The Importance of Context in Biblical Interpretation

The Importance of Context in Biblical Interpretation

When I took my first class on biblical interpretation, one thing was made abundantly clear: context is king. But how many times have you sat in a bible study, had someone read through a verse or two and then proceed to engage the group in a discussion on the meaning of the text? I know I’ve had that experience.

You know the rest of the story… the group may start to go off on a tangent, giving the text meaning that was never intended, all because they’re taking one verse or passage out of its context – they are trying to interpret its meaning based on their own understanding. When this happens, I’m usually pretty quick to start cross referencing – showing how another passage of Scripture very plainly explains the topic being discussed. That’s another lesson you’ll learn in any class on biblical interpretation worth its salt: let Scripture interpret Scripture.

Why does this happen though? Why are we so quick to debate Scripture, attempting to apply meaning based on our own understanding, rather than taking the time to dig a little deeper and striving to understand the true meaning of the texts?

For many people, it’s because the subject of biblical interpretation is an overwhelming one, reserved for scholars and intellectuals. But it doesn’t have to be. If you simply begin to apply the two principles mentioned above – context is king and letting Scripture interpret Scripture – you’ll already have a solid foundation for interpreting Scripture more effectively.

However, in particular, I want to focus on the importance of context when reading Scripture. The reason that many of our bible studies can drift so far off course is because we simply don’t keep passages of Scripture in context. You wouldn’t go into your local bookstore, select a random book from the shelf, read one paragraph from the middle of the book, and then expect to understand the context of what you’ve just read. So why do we do that when reading the Bible? The same rules that apply to reading a novel also apply to reading Scripture. We can’t interpret a verse outside the context of the passage it’s in, and we can’t interpret a passage outside the context of the chapter and book it’s in.

Cultural context takes that principle a step further. As an example, all throughout Scripture there is beautiful imagery of the marriage traditions within ancient Israel. In that imagery there lies a deeper picture of our salvation in Christ that we wouldn’t recognize in the context of today’s culture, but it would have been immediately and easily recognized in Jesus’ time.

Ancient Jewish weddings had essentially four steps. The first step was the betrothal. During this step the marriage covenant was established, with the prospective bridegroom taking the initiative and choosing his bride.

You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. (John 15:16)

The bridegroom would travel from his father’s house to the home of the prospective bride, and would then negotiate with the father of the bride to determine her purchase price. Once the bridegroom paid the established purchase price the covenant was established and they were considered husband and wife.

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

From that point forward, the bride was considered to be consecrated, set apart for the bridegroom. To symbolize this covenant relationship, the couple would drink a cup of wine in a public ceremony as a way of sealing their vows.

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27-28)

In the second step of the wedding tradition, the bridegroom would return to his father’s house for at least twelve months to prepare a place for he and his new wife to live. In the Jewish tradition, it was common for the son to actually build an addition onto his father’s house as the new home for the couple.

In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:2-3)

This time apart allowed the bride to prepare for the bridegroom’s return. When their time of separation had finally come to an end, the bridegroom would return for his bride to take her home, but the bride wouldn’t know the exact time of his coming.

But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. (Mark 13:32-33)

Since the bride wouldn’t know when the bridegroom would return, the bridegroom’s coming would be announced with a shout, usually during the middle of the night – forewarning the bride to be prepared for his coming.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. (1 Thessalonians 4:16a)

Before the actual wedding ceremony, the third step in the wedding tradition took place: a ritual water immersion for the bride that was symbolic of spiritual cleansing.

Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, so that he may present the church to himself as glorious – not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27)

The bride would also receive gifts from the bridegroom prior to the wedding ceremony, and in Acts 2 we see how this ties in with the ritual of water immersion.

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)

In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14)

The fourth and final step was the wedding feast itself. Calling it a feast, as opposed to a ceremony, is certainly a fitting description. The wedding feast was often a week long party that you definitely wanted to be invited to.

“Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, because the wedding celebration of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. She was permitted to be dressed in bright, clean, fine linen” (for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints). Then the angel said to me, “Write the following: Blessed are those who are invited to the banquet at the wedding celebration of the Lamb!” He also said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:7-9)

This picture of the wedding covenant created between Christ and His Church is foundational to our faith, and further brings to life this verse in Hebrews:

For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. (Hebrews 9:15)

Just like a marriage covenant ends when one spouse dies, so too did the old covenant end when Jesus died on the cross. His resurrection established a new covenant – a covenant that grants us freedom from sin in Christ.

So we’re left with a question: Will we leave biblical interpretation to the scholars and intellectuals of the world, or will we take the impetus on ourselves to seek out the truths contained within God’s Word?

One way leads to more bible studies headed down the wrong path as described above, and the other way leads to a greater knowledge and understanding of the One we’re called to serve. If your desire is to be a true disciple of Christ, I’d encourage you to choose the latter.