should we be familiar with the paragraphs before and after? Or should we be familiar with the entire book of the Bible in which the passage occurs? While in practice the answer to this question depends to some extent on the part of the Bible we are studying (context is much shorter in Proverbs than in Genesis or 2 Corinthians), as a general rule we should think of each passage both in its immediate context and in the context of the entire book of the Bible in which it appears.
Many Bible teachers have wisely spoken of various levels of context for any text. First, most texts have an immediate context in the paragraph or paragraphs surrounding them. Second, we can look at the context of the entire book of the Bible in which they appear, the one unit of text we can be sure the first writers expected the first readers to have in front of them. Third, we sometimes need to look at the whole context of that writer’s teaching. For instance, though the Corinthians could not consult Paul’s letter to the Galatians, they were familiar with a broader backdrop of his teaching than what we find in 1 Corinthians alone, because Paul taught them in person for eighteen months (Acts 18:11). Whatever we can learn about Paul’s broader teaching may help us, provided we give first priority to what he tells his audience in the particular letter we are trying to understand.
Fourth, there is the context of shared information—the background that the original writer shared with his readers. Some of this background may be available for us in the Bible (for instance, Paul could expect many of his readers to know the Old Testament), but discovering background may also require extra research (though the first readers, who normally already knew it, could take it for granted). Finally, we can look at the context of God’s entire revelation in the Bible. But this should be our final step, not our first one. Too often we want to explain one verse in light of another before we have really understood either verse in light of the immediate context in which they occur. As in the example of Romans and James above, a particular word or even phrase does not always carry the same meaning in every passage.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 declares that “every Scripture is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.” Every Scripture communicates a meaning that is essential for the Church—as we have noted, there must be no “blank spaces” between our favorite verses. To apply this principle properly, however, we must determine what unit of the Bible Paul is talking about (what he means by “Scripture”). Paul obviously does not mean simply the individual words in the Bible; although individual words in the Bible are important because they contribute to the meaning of the text, an individual word, isolated by itself, could not communicate much meaning. (We need the word “and,” but by itself it does not communicate any specifically and universally Christian meaning.) We must be sure to preach from the Bible, not from a dictionary! This is the danger of focusing on words by themselves rather than their larger function in sentences and passages.
Obvious as this principle is (that individual words are not the primary unit of meaning), readers of the Bible sometimes ignore it. I once read a devotion on Ezekiel 28 that focused on the word, “wisdom,” and explained how wonderful wisdom was (based on its meaning in a Hebrew dictionary). The writer explained in detail the need for wisdom and never bothered to point out that Ezekiel 28 refers to the evil prince of Tyre, whose boasts of wisdom represent mere worldly wisdom. In other words, this expositor was not really preaching from Ezekiel 28, but from a Hebrew dictionary! Those who trace a meaning of a word through Scripture and then spend a whole sermon on their results may do better (provided they recognize the different ways the word may be used in different passages); sometimes we do need to study the meaning of words in this way. But those who preach from a list of verses where the word occurs still run the risk of preaching from a concordance rather than from the Bible itself. God did not inspire the Bible in concordance sequence; He inspired it book by book.
Even focusing on a verse read in its immediate context may be problematic (although less problematic), because that verse may not represent a full unit of thought. The verse references were not added to the Bible when it was being written, but only after it was finished; the unit of thought is often much larger than a verse, and it cannot make proper sense apart from its context. For example, that Jesus wept might be useful instruction for some people who think tears a sign of weakness. But remembering the context gives us a more generally useful principle. “Jesus wept” because He wept with friends who were suffering grief: this example teaches us that it is important to weep with those who weep, and that Jesus Himself cares for us enough to share our grief with us.
We may usually take a paragraph as a whole unit of thought, but even paragraphs often do not represent the complete unit of thought in the text. Paragraphs vary in length but we identify them as distinct paragraphs precisely because they are whole thoughts by themselves. Yet these thought-units often connect with other thought-units in such a way that it is difficult to separate them from surrounding thoughts. While most paragraphs will contain at least one nugget or principle, that nugget is sometimes too short to be used as the basis for a whole sermon by itself. As much as I prefer expository preaching (preaching from a paragraph or passage), some texts do not lend themselves easily to this approach.
