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

Fourth, there is the context of shared information—the background that both the original writer and readers shared. Some of this background may be available for us in the Bible (for instance, Paul could expect many of his readers to know the Old Testament), but background may also require of us extra research (though the first readers, who normally already knew it, could take it for granted). Finally, we can look at the context of God’s entire revelation in the Bible. But this should be our final step, not our first one. Too often we want to explain one verse in light of another before we have really understood either verse in light of the immediate context in which they occur.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 declares that “every Scripture is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.” Every Scripture communicates a meaning that is essential for the Church—as we have noted, there must be no “blank spaces” between our favorite verses. To apply this principle properly, however, we must determine what unit of the Bible Paul is talking about (what he means by “Scripture”). Paul obviously does not mean simply the individual words in the Bible; although individual words in the Bible are important because they contribute to the meaning of the text, an individual word, isolated by itself, could not communicate much meaning. (We need the word “and,” but by itself it does not communicate any specifically and universally Christian meaning.) This is the danger of focusing on words by themselves rather than their function in sentences and passages.

Obvious as this principle is (that individual words are not the primary unit of meaning), readers of the Bible sometimes ignore it. I once read a devotion on Ezekiel 28 that focused on the word, “wisdom,” and explained how wonderful wisdom was (based on its meaning in a Hebrew dictionary). The writer explained in detail the need for wisdom and never bothered to point out that Ezekiel 28 refers to the evil prince of Tyre, whose boasts of wisdom represent mere worldly wisdom. In other words, this expositor was not really preaching from Ezekiel 28, but from a Hebrew dictionary! Those who trace a meaning of a word through Scripture and then spend a whole sermon on their results may do a little bit better, but essentially they are preaching from a concordance rather than from the Bible itself. God did not inspire the Bible in concordance sequence; He inspired it book by book.

Even focusing on a verse read in its immediate context may be problematic (although less problematic), because that verse may not represent a full unit of thought. The verse references were not added to the Bible when it was being written, but only after it was finished; the unit of thought is often much larger than a verse, and it cannot make proper sense apart from its context. For example, that Jesus wept might be useful instruction for some people who think tears a sign of weakness. But remembering the context gives us a more generally useful principle. “Jesus wept” because He wept with friends who were suffering grief: this example teaches us that it is important to weep with those who weep, and that Jesus Himself cares for us enough to share our grief with us.

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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. Twitter: @keener_craig

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