Fourth Key: Consider the Context
As with the great unifying principles, the Bible reveals another key to unlocking the meaning of the Scriptures: context. Keeping in mind the context of the examples and teachings in the Bible can help us avoid misunderstandings.
In fact, most misunderstandings of Scripture come from taking verses out of their context. Reading in context simply means to carefully consider the verses before and after the text being studied. "Out of context" means trying to understanding the verses with little or no regard for the surrounding subject matter. Studying the context includes analyzing the verses within the framework of the paragraph, chapter and book and in a larger sense the entirety of the author's writings and the Bible as a whole.
For example, we read in Genesis 3:4 that "you will not surely die." From this verse people could infer that man already possesses has an immortality, that the soul already has eternal life. But such interpretation would contradict other plain scriptures (1 Timothy 6:14-16; Romans 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:53, 53). Yet the context of the paragraph explains that it was Satan, in the guise of a serpent, who told this lie, saying that man would not die. The correct teaching was related by God a few verses back: "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:16-17).
We see that it is not enough to quote an isolated scripture; we must keep in mind its setting. In this case the point is resolved by reviewing the entire passage. We can avoid much confusion by applying this important context principle.
Sometimes only by reading whole chapters can we correctly understand the subject. For example, some quote Mark 7:18-19 to show that meats declared unfit for human consumption in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 can now be eaten. Christ asked: "Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from the outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?"
Yet the context of the chapter reveals the true meaning: "Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, 'Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?' " (Mark 7:5).
The question was not whether particular foods should be eaten, but the manner in which His disciples were eating. The Pharisees were criticizing them for eating with unwashed hands. Christ answered: "For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men-the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do" (Mark 7:8).
In Matthew 15 the same incident is mentioned, but in more detail: "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies [all are violations of the Ten Commandments and thus sin]. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man" (Matthew 15:19-20).
Taking Christ's exhortation in context, we see that all misunderstanding is cleared up. Jesus was not repealing God-given laws; He was stating that minute amounts of dirt that might be present in food will be eliminated through the body's digestive process.
At other times it is necessary to consider the context of the book itself. A prime example is Paul's use of the word law in Romans. Sometimes he used the term negatively to mean the legalistic concept of law as a means to salvation, which he rejected. "What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law" (Romans 9:30-32).
Yet in other places Paul used law in a positive way: "Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not!" (Romans 7:12-13). Here we see in the same book the word used in an entirely different way in a different context. It is a mistake to generalize on what the word means when taken out of its proper context. The use of this key in first viewing the context throughout the Scriptures will help avoid many wrong interpretations.
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