Keeping the Context: Part 3 of 3--Which Context?

Keeping the Context: Part 3 of 3

Which Context?

Steve Reeves

Immediate Context

Quotes should be used in the same manner in which the original passage was used. As an example, in the “justification” of suicide given above (in Part 1—RM), Jesus is quoted as saying “Go and do likewise” in Luke 10:37. The usage implies that Jesus is telling us to do the same as Judas. But the reality is that Jesus was discussing the Law of Moses with a lawyer who wanted to play word games with the term “neighbor” (Luke 10:25-29). When Jesus proved that everyone is a man’s neighbor he told the lawyer to “go and do likewise” – meaning to go and treat everyone as his neighbor.

Similar errors can be made by juxtaposing two passages discussing different topics to give the impression that they are discussing the same topic. One author made the following claim: “Jesus came to ‘seek and save’ only ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 1:21; 2:6; 15:24; Luke 19:10).” The phrase “seek and save” comes from Luke 19:10 where Jesus stated he came to seek and save that which was lost. However, there is no limit in Luke 19:10 that the lost was only the lost in Israel. The phrase “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” comes from Matthew 15:24 where Jesus tells a Gentile woman, who was asking Jesus to heal her daughter, that he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Even in this context, Jesus did not mean he could not do miracles for the Gentiles because he proceeds to heal this woman’s daughter. Instead, Jesus is simply explaining that the focus of his mission was only toward Israel. But the author of the quote combines a passage dealing with salvation and a passage about focus of mission to make a claim that neither passage supports.

Book Context

Each book in the Bible has a stated purpose and is directed to a particular audience. Any meaning assigned to a passage quoted from a book must be in harmony with the overall purpose of the book. For example, Seventh-Day Adventist pull passages from the Law of Moses to justify their worship services being on the Sabbath day (the seventh day of the week). Quoting one of the Ten Commandments and applying it to Christian violates the context of the book. The lead-in to the Ten Commandments states “The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are alive.” (Deuteronomy 5:2-3). Further, in discussing the Laws, Moses stated, “For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:7-8). Obviously, the laws, including the Ten Commandments, were intended for the nation of Israel. They were not given to any other people prior, nor were they given to any other nation. To apply them now would be a violation of the context in which the book was presented.

Similar contextual errors are frequently made regarding the book of Revelation. Many fanciful ideas concerning the present times and near-future are based on passages pulled from Revelation. Yet the book of Revelation was written near the end of the first century and concerning his book, John wrote, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants--things which must shortly take place. ... Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Revelation 1:1, 3). Jumping to the end of the book, the time frame of the book is again mentioned. “And the Lord God of the holy prophets sent His angel to show His servants the things which must shortly take place” (Revelation 22:6). While the future might be mentioned in the book, the overall contents of the book deals with events that would soon take place after the writing of the book. To assign twenty-first century meaning to a first or second century targeted book is a violation of the context.

Bible Context

Paul told the Corinthians that God does not author confusion (I Corinthians 14:33). He does not tell one person one thing and another something different. A young prophet learned this the hard way. The prophet was told to deliver a pronouncement against King Jeroboam and then return without eating or drinking (I Kings 13:16-17). An old prophet, who wanted the man as a guest claimed, “I too am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the LORD, saying, 'Bring him back with you to your house, that he may eat bread and drink water'”(I Kings 13:18). The young prophet lost his life because he did not understand that God does not change His commands and this prophet was lying to him.

It was to this consistency of God’s message to which Paul appealed. “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-9). Hence an understanding of one verse that causes a conflict with another passage is not an understanding, but a misunderstanding. It may take deeper study, but all of God’s message is a unified message.

Handling Contextual Problems

When a passage can be interpreted in a variety of ways, it is helpful to make a list of all possible meanings. Then take your Bible and examine the immediate context, the book’s context, and the Bible’s context to see if any of the possible meanings conflict with the context. If they do, then you can eliminate that possibility. Often you will find yourself with only one possibility left.

May we use the admonitions contained in these three articles to properly understand what God has communicated to us, and do HIS will, all motivated by our love for Him. —RAM