TGOC Bible Class Cirricula - How To Study The Bible - Lesson # 8 - Contextual Interpretation
It is evident that we must keep a passage in its context. What is the meaning of the expression: “context of a passage?”
It has been said that “A passage taken out of its context becomes a pretext for teaching error.” Certainly, this is true.
The interpretation of the context is one of the most important, if not the most important element of understanding the Bible.
“When studying the Word of God, one can come to a knowledge of God's will if he will carefully consider the context. Perhaps the reader has heard the old illustration of one who decided that he wanted to start reading the Bible. Having no concept of how to study the Bible he decided that he would just open his Bible to a passage and whatever it stated, that is what he would do. He opened the Bible and read the section where Judas hanged himself. Turning to another passage he read “do thou likewise.” Finally, he read “what thou doest, do quickly.” Thinking he as obeying the Word of God, he went out and hanged himself.” (Bland, Billy. How Can We Understand The Bible Alike? Southaven, MS: Power Publications, 97.)
The context is the information which is closely connected to an event or an expression.
In everyday happenings, it is usually those events which lead up to and just follow an action in question. In literature, it is the information which gives background to the passage.
Generally, the context is determined from those statements which appear just prior to and just immediately after.
For purpose of distinction, the immediate context is the passages which occur close by in a passage, and the remote context is the amplifying material which occurs in another section. The old questions, “Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where?” “Why?” and “How?” are very valuable in determining the background of a passage.
Immediate and Remote Contexts
In handling the word of God correctly, one must gather all of the evidence of God's word before he can correctly draw a proper conclusion. If one has surveyed only half of the information, there may just be an exception to the rule which he deduced. Hence, it is important to look at all of what God's word has to say on the subject.
First, one must look at what appears in the immediate context. He must ask all of the questions which are discussed below and then make preliminary decisions about what he thinks that passage is saying.
Then, he must search the rest of the Scriptures, the remote context, for other passages which have bearing on the subject at hand. This may be facilitated by using a concordance, topical Bibles, and even cross-references. This is not an easy task, but a very important one.
When attempting to determine the guilt or innocence of a suspect, a court of law strives to do the same thing (which we have outlined above). The courts want to ask the questions about what happened when the crime occurred, but there is also interest in other facts which relate to the case. It may be that knowledge gained from other places would alter the conclusion which would have been drawn from a consideration of the immediate facts alone. A good illustration would be a case of one who had killed another person. At one instance, the facts reveal that a person shot another, apparently in cold blood. But upon further investigation, it reveals that this person's life had been threatened on several occasions and that the deceased had been shot in self-defense. Likewise, those who study the Bible may come away with a hastily drawn conclusion by not considering all of the facts.
For example, who received the baptism in the Holy Spirit? A study of the immediate context will show who received the baptism in the Holy Spirit. If you look at Acts 2:1-4, you will see the word “they”. But who are the “they”? A person must realize that there were no chapter divisions and that is why it is important to look at the earlier context. It shows that it is referring to the apostles that received the baptism in the Holy Spirit. But also there is other evidence in the text when a person considers Acts 2:7 that those who were doing the preaching were Galileans (from Galilee), which was the geographical area the apostles originated. Also, in Acts 2:13,14, the apostle Peter defends himself and the eleven that they were not drunk.
We can also discover the answer to the question: “Who received the baptism in the Holy Spirit?” by referring to the remote context. We would look up the Scriptures – Matthew 3:11,12; Mark 9:1; Luke 24:46-49; John 14:26; John 16:13; Acts 1:1-2:47. As Billy Bland has pointed out: “The passages in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all lead up to Acts 2. Especially does one learn in Luke 24:46-49 that the apostles were commanded to wait in Jerusalem until they were endued (or clothed) with power from on high. Acts 1 finds them waiting in Jerusalem and then Acts 2finds the baptism of the Holy Spirit coming upon the apostles and the Word of God being proclaimed by them.” (Bland, Billy. How Can We Understand The Bible Alike? Southaven, MS: Power Publications, 101.)
Ask the age-old questions which needed to be asked: “Who” is the speaker? To “whom” is he speaking? The question of “who” is very important in properly interpreting a passage. Paul spent a considerable amount of time in some of his letters defending “who” he was and his qualifications as an apostle. The very presence of this material proves that it is important. Also, the “who,” in its recipients, is of paramount importance when trying to properly understand a passage. Understanding the nature and background of a people is very helpful in getting at the interpretation of a passage. It is quite clear in the New Testament that those who were Jews were approached from a different perspective than the Gentiles.
“What is the primary idea of the passage?” is one of the first questions which should be asked. “What” is the writer trying to say? Too often men get lost in details of a passage and totally lose sight of the meaning of the whole passage. Or, to use the proverbial phrase, “they cannot see the forest for the trees.” When one understands that the “present distress” is the predominant thought of 1 Corinthians 7, then he can see why Paul says what he says in the passage. One teacher of this writer suggested using the newspaper “headline” and “summary” to get at this. When reading a passage of Scripture, give it a headline which brings out the major thought, then summarize its contents.
