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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Learning Context, Part 1, by Craig S. Keener

Proverbs 11:1 warns that God hates a “false balance.” Unfortunately, some people today quote this verse to imply that God wants us to be “balanced” people, not too committed to a particular agenda. But the real point of the proverb is to avoid cheating our neighbor: the rest of the verse reads, “but God delights in a correct weight.” In the markets of ancient Israel, people would weigh out grain or other items in return for a particular weight of money, but some people cheated their customers by changing the scales. This kind of parallelism is frequent in Israelite poetry (for instance, Mary means basically the same thing when she says that her soul “exalts” the Lord as when she declares that her spirit rejoices in God—Lk 1:46-47.)

Although we may think we read the Bible in context, too often we read the Bible in light of how we have heard others use those same Scripture texts.

Another example of within-verse context may be Hosea 4:6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Often we get the meaning of this verse correct even without knowing the context, but this may be more because we value the Bible like Hosea did than because the line we quote is explicit by itself. After all, we could be destroyed for lack of knowledge about driving, test-taking, foreign policy, crime prevention, disease, and so forth. But the “knowledge” in this particular verse does not mean all kinds of knowledge. The verse specifically refers to Israel’s rejection of God’s Law: “…Since you forgot my law” (Hosea 4:6). In other words, God’s people are destroyed because they have not paid attention to His Word; they do not know Him because they do not know it.

Helpful as it is to examine the context within a particular verse, in most cases we need a broader circle of context than simply within a verse.


Paragraph Context: Train Yourself

Paragraph context is usually what people mean when they talk about “reading in context.” We cannot stop with paragraph context—a work may make a point in a sentence that functions as part of a larger argument within a paragraph which in turn functions as part of a larger argument within an entire book of the Bible. Nevertheless, context on the level of paragraphs—the immediately related material around a particular verse—is essential to putting verses in context. If you sit in a church service where someone rattles off verse after verse, you need to be able to check each of those verses in context. In time you may learn the Bible well enough that you immediately know the context as soon as anyone quotes a verse; until then, you need to look the verses up and find the context. For your own Bible study, however, do not even begin with isolated verses; read paragraphs (and preferably books) as a whole.

Helpful as it is to examine the context within a particular verse, in most cases we need a broader circle of context than simply within a verse.

Instead of simply reading through the rest of this chapter at this point, I highly recommend that you look up the following verses in context and decide for yourself what they mean. Ask yourself the questions we have attached to each of these texts. After you have finished, you may check your own conclusions with our observations on these and other texts below. If our observations bring issues to your attention which you had not considered, you may want to consider them and reread the text (although in the end you are not obligated to accept all our conclusions). If our observations merely confirm your own reading, you can surmise that your context-reading skills are fairly well-developed. The goal is not simply to hold particular views on the sample texts listed below, but to learn the skill of reading all Scripture in context. (As a young Christian I used most of the following verses out of context until I began systematically studying the Bible book by book, at which time their context gradually became obvious to me.) Some of the more difficult passages (toward the end of our list) are more debatable in sense than some of the more obvious ones (toward the beginning).

