Think of the word tract. What does it mean? You have absolutely no way of knowing what I might be referring to when I use this single word. I could be referring to a tract of land, a digestive tract, or a small piece of religiously motivated literature commonly distributed on street corners.Without identifiable context, this single word has no certain meaning. You absolutely must identify some context in order to determine what I am referring to. What is the subject under discussion? Even in a sentence, “I examined the tract,” you cannot answer with any certainty what it is I am referring to. Drawing a conclusion without additional information could be incredibly misleading.
CONTEXT AS IT RELATES TO SCRIPTURE
Context is simultaneously one of the most important and most violated rules concerning the interpretation of scripture. Heck, even in life. How often do you hear someone say “you took that out of context!” Every sly politician has used this line to weasel out of an inappropriate statement. This accusation seems to be the go-to when disagreements arise, especially regarding scripture.
When it comes to scripture, most violations are unintentional or just naive. Someone may simply be repeating a phrase they heard a well-meaning but incorrect pastor or friend divulge, or they are not bothering to look closely at the text. Often, a preoccupation with some theological idea or bias can cause us to see something in the text that really isn’t there.
Here’s a great example: I grew up in a small church. We sang the same handful of songs repeatedly during the twenty plus years I attended. One of those tunes was, “lift Jesus higher.” I wish I could sing it for you, but some lyrics I can recall from memory will have to suffice. Picture a happy tempo you could skip down the street to.
Lift Jesus higher
Lift Jesus higher
Lift him up for the world to see
He said if I be lifted up from the earth
I will draw all men unto me
Now, this song is unquestionably based on John 12:32.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32 ESV)
If you isolate this line, the passage could certainly be indicative of an exaltation of Christ seated at the right hand of God. Why wouldn’t we lift up the name of Christ and make it known to the world? This is something we can get on board with and sing about! Now, read the next verse.
“He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” (John 12:33 ESV).
In context, Jesus was clearly referring to the manner he would die; an excruciating death nailed to a Roman cross. Literally being hoisted up on a cross. Yes, this was the manner in which Jesus would reconcile humanity to himself, but this was certainly not what we were singing about.
The well-intentioned author of this song, it would seem, simply took verse thirty-two and neglected to read in context. For twenty years we sang this happy-go-lucky tune about lifting Jesus higher for the world to see. Unquestionably, we interpreted this song as an uplifting praise hymn, to exalt Christ in our lives, for others to see. Conversely, the passage this song enshrines actually refers to our savior’s humiliation and crucifixion on a cross, thus demonstrating well the necessity of context!
Context brings amazing intentions to fruition. By that I simply mean well meaning Christians can avoid error and instead produce beautiful results.
As previously mentioned, context is probably the single most important principle concerning biblical interpretation, but also one of the most neglected. It’s easy to project our presuppositions and preconceived notions on scripture rather than allowing the plain meaning of the text to speak to us.
The good news is it’s easy to begin reading the Bible in context. There are, however, some tips and tricks that can greatly assist in this endeavor. Within the framework of context, there are two important subcategories, literary and historical context. Check out my post on literary context here.