Keeping the Context: Part 1

Keeping the Context: Part 1 of 3

Steve Reeves

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (II Timothy 2:15)

Throughout the history of the church, odd ideas have been justified by means of Scriptures pulled out of context. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (commonly called Mormons), use proxy baptism on behalf of ancestors who have died. Their justification is I Corinthians 15:29, “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” The popular idea that salvation is by faith alone comes from citing passages which connect faith with salvation, such as John 3:16. The problem is that lack of context often makes a passage appear to say things not intended. For example, Jesus said, “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15:14). Jesus told Judas, “What you do, do quickly” (John 13:27). Judas, we are told, “departed, and went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). Finally, Jesus said, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). By selectively using quotes, we arrive at a conclusion that we know is incorrect – that Jesus wants followers to commit suicide.

Since nearly anything could be justified by the Bible if the context is ignored, it is important for the Christian to check any conclusion about a passage against the context of the Scripture. Even though we complain about others ignoring the context of a passage, we do our Lord disservice if we commit the same error while trying to defend the truth.

Peter warns, “... our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked” (II Peter 3:15-17). The word translated “twist” in this passage comes from the Greek word for torturing a victim on a rack. The ignorant and unstable people of this world are quite willing to torture the meaning of a passage to justify their agenda. We must be on our guard so as to not fall into their dangerous thinking.

For example, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has published papers in 1999 claiming that Jesus was a vegetarian. Their proof? They point to Genesis 1:29-30 to claim that God’s intention was a vegetarian world. They point to Jesus driving out the merchants from the temple in John 2:14-16 to claim that Jesus was saving animals from sacrifices and being eaten. Finally, they claim that no passage mentions Jesus eating meat.

Another example is an article written by Debra Haffner in 1997 titled “The Really Good News: What the Bible Says About Sex.” In this article, the author claims that David and Jonathan were homosexual lovers by citing II Samuel 1:26, I Samuel 18:1, and I Samuel 19:1. She also claims, the Song of Solomon, “does not talk about sex in the context of marriage or procreation: the woman in the Song is never ‘called a wife, nor is she required to bear children. In fact, to the issue of marriage and procreation, the Song does not speak.’” Hence, she concludes that sex outside of marriage is approved. She also claims that “prostitution was an accepted part of urban society during biblical times (see I Kings 22:38; Isaiah 23:16; Proverbs 7:12, and 9:14).”

Most of us find these claims outrageous, but that is because we are familiar with the overall context of the Bible. While these examples are more blatantly false, many religious doctrines are also based on passages taken out of their appropriate context.

The Harmony of the Scriptures

Hermeneutics is the study of how to understand meaning of the written word. One basic principle in hermeneutics is the general assumption that every author’s writings are in harmony, unless it is clearly established to be otherwise. We assume that an author writes in order to be understood. Hence, we would expect consistency in the author’s message. Each writing of an author will contain a theme, or a purpose, to which the points in the message support. It is upon this principle that criminologists examine letters to determine if they are from the same individual or the work of a copycat. In his book Principles of Interpretation, Clinton Lockhart states, “One of two contradictory statements must be false, unless corresponding terms have different meanings or applications.” In other words, if you have two statements that contradict, either the two statements are not from the same author, or the terms in the two statements are being used in different ways and with different meanings.

When hermeneutics is applied to the Scriptures, this general principle of harmony in meaning becomes an absolute. Men make mistakes, but the work of the all-knowing, all-mighty God cannot contain contradictions. God doesn’t make mistakes. Hence, when we run into an apparent contradiction in the Bible, we must examine the context of the statements to see if there are terms being used in different senses of meaning or application.

Jesus used this principle when Satan tempted him in the wilderness. “Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: 'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the LORD your God.'"”(Matthew 4:5-7). Satan quoted Psalm 91:11-12 where God promises protection, but Jesus countered with Deuteronomy 6:16 with the introductory words, “It is written again.” By pointing out an additional verse that appears to contradict the interpretation given to another verse, Jesus won the argument by showing that Satan made an error.Psalm 91:11-12 must be in harmony with Deuteronomy 6:16 since God wrote both passages. Since the meaning Satan ascribed to Psalm 91:11-12 was not in harmony with Deuteronomy 6:16, Satan must have assigned the wrong meaning to the passage in Psalm.