What’s the Deal with Context?
I remember it vividly. A well-known and loved professor screaming at the top of his lungs, “CONTEXT IS KING!” At first, I had no idea what he was talking about. I felt out of the loop, like he had this private club that I didn’t have the key to. But the more I learn and study God’s Word, the more I understand the great importance of reading your Bible and understanding its surrounding context.
Let’s do something fun- shall we?
I know we’ve all heard this verse quoted… and it’s a doozy.
Matthew 19:26 reads, “And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
OOOO-kaaaay. I’m gonna just throw this out there. People overuse this verse and MISUSE this verse so much. I’ve heard people use this in relation to jobs, gaining wealth (so ironic as you’ll see), getting pregnant, and buying the house they want.
I’m gonna be really firm here: You cannot take a verse out of its context. CANNOT. If you do- you will add an application to it that was never intended.
Bob Utley said in his article, Intro to Revelation, “The author’s intent, not literalness, is the key to proper understanding of the Bible.” As I mentioned in a previous post, the author’s intended meaning is everything!
If we look directly to the verses before this, we realize quite a few things. Right before this, a rich young man had come to Jesus asking what he must to to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him whether he had followed the commandments, and then asked him to sell all his possessions and follow him. The young man left, saddened, because he was very wealthy. His wealth held him back from following Jesus. I often wonder if this man ever regretted that decision. But I digress…
It was then that Jesus turned to his disciples. This is what he said to them.
“Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”25 When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” (Matthew 19:23-25)
And this… THIS… is when Jesus made our famous saying. This is where we’ve taken a verse and used to make it seem as though God is at our every bidding. We use this verse so that when we think we REALLY WANT SOMETHING, God will make it possible.
And that’s an absolutely incorrect interpretation of the scripture if we look at the Author’s Intended Meaning. If you read this passage in its entirety- you will realize that Jesus meant that God can do whatever He wants. So hard to hear. But that’s what the author is narrating here. The key in this passage is the question that the disciples ask Jesus IMMEDIATELY before the verse we are talking about.
“Then who can be saved?”
There’s hope in our original verse now. But not what we’ve misused for so many years…. Jesus is basically reaffirming that if it were up to man- we would never gain eternal life- but with God, he can save us and give us eternal life. When we look at the literal meaning of this verse in light of the surrounding verses, the way to apply this verse is now more limiting (because we realize it has nothing to do with us… and everything to do with God.)
Before you apply anything from the Bible to your life, you must first understand the
Author’s Intended Meaning (A.I.M.). (Find what that is here.) Without it- you will be applying the Bible INCORRECTLY to your life. And missing out on a huge factor: TRUTH.
When you first try and interpret a verse from the Bible to your life, make sure you know what the context of that verse is. Look at the surrounding verses to help you (don’t just pull that lone verse out by itself.) Next, read the rest of the chapter to determine if your understanding is correct. If the verse is at the end of the chapter, read on to the next chapter as well. Take a glance at the chapters before and after the chapter that your verse is located (make sure the theme that you are understanding doesn’t contradict the theme from the surrounding chapters.) Finally, take a gander at the theme of the entire book as a whole. Does your verse still make sense in light of the book’s theme? (You can find this in some Bibles in the Introduction of the book instead of reading the ENTIRE book just to discover the theme.)
Once you’ve looked at these things, it’s less likely that you will be taking a verse out of context. When you understand the context, you’ll be closer to understanding the author’s intent, the audience and the message the passage is trying to get across.
There is more to context… historical and culture context, literary and genre context, grammatical context, etc. But those are for another day.
Context is King! (Welcome to the Club!)