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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context, by Craig S. Keener

Context is the way God gave us the Bible, one book at a time.

Often popular ministers today quote various isolated verses they have memorized, even though this means that they will usually leave 99% of the Bible’s verses unpreached. One seemingly well-educated person told a Bible teacher that she thought the purpose of having a Bible was to look up the verses the minister quoted in church! But the Bible is not a collection of people’s favorite verses with a lot of blank space in between. The God of the Bible is not a God of isolated verses without their context; using verses out of context one could “prove” almost anything about God or justify almost any kind of behavior—as history testifies. But in the Bible God revealed Himself in His acts in history and through the inspired records of those acts and the inspired wisdom of His servants addressing specific situations. Too often we take short-cuts to understanding the Bible by quoting random verses or assuming that others who taught us have understood them correctly. When we do so, we fail to be diligent in seeking God’s Word (Prov 2:2-5; 4:7; 8:17; 2 Tim 2:15).

After one begins reading the Bible a book at a time, one quickly recognizes that verses isolated from their context nearly always mean something different when read in context. We cannot, in fact, even pretend to make sense of most verses without reading their context. The method of isolating verses from their context disrespects the authority of Scripture because this method of interpretation cannot be consistently applied to the whole of Scripture; it leaves many verses left over when it is done. Preaching and teaching the Bible the way it invites us to interpret it—in its original context—both explains the Bible accurately and provides our hearers a good example how they can learn the Bible better for themselves.

If we read any other book, we will not simply take an isolated statement in the middle of the book and ignore the surrounding statements which help us understand the reason for that statement. If we hand a story book to a child learning how to read, the child will probably start reading at the beginning. That people so often read the Bible out of context (I will offer examples below) is not because it comes naturally to us, but because we have been taught the wrong way by others’ examples. Now we must accept the opportunity to begin teaching the next generation the right way to interpret the Bible. It is important that we not get so wrapped up in the details of the text (or worse yet, the point for which we wish to use it) that we miss the larger picture of the context. Just as we would feel misrepresented if someone quoted us out of context, changing our meaning, we should avoid quoting the Bible out of context.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2003

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. sites.google.com/site/drckeener. Twitter: @keener_craig

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