Chapter 12 - Contextual Interpretation
The meanings of words, phrases, and sentences are determined by their
The Biblical Context
Open up any dictionary and glance through the definitions of several
common words. You will find that the words which we use most commonly
nearly always have several different definitions. Yet, when you read
one of those words in a letter or a novel you have little trouble deciding
which definition is intended by the writer. This is possible because
a word is ultimately defined not by its dictionary definition or by its
etymology. Rather, it is defined by the way it is used in a
The word light can be used in one context to refer to one thing
and in a different context to refer to something else. The same is
true for the word pan and the word foot and for most other
common words. In each case it is the context which narrows down the
meaning of the word. And, of course, context is just as important
in determining the meaning of words in the Bible.
The same principle applies to phrases and sentences. If you have
ever been quoted out of context, you can appreciate how this works.
Another person may quote your entire sentence perfectly, but his understanding
of what you meant is quite different from yours. So you explain the
context of your remark in order to help him understand the real meaning
of that one sentence.
Consider the sentence, "This house is empty." This sentence is
quite ambiguous until we know what context surrounds it. It would
mean one thing when spoken by a furniture mover, but it would mean something
quite different when spoken by a person doing door to door visitation,
and something different still when spoken by a widow. Knowing the
rest of the conversation could easily identify the speaker and the situation.
Or, consider the sentence, "There is no God." It is part of a statement
denying God's existence in many contexts, but it is part of a statement
affirming God's existence in both of the following verses.
The fool says in
his heart, "There is no God." (Psalm 53:1)
Thus, the meanings of words, phrases, and sentences are ultimately determined
by their context. This fact about the relationship between context
and the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences points to a procedure
which can often help you find the best interpretation of an ambiguous phrase.
Suppose you have a phrase which is vague or ambiguous. That is, the
phrase could easily refer to two or more things. As you read the
sentence substituting one possible meaning for the phrase, the sentence
makes good sense. The problem is that, when you substitute any of
the other possible meanings, it makes just as good sense. However,
this ambiguity can often be resolved by reading the entire paragraph, making
the same substitutions just mentioned. Often the addition of more
context will help you discern which of the several possible meanings best
fits the whole movement of thought in the passage.
We know that an idol is
nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. (1
Context is vitally important in interpretation. You need to make
a conscious effort always to look in the context for important information
that will help you interpret a word, phrase, or sentence. The context
may help you answer such questions as:
Often the answers to these and similar questions help determine the correct
interpretation of a passage.
- Who is speaking here?
- To whom is he speaking?
- To what or whom do these pronouns refer?
- When and where did this take place?
- How does the writer introduce this section? How does
this section relate to the ones immediately before and after it?
Has the writer stated the purpose of this passage (to illustrate a point
made earlier, to answer a question, etc.)? Is the point made in this
passage illustrated later?
- Is this word defined or used clearly in a nearby passage?
Are there any qualifying phrases nearby that would affect the meaning?
- What incident has just happened to bring on these comments?
- What else has the writer said about this same subject elsewhere
in this book?
Every word and phrase in the Bible must be interpreted in the context
of its sentence, and each sentence in the context of its paragraph.
It is this immediate context which often contributes the most to
the understanding of a word, phrase, or sentence. (The immediate
context is usually considered to be the sentences which come immediately
before and immediately after the sentence under consideration.) But
there are also larger contexts which must be kept in mind. Each paragraph
must be interpreted in the context of its chapter, each chapter in the
context of its book, and each book in the context of the Bible as a whole.
Here are two examples which show that context is indispensable in determining
the meaning of a passage.
Example One, Romans 3:23
In Romans 3:23 Paul states that "all have sinned." Many people
think that this is one of several Bible verses that prove that sin is universal,
that every human being (with the single exception of Jesus) has sinned.
In fact, this passage is often used by believers to show non-christians
that the Bible says we are all sinners. But this is not what this
passage says at all! We need to read Romans 3:23 in its context.
Verse 24 shows us the problem with the above interpretation, and verse
22 provides the key to the correct interpretation.
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known,
to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all
who believe. There is no difference, 23
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24
and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came
by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:21-24)
If, as some claim, verse 23 teaches that all humans have sinned,
then verse 24 must teach that all humans are justified, since both verses
are describing the same group of people. Actually, the word "all"
in verse 23 refers to "all who believe" mentioned in verse 22. In
the larger context Paul is discussing two groups of people, the Jews (who
had the circumcision and the Law) and Gentiles (who had neither).
