Almost everyone believes in context. We use it, for example, to show cultists or Christians in error how they are distorting Scripture. Yet in practice, many of us are just scratching the surface of what context really offers us.
When I was a young Christian, the Holy Spirit put in my heart such a yearning for Scripture that I began reading through the New Testament every week. By the end of my second week, I was astonished at what I was beginning to discover.
Most of the verses I had memorized and was quoting meant something different in context! I saw that I had been treating much of the Bible as a collection of memory verses with irrelevant space in between. Yet, God inspired every line of the Bible for a reason—this includes the many verses that we rarely preach from or apply to our lives. As part of a larger context, they make sense. Even when we get the basic sense of verses right, we would go so much deeper with context!
One need not read through the New Testament every week to recognize that God spoke when He inspired the Scriptures. God gave us the Bible one book at a time through history, and the way God arranged those books is what we call context. To illustrate how much more attention to context is needed, let us examine just a few of the verses we often quote without thinking of their context.
The Thief Comes to Destroy (John 10:10)
When I ask my students who the thief in this verse is, most instantly reply, “The devil.” That we would assume that the verse refers to the devil is natural—the devil does, after all, come to steal, kill and destroy. But when I ask the same students to read the passage in context and report back to me in five minutes, they all independently come to an identical conclusion: The “thief” here represents false teachers who come to lead us away from Jesus.
Whoever tries to get to the sheep without coming through Jesus is a thief and a robber (see John 10:1). Those who came before Him to control the sheep were thieves and robbers (see v. 8). Thieves, robbers and wolves seek the sheep to devour them. By contrast, the Good Shepherd died at the hands of such thieves to protect His sheep (see vv. 11-13).
If we read the context further, we see that Jesus was confronting the Pharisees, who claimed to be Israel’s shepherds. They expelled from their religious community a man that Jesus healed, but Jesus welcomed the man as one of His sheep (see John 9:35-41).
The principle remains the same, however, whether we think of Pharisees or of cultists today: Whoever seeks to lead us away from Jesus or control the sheep only for their own purposes is a thief. Is this true of the devil? Most certainly. But if we apply the verse only to the devil, we miss how it applies to thousands of the devil’s agents in the world today.
‘Lift Jesus Higher’ (John 12:32)
We often sing the song, “Lift Jesus Higher.” Part of the lyrics read: “He said, ‘If I be lifted up from the Earth, I will draw all men unto Me.’” Of course, it is biblical to “lift Jesus up”—Scripture summons us to “exalt” the Lord. But is that what John 12:32 means? The passage itself leaves us no room for doubt.
Verse 33 explains it: “This He said, signifying by what death He would die” (NKJV). In the ancient world, “lifting” could mean exaltation—or hanging (see Gen. 40:20-22; Is. 52:13-14), including by crucifixion. (This is why Jesus earlier told His enemies that they would lift Him up [see John 8:28]).
In John 12, Jesus predicts that He will draw the world to Himself through His death on the cross. If we meant the song the way John meant the verse, we would be singing: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Of course, God knows what we mean. But if God blesses you with the gift of writing songs, please look your verses up in context before quoting them in a song.
‘This Is the Day’ (Ps. 118:24)
Many churches quote or sing this verse every Sunday morning, but most members do not catch its full import. We think the verse means we should rejoice in every day God has created. While it is true that we should rejoice in the Lord always (see Phil. 4:4), we miss the point that the psalmist had a specific day in mind.
The psalm refers to a day of God’s triumph, when God made a Stone rejected by the builders into the Chief Cornerstone (see Ps. 118:22). This was the Lord’s doing, and the day in which we should rejoice (see vv. 23-24). The New Testament applies this rejection and triumph to Jesus’ death and resurrection—the greatest cause for celebration. When I sing this verse, I sing it remembering the greatest gift God has given us: the death and resurrection of His Son.
Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38)
Context is not just the verses immediately before and after a verse. God gave us the Bible one book at a time, and context invites us to read each passage in light of the entire flow of thought to which it belongs.
One Muslim writer attacked the story of Judah and Tamar in the Bible as “a filthy, dirty story.” This story narrates how Judah went in to a woman he thought was a prostitute, not knowing that she was his daughter-in-law, and got her pregnant. But this passage’s detractor would have done better to read the entire story before complaining.
The account of Judah and Tamar, in Genesis 38, is sandwiched between two accounts about Joseph. In the first, Joseph’s brothers, led by Judah, sell Joseph into slavery. In chapter 38 then, we see that bad behavior catches up with those who practice it: The same brother who sells Joseph is now exposed in a sin he cannot deny (see vv. 23-26).
