Reading Scripture in Context

Have you ever heard multiple people reference a bible verse and have very different interpretations of what that verse was saying? Have you ever been frustrated trying to figure out which interpretation was the right one? Or perhaps you’ve wondered whether each of those interpretations were equally valid. After all, isn’t human language full of words and phrases that have multiple meanings? How does one sort all of this out?

The bible is full of passages for which the explicit meaning/application has been hotly debated within theological circles since the church began. While there’s no one-size-fits-all formula to end every debate on every passage, there are a number of ways that we can approach our time in the Word to help lend discernment and clarity to what we are reading.

(1) Prayer. Every time we sit down to read God’s word, we should be asking the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to what God has intended for us to hear in that moment and grant us wisdom and discernment to understand what it means. We should be careful to always remember the Spirit’s critical role in our ongoing sanctification.

(2) Context. This is a huge, but often neglected/misunderstood component of reading God’s word. For example, in Matthew 7:7, Jesus says “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you”. One might look only at that verse by itself and think “I keep asking God for things, and He doesn’t give them to me, so this passage is a lie”. We could look a little further and read John 14:14, where Jesus says “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it”. OK, so I’ll pray for a million dollars and end it with “in Jesus name, Amen”. Shouldn’t that work? Based on this verse alone, that is a possibly valid interpretation. However, let’s look also at John 15:7, where Jesus says “If you abide in me and my words abide on you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you”. Now were getting somewhere, but what does it mean to “abide” in Jesus?. The Disciple John summed it up this way: “And this is the confidence that we have toward Him; if we ask for anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14). Whenever we run across a verse or passage that, by itself, could produce multiple interpretations, we should ask ourselves whether are there any other passages out there that would eliminate one or more of those possible interpretations.

(3) What is the heart issue behind the passage? I’ll use another commonly-debated topic as an example here. Some denominations (one very large on in particular), believe that contraception is expressly prohibited in the bible. They base this off of a single passage in Genesis that involves a man who’s oldest brother died. Jewish tradition at that time dictated that when the first born son of a family died without an heir, it was up to the next brother in line to lay with the deceased brother’s wife and produce an heir for him. Genesis 38:9-10 says “But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother’s wife, he spilled his seed on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so he put him to death also”. Let’s look at this passage again, but with emphasis on the direct action involved:

“But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother’s wife, he spilled his seed on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so he put him to death also”.
Focusing only on the actions of Onan could lead to an interpretation that what he did was what angered God. However, let’s look at the same passage another way:
But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother’s wife, he spilled his seed on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so he put him to death also”.

On our own, we don’t have the ability to look into someone’s heart and see the intent behind their actions, so when God chooses to reveal a person’s heart to us through His word, it’s very important to consider that when interpreting the passage in question. In this case, Onan was selfishly trying to avoid putting someone else ahead of him in line for his inheritance. It was that selfish intent (while at the same time indulging in the physical benefit of the arrangement) that led to his punishment, not simply the outward action he used to accomplish it.

(4) What is the Historical/Cultural Context? In the above example, the Jewish custom involved was an important factor in the context of what was going on. It’s always helpful to look into this further when trying to discern God’s intent for a passage when it is not immediately apparent. Another example would be 1 Timothy 2:9, where Paul states that women should “dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair…”. Some have suggested, based on this verse, that a Christian woman today who braids here hair is a hypocrite. However, we need to consider the cultural context, which is that braided hair at that time was a sign of wealth because it suggests that a woman had servants to help her with such tasks. These days, braided hair is not tied to social status as it was back then. However, there are other ways that a woman – or man – might adorn themselves with the intent of flaunting their wealth or social standing. This is also an area that ties back to Part 3, where we need to individually search our hearts to determine whether our motives are pure. In addition, we also need to consider whether our actions could be causing another brother to stumble (see Romans 14:13-18), regardless of our motive.

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