As we approach 2017, some of you may be planning a New Year’s resolution. I’d like to recommend that one of the best resolutions is to renew your commitment to reading and studying God’s Word. And as you study the Bible, allow me to offer a tip on how to correctly understand what you read.
Many use the Bible to prove preconceived ideas. They look for verses to show that the way they see things is right. Or they hear a familiar, inspirational passage and draw conclusions about it that may be inaccurate.
Take, for example, Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse is often quoted by sports teams, bumper stickers and taglines as a rallying cry to accomplish great things like running a marathon, climbing a mountain, or winning the championship. However, Paul wrote this short and powerful statement as part of a larger commentary on contentment. Reading the whole paragraph makes it clear that he was letting the Philippians know God had taught him to be content in times of plenty and in times of desperation. Remember, Paul wrote this letter from prison.
Understanding context begins with four principles: (1) literal meaning, (2) historical setting (what was happening when it was written, to whom was it addressed, and how it was understood at that time), (3) grammar, and (4) synthesis (comparing it with other parts of Scripture).
Taking phrases and verses out of context leads to error. For instance, taking the phrase “God is love” (1 John 4:7-16) out of context, we might come to think God loves everything and everyone at all times with a romantic love. But in its grammatical and literal context, John is referring to agape love (sacrifice for the benefit of another). The historical context is also vital, because he was writing to believers in the first century church and instructing them not on God’s love, but on how to tell true believers from false Christians. Agape love is the mark of a true believer (v. 7), those who don’t love don’t belong to God (v. 8), God loved us before we loved Him (vv. 9-10), and all of this is why we should love one another and thereby prove we are His (v. 11-12).
Also, considering the phrase “God is love” in the context of all of Scripture (synthesis) will keep us from coming to the false conclusion that God is only love or that His love is greater than all His other attributes, which is not right. We know from many other passages that God is also holy, trustworthy, graceful, merciful, kind, compassionate, omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, and many other things. We also know from other passages that God not only loves, but he also hates.
The Bible is the Word of God, literally “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), and we are commanded to read, study, and understand it through the use of good Bible study methods. Our study is enhanced by carefully looking at context because it’s easy to come to wrong conclusions by taking verses out of context.
Make a resolution to read the Bible, and to read it in context.