Context. Possibly the most important word in Biblical interpretation. Nearly anything in the Bible, if ripped from its proper context, can be used wrongly or just be perplexing. Imagine, for example, Elijah’s instructions to the rich leper Naaman being used to tell someone how to treat skin cancer. “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” Obviously, if you take into account the context of Elijah telling Naaman how God will heal him of leprosy, then you realize this has no relevance to how you should deal with skin cancer. But if you don’t know this context, and someone just quoted this to you, then by the way many people handle Scripture you probably would think that washing in the Jordan will cure skin cancer!
This is only the beginning. Missing context can lead to all sorts of nonsense, contradiction, and outright heresy. For this reason, all abuses of Scripture without context should be combated. Unfortunately, that means a lot of combat. For I have found this rule: The more quoted a verse is, the more likely the quote is being used out of context. So now I’ve made this guide to combat taking Bible verses out of context.
According to the Bible, washing in the Jordan will cure skin cancer!
See, all language needs contextual information to really communicate anything. For example, even if I said, “The sky is blue,” we need context to understand it. If we didn’t already know that I was speaking from the context of planet Earth, we might wonder whether this means all skies, the Martian sky, or something named Sky. Also, with the word “blue,” if we did not realize that this statement is usually used about the color of earth’s atmosphere, we might think “blue” refers to depression.
We see, then, that context is vital to meaningful language. But when you simply cite a single Bible verse, context is easy to miss. Several important levels of context—history-level, book-level, argument-level, and verse-level—can be far from obvious. So ask these questions before you cite a verse and interpret it:
- Who? It matters who wrote the text, to whom the text was written, and (when applicable) who spoke the words quoted. If you’re citing a verse with the words of Satan, for example, they should obviously not be treated as the words of Jesus. If a promise or command was written to Israel, we cannot assume it applies to our lives without further examination. If there are any pronouns in the verse, check to whom they refer.
- What? What is the topic of the passage in which the verse is found? If the topic of a psalm which speaks of God with nostrils isn’t about God’s anatomy but His wrath, we should recognize that and not assume God has a nose. If we’re dealing with a historical incident, we should not assume that whatever happens in it is something we ought to do.
- When? When is the verse about? Was it before Israel? During the Old Covenant? While Jesus was on earth? After the arrival of the New Covenant? If we’re dealing with a verse from a historical part of the Bible, what century was it from? What happened before and after? All of these questions make a difference.
- Where? Where the verse was written isn’t super important in most cases, but the location of a verse within the flow of a book matters greatly. This is where the structure of a book comes into play. If nothing else, see what the verses immediately before and after the verse in question say. Sometimes you’ll
wantneed to go back and check out the flow of the argument or story, and the layout of the entire book.
- Why? What is the purpose of this verse? Why was it written? Is it for encouragement, information, necessity, inspiration, etc? Why does it use the words it does? Sometimes it can help to understanding this by seeing what difference it would make if you took the verse out of the passage.
Now, often you don’t need to go through all of these questions to see if your interpretation of the verse is at least a decent fit in context. Here is an easy test to see if your interpretation is contextual: paraphrase it with what you think it means and see if it fits with the surrounding text. Don’t understand? I’ll lead by example. A commonly abused verse is Philippians 4:13, which says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Usually, this is quoted as encouragement that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to do with Jesus’ help. Is this what the verse means in context? Let’s test it. Here’s Philippians 4:10-13, using the interpretive paraphrase.
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do anything I set my mind to do as long as I have help from Christ who strengthens me.
This isn’t horrible, but doesn’t seem to fit quite right. So what is the real meaning? I think the new NIV does a good job at making it clear when it translates 4:13 this way: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” In this case, Paul is saying that he can endure and be content in any situation, however rough or posh, by Christ’s strength. Let’s try this paraphrase:
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can make it through any situation and be content with the help of Christ who strengthens me.
Here is an easy test to see if your interpretation is contextual: paraphrase it with what you think it means and see if it fits with the surrounding text.
It should be quite evident that this is a much better fit. The interpretation of this paraphrase fits better in the paragraph than that of the popular interpretation. This is a really easy way to test if an interpretation of a verse fits in context or takes the verse out of context. So when in doubt, just try that. While more work may be required to find the right interpretation and use of the verse, this method can easily eliminate many obviously wrong ones.