For instance, when Paul bids farewell to his friends in Acts 20:36-38, their obvious love for one another (evidenced in their sad parting) yields a crucial nugget: We ought to have that kind of love for and commitment to one another in the body of Christ today. But we can articulate that principle more fully if we read these verses in light of Paul’s preceding farewell speech (Acts 20:18-35). And we could find enough material on that passage for a lengthy sermon or Bible study—if we wish to stick to what the first readers of Acts had available—only if we traced that passage’s theme of Christians’ love for one another throughout the whole book in which it appears (e.g., 2:44-45; 4:32-35; 14:28; 28:14-15). Most congregations would like more than a single point to learn from, or at least more than a single illustration of the point! Commenting on unity in John 17:23 may be difficult to flesh out unless we see how John emphasizes unity in terms of loving one another (13:34-35) and the kinds of barriers unity must surmount (Jesus crosses a major ethnic barrier when he ministers to a Samaritan woman in John 4). Reading this verse about unity in the context of John’s entire Gospel summons us to cross cultural and tribal barriers to love our fellow Christians.
One preaching professor in the U.S. told me that he was skeptical that all the Bible was God’s Word; he doubted that one could preach from a passage like the one where David’s servants brought him a concubine to keep him warm (1 Kgs 1:2-4). So I pointed out that these verses were part of a much larger context. After David sinned, God announced that judgment would come on his house even from those close to him (2 Sam 12:11). This was fulfilled in the revolt of Absalom, possibly David’s eldest son after Amnon’s death. But now another son of David, the next eldest after Absalom, is seeking to seize the throne (1 Kgs 1:5). The verses about David not being able to keep warm reveal how weak and susceptible he was to this new revolt; the mention of the concubine helps explain why Adonijah later merits death by asking to marry her (1 Kgs 2:21). To marry a concubine of the former king was to position oneself to become king (1 Kgs 2:22; cf. 2 Sam 16:21-22)–Adonijah still wants to overthrow Solomon’s kingdom! Without having read the entire story, one may miss the purpose for the individual verses. But there is certainly a purpose for them, and the rest of the story would not make sense without them.
Ultimately, context extends beyond words, verses, and paragraphs to the entire structure of each book of the Bible. This is probably what Paul means when he says, “Every Scripture is inspired.” The Greek word for “Scripture” here is graphë, which means “a writing.” In most cases, each book of the Bible would be written on an individual scroll as an individual text; different books of the Bible were usually written as whole books to address different situations in ancient Israel or the church. Although these books often consisted of earlier materials (e.g., accounts about Jesus that circulated before writers of the Gospels wrote them down), we have them as whole units in our Bibles, and should read them as whole units. For instance, God gave us four Gospels instead of one because He wanted us to look at Jesus from more than one perspective. (Jesus was too great for merely one Gospel, with its distinctive emphasis, to teach us enough about Him.) If we simply mix pieces from different Gospels without recognizing what is characteristic of each Gospel, we can miss the perspectives God wanted us to get from each one. While we could preach from an individual narrative in the Gospels and explain the text faithfully, we would do even better if we understood how that particular Bible story fit into the themes of that whole Gospel in which it appears.
In other cases, the book context is absolutely necessary, not just a nice addition. Paul’s letter to the Romans, for instance, is a tight-knit argument; reading any passage in Romans without understanding the flow of logic in the whole book leaves us with only a piece of an argument. Admittedly, many people read Romans this way, but because Romans is so tightly connected, Romans makes a far less immediately edifying Bible study passage-by-passage than Mark does. We need to know that all people have sinned (Rom 1-3), but one could easily spend many weeks analyzing that part of Romans before getting to justification by faith or power to live a righteous life. In Mark, by contrast, one comes up with new issues for study in nearly every paragraph, and a Bible study group could easily take a passage or chapter every week without feeling like they would not understand the writer’s point for a few more weeks. Paul wrote Romans as a letter to be read as a tight-knit argument, all at once! Even Mark’s first audience probably read his Gospel the entire way through in one sitting; it functions as a united account, foreshadowing Jesus’ impending death and resurrection the entire way through. Until we understand the function of a passage in light of the general argument of the book it occurs, we are not fully respecting the way God inspired it.
