There’s an age-old preacher joke that tells of a man who decided to let his Bible fall open where it may in order to find guidance in his life. The first verse he happened to turn to was Matthew 27:5 which says Judas “went and hanged himself.” Since he was not sure how this verse applied to himself, he flipped to another passage and the Bible fell open to Luke 10:37: “Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.” The man was quite upset and he did not know how he could ever obey that, so he decided to turn to one more place. Again he opened the Bible at random and to his horror his finger fell upon John 13:27: “Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly.”
While that story is obviously an exaggerated fictitious one given to make a funny point, it’s sadly not too far off of some of the real life Bible study mistakes that are often made. One extreme case that made the internet rounds a while back featured this page-a-day calendar quotation:
Of course, if you look that verse up you’ll notice that it’s not a heavenly promise from our loving Father, but a temptation offered to Jesus by Satan. Again, you might say that that’s an extreme example. And it probably is. But contextual errors are far too common. While we rightly charge the world with misusing Matthew 7:1 for their judgment-free agenda, we have to be careful that we aren’t doing the same.
How many graduating seniors receive a card containing Jeremiah 29:11 (“I know the plans that I have for you…”) at the end of every school year? Conversely, how many of them are Israelites facing decades of Babylonian captivity? How often has “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) been used by athletes and ladder-climbers to give confidence for their ambitions? How many of them know that the verse was written by an imprisoned apostle Paul to address thriving in such a difficult situation? How many Sunday morning private worship services have been conducted on the basis of Matthew 18:20 (“For where two or three have gathered in My name, I am there in their midst”)? How many of those had anything to do with witnesses gathering to administer church discipline as Jesus was addressing in Matthew 18:15-19?
What’s missing from each of those interpretations is the critical key that must govern all of our Bible study efforts, and that is this simple fact:
Context is king.
Grasping the context isn’t just something we have to do to make sure we don’t badly misuse the Bible – it’s the single most important step in understanding each Bible verse as it is meant to be understood. No verse means what you or I think it means. It means precisely what the context tells us it means. While topical studies and sermons have their value, they leave the door open for misinterpretation as we jump from verse to verse to verse, and when we aren’t governed by context we can make a verse say basically anything we want it to. In fact, the only true way to understand a verse is to first gain an understanding of the surrounding verses and chapters, and really even the entire book in which it appears.
How does one begin understanding verses contextually? If you can, try reading through an entire book (in one sitting if you can manage it, as this article suggests). Use a study Bible or a commentary’s introduction to the book you’re in and find where they discuss the occasion and themes of the book. Then, work on zooming in on your text. Develop a working synopsis of the chapter containing your verse. Gain an understanding of the paragraph or section (highlighted by bold verse numbers in some versions) in which your verse appears. Then, examine the verse itself. See what it’s saying as a part of that context.
It might sound like a lot of work initially, but it really isn’t. Once you develop a greater knowledge of a book of the Bible, each section becomes easier to understand, and with that each verse falls into place. And, the truth is, it’s easier than topical study. Instead of having to memorize lists of verses on all kinds of different topics, knowing a book and what it discusses helps us have a greater, more cohesive knowledge of the Bible. And, of course, the work is worth it. It may be easier to just look up every verse on a topic in a concordance, but it doesn’t lead us to greater learning and creates the possibility of a disastrous misinterpretation. Make context the key to your Bible study.
By Jack Wilkie
Jack Wilkie is the editor of focuspress.org and author of “Church Reset: God’s Design for So Much More.” He also preaches for the Forney church of Christ in Forney, TX, where he, his wife, Allison, reside with their four children. You can find his full bio here.