Principle #3: Context

“At last two (witnesses) came forward and said, ‘this man said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days’” (Mat. 26:60b-61).

 

Context means: “The general series or composition of a discourse; more particularly, the parts of a discourse which precede or follow the sentence quoted; the passages of scripture that are near the text, either before or after it. The sense of a passage of scripture is often illustrated by the context (Noah Webster’s Dictionary 1828).

Understanding the context of a passage opens the door to its literal meaning. Our objective is to understand what the writer meant by what he wrote. What I think is worthless. What would it mean if I never existed? What does it mean for anyone who reads it?

In the latter half of Matthew 26 (above), Jesus is on trial before the chief priests and council. Two men came forward and twisted the meaning of His statement “destroy this temple and in three days will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19). His words were grossly misinterpreted. We know that He was not referring to the physical temple in Jerusalem but to His body. For the temple was a picture of the way a sinner enters into the presence of a Holy God. Jesus compared the destruction of the temple, and His raising it up, to His death and resurrection. Through Him, a sinner can be right with God and enter His courts.

When interpreting scripture, we must consider the broader context of the passage, book, and its place in the Bible. Even though there may be many applications, there is supposed be only one right interpretation. Someone might say, “Ten people can read the same passage and interpret it completely different”. But that doesn’t mean any of them are correct. In fact, all ten of them could be wrong.

The Context of the Bible

The Bible has several central themes:

The character and nature of God

Mankind falls into sin and death

The Nation of Israel

Salvation

The Church

Christ

Old Testament –Preparation for Christ

Gospels –Manifestation of Christ

Acts –Propagation of Christ

Epistles –Explanation of Christ

Revelation –Consummation of Christ

 

The Context of the Book

Our Bible has two major categories, The Old and New Testament, and smaller categories within each.

 The Old Testament…

Books of the law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy

Books of History: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, one Samuel, two Samuel, one Kings, two Kings, one Chronicles, two Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

Books of Poetry/Wisdom: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Songs

Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel

Minor Prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

The New Testament…

Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John

Historical: Acts of the Apostles (written by Luke)

Epistles: (Of Paul) Romans, one Corinthians, two Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, one Thessalonians, two Thessalonians, one Timothy, two Timothy, Titus, Philemon; (Of Peter) one Peter, two Peter; (Of John) one John, two, John, three John; Hebrews (writer unknown); the Epistle of James; the Epistle of Jude

Prophetic: the book of Revelation (written by John)

There are other sub-classifications…

Historical, Doctrinal, Soteriological, Christological, Ecclesiological, Church Epistle, Personal Epistle, and more.

“A soft answer turns away wrath” (Pr.15:1a).

Assuming you believe that God’s Word is without error and will never fail to accomplish what it promises, does this verse mean that EVERY time I give a soft answer the other individual will NEVER get angry? No. Only when we fail to consider the context of the literature in Proverbs does it seem to fail. The book of Proverbs is wisdom literature. Though all of God’s Word is certain, therefore, a promise, these proverbs are not to be interpreted as we would other promises in the Bible. What we are promised in the proverbs, is that the wisdom, when applied, is a pattern of life better than all. There is no error in its wisdom. It will produce great results much of the time but not necessarily all of the time.

I use this example because the book Proverbs is often maliciously  miss-interpreted. Some people take the proverbs and apply them as certainties for health, wealth, and happiness.

 

Covenants

A Covenant is a mutual agreement between two or more persons’ whereby each party vows to fulfill a specified responsibility to the other.

Major Covenants…

The Everlasting Covenant: a covenant between the Father and the Son to redeem (Heb. 13:20).

The Edenic Covenant: a covenant between God and Adam and Eve in the Garden. He would walk among them and be their God. They were to be fruitful, multiply, subdue the earth, tend the garden, and never eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16). Ultimately, this was a covenant of works.

The Adamic Covenant: a covenant established by God with Adam and Eve and humanity after they sinned. Within it was the first promise of a redeemer from the sin and death incurred by Adam (Gen. 3:15).

The Noahiac Covenant: a covenant made with Noah, his offspring, and all creation. Noah must replenish the earth’s population and establish a human government. Here, humans were first permitted to eat meat. And God promised to never flood the world again with water (Gen. 9:16). Therefore, God’s covenant with Noah benefited all humanity.

The Abrahamic Covenant: a covenant made first with Abraham, whereby he was required to believe the promises of God. God promised to give him innumerable descendants. These descendants would inherit the Canaan as an everlasting possession. His “seed” would bless the world (Gen12:2). This covenant is extended and applied to the New Testament Church (Gal. 3:29).

The Mosaic Covenant: a covenant made between God and Israel, whereby they were required to obey all of God’s moral, ceremonial, ritual, and civil laws. God promised to bless them for obedience or curse them for disobedience (Ex. 19:5).

The Palestinian Covenant: a covenant made between God and Israel. God promised to bring them back into their land from captivity and restore them as a nation (Deut. 30:3).

The Davidic Covenant: a covenant made between God and David and his descendants. God promised a King who will inherit an everlasting kingdom of righteousness through Israel; defeating their enemies and restoring peace (2 Sam. 7:16).

The New Covenant: a covenant made between God and His Church to forgive us of our sin, cleanse us from all unrighteousness, and reconcile us to God. Its cause is the atoning work of Christ alone. Its condition is faith in Christ alone (Heb.8:8).

 

Covenant Theology 

The Covenant of Redemption: The eternal covenant made between God the Father and God the Son. The Father promised His Son a bride and the Son would have to purchase her with His life. This purchase would act as a redemption of His bride from sin and death.

The Covenant of Redemption: The eternal covenant made between God the Father and God the Son. The Father promised His Son a bride and the Son would have to purchase her with His life. This purchase would act as a redemption of His bride from sin and death.