If God inspired each Scripture—meaning at least each “writing” or book of the Bible—to be profitable, we must grapple with each book of the Bible as a whole to fully understand it. (In some cases, where independent units of thought have simply been placed together in a book randomly–for instance, psalms in the Book of Psalms, most proverbs in the Book of Proverbs, and many laws in the legal sections of Exodus and Deuteronomy–this principle is less important. But it is very important as a principle for reading most of Scripture, and especially for tight-knit arguments like Romans or books of interdependent symbols like Revelation.)
This principle has serious implications for our Bible study. Instead of reading verses in the Bible first of all with a concordance or chain-references in our Bible, we need to learn to read books of the Bible straight through. Preferably we should read the smaller books like Mark in one setting; at least we should focus on a particular book for a particular period of time. Merely skipping from book to book without returning to a particular book is unhelpful.
Objections to Context
I should deal here with one objection to context that arises in some circles. Some people quote Scripture out of context and then claim they are right because they have special authority or a special revelation from God. But they should be honest in claiming that this is a special revelation rather than the Scripture. All revelations must be judged (1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:20-21), and God gave us a Bible in part so we could test other revelations. No one has the right to short-circuit hearers’ rights to evaluate their claims from Scripture by claiming a revelation about Scripture’s meaning which the hearers cannot evaluate by studying it for themselves. Otherwise anyone could claim that Scripture means anything! Any view can be supported based on proof-texts out of context; any theology can make its reasoning sound consistent; Jehovah’s Witnesses do this all the time. We dare not base our faith on other people’s study of the Bible rather than on the Bible itself.
We should be very careful what we claim the Bible teaches. Claiming that “The Bible says” is equivalent to claiming, “This is what the Lord says.” In Jeremiah’s day, some false prophets falsely claimed to be speaking what God was saying, but they were in fact speaking from their own imaginations (Jer 23:16) and stealing their messages from each other (Jer 23:30) rather than listening to God’s voice for themselves (Jer 23:22). God can sovereignly speak to people through Scripture out of context if he wishes, just as he can speak through a bird or a poem or a donkey; if God is all-powerful (Rev 1:8), He can speak however He pleases. But we do not routinely appeal to donkeys to teach us truth, and how he speaks to one person through a verse out of context does not determine its meaning for all hearers for all time. The universal meaning of the text is the meaning to which all readers have access, namely, what it means in context.
When I was a young Christian recently converted, I was taking a class in Latin and supposed to be translating Caesar for my homework. Wanting to read only my Bible and not do my homework, I flipped open the Bible and stuck my finger down, hoping to find a text that said, “Forsake all and follow me.” Instead, I found, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk 20:25). God chose to answer my foolish approach to Scripture on the level it deserved, but this hardly means that this text now summons all Christians to translate Caesar’s Gallic War!
All claims to hear God’s voice must be evaluated (1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:20-21), and listening to someone else’s claim can get us in trouble if we do not test it carefully (1 Kgs 13:18-22). Paul warns us: “If anyone thinks himself a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that what I write is the Lord’s command. If one ignores this, he himself will be ignored” (1 Cor. 14:37-38). The one revelation to which all Christians can look with assurance is the Bible; what we can be sure it means is what God meant when he inspired the original authors to communicate their original message. This is the one revelation all Christians agree on as the “canon,” or measuring-stick, for all other claims to revelation. Thus we need to do our best to properly understand it, preach it and teach it the way God gave it to us, in context.
Some claim that the apostles took Scripture out of context in the New Testament, which authorizes us to do the same; some nonbelieving Jewish critics use the same argument to claim that the New Testament writers were not truly inspired by the Holy Spirit. We could respond that, no matter how led by the Spirit we may be, we are not writing Scripture. But the fact is that claims about New Testament writers taking the Old Testament out of context are mostly overrated. The examples critics give usually fall into one of three categories, none of which authorize us to discover a text’s meaning by ignoring its context. First, when responding to opponents who used proof-texts, the biblical writers sometimes responded accordingly (“answering a fool according to his folly,” as Proverbs says). Second, and much more often, they simply drew analogies from the Old Testament, using them to illustrate a principle found in those texts or the lives they present.
