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

We may usually take a paragraph as a whole unit of thought, but even paragraphs often do not represent the complete unit of thought in the text. Paragraphs vary in length but we identify them as distinct paragraphs precisely because they are whole thoughts by themselves. Yet these thought-units often connect with other thought-units in such a way that it is difficult to separate them from surrounding thoughts. While most paragraphs will contain at least one nugget or principle, that nugget is sometimes too short to be used as the basis for a whole sermon by itself. As much as I prefer expository preaching (preaching from a paragraph or passage), some texts do not lend themselves easily to this approach.

For instance, when Paul bids farewell to his friends in Acts 20:36-38, their obvious love for one another (evidenced in their sad parting) yields a crucial nugget: We ought to have that kind of love for and commitment to one another in the body of Christ today. But we can articulate that principle more fully if we read these verses in light of Paul’s preceding farewell speech (Acts 20:18-35). And we could find enough material on that passage for a lengthy sermon or Bible study only if we traced that passage’s theme of Christians’ love for one another throughout the whole book in which it appears (e.g., 2:44-45; 4:32-35; 14:28; 28:14-15). Most congregations would like more than a single point to learn from, or at least more than a single illustration of the point! Commenting on unity in John 17:23 may be difficult to flesh out unless we see how John emphasizes unity in terms of loving one another (13:34-35) and the kinds of barriers unity must surmount (Jesus crosses a major ethnic barrier when he ministers to a Samaritan woman in John 4). Reading this verse about unity in the context of John’s entire Gospel summons us to cross cultural and tribal barriers to love our fellow Christians.

Without having read the entire story, one may miss the purpose for the individual verses.

One preaching professor in the U.S. told me that he was skeptical that all the Bible’s was God’s Word; he doubted that one could preach from a passage like the one where David’s servants brought him a concubine to keep him warm (1 Kgs 1:2-4). So I pointed out that these verses were part of a much larger context. After David sinned, God announced that judgment would come on his house even from those close to him (2 Sam 12:11). This was fulfilled in the revolt of Absalom, possibly David’s eldest son after Amnon’s death. But now another son of David, the next eldest after Absalom, is seeking to seize the throne (1 Kgs 1:5). The verses about David not being able to keep warm reveal how weak and susceptible he was to this new revolt; the mention of the concubine helps explain why Adonijah later merits death by asking to marry her (1 Kgs 2:21). To marry a concubine of the former king was to position oneself to become king (1 Kgs 2:22; cf. 2 Sam 16:21-22)—Adonijah still wants to overthrow Solomon’s kingdom! Without having read the entire story, one may miss the purpose for the individual verses. But there is certainly a purpose for them, as we realize when we read the full story.

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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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