The Covenant of Works: The covenant made with Adam and the rest of humanity. Upon perfect obedience to God’s law, we would be rewarded with eternal life. However, the consequence of violating God’s law would be death.

The Covenant of Grace: The covenant made with God’s elect to show them mercy and bring about salvation through His efficacious call to faith in Jesus.

 

Dispensations

Dispensationalism is a system of biblical interpretation in view of the progress revelation of God (progressive revelation is a term describing how God progressively revealed more of His character and plan of salvation as time continued). God deliberately divided history into specific ages with specific responsibilities differing for each age. A dispensation is stewardship of humanity, in a specific age, established upon a new revelation of God and His expectation of humanity to live in accordance with it. With knowledge comes responsibility. And as God reveals more of Himself, each allotted age has a new responsibility. These responsibilities do not earn salvation but they show ones faith in God.

These are the dispensations that most dispensationalist’s follow…

The Dispensation of Innocence: Adam and Eve’s responsibility in the Garden. They were commanded to never eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 1:28-3:6).

The Dispensation of Conscience: Adam and Eve’s responsibility after the fall (and the rest of humanity), to obey the dictates of conscience (Gen. 4:1-8:14).

The Dispensation of Civil Government: after the flood; establishing mankind’s responsibility to develop a human government which executes capital punishment when necessary (Gen. 8:15-11:9).

The Dispensation of Promise: time of the patriarchs; beginning with God’s promise to Abram, and Abraham’s responsibility to believe (Gen. 11:10-Exodus 18:27).

The Dispensation of Mosaic Law: from Moses until the death of Christ; Israel’s chief responsibility was to obey the commandments given through Moses (Exodus 18:27-Acts 1:26).

The Dispensation of Grace: from the death of Christ until the establishment of His Earthly Kingdom (which includes the present); mankind’s chief responsibility is to believe on Jesus as Lord, accept His gift of righteousness apart from works, and share the Gospel (Acts 2:1-Revelation 19:21).

The Dispensation of the Millennium: humanity’s responsibility will be to obey the personal rule of Christ during the millennium (Revelation 20).

If you need something simple, remember these periods of time while reading…

Before the fall or after the fall (Adam)

Pre-flood or post-flood (Noah)

The patriarchs’ (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob)

The Exodus (Moses)

The Judges (Gideon, Samson)

The Kings (David, Solomon, Rehoboam)

The Prophets (Micah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah)

The time of Christ (Gospels)

The first century Church (Gospels, Acts, and the epistles)

In order to put the Bible together, we must be able to piece it apart. There are multiple views in relation to covenants and dispensations. I would encourage further study on these topics. (For study on covenants and dispensations I recommend the “Scofield III study Bible” and “Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation”).

God makes Himself known to humanity differently at various times throughout history. God spoke to Balaam through a talking donkey (Num. 22). But that doesn’t mean you should go to the nearest farm and pray for God to speak through one of the animals. The Lord spoke audibly to individuals. But that doesn’t mean you should expect God to speak audibly to you. God revealed “who He is” to humanity in a way suitable to their time and as He saw fit. Whether God speaks through a talking donkey or through His Word, in either case, it is God speaking. In these last days, God speaks to us through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, in His Word (Heb.1:1-3, 2 Pet.1:9). This is His dynamic combination!

 

History and Culture

In one of Michael Jacksons songs he says, “I’m bad, I’m bad”. Now, imagine someone dug up his CD two hundred years from now. Would they understand what it means? By saying “I’m bad”, was he calling himself evil, hurtful, mean, or a criminal? Whoever dug up the CD would need to understand the phraseology of that particular culture in order to interpret the phrase “I’m bad”. So also, with the Bible, it is essential to understand the history of the culture and language. (I recommend the Archeological Study Bible, the Jewish Study Bible, or one of the many other study Bibles that have great historic notes for beginners. Or, you can go to ancient historical sources; Flavius Josephus, Philo, the Babylonian Talmud, etc.).

 

The Immediate Context

I wasn’t getting enough out of just reading the Bible. I wanted more. After wrestling with this desire, the Holy Spirit led me to read through the Bible in an interesting fashion. First, I read through the entire chapter. Second, I went back to the beginning and re-read each verse three to five times. Then, I thought about what I read. After going through the entire chapter like this, I went back to the beginning and re-read the entire chapter again. By doing this, I began to see how each verse fit into a framework (a greater whole); what each verse meant in reference to the verses surrounding it. I read through the entire New Testament this way. In the Old Testament, I read through each chapter twice and reflected on the chapter before moving.

The Main Concept…

Most importantly, identify the main concept. Every passage has a main concept or principle. As a house has frames, the surrounding verses are the framework for interpreting the passage. For example, let’s say each verse represents one of these items: a frame, mattress, sheets, blankets, and pillows. What do you have? A bed! You find the main concept of a passage by identifying what the passage is building.

 Questions to consider…

How do the surrounding verses shed light on the meaning? Is it a dialogue? Is it a narrative? Is it a parable? Is it prophecy? Is it a command? Is it a question?

 

Meditation and Memorization

Meditation is dwelling on a thought, word, scripture, an attribute of God, or anything else profitable in God’s sight. It’s not clearing your mind as eastern religion defines meditation. It is filling your mind with a thought of God, reflecting on it, looking at it from every angle, piecing it apart, and putting it back together. Take time to chew on each verse as a cow “chews the cud”.

I discipline myself to memorize scripture. I choose scriptures that are helpful for my personal walk with Christ, for witnessing, and for guarding sound doctrine. I began memorizing one passage a day for 100 days. And I have never set aside this discipline. Scripture memorization and meditation continue to be part of my daily devotion with God. With David, let us say, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps.119:11).

Continue Reading: Principle #4