Context

con·text

/ˈkäntekst/
noun

  1. the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

 

News flash… sometimes we take the Bible out of context.

It can be all to easy to take a single verse (or a fraction of one), pluck it from the other verses around it, and make it mean something in isolation that sounds really nice. But that often twists the text into something that it's not. 

As the definition above indicates, reading the Bible contextually can help us understand and assess what the Bible is really trying to say to us. So what does it look like to read the Bible in context? Here's a simple three-step approach that many pastors and theologians find helpful:

  1. the world BEHIND the text – Look at who wrote it and who the author was writing to, and examine what was going on historically at the time it was written.
  2. the world WITHIN the text – Look at the actual words (this may require diving into some Hebrew and Greek lexicons!). Examine what the author was doing in a literary sense and what choices they made as a writer... is this a letter, a song, poetry, history, an allegory?? 
  3. the world IN FRONT OF the text: Think about how your own life and experiences impact how you read these verses. We all have a story... we have our own contexts that shape hope we read and interpret the Bible.

One of my professors as Fuller Theological Seminary says this: “Our task is to take seriously the problem of more faithfully hearing Scripture on its own terms, both in its original context and in ours. Much of our agenda for accomplishing this adjustment will involve coming to grips with the filters we unsuspectingly and subconsciously use when we read the Bible.”

As we enter into dialogue with the Bible, we must recognize all of the contexts at play if we want to truly understand and assess these words and what they mean for us. This is not as easy as just reading a few words and assigning meaning to them immediately, and it may challenge the notions you have about some very familiar texts, but I’m finding that when I engage in a contextual dialogue with the Bible, it becomes more alive and more powerful in my life that ever before.

This blog is based on a series I'm teaching at Sojourn, a worship service for college students and young adults every Wednesday night in downtown Nashville.

Tim Wildsmith