Details concerning any given people and place change as time passes. What may have applied to a people in one passage may not in another. So, as one studies a passage, the question of “when” this was written must be asked. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul commands the discipline of an offending brother. In 2 Corinthians 2, he commands his forgiveness. What is the difference? Sometime between the writing of 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians this brother repented of his sin.
As important as it is to know the “who” of a passage, it is equally so of the “where”. The study of the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3 is brought to life when one knows about the “where” of each of the cities and the background behind each city. When one studies the Corinthians Correspondence he is truly enlightened by the history of the city of Corinth. So much could be said about the need to know the place and the people of any given passage. Bible dictionaries and geographies are able to provide much of this material.
Another teacher of this writer always used to ask the question (when studying a passage), “Why did the author write this passage?” What circumstances motivated the writer of the passage to write what he did? This is very similar to the question “what?” but differs in the sense that the “why?” may include more factors. To be able to determine the “why” one may have to look at the book as a whole and see how it all fits in together.
Finally, the question of “how?” is to be asked. How are the recipients (of the passage under consideration) to implement the instructions of the writer? Are they to do it this way or that way? In subsequent lessons, the subject of Biblical authority will be expanded, but suffice it for now, the “how” is a very important question.
Other Things That Need To Be Considered When Studying Contextually
The most basic unit of communication is a word.
The meaning of every word is (to some degree) determined by the context.
If I told you the word “light”, what do I mean? Do I mean that the box is light (that it does not weigh very much)? Or do I mean that it is shining like the sun's light rays do? Or am I using it in the sense of morality in talking about the idea of righteousness by walking in the light (1 John 1:7-9)?
Darrell Conley observed: “Not only must we look to the context for the meaning of the words, it is important to realize that the way they are used is what gives them their meaning. Words do not derive their meanings from the dictionary or lexicon. On the contrary, the lexicographers have deduced their meanings from the way the best native speakers and writers have used these words. Usage determines meaning. Usage is context. Be sure that usage of words or phrases found elsewhere (than your explicit statement) actually have the same meaning. Context is the proper key to the proper interpretation of not only words, but of statements, of paragraphs, or sections, of the various books of the Bible, and of the Bible itself. Never neglect the context.” (Conley, Darell. Rightly Dividing The Word, Vol. 1, Shenandoah Church of Christ. Pensacola, FL: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1990, 361).
The Greek word blasphemia serves as an excellent example of using the context to determine the meaning of a word. Thayer gives his definition: blasphemia “railing, reviling, ….a. Slander, detraction, speech injurious to another's good name...b. Specifically, impious and reproachful speech injurious to the divine majesty.” (Thayer, p. 102)
Thayer lists two categories of meaning for this word.
When the context applies this word to humans it is translated “evil speaking” (Ephesians 4:31) and “railing(s)” (1 Timothy 6:4 and Jude 9).
When the context applies this word to Deity or to things related to Deity, it is translated “blasphemy(ies).” (Matthew 12:31, etc.)
Some of the passage where it is translated “blasphemy” might be directed at both humans and Deity.
The disciple should be careful when he takes Thayer's placing of passages into these two categories without critically examining each passage (for himself).
Thayer (as well as other lexicographers) is a denominational commentator who is placing these passages into these categories. Exercise caution.
It is not only possible, but it is likely, that this word is not properly translated in Matthew 15:19.
The disciple has to determine whether or not the context limits this speech to words directed toward Deity, toward humans, or both.
Even the translators of the Bible were forced to decide the context when translating this word (Matthew 15:19).
The KJV translators rendered it “blasphemies.”
The ASV translators rendered it “railings.”
In fact, it might be broad enough (in Matthew 15:19) to include both humans and Deity.
Here English has two words where the Greek language has one.
The word “blasphemy” is defined: “1 a: the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God; b: the act of claiming the attributes of deity; 2: irreverence toward something considered sacred and inviolable” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th e).
The word “rail” is defined: “to revile or scold in harsh, insolent, or abusive language” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10 ed.).
The Greek word epithumia serves as another excellent example of using the context to determine the meaning of a word. Thayer gives his definition: epithumia: “desire, craving, longing...spec. desire for what is forbidden, lust,...” (Thayer, p. 238).
Thayer lists two categories of meaning for this word.
When the context relates to evil desires, he places it into the category of “lust” (cf. Mark 4:19, etc.)
When the context relates to desiring something either good or neutral, he places it into the category of “desire.” (cf. Luke 22:15, etc.)
The English word “lust” is usually used in an evil sense.
The English word “desire” is neutral in that it is used both for good and evil.
A modifier is part of the context when it defines the word epithumia in Colossians 3:5 (cf. Ephesians 4:22, 1 Timothy 6:9, Titus 2:12, 2 Peter 2:10, and Jude 18).
This word is in a list of sinful activities. This would also point to the word epithumia being used for sinful acts here.
The translators had to go to the context to determine the meaning of this word.
1. What is the meaning of “be filled with the Spirit?” (Ephesians 5:18) [Use the principle of the remote context to help you in answering this question.]
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