Hermenuetics 101 - Part 2: Reading A Text In Its Context
Reading A Text In Its Context
There is a very good reason why this principle in the first one we'll be looking at, and that's because it is probably THE number one hermenuetical principle that is ignored when reading The Bible. I don't know how many theological arguments I've been in where the person I was talking to quoted a Bible verse to prove his point, and I was sitting there astounded thinking "That's not what that verse means. The context makes that clear". Context is so important as it can mean a huge difference in how you see a biblical passage.
Context can make the difference to whether you see a person as a hero or a villain. Imagine that I told you that "A man recently cut off the breast of a woman". What are your thoughts on this man? Do you think he's a psychopath? You'd be justified in thinking that if that's all the information you gathered. However, suppose I told you "A man recently cut off the breast of a woman because she had a 90% chance of developing breast cancer and had the man -- who is a doctor -- remove it as a preventative." If you only stopped reading my sentence after the first 10 words, you would have come to an incorrect conclusion about this man. Interpreting my words in context determined whether you considered this man as good or evil.
I think one of the reasons taking scripture out of context comes so easily for people is that The Bible is divided not merely into chapters, but into individual verses as well. This was done so that things could be found more easily in The Bible. If you know the chapter and verse of a phrase you're looking for, it's much easier to find. If they weren't divided by chapter and verse, we'd all be scanning the words going "Let's see, where is that sentence about gaining the whole world yet losing your soul?" Given how thick The Bible is, to try to find any verse would be like looking for a needle in a haystack unless they were marked. It's a good think that scripture is set up as chapters and verses, but one negative side effect of this is that it's easier to read a statement in isolation from its surrounding context, and that's where people run into interpretive problems.
Immediate Context and Whole Context
There's a difference between the immediate context and the whole context. The immediate context is speaking of the surrounding verses and chapters of the verse in question within a single book. Whole Context is when you interpret a verse in the context of The Bible as a whole. If The Bible as a whole affirms X, then if you find a verse that appears to assert Not-X, then you should try to find a way to interpret that verse in light of doctrine X.
Examples Of Scripture Taken Out Of Context
There are many verses which are ripped out of context to support various false teachings. Below is a look at just a few of them.
Example 1: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." - Philippians 4:13
This is a beloved verse by many. It's a favorite verse of the prosperity preachers. Unfortunately, the way many people interpret this verse is wrong because they read it out of context. They interpret Philippians 4:13 to mean that you can do anything you set your mind to because Christ loves you and will give you the ability to achieve your goals. If you're trying to lose weight and get fit, have no fear! Christ is here! He'll give you the strength to lose weight! Want to get rich and famous? Don't worry, Christ has it covered! He'll help you get rich and famous if you just pray to Him. Is this really what Paul is saying in this passage? Well, if all you read was verse 13, it would be easy to come to that conclusion. In fact, it'd be hard to come to anything but that conclusion. But what would we think if we read Paul's words in context?
"I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength." - Philippians 4:10-13
What do you think Paul is talking about now? He's talking about Christ giving him the ability to be content in any situation that he finds himself in. Paul said that he knows what's it's like to have plenty and to be in need, to be well fed or hungry, and he says that he's able to be content regardless of whether his circumstances are good or bad because Christ has given him the strength to be content. The version I quoted from above is the New International Version. I like how both it and the English Standard Version render verse 13. Instead of saying "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." The NIV and ESV say "I can do all this through him who gives me strength." If you quote the NIV or ESV in isolation, no one's going to know what Paul is talking about. What is "this"? What does "this" mean? What is the "this" that Christ is giving him the strength to do? The wording of the NIV and ESV prompts the reader to read the verses that preceded verse 13 to know what "this" is. When you do that, you find that the "this" Paul is talking about is being content no matter what circumstances you find yourself in.
In my opinion, Philippians 4:13 is no less uplifting or inspiring knowing what it actually means than what one thought it meant before reading it in context. In fact, I have Philippians 4:13 framed and hanging on my bedroom wall above my bed. When I see that verse on my wall, I'm reminded of all the hardships Paul endured during his ministry, and yet in spite of that he found that because of Jesus' power, he was able to stay content. This means a lot to me given all the issues I've had over the past year and a half, some of which I've mentioned here. I hope to some day be sanctified enough to where I can take Paul's words in Philippians 4 and make them my own. I want to be able to say "I can be content no matter what circumstance God places me in. I can do this because Christ strengthens me."
