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What’s the worst sin you could possibly commit? It’s sobering to realize the importance God places on interpreting His Word properly. God demands that we handle His words with utmost care, and that includes putting every word in its proper context.

A major principle of accurate Bible interpretation is summed up in the phrase “context is king.”

Vital Clues

Context is vital to our understanding of God’s revealed truth. Although the meaning of the individual words is important (see “Meaningful Words,” Answers April–June 2013, page 80), we cannot stop there in our search for the meaning of God’s Word. We must understand how the surrounding text influences the words used.

Here is an illustration of the importance of immediate context. The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew. Written Hebrew did not use vowels but only consonants. Later Jewish scholars added vowel points, but the original text has no vowels! If you had only consonants to work with in English, what would the word “hr” be? It could be hair, hear, her, hour, or here. Without the surrounding context you couldn’t know which word was intended. Most of us don’t read the Bible in Hebrew, but you get the point. As people interpret and translate the Bible from the Hebrew for us to read, they must allow context to guide them.

We apply this principle all the time, even in English. Some words sound alike or are spelled the same but have different meanings. For example if I say, “I cannot bear another day” or if I say, “The bear was after me,” you know by the context which word I mean.

The Wrong Message

Some time ago our local newspaper printed a picture of the beautiful Grand Teton Mountains with the headline, “I look to the hills from whence comes my strength!” This verse comes from a psalm of David. But what a misuse of that verse!

When we quote Scripture out of context, we can completely miss the truth or sometimes even assert the opposite.

The text actually says, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills—From whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1–2). In context, the verse gives a completely different meaning than the newspaper headline.

When we quote Scripture out of context, we can completely miss the truth or, as our local newspaper did, assert the opposite!

When Paul says in Romans 9:3, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh,” is he saying that he could actually expect God to trade his eternal inheritance for the souls of lost Jews? Of course not! We realize Paul was showing us the depth of love he had for his countrymen. The theology of the New Testament and the context of Romans 10:1 show that Paul is stating his heart’s desire, not an actual possibility.

Absurd Extremes

Often people take one phrase or verse and run with it to an absurd extreme. For example, 1 John 3:9 states, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (ESV). Some Christians may claim this verse means they never sin! But the context includes the statement, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Which verse are we to believe? The key concept here is “practicing sin.” When we follow the desires of our old flesh, we sin—that is fact. But when we are allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us, we will not continually practice sin. He says this clearly also in 1 John 1:6, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth [emphasis added].”

Careful Study

Sometimes we can destroy the meaning of a text by an incomplete study of the context or by imposing our own ideas on it. A great example is Paul’s instruction, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). Some argue that verse 21, “submitting to one another in the fear of God,” mitigates or voids the instruction for a wife to submit to her husband. But closer inspection shows that verse 21 is speaking of submission within the body of Christ as brothers and sisters; and verse 22 speaks of the husband-and-wife relationship in the home.

How can we be sure we are interpreting Scripture properly in context? First, identify the theme of the passage. Then look for illustrations in the context that help make the teaching clear. Search the passage for other similar or contrasting words to help understand God’s point.

The Bible is the Word of a perfect God who perfectly communicated His inerrant truth. But we must fight our tendency toward error and work to understand that truth. “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

Discussion Questions . . .

  • Sometimes people look to Philippians 4:13 for assurance that they can win a big game or succeed in business. Look at the context, beginning in verse 10. What does Paul mean by “all things” in verse 13?
  • The truth shall set you free,” from John 8:32, has been used to support almost everything from belief in conspiracy theories to “coming out” as a homosexual. In the context of verses 31 and 32 is this what Jesus was talking about?
  • According to the verses that follow John 8:32, will the “truth” that a person is practicing a particular sin set that person free if he or she refuses to acknowledge that the behavior is sinful? See especially verse 34.
  • Revelation 3:20 is often used to invite sinners to receive Christ and be saved. Is Jesus talking to unbelievers in this passage? Read verses 14–21. Is this a call to salvation?
  • Perhaps the verse most often taken out of context today is Matthew 7:1, “Judge not that you be not judged.” Does Jesus mean that we should never make judgments about sin in another’s life? What is the purpose He gives in verse 5 for taking care of our own sin first?
  • In the context of the whole Bible, how does John 7:24 shed light on Matthew 7:1–6?
  • Some false religions use John 14:28 to say that, since Jesus Himself says the Father is greater than He is, Jesus cannot be God. Apostle John also recorded John 8:48–59. How does the broad context of the Gospel of John show that this is a false view of Jesus?
Don Landis is pastor of Community Bible Church in Jackson, Wyoming. He is founder and president of Jackson Hole Bible College (www.jhbc.edu), a one-year intensive study course with a special emphasis on creation for young adults. Don is also the founding chairman of the board for Answers in Genesis–USA.

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