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

In the same context, Matthew applies Jeremiah 31:15 (where Rachel weeps over Israel’s exile) to the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem (Matt 2:17-18), near which Rachel was buried (Gen 35:19). But Matthew knows Jeremiah’s context: after announcing Israel’s tragedy, God promises restoration (Jer 31:16-17) and a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34). Matthew compares this tragedy in Jesus’ childhood to one in Israel’s history because he expects his first, biblically knowledgeable readers to recognize that such tragedy formed the prelude to messianic salvation. Matthew also knows very well the context of Isaiah 7:14, which he quotes in Matthew 1:23 (see discussion in chapter 2, below); the context remains fresh in Matthew’s mind when he quotes Isaiah 9:1-2 in Matthew 4:15-16. Matthew is not ignoring context: he is comparing Jesus’ ministry with Israel’s history and the promises those very contexts evoke. He read the context better than his critics have!

In the following chapter, we will survey examples of verses in context—partly to illustrate how desperately we need to study context more carefully, despite the fact that all of us profess to believe in it.  I deliberately picked texts that are often taken out of context in the kinds of church circles I know best.  I teach students from many denominations (and non-denominations), and find that most of these texts are familiar to the majority of students in their out-of-context form.  After examining the texts together in context, however (or allowing the students to study them in context on their own), we usually come to near-unanimous (usually unanimous) consensus on what they mean.

After examining “immediate context” in the next chapter, we will move to other themes in the following chapters. First, we will turn to whole-book context includes learning to recognize the structure of argument (in books with tight-knit arguments like Romans) and developing themes (in books more like Mark). Then we will turn to issues like the situational or historical context—“background”—making sure that we address the same kinds of issues the biblical authors were addressing. We will also turn to the different kinds of writing in the Bible (styles, genres, and forms like parables).


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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2015

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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