Today, we will consider a related principle of Bible interpretation: We must make proper use of the context of any statement of Scripture.
First of all, what is context? When one studies the Bible (or any type of literary work), context is defined as the parts of a sentence, paragraph, or discourse that occur just before and after a specified word or passage. The context must always be considered when trying to understand the exact meaning of the specified word or passage (i.e., the meaning the writer or speaker intended to communicate).
This principle is vitally important in Bible study, but it is also pertinent in all forms of human communication. It is often possible to take a general statement, lift it from its context, apply it to a different situation, and thereby change the original meaning of the statement. To take a statement out of context (either knowingly or unknowingly) is to take its original meaning and twist it into something entirely different.
For example, if I uttered the words: "John is poor", without any context for you to consider, it would be impossible for you to know exactly what I meant by that statement. You might have a good guess as to the meaning, but without a context for the statement, the best you could do would be to make an educated guess as to what I was trying to communicate.
Allow me to explain further. First, if there is no context, the reference to John is ambiguous. Perhaps I know more than one John. If so, which one am I speaking about? However, if the statement was made in the context of other comments about a co-worker named John, then the reference to John would be clear. It would be dishonest for someone to take a statement I made about a co-worker named John and try to present it to others as if I was referring to a different John.
Additionally, without a context to the statement about John being poor, it would be impossible for anyone to know whether I was speaking about John being poor in a physical or spiritual sense. It is possible that John could be poor physically and yet quite rich spiritually (or vice versa). Of course, if the context in which the statement was made pertained to money, it would be understood that I was referring to John's lack of financial prosperity.
Can you see how very important context is in the process of communication? The significance of studying or understanding any statement in its immediate context is a universally accepted principle. Common sense should cause us to consider what we see, hear, or read in the context of the particular subject, conversation, and circumstances.
It should be mentioned, however, that we must always be willing to look further than just the immediate context in our studying of a certain biblical text. We must be willing to consider the wider context (e.g., the background information of a certain book of the Bible--including the author's purpose in writing it). Also, the overall context of the rest of the Bible should not be ignored. We must always be mindful of the unity or harmony of the inspired text when interpreting any passage. It is improper to understand any passage in a way that contradicts a passage elsewhere in God's word (cf. II Tim. 2:15).
We will conclude our thoughts on the importance of context tomorrow.