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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Whole-Book Context (Part 1 of 2), by Craig S. Keener

Part of the Rightly Understanding God’s Word series by Craig S. Keener.

As appearing in Pneuma Review Winter 2004.

Take a course on biblical interpretation with New Testament scholar, Professor Craig S. Keener.

Whole-Book Context

While it is important to read each passage in the context that immediately surrounds it, it is also important to read it in the context of the entire book in which it appears—whether John or Judges or James or other books of the Bible. Often the particular passage fits into the argument of the entire biblical book, or sometimes it connects with themes that run through that book. In some cases, the story runs over several books in our Bible that were once connected as extended narratives (for instance, the Moses story in Exodus carries over from the Joseph story in Genesis, and 1 Samuel through 2 Kings are one long story; so also is Luke plus Acts).

1. Jewish-Gentile Reconciliation in Romans

Many Christians urge non-Christians to be converted by believing in Jesus’ resurrection with their heart and confessing with their mouth that Jesus is Lord. This summary of how to respond to the gospel is based on Romans 10:9-10. Romans 10 does in fact describe salvation in these terms. But have we ever stopped to examine why Paul specifically mentions the mouth and heart here (rather than in some other passages which describe salvation)? Would Paul deny that a deaf mute could be saved simply because they could not confess with their mouth? Or does Paul choose his particular words “heart” and “mouth” for more specific reasons?

We look first at the immediate context, as we did in the previous chapter of this study. Paul believes that we are saved by God’s grace, not by our works. Contrary to the means of justification proposed by Paul’s opponents (Rom. 10:1-5), Paul demonstrates from the law of Moses itself that the message of faith is the saving word (10:6-7). As Moses said, “the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (10:8); Moses was referring to the law (Deut 30:10-11, 14), but the principle was also applicable to the gospel, which was also God’s word. In Moses’ day one could not ascend to heaven to bring the law down from above; God in his mercy already gave it to Israel on Mount Sinai (30:12). Nor was it necessary to descend again into the sea (30:13); God had already redeemed his people and brought them through the sea. They could not save themselves; they had to depend on God’s mighty grace (cf. Ex 20:2). In the same way, Paul says, we don’t bring Christ up from the dead, or send him down from the Father; like the law and Israel’s redemption, Christ’s salvation is God’s gift to us (Rom 10:6-7). Moses declared that this message was “in your mouth and in your heart” (Deut 30:14), i.e., already given to Israel by God’s grace. Paul explains that likewise God’s message was in your mouth when you confessed Christ with your mouth and in your heart when you believed in Him in your heart (Rom 10:9-10). Faith could come only from hearing this word, the gospel of Christ (10:17), as we noted above.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2004

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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