Example 2: "Do not judge or you too will be judged." - Matthew 7:1
How many times have we heard this quoted right after we expressed the truth that some activity or behavior was morally wrong. "You shouldn't X. It says right here in The Bible not to do X", "Who are you to judge me? Jesus said not to judge! Only God can judge me! It says right here in Matthew 7:1 'Do not judge or you too will be judged'! Stop judging you hypocrite!" Does Matthew 7:1 really mean we shouldn't judge? Well, I mean, Jesus said "Do not judge". How much clearer could He possibly be? It'd be pretty hard to interpret "Do not judge" as anything other than a command not to judge, right? Well, it's only impossible to come to a different interpretation if you don't read the rest of what Jesus said. Let's look at this verse in context, shall we?
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.” - Matthew 7:1-5
Here, Jesus says that we shouldn’t judge hypocritically. If we struggle with a certain sin in our life, we cannot even give helpful council to that person who is struggling with that same sin. Alcoholics cannot help out alcoholics, adulterers cannot help other adulterers, and so forth. Once we get that problem out of our lives then we can go on to help our brother. Once we remove the plank from our own eye, then it will be appropriate to help our brother get the speck out of his eye. So Jesus is not saying not to make moral discernment. He isn't even telling us not to preach against sin. He’s making a prohibition against judging hypocritically. If you watch pornography every night, don't be wagging your finger at someone for watching pornography. Take the speck out of your own eye first, and then you can help your brother.
"People tell me 'Judge not lest ye be judged'. I tell them 'Twist not scripture lest ye be like Satan." - Paul Washer
By the way, it's logically self refuting to say "You shouldn't judge me" because if you say that to me, you're doing the very thing you said you shouldn't do: you're judging me for judging! You're essentially telling me that it's wrong to tell people that what they're doing is wrong. If you said "You shouldn't judge me", I could appropriately respond "Who are you to judge me for judging others? Only God can judge me! Get off my case!"
Example 3: "Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.'" - Luke 23:34
People often refer to it to emphasize forgiving others, which is a good thing to emphasize, but those who appeal to this verse to emphasize forgiveness often proclaim that those who do you wrong aren’t really fully aware of the wrong they’re doing to you. The problem is that most people know exactly what they are doing when they are doing it, so it makes no sense to say in every context "forgive them, for they know not what they do." Does a thief not know that he’s stealing? Does an adulterer not know that he’s cheating on his wife? Does a murderer not know that he’s killing an innocent human being? Of course they do! It makes no sense to say that they don’t. Granted, there are times when people don’t know fully what they’re doing (e.g a woman getting an abortion when she’s been deceived into thinking the fetus is just a blob of cells) but most people know exactly what they're doing.
The context of this verse as well as another verse in a different book of scripture make it clear what Jesus' statement actually means. Jesus is being crucified in this passage, and Jesus is crying out to The Father not to hold it against them because they know not what they do. What is it that they don't know? Do they not know that they're crucifying Him? That'd be a pretty silly thing to say. Of course they know that. Well, 1 Corinthians 2:7-8 sheds some light on this. It says “No, we declare God's wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” In other words, what they didn't know was that they were crucifying God incarnate, and that God incarnate was submitting Himself to them so that He could suffer His own wrath so we wouldn't have to. That's what they didn't know.
Example 4: "Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'" - Matthew 16:24
This verse is frequently interpreted to mean that we've got to put up with difficult circumstances if we want to be followers of Jesus. While that's certainly true, that's not what Jesus is talking about here. "We all have our crosses to bear" has become a common cultural idiom, frequently used when we have to do things we don't want to do, like work for a nasty boss, or fight cancer, or something. However, Jesus didn't just simply say we would have to do things we didn't want to do. What's he's talking about here is martyrdom.
"Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.'" - Matthew 16:24-27
Here, we can see that Jesus is talking about martyrdom. Jesus was going to die on the cross for our sins, and Jesus said that if we want to be His followers, we should be willing to die as well. If we try to wiggle our way out of martyrdom by denying that we are Christians, Jesus will deny us before God The Father (cf. Matthew 10:33), ergo if we try to save our lives, we will lose them (i.e if we try to save our lives by denying Christ, we will end up in Hell). Jesus goes on to ask rhetorically what it would profit a man if he gained the whole world but lost his soul? What good is it to survive physically if you end up gaining eternal damnation as a result? What could possibly be more valuable than going to Heaven and not going to Hell? Dying for Jesus is well worth it. It is eternally worth it.
Many more examples of Bible verses taken out of context could be given. But I think enough has been said to demonstrate why this hermenuetical principle is so vitally important. If you read Bible verses out of context, you will come to incorrect interpretations. This is why Greg Koukl says "Never read a Bible verse". What he means is never just read a Bible verse. Read the whole passage.