  1. John 10:10: Who is the thief? (start back at least at 10:1 or at least 10:5)
  2. When Jesus says, “If I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32), what does He mean by being “lifted up”?
  3. Which day is the “day that the Lord has made” (Ps. 118:24)? Does the text refer to every day (the way we usually apply it) or to a specific day? (see Ps. 118:22-23; more generally 118:15-29)
  4. Is God’s announcement that He owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Ps. 50:10) an assurance that He can supply all our needs? Or does it mean something else in context? (Keep in mind that other passages do teach that God supplies our needs; the question here is not whether God will provide, but whether that is what this passage means.)
  5. What does the “baptism of fire” refer to in Matt. 3:11? Is it just a purification or empowerment for believers or something else? (Keep in mind that “fire” symbolizes different things in different passages. The question is, what does “fire” mean in this immediate context?)
  6. By calling us to “imitate” God (Eph 5:1; King James’ “followers” here is literally “imitators”), does Paul want us to speak planets into existence? To be everywhere at once? Check the context (4:32-5:2).
  7. What does it mean to resist the devil in James 4:7? In 1 Peter 5:8? In Ephesians 4:27? Some people use these verses to support rebuking the devil whenever something goes wrong. Is that the point?
  8. Some people quote Joel 2:9 to say that we are God’s mighty army (in a spiritual sense). Other texts may say that, but is that the point of this text?
  9. Some people quote Joel 3:10 to say that we should claim God’s strength when we are weak. While that is a biblical principle (2 Cor 12:10), is it the point here?
  10. Read Isaiah 14:12-14 in view of the whole of Isaiah 14. To whom does this text refer? (Keep in mind that “Lucifer,” found only in the King James Version, is simply a Latin title for the “morning star,” not actually found in the Hebrew; because some interpreters believed this text referred to Satan, they applied the title to Satan, but the Bible does not use the term anywhere else, so whether or not it is actually Satan’s title depends on the meaning of this passage.)
  11. Many people apply Ezek 28:12-14 to the devil, just as they apply Is 14 to him. In context, is that really the point of this passage? (Again, we are not questioning whether the devil exists or whether the devil fell. The question is whether this passage teaches it.)
  12. When Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13), does he have anything in particular in mind? (I.e., does “all things” mean that he can currently fly, walk through walls, spit fire, and so forth, or does it mean something more specific?)
  13. What is the “word of God” (or, “word of Christ” in most translations) in Romans 10:17? Does it specifically refer to the Bible in this case or to something else?
  14. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10. According to this passage, when will the gifts of the Spirit pass away? What is the immediate context? (cf. 12:31; 14:1) What is the function of 13:4-6 in the context of the whole letter to the Corinthians? (You may save this question until our study on book-context if you wish.)
  15. Is faith in Hebrews 11:1 oriented toward receiving something in the present or toward receiving it in the future? (Start back around 10:25 and read through 12:4.)
  16. Revelation 3:20. When Jesus knocks at the door, is he trying to get someone converted? (To whom is the verse addressed?)
  17. One could say that when God “gave” his Son (Jn 3:16), this refers to giving Jesus at his birth in Bethlehem or giving him to the world when God raised him from the dead. What does “giving” him mean in context?
  18. When one seeks first the kingdom, what things are added to one (Matt 6:33)?
  19. Who are Christ’s ambassadors in 2 Corinthians 5:20? Whom are they entreating to be reconciled to God?
  20. Some people say that the “witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1 are the dead watching us from heaven. But in the context of Hebrews chapter 11, does “witnesses” refer to those who watch us or to those who testified to the truth of God’s claims?
  21. Some people claim the promise that no weapon formed against them would prosper (Isaiah 54:17). Is this a guarantee for every individual Christian or for God’s people as a whole protected by His plan for them?
  22. Does Proverbs 23:7 mean that whatever we think about ourselves will come true? (“As a person thinks in their heart, so they are.”) Or does it mean something else? (Read 23:6-8.)
  23. Does Psalm 18:7-15 refer to Jesus’ second coming? Read 18:4-6, 16-19.
  24. Who is the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valley, in Song of Solomon 2:1-2?
  25. In Matthew 18:18, what does Jesus mean by “binding and loosing”? Does He refer to how to treat demons here, or does He refer to something else? (Read especially 18:15-20.)
  26. What is the “coming” to which Jesus refers in John 14:1-3? Does He refer here to His second coming or to something else? (Read 14:4-23, and perhaps 13:36-38.)
  27. This final question may be the most difficult one. Read Isaiah 7:14 in context (especially 7:10-16; 8:1-4). In the immediate context, to whom does this newborn son refer? (If your conclusions may disturb you, don’t worry; we will clarify them below. But it is important for you to grapple with the text intelligently in its context first, and not simply to interpret the passage according to how you’se seen it used elsewhere.)
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Category: Biblical Studies, Summer 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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