Context is King

In biblical interpretation, no rule rises above the simple necessity of interpreting a verse in its context. All Scripture is breathed out by God. All Scripture, every individual word and verse, is perfect and perfectly inspired by God. We call that the doctrine of plenary, verbal inspiration. All Scripture is sufficient to bring about in us all that the Lord intends for us concerning life and godliness (cf. 2 Peter 1:3).

As we deal with this perfect and holy text, one major mistake that we make is in thinking that we can handle an individual verse as an individual thing. This is not the case. Verses of Scripture are not individual pearls that can be separated from the strand and admired as single jewels. Instead, the flow of verses together, the building of arguments and proclamations are vital to our rightly handling the Bible.

Take the verse often quoted in prosperity theology, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Out of context, that appears to be a verse in which a man or woman can claim aptitude for any profession and strength for magnificent accomplishment in Christ. Thus, a Christian baseball player hits a homerun every time because of Jesus (Don’t ask what happens if the pitcher is a believer too.).

But let’s take a peek at context. Paul was in prison in Rome and writing to the Philippians. The Philippians had found out about Paul’s time of trial, and they had sent help his way. They were concerned for his wellbeing, and they seem to have sent a gift or two to supply his physical needs while under arrest. Look at the passage in that light.

Philippians 4:10–13 – 10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

In verses 11-12, Paul says that he is particularly not trying to tell the Philippians that he could not survive without a little more money. ON the contrary, Paul was telling the church that he, under the tutelage of Christ, had learned to be content. He was content when he had nice clothes and a soft bed. He was content when he suffered great hardships.

Paul’s willingness to survive whether he has plenty or goes hungry is the context for the statement, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The phrase, “all things,” does not have anything to do with hitting a baseball, leading a corporation, performing a miracle, or investing in the stock market. No, the all things that he can do, in context, is the all things of living in times of plenty and times of want. Paul is saying, in the all things he can do through Christ, that he can be poor, devastatingly poor, and still love Jesus. And Paul is saying that he can have a very nice cash flow, and not love it more than Jesus.

Paul’s words have nothing to do with naming a prosperity and claiming it as his right. On the contrary, Paul is saying that he will joyfully live through all circumstances, happy and sad, by the strength of Jesus. As we often hear in wedding vows, Paul is saying that he has learned to joyfully trust in Jesus for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in prosperity and in adversity.

Let Philippians 4:13 give you joy, but not ripped out of the flow of the text. That verse reminds us that we can love Jesus and be OK in all sorts of easy and hard times. Our circumstances, our wealth, our poverty, have nothing to do with our relationship with God. There will be wealthy Christians and poor Christians. There will be sick Christians and healthy Christians. There will be pro athletes and folks who cannot control their weight. There will be corporate CEOs and hard-working ditch-diggers. And the trick is for us to know that, because of Jesus, because of his strength, because of his Holy Spirit, we can learn to do all things, handle all circumstances, because of our Lord.

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A Perfect Example of Context Really Mattering

If you know me, you will know that I often preach to people how important context is in interpreting a biblical text. If we remove context from our study of a passage, we will miss, often badly, the meaning of the text. And if you think that this is not the case, I want you to read the following words with no context. They are Scripture. What would happen if all you heard was that these are the words of God?

“attack ‘the lame and the blind,’ who are hated by David’s soul.”

Now, if those words are left to themselves, if they were seen as Scriptural commands, what would you become? It would be a real problem. And I did not do anything to those words. They appear above as they appear in Scripture. But, look at the context, and see how the meaning becomes clear.

2 Samuel 5:6-8 – 6 And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” 7 Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David. 8 And David said on that day, “Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind,’ who are hated by David’s soul.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

When David was planning to take the city of Jerusalem, the Jebusites said that David was so weak that the blind and the lame could ward him off. So, when David sent men to take the city, he sarcastically used the words of the arrogant Jebusites as part of his command. David does not hate blind and lame people. God does not command us to attack the disabled. Instead, we see here that David threw the boasts of the arrogant back into their teeth.

Friends, when you read the Bible, please, for the love of God (literally), handle the text in its context. Do not take a verse alone as a unit of thought. Ask what the verse is saying in the light of the paragraph, the unit of thought around it. Ask what book the verse is in and what that book is trying to communicate. Ask what timely and social constructs influence how that verse would have been understood by those who read it. Remember, context really matters.