See 2:1,9,12-13; 3:1,9. Some from both groups had become believers
in Christ. But, neither Jewish believers nor Gentile believers earned
righteousness through the Law. Verses 21-24 teach that, since both
groups of believers were sinners, there is no difference in the way they
got their righteousness. "All" (both groups of believers)
had to be justified, not through the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.
Of course, it is true that all humans have sinned, not just Jewish believers
and Gentile believers. The universality of sin is taught in verses
9-18 as well as many other passages, and this is also why it is true that
all those who believe have to obtain their righteousness through faith
rather than through works. But this does not change the fact that
verse 23 is talking about all believers, not all humans. Context
Example Two, Luke 17:5
In Luke 17:5 Luke records that the apostles once said to Jesus, "Increase
our faith!" No doubt, many have understood this to be a noble request.
But when we examine the context of the apostles' request, we see that it
was actually a bad request, and was rebuked by Jesus. The context
includes verses 3-10.
So watch yourselves. "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he
repents, forgive him. 4
If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back
to you and says, `I repent,' forgive him." 5
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" 6
He replied, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say
to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will
obey you. 7
"Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would
he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, `Come along now
and sit down to eat'? 8
Would he not rather say, `Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait
on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? 9
Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10
So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should
say, `We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' "
Notice that the apostles' request was in response to a command that Jesus
had just given them to repeatedly forgive the brother who had sinned against
them and repented (v. 3-4). This is certainly a difficult command,
and we tend to sympathize with the apostles in their request for help.
However, Jesus was not pleased with their request. He responded by
pointing out that, at least in connection with this particular command,
they had no faith to begin with. If they had had even the smallest
amount of faith they would have been able to relocate a tree at command
(v. 6). In other words, if the smallest amount of faith could enable
them to perform such a miracle, then their admission of inadequate faith
to carry out Jesus' command was in reality an admission of no faith at
all in regard to that command. Their request for more faith implied
that they had some already, when they really did not.
It also implied that, even after they had received a command from Jesus,
the responsibility was still on Jesus, not on them. Jesus clears
up this second misconception by reminding them of one of the most basic
facts in their culture, namely, that a slave is expected to obey his master
(vv. 7-9). Then Jesus clearly states the implication for his disciples:
they should see themselves as slaves of the Lord Jesus and should obey
him (v. 10). The clause "when you have done everything you were told
to do" links verse 10 with verses 3-4 and helps the reader see that all
the intervening verses are part of the context.
Thus, Jesus' command in verses 3-4 and Jesus' response in verses 6-10
make it clear that their request was not good. A far better response
to Jesus' command would have been "Lord, we are your slaves, and we will
do what you have told us to do." Context is indispensable.
A great deal of emphasis must be placed on this principle of interpreting
in light of the context, for this principle is violated very frequently.
A person could plead ignorance in regard to some of the other tools
or principles of interpretation. He may be able to say, for instance,
"I don't know Greek" or "I wasn't aware of that fact about the Babylonians."
But he cannot say "I don't have the context." The immediate context
is readily available to all readers. The person who ignores the context
is not really reading at all!
As you study the whole Bible you become aware of the fact that God's
revelation has taken place gradually. As time progressed, God's revelation
of himself and of his will for mankind became more and more complete.
Of course, God's basic approach has never changed. God has always
dealt with mankind in love and grace and has always expected mankind to
respond by trusting (having faith in) him and obeying him. However,
God's specific arrangements with mankind (precisely what God revealed including
exactly what he expected mankind to do) varied from time to time throughout
Bible history. These specific arrangements, or dispensations, must
be kept in mind when interpreting passages from dispensations which differ
from our own. For example, we must remember that the Old Testament
saints did not have the full light of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ
or the writings of the apostles, so we must understand these Old Testament
saints' experiences and their statements in the context of the dispensation
in which they lived. We cannot view those who lived under the old
arrangement (the Law of Moses) as though they had the full revelation of
the new arrangement (the new covenant, or the church age). Nor can
we view those who lived before the Law as though they had the full revelation
of the Law, much less that of the new arrangement. Every passage
must be interpreted in the context of its own dispensation. There
are important differences between the specific arrangements (dispensations)
which must be remembered. But, of course, there are also similarities
among the dispensations which must also be remembered. These similarities
account for the fact that Abraham, who lived before the Law, can serve
as an example of faith to us who live under the full revelation of the
new arrangement (Hebrews 11:8-12).
and Cultural Context
Most of our communication takes place within our own time bound culture.
