Anyone who commits to read and study the Bible probably desires to correctly understand it. While numerous things may hinder that process, likely the most common hindrance to proper understanding is failing to consider biblical context. (Philippians 4:13 is a primary example of this problem.)
We cannot properly understand a single verse unless we consider the meaning of the surrounding passage. We cannot fully understand a passage unless we consider the purpose, background, and genre of the Bible book in which it’s found. (See also “Do You Read the Bible all Wrong?”)
Unfortunately, many of us read a verse or passage and go straight to application. We ask “what does this mean to me?” or “What does this mean for me.” (See also “Don’t Ask ‘What does this passage mean to me?‘”) But before we can apply God’s Word, we must first understand its meaning. And we can only do that if we understand the context. Every verse in the Bible has the same meaning today that it had when it was written. It may have unlimited applications depending on the individual and her circumstances. But God’s meaning never changes.
The good news is, we can easily grasp the context of any verse or passage. The following 4 tips will give you a solid start.
4 Things to Consider in Understanding the Biblical Context
Although numerous volumes exist on the subject, there are a few things we can quickly consider to help us deal correctly with God’s Word.
- Literary Genre – Are you studying poetry, wisdom, prophecy, narrative, or apocalyptic literature? The genre of the book affects the interpretation. For instance, narrative simply tells us what happened and not necessarily what we are supposed to do in a given situation. And wisdom literature, like Proverbs, states general life principles and not solid promises of God. (See “Quick Tips for Handling 8 Different Biblical Literary Genres.“)
- Literary Context – Every sentence is part of a paragraph. Every paragraph is part of a larger passage. Every passage is part of an entire book. We cannot assign meaning to a verse without considering the greater context. For instance, knowing that Jacob stole the birthright from his brother Esau in Genesis 25 and Esau’s blessing from his father in chapter 27 helps us understand why Jacob was afraid of him in chapter 32. (See “How Literary Genre Helps You Understand the Bible.”)
- The Context of the Book – A book’s author, his audience, and his purpose impact the meaning. For instance, knowing that the author of the book of James was the half-brother of Jesus and not James the Apostle, definitely changes the way we understand the letter. (See also “Who Wrote the Bible and Why Does it Matter?“)
- Historical-Cultural Background – Every biblical author wrote in a specific time in history, to a specific people, in the midst of a specific set of circumstances. We cannot accurately understand them outside of that context. The political climate, current customs, and speech idioms are just a few of the things that impact the original meaning of a passage. For instance, references to Jewish religious practices pack the book of Hebrews. We won’t be able to grasp its rich meaning unless we go back and study things like the Day of Atonement and the Levitical priesthood.
A few resources to help with context
We cannot cover everything here, but the following resources will help you go deeper:
- Read the introduction to a Bible book in your study Bible.
- Get a good Bible Dictionary. I have a copy of Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible.
- Another great resource is the two-volume set of The IVP Bible Background Commentary.
- Bible handbook like the classic Halley’s Bible Handbook
Have you ever misunderstood God’s Word because you failed to consider the context? What is a verse that you think is regularly taken out of context?