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

Some paragraphs do not yield much personal application or preaching material unless placed in a larger context. For instance, Paul’s plans to come to the church in Rome (Rom 1:10) may indicate Paul’s love for the church there, but the content of his edification for them cannot be understood apart from his message which he explains to them in the rest of his letter. Paul wants to impart a spiritual gift to them (1:11), but he clarifies the essential outlines of his teaching that he expects to edify them in the rest of his letter (1:13-17). (Because Acts tells us how Paul got to Rome, one could also examine his statement in the larger context of God’s working in history: God did get Paul to Rome, although hardly by the method Paul expected—Acts 19:21; 23:11; 28:16. But it will complicate matters less for the moment if we stick to the immediate context of the book of the Bible; we will deal with situational and historical context [“background”] later.)

Ultimately, context extends beyond words, verses, and paragraphs to the entire structure of each book of the Bible. This is probably what Paul means when he says, “Every Scripture is inspired.” The Greek word for “Scripture” here is graphē, which means “a writing.” In most cases, each book of the Bible would be written on an individual scroll as an individual text; different books of the Bible were usually written as whole books to address different situations in ancient Israel or the church. Although these books often consisted of earlier materials (e.g., stories about Jesus that circulated before writers of the Gospels wrote them down), we have them as whole units in our Bibles, and should read them as whole units. For instance, God gave us four Gospels instead of one because He wanted us to look at Jesus from more than one perspective. (Jesus was too great for merely one Gospel, with its distinctive emphasis, to teach us enough about Him.) If we simply mix pieces from different Gospels without recognizing what is characteristic of each Gospel, we often miss the perspectives God wanted us to get from each one. While we could preach from an individual narrative in the Gospels and explain the text faithfully, we would do even better if we understood how that particular Bible story fit into the context of that whole Gospel in which it appears.

Some people quote Scripture out of context and then claim they are right because they have special authority or a special revelation from God. But if we follow this practice, we call people to heed us rather than the Scripture.

In other cases, the book context is absolutely necessary, not just a nice addition. Paul’s letter to the Romans, for instance, is a tight-knit argument; reading any passage in Romans without understanding the flow of logic in the whole book leaves us with only a piece of an argument. Admittedly many people read Romans this way, but because Romans is so tightly connected, Romans makes a far less immediately edifying Bible study passage-by-passage than Mark does. We need to know that all people have sinned (Rom 1-3), but one could easily spend many weeks analyzing that part of Romans before getting to justification by faith or power to live a righteous life. In Mark, by contrast, one comes up with new issues for study in nearly every paragraph, and a Bible study group could easily take a passage or chapter every week without feeling like they would not understand Paul’s point for a few more weeks. Paul wrote Romans as a letter to be read as a tight-knit argument, all at once! Even in Mark, however, the Gospel continually foreshadows Jesus’ impending death and resurrection, and moves like a whole unit toward that end. Ancient readers would also often read a biography like Mark in one sitting. Until we understand the function of a passage in light of the general argument of the book it occurs, we are not fully respecting the way God inspired it.

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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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