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 Caution Against Clever Interpretation

This will be short, but I think it is important. Watch out for teachers who attempt to show you they are clever in how they find meaning in things that the Bible does not declare. Watch out for your own temptation to find meaning in something that the Bible does not define.

Let me give an example. In a daily reading, I found myself in Luke 4, which begins with the temptation of Jesus immediately after his baptism. What caught my attention rather quickly was the fact that Luke and Matthew present the temptations in a different order. Matthew begins with the devil telling Jesus to turn stones to bread, continues with the devil calling Jesus to throw himself from the temple in front of people, and concludes with the devil calling for Jesus to worship him. Luke reverses the order of the latter two.

Natural human curiosity makes us wonder why. What was God up to there in his inspiration of the text? Is there a message there? And if you go read sermons or commentaries, you will surely find people who will give you an answer.

But here is my caution. God does not tell us why he inspired these authors in the way he did. There is no biblical context clue to tell us why Matthew and Luke have differing orders. There is no other biblical author that indicates to us what this might be about. And there is no guarantee that this is about anything at all. Thus, any answer any preacher or scholar gives is a guess. The guess may be accurate. The guess may be dead wrong. But it is a guess.

We are unwise, friends, to make anything like a real doctrine or even a real sermon point out of a guess. It seems clever. It scratches an itch to have our curiosity satisfied. We love to have something to say that others have not said before. But there is no real reason to do this. If Scripture does not tell us why something happened, if there is nothing like a context clue here to define it, we are just talking to talk at that point.

Let me remind us that the Scripture has a clarity to it that God intends we not lose. We have enough work cut out for us in understanding and applying clear doctrines, things that are taught but not easily accepted or understood, that we do not do ourselves any favors by finding doctrines in passages that make no claims to teach us something. Let the Scripture speak for itself. Do not give into the very understandable desire to be clever by teaching the reason that the two authors changed the order of the events when nothing else in Scripture tells us why they did so.