What Role Does Context Play in the Bible?

Even without acknowledging it, we project our context upon Scripture in order for it to say what we want it to say. As we study Scripture, we must filter the reader’s context through the knowledge of the author’s context.

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Hebrews 4:12

The Reader’s Context

Preconceived Notions

  • Preunderstanding is a dangerous collection of preconceived notions that we bring to the text before actually studying the text itself.
  • Preunderstanding includes previous exposures, both positive and negative, to the text.
  • What does this verse mean – “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20)?

Traditional Experience

  • Our spiritual upbringing has undoubtedly created a filter through which we interpret Scripture.
  • We tend to interpret Scripture based upon how it makes us feel on a particular subject.
  • Even our familial and ministerial relationships have the ability to skew our understanding of Scripture.
  • What one book of the Bible has the Antichrist in it?

Theological Bias

  • We can approach the text looking for a particular slant to a specific topic.
  • We tend to avoid, ignore, or defend passages that do not agree with our biased convictions.
  • What belief do you have that you could not defend from Scripture?

1 John 4:1-6

The Author’s Context

Historical Context

  • To understand the main point of a passage, we must acknowledge the timeframe of when it was written.
  • Understanding a passage in the context of the grand narrative of the Bible will assist us in allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture.
  • What comes to your mind when you hear the name of these biblical characters: David, Moses, Elijah, and Abraham?

Cultural Context

  • Reading any portion of Scripture forces us to enter into a culture in which we did not live.
  • Gathering solid resources can help you understand geographical locations, cultural phrases, and social customs.
  • What does it mean to “filter the gnat and swallow the camel” (Matt. 23:24)?

Authorial Context

  • The more information we can gather regarding the author, the better we can understand the passage.
  • In reading the Bible, we attempt to discover the authorial intent.
  • A text cannot mean what it never meant.
  • What importance does James’ description have in light of his identity (James 1:1; Matt. 13:55)?

Literary Context

  • We must respect the genre, organization, and flow of a scriptural passage to discern its theological contribution. 
  • If we only read Scripture through small sections without respect to the literary context, we miss the fuller picture of each book of the Bible.
  • What type of relationship does it speak of when it says that two people come together and “your people shall be my people” (Ruth 1:16-17)?

Reader’s Context

  • Each passage of Scripture was God’s Word to “them” before it became God’s Word to “us.”
  • To gain the fullest meaning of a text, ask the question. “How would the original readers interpret this passage?”
  • If our present interpretation would not make sense to the original audience, we probably have an incorrect interpretation.
  • What was John trying to get across to Christians when he wrote this verse: “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 1:9)?