Thus, we have little reason to think about how much our own time and culture
influence our thought patterns and our communication. However, when
we try to communicate with someone from a background which is vastly different
from our own, we quickly feel the necessity of being able to see things
from that person's world of thought. The communications of the Bible
writers are much the same. It is true that the books of the Bible
are inspired and are thus completely reliable. But it is also true
that they were written so as to communicate most effectively to their primary
audience, their original readers. This required that each book be
written within the time and culture of the original readers, not in some
suprahistorical or supracultural manner. Thus, our understanding
of any Bible passage will be most accurate when it is the same understanding
that the writer and the original readers had in their own time and culture.
Here are some of the historical and cultural concerns:
The more we know about their historical setting and how they thought and
lived, the closer we can come to the mind of writer and the original readers
in attempting to interpret a given Bible passage.
the prevalent thought patterns
the political and legal systems
methods of warfare
attitudes toward authorities
various religious practices
business practices and monetary system
modes of travel
farming and herding practices
marriage rites and burial rites
interpersonal manners and customs
Only rarely does the Bible directly explain a custom (such as Ruth 4:7
and John 4:9), because in the vast majority of cases the original readers
were already quite familiar with the customs. Usually we must learn
about the customs indirectly, from references about it in the passage or
from something like a Bible commentary or Bible dictionary which gives
information about these particular people and their practices taken from
historical and archaeological sources. Knowledge of the customs can
help you understand biblical events. For example, the Gospels refer
to Jesus and others reclining at table (Matthew 26:7, etc.).
It was customary then, when eating a meal, to remove one's sandals and
recline on a couch or mat, resting on one elbow with the head toward the
table. Such knowledge makes it much easier to visualize many of the
events which occurred around meal scenes in the life of Jesus.
Also, each culture has its own unique linguistic expressions, called
idioms. For instance, we would say that one sabbath comes "seven
days" after the previous sabbath. But the apostle John expresses
the same meaning by saying "eight days" after. This idiomatic expression
grows out of their cultural practice of counting the first sabbath as day
one, so that the following sabbath is day eight (similar to the way in
which we label an octave in music). Compare, for instance, John 20:26
in the New American Standard Bible (which is relatively literal)
and the New International Version (which is more idiomatic).
And after eight
days again His disciples were inside, and Thomas with them. (NASB)
Also, the Jews reckoned the time of day differently than we do, counting
their hours from the beginning of the light period rather than from the
middle. Again, compare Acts 2:15 in the same two versions.
A week later his disciples
were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. (NIV)
For these men are
not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day . .
The words in the idiom are translated into English in a literal word-for-word
fashion in the NASB, but they are translated idiomatically in the NIV (the
entire idiom in the original language is replaced by a phrase with the
same meaning). When you are reading a more literal translation, you
must be careful lest you interpret the phrase in a literal word-for-word
fashion and arrive at a meaning quite different from the meaning of the
idiom in the original language. Other idiomatic expressions can be
discovered by studying the cultures and languages of the Old Testament
and New Testament peoples.
These men are not drunk,
as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! (NIV)
Beware of Etymologies
Some people misunderstand the place of a word's etymology in determining
the meaning of the word. Etymology involves the tracing of the various
meanings which have been attached to a word in its past usage. Or,
said another way, a word's etymology is the history of the way people have
used that word. Some people believe that, if you can find the etymology
of a word in a commentary or book of word studies, the etymology will give
you the best clue to the word's meaning in any given passage.
However, the following two principles support the conclusion that etymology
should not be relied upon as the key to the interpretation of words.
First, a word's current usage (the commonly accepted literal understanding
of the word at the time of writing), not its past usage, should
be your starting point in interpreting its meaning in any given context.
Second, words are ultimately defined by their context, as explained earlier
in this chapter. Thus, even though etymologies are often interesting
and they often help you appreciate a word's current usage, the word's etymology
should never be made the primary determinant of the word's meaning.
Instead, (1) the word's current usage and (2) the context in which the
word is used are far more important in determining the meaning of that
Consider, for example, our English word nice. This adjective
came from a Latin word meaning ignorant, which later found its way into
Old French and meant foolish and simpleminded. During the 1800's
the word meant, among other things, fastidious or fine. It was not
until the early 1900's that the word obtained a primary meaning of pleasing
and agreeable. If you tell your friend that he is a "nice" person,
you certainly want him to understand that word in its current meaning rather
than any of its former, etymological, meanings.
More is said about word studies in chapter 18.
Comparing Passage with Passage
Since the entire Bible was inspired by God, there are no contradictions
in it. When you compare one passage with another, whether or not
they are in the same book and whether or not they are in the same testament,
they will harmonize with each other. Of course, one passage may emphasize
a different aspect of the truth, or give a more complete picture of the
truth, or may reflect the specific arrangements unique to a particular
dispensation, but any such differences are complementary to each other
rather than contradictory. Thus, if you are to arrive at a complete
and balanced picture of the truth, you must compare passage with passage.
This is especially so in studying some of the narrative passages when the
events are recorded in two or more places in the Bible. Many of the
reminders and commands of Moses which are recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy
relate to events and commands recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
Many events recorded in 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings are also recorded in
1 and 2 Chronicles. The writings of the Prophets (in the books of
Isaiah through Malachi) have their backgrounds in some of the historical
books (1 Kings through Nehemiah). Many events in the life of Jesus
are recorded in more than one of the four Gospels. And the writings
of Paul (in Romans through Philemon) have their backgrounds in the Book
of Acts. It is the responsibility of the Bible student when studying
one passage to seek out such related passages for comparison.
When doing topical study, it is also very important to seek out different
passages on the same topic for comparison. Finding such passages
for comparison is made much easier when a person has a good general knowledge
of the content of the Bible, but even the beginner will gain much help
in finding different passages on the same subject from a concordance.
(The steps for finding and using such related passages are described in
For example, some people maintain that preachers, teachers, and counselors
can have certainty that if they simply proclaim the Word of God, the Word
will always greatly profit those who hear it. This viewpoint might
be based on such passages as the following.
. . . so is my word
that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but
will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent
it. (Isaiah 55:11)
However, these passages by themselves are not a sufficient basis
for building your conclusions regarding when and how the Word will function.
There are other passages which must be compared with these two passages.
Elsewhere the Bible teaches that personal factors within the hearers affect
when and how the Word functions, and sometimes the Word does not profit
the hearers (John 16:12; Matthew 13:19-23; Hebrews 4:2)! The study
of a Bible topic is complete only when you have examined all that the Bible
says on that topic. It is very dangerous to build a doctrine on one
or two isolated verses.
For the word of God is living
and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to
dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and
attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
A similar danger is the use of the false "first mention" principle.
Some people hold that the meaning of a word or the significance of an object
is determined by the meaning or significance it has when it is first mentioned
in the Bible. This idea, however, is a misleading oversimplification.
Instead, examine all that the Bible says about it, not merely one
other reference to it.
Whenever two passages appear to contradict each other, you must
reexamine your interpretation of both passages. As a general rule
you will find that one of the passages is less clear than the other.
Perhaps it is a vague passage (ambiguous; easily capable of two or more
interpretations). Perhaps it is an inferential passage (instead of
speaking directly about the topic under consideration, it indirectly implies
something about the topic). Less clear passages, that is, vague and
inferential passages, must always be interpreted in the light of the clearer
passages on that topic. This is a rule which is automatically used
in everyday conversation and reading. By applying this rule to the
study of the Bible many apparent contradictions can be easily resolved.
There will be instances, however, when the passages which appear to
contradict each other will both seem to be quite clear. Remember
that it can only be an apparent clarity and an apparent contradiction,
since it is not possible for two true statements to be mutually exclusive.
Further reexamination of both passages is called for. As you reexamine
the passages, make a special effort to avoid the following four errors.
These errors often cause misinterpretation and in turn create apparent
In many instances, a very careful examination of the immediate and larger
context of a biblical statement will be the key to resolving the apparent
- Making a biblical statement more inclusive or more
universal than the writer intended.
- Applying a biblical statement incorrectly outside its own
dispensation or its own specific circumstances.
- Viewing a biblical statement from a certain theological position.
When this is done, the biblical statement may mistakenly be seen as proof
not only for one particular tenet of the theological position, but also
as proof for other related tenets in that theological position. Then
one of those other tenets is compared with another biblical statement and
an apparent contradiction results.
- Using the converse or inverse of a biblical statement and
assuming that the converse or inverse is automatically true just because
the biblical statement is true. (See the discussion of "Improper
Inference" in chapter 13.)
When you are unable to resolve an apparent contradiction, be satisfied
to set the problem aside temporarily. It is far better to proceed
prayerfully and deliberately and to suspend judgment for a while than to
jump to a conclusion. You may feel that you have examined all the
relevant facts and have considered every possible interpretation of the
passages, but in some cases it may be years or even a lifetime before you
become aware of another fact or interpretation which will allow you to
resolve the problem.
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