Third, and perhaps most often, the texts we think are out-of-context reflect our own failure to recognize the complex way the writer has used the context. Some non-Christian scholars have accused Matthew of quoting Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt have I called my son”) out of context; they often present this as the one of the most blatant cases of the New Testament writers misunderstanding context. They make this claim because Hosea is talking about God delivering Israel from Egypt, whereas Matthew applies the text to Jesus. But Matthew knows the verse quite well: instead of depending on the standard Greek translation of Hosea here, he even makes his own more correct translation from the Hebrew. If we read Matthew’s context, we see that this is not the only place where he compares Jesus with Israel: as Israel was tested in the wilderness for forty years, Jesus was tested there forty days (Matt 4:1-2). Matthew also knows Hosea’s context: as God once called Israel from Egypt (Hosea 11:1), he would bring about a new exodus and salvation for his people (Hosea 11:10-11). Jesus is the harbinger, the pioneer, of this new era of salvation for his people.
In the same context, Matthew applies Jeremiah 31:15 (where Rachel weeps over Israel’s exile) to the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem (Matt 2:17-18), near which Rachel was buried (Gen 35:19). But Matthew knows Jeremiah’s context: after announcing Israel’s tragedy, God promises restoration (Jer 31:16-17) and a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34). Matthew compares this tragedy in Jesus’ childhood to one in Israel’s history because he expects his first, biblically knowledgeable readers to recognize that such tragedy formed the prelude to messianic salvation. Matthew also knows very well the context of Isaiah 7:14, which he quotes in Matthew 1:23 (see discussion in chapter 2, below); the context remains fresh in Matthew’s mind when he quotes Isaiah 9:1-2 in Matthew 4:15-16. Matthew is not ignoring context: he is comparing Jesus’ ministry with Israel’s history and the promises those very contexts evoke. He read the context better than his critics have!
Standing before God
In different parts of the body of Christ we teach many different things; our only basis for dialogue is our common foundation in Scripture. But if we can make Scripture say whatever we want by taking it out of context, we will not be able to truly call each other back to a common foundation.
Often interpretation makes a life-and-death difference: for example, in the past some people justified indulgences (paying money to the church to achieve forgiveness) or slavery. This study is about interpretation methods, not doctrines, but let us take for example some views commonly believed today. I am not asking whether we are right or wrong in such teachings, but what the consequences could be if we are wrong. If my teaching (and not just the hearers’ misinterpretation) leads people to believe that once they have prayed a prayer they will be saved no matter how they live or what religion they later convert to, I had better be right, or I will have much to answer for before God if I am wrong. Conversely, if my teaching (and not just the hearers’ misinterpretation) leads people to be so insecure about their relationship with God that some of them give up in despair, I will have much to answer for before God if I am wrong. If I teach about healing in such a way that people are afraid to trust God, and people suffer or die who could have been restored, I must stand before God. If I teach that everyone with faith will be healed, and if some who are not healed then lose faith, I must stand before God.
The question is not whether we will stand before God, since we will stand before Him no matter what, but whether He will find us faithful or unfaithful to what He has taught us. What we teach can have life-and-death consequences in people’s lives. If what we teach is what the Bible really says, the responsibility lies with the Bible and the God who gave it; if what we teach is our misinterpretation of the Bible, we bear the responsibility before God. I can imagine that on the day of judgment many people will protest, “But I was just preaching what so-and-so was preaching.” But many “mega-preachers” have spent more time marketing themselves and getting “big” than they have spent researching the Bible. (If you immerse yourself in the Bible, you will be able to tell which is which.) When we stand before God, we cannot blame the mega-preachers for what we have taught. God gave us a Bible not so we could memorize other preachers’ proof-texts, but so we could find out what God really teaches us.
In the following chapter, we will survey examples of verses in context—partly to illustrate how desperately we need to study context more carefully, despite the fact that all of us profess to believe in it. I deliberately picked texts that are often taken out of context in the kinds of church circles I know best. I teach students from many denominations (and non-denominations), and find that most of these texts are familiar to the majority of students in their out-of-context form. After examining the texts together in context, however (or allowing the students to study them in context on their own), we usually come to near-unanimous (usually unanimous) consensus on what they mean.
After examining “immediate context” in the next chapter, we will move to other themes in the following chapters. First, we will turn to whole-book context includes learning to recognize the structure of argument (in books with tight-knit arguments like Romans) and developing themes (in books more like Mark). Then we will turn to issues like the situational or historical context—”background”—making sure that we address the same kinds of issues the biblical authors were addressing. We will also turn to the different kinds of writing in the Bible (styles, genres, and forms like parables).