Reading the Bible in Context

THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT

An illustration from Hudson Taylor’s life – Hudson Taylor (1832-1905) was a pioneer English missionary to China. Hudson founded the China Inland Mission which at his death included 205 mission stations with over 800 missionaries, and 125,000 Chinese Christians!

Hudson recognized the need to immerse himself in the Chinese culture in order to relate the gospel to the people in ways that made sense to his audience. He learned their language, wore his hair in a pigtail, wore their clothes and lived as close to their lifestyle as possible. According to some of his European colleagues, this was inappropriate. Because the Bible had been in their culture for centuries, they believed that their cultural values and norms were the true expressions of Christian life and universal for all cultures. Hudson Taylor disagreed and brought Christ to the Chinese in their “context.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

CORRECT INTERPRETION

1. The Bible was written to the first hearers or readers with a specific intent on God’s heart. God wanted them to understand what He was saying and therefore needed to put it into the language and life situations they would be able to understand. Now we must understand and apply that same message (if we can and should) to our lives today in our culture.

2. There are two basic questions we should ask of every Biblical passage: those that relate to context, the part of a text that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning, and content, the meanings of words and phrases. An example is the word “flesh” in 2 Corinthians 5:16 “…Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.” This meant they did not know Him in His earthly life.

3. To interpret correctly, we must understand that many of the teachings in the Bible fall into two categories:

A. Highest ideals, norms and standards. These are uncompromising Biblical principles that have top priority in all we do.
Example: the 10 commandments in Exodus 20.

B. Regulations for people of that first culture, not necessarily meant to apply to all people under all circumstances. Example: Leviticus 19:19 tells them not to sow two kinds of seed nor wear a garment made of two kinds of cloth.

Exercise: Find the standards (A) and the regulations (B) in Leviticus 19. How did you arrive at those conclusions?TWO FOUNDATIONAL ASPECTS OF INTERPRETATION 

1. EXEGESIS – The careful, systematic study of God’s Word to discover the writer’s original and intended meaning, taking into consideration the historical and literary contents, and the society of the time of writing.

A. Historical context – Determine what was going on in the history of the readers whose thinking (as is ours) was deeply influenced by the circumstances of their day. Is there war going on? Against whom? Is there economic depression or drought? Was Israel about to go into captivity? Etc.

B. Cultural context – The culture of Biblical times was very different from ours, and its writings must always be considered in light of its culture. Cultural behavior is usually never explained because the readers were knowledgeable of social customs.

C. Literary context – This asks questions such as: What was the basic purpose of this writing? What is the flow of thought? What comes before it and what follows it? What type of writing is it?

D. Ultimately, the basic context is the entire book. Why was it written? What is its basic message? When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians he did so to answer a call for help because of serious problems in the church. When he wrote 1 Timothy he was dealing with false teaching in the church at Ephesus.2. HERMENEUTICS – The entire field of Biblical interpretation. In a narrower sense, it is bringing contemporary relevance to ancient texts, the Bible’s meaning for today. A Bible text can never mean to us what it did not mean to the original hearers and readers.

A. The only proper expression for hermeneutics is found in understanding the original intent of a Bible text first (exegesis). Otherwise the text can be made to mean whatever it means to any given reader.

B. The problem of cultural relativity arises when God’s Eternal Word has been given in a particular historical setting and now we have to interpret that in situations that are similar to ours. Whenever we share comparable particulars (similar life situations) with the readers of the original text, God’s Word to us is the same as His Word to them.

Example: Colossians 3:12-17 (clothe yourselves with compassion) and 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 (lawsuits brought by believers against other believers before a judge in a worldly court).

C. The problem of extended application involves the “right” to extend the application of one text to other contexts.

Example: 2 Corinthians 6:14 is not written to mean marriage between a believer and a non-believer but most likely in context with idolatry.Question: Have you ever interpreted Scripture only to find out later that you needed to “adjust” your interpretation? Give an example.

 

About Jack Lankhorst

Jack Lankhorst d.Min.
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