In the account about Joseph that follows Judah’s sexual sin, Joseph rejects the advances of his master’s wife (see Gen. 39:7-10). Taken together, these chapters offer a deliberate contrast between the sexual behavior of Judah and Joseph and, thus, challenge the double standards of their day.
Most cultures in the ancient world punished women who were immoral, but allowed men to “play the field” so long as they did not do it with another man’s wife. Judah behaves like other men, but Joseph, who is righteous, refuses to sin even when threatened with punishment for refusing.
Nor does the contrast between Joseph and Judah end there. Judah degraded himself by surrendering his marks of personal identity—a ring, robe and chain—to a woman he thought was a prostitute (see Gen. 38:18). God’s reward for Joseph’s virtue, however, offers a stark contrast: Pharaoh gave Joseph the same kind of identity markers—a ring, robe and chain—as symbols of his exaltation (see Gen. 41:42).
Three chapters later, we find that Judah is finally willing to become a slave himself rather than let his younger brother be enslaved (see Gen. 44:33). Judah is no longer the wicked young man he was when he sold Joseph into slavery.
What constituted the turning point in his life? The best clue the narrative offers us is that God used Tamar to confront Judah with his sin. In context, the story of Judah and Tamar is not a “filthy, dirty story.” It belongs, instead, to a tale of virtue, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Great Commission (Matt. 28:18)
I often like to preach from passages that easily pull together many of the themes of the books in which they occur. One such example is the Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel. The rest of Matthew prepares the way for this rousing conclusion.
Whoever reads Matthew the whole way through will read this conclusion in light of the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. Even though our congregations will probably not let us read the entire Gospel of Matthew to them before we preach its conclusion, we can simulate the same effect by summarizing the themes that climax there.
To explain this passage fully, I could therefore use each of the themes in this commission (such as Jesus’ authority, making disciples or Jesus’ teachings) as topics in my sermon on the passage. Then I can fill in each of those topics with what Matthew’s Gospel says about the subject earlier. In this way, I am essentially inviting my congregation to hear afresh the Gospel’s message the way God’s Spirit first inspired it.
I will illustrate this approach with just one of the themes in this commission: the central missionary command to disciple “the nations” (see v. 19). Although Matthew wrote this Gospel especially for Jewish Christians (in his day the majority of believers), this conclusion would not take them by surprise.
Although it can be helpful to illustrate this call to missions from many other parts of the Bible, I doubt that we can improve on the way God inspired Matthew himself to preach it. By tracing the way the theme runs through this entire book of the Bible, we can invite our congregations into this passage of Scripture in a deeper way already implied in the text itself. In the process, we will model for our hearers an effective way to study the Bible on their own.
Why Context Matters
Many of the verses Christians quote by reflex mean something more than, and sometimes something different from, the way we use them. Often, taking just a few minutes to read those verses in context will revolutionize our understanding of them.
At other times, context invites us to press even deeper. When we read a passage in light of the section or the book in which it appears, we grasp more fully the impact God intended it to have. Although reading an entire book of the Bible takes more concerted effort than just reading the paragraph, it offers us still more long-range insights into God’s wonderful message to us.
In my three decades as a charismatic, I have often heard people contradict one another, while each was claiming, “The Spirit told me the verse means this.” How do we evaluate who was really speaking the Spirit’s message most accurately? Context is the way God inspired the Bible. (Apart from a few exceptions such as Proverbs, verses are rarely arranged randomly.) What the Spirit already told us in the Bible is the best test of people’s claims to speak “biblically” today.
In Jeremiah’s day, he was the only prophet announcing judgment. Others claimed that the Spirit was saying something different. Judgment came, however, so it was Jeremiah’s book that made it into the Bible. God gave us the Bible through many tested prophets and apostles through history. The genuine voice of the Spirit today will not contradict what God has already said.
Please do not misunderstand me. I listen to the Spirit in my daily life, experience the gift of prophecy at times and have written extensively in support of hearing God’s voice. But I have also witnessed (and been guilty of) blaming things on the Holy Spirit that were not His fault, such as our failure to really study texts in context.
As ministers, we are busy people, but in our call to speak for God, one area of our ministry to which we must devote time is studying the Bible. We live in an “instant” culture that delights in shortcuts, but we cannot settle for prepackaged verses we have simply heard quoted by others— even by “everyone else.”
Proverbs exhorts us to be diligent in seeking wisdom and knowledge. We must study the Bible passage by passage and book by book. Only then will God begin to open fully the treasures of wisdom and knowledge He has given us in Scripture.
Craig S. Keener, Ph.D., a charismatic New Testament scholar, is a professor at Palmer Theological Seminary (formerly Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary) and author of 12 books. He is also an associate minister at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia.