Holy Spirit Interactive
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Inside Holy Spirit Interactive

Direct Bible Discovery

Chapter 12 - Contextual Interpretation

The meanings of words, phrases, and sentences are determined by their context.

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 particular context.

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)
We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. (1 Corinthians 8:4)
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.

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:

  1. Who is speaking here?
  2. To whom is he speaking?
  3. To what or whom do these pronouns refer?
  4. When and where did this take place?
  5. 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?
  6. Is this word defined or used clearly in a nearby passage? Are there any qualifying phrases nearby that would affect the meaning?
  7. What incident has just happened to bring on these comments?
  8. What else has the writer said about this same subject elsewhere in this book?
Often the answers to these and similar questions help determine the correct interpretation of a passage.

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.

21 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 is indispensable.

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.

3 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!

Gradual Revelation

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).

The Historical 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 prevalent thought patterns
  • the political and legal systems
  • methods of warfare
  • attitudes toward authorities
  • historical occurrences
  • various religious practices
  • business practices and monetary system
  • modes of travel
  • farming and herding practices
  • family patterns
  • marriage rites and burial rites
  • interpersonal manners and customs
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.

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)

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. (NIV)

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.
For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day . . . (NASB)

These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! (NIV)

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.

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 word.

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 chapter 18.)

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)

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)

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.

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 contradictions.

  1. Making a biblical statement more inclusive or more universal than the writer intended.
  2. Applying a biblical statement incorrectly outside its own dispensation or its own specific circumstances.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
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 contradiction.

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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