Real estate agents say that there are three things that determines the price of a house more than anything else. You can charge the same amount of money for a tiny one-room shack as you can for a three-story mini-mansion, if you know these three things.
Sounds simple doesn’t it? If I wanted a little shack on the beach, there is a good chance I’d have to pay the same amount as I would if I wanted to buy a mini-mansion out in the middle of nowhere. Yes, while there are other factors involved in the pricing of a home, location is by far one of the most important.
The same is true with Bible study.
There are a lot of important pieces and aspects to Bible study, but for whatever reason, we often forget an essential missing ingredient. Or in this case, the three essential missing keys you MUST have in your Bible study.
I once heard it said that a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.
haha. If that didn’t make any sense to you, what it is saying is that if you have a passage and you don’t see it in light of its context, then you are setting yourself up to make the text say anything you want it to say (prooftexting) – which is dangerous.
We can’t read our own understanding into a text, we need to see the passage in light of its context.
Some scholars say that you can know more about a passage from the context then from the words within the passage itself. Context is critical!
A Green Man
If I was to tell you that I am “green,” what would I be saying? It would be rather difficult without knowing the context. I could mean:
- I am actually the color green
- I am envious
- I am sick
- I am actually an alien
- I love to garden
- I am an advocate for the environment
- I am wealthy
- I am new to something (ie: greenhorn)
But what I said, “I haven’t been feeling well at all today; I am green.” You would assume, from the context that I am sick.
Whether you realize it or not, much of your understanding in all communication comes from the context.
What is Context
The context of your passage is everything that comes before and after it. For example, I’ve been studying a few words in Ephesians 3.20. The immediate context of the passage is Ephesians 3.20-21. This is a doxology that concludes the greater context of 3.14-21 which is the second prayer Paul prays in Ephesians.
When you diagram it out, you find that the context for every word is its sentence. Each sentence has a context which is its paragraph. Paragraphs sit within sections. Often those sections sit within larger sections. Those sections make up books. Those books eventually form the canon (the entire Bible).
If you are a picture person, here is the last paragraph expanded as a visual:
Word -> Sentence -> Paragraph -> Chapter -> Section -> Book -> Corpus -> OT/NT -> Canon
To take our example again from Ephesians 3.20:
- Words “exceedingly abundantly”
- The context for these words is the sentence of 3.20-21: “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”
- Which is located in the paragraph (which is the prayer Paul prays) in 3.14-21
- Found in the section which makes up chapter 3
- Which sits in a larger section of Ephesians 1-3 (in Ephesians there are two major sections, chapters 1-3 and chapter 4-6).
- The context for this larger section is the entire book of Ephesians
- The next layer of context for Ephesians is all of Paul’s writings (the Pauline Corpus)
- Which sits in the New Testament
- Whose context is the entire Bible
How can I study in light of the context?
I realize you could forever get lost in context. If I was studying the two words above and wanted to really see it in light of the context, I would have to read the entire Bible to do a study on those two words. Probably not very practical (though incredibly beneficial). So let me give you a few thoughts to think about context in your personal study:
- Read what is before and after. At the very minimum, if you are studying a text, make sure you read what is before and after your passage.
- Never pull a single verse out. Even if you are using it as supplemental reference, make sure you know the context of the passage.
- Study words, topics, and concepts throughout the book, corpus, and Bible. If you come across a word or concept and want to dive deeper, make sure you look at how that word is used throughout the book you are studying, how that author uses it across his works (for example, how does John describe “belief” throughout all of his writings, not just in one), and even how that word shows up throughout the rest of the Bible.
- Study expositionally. One great way to help you always stay in context is to study through a passage or book. I’ve been studying Ephesians for a while but as I get to the next verse, because I’ve already studied the previous verses, it is real easy for me to see the new passage in light of the overall context that has been building up to that point.
- Check your conclusions with the context. When you are done studying, I would encourage you to go back and “check” your work against the context of the passage and against the entirety of Scripture. If you conclude that a passage tells you that you should commit adultery, I am rather sure you got off somewhere – because the entirety of Scripture declares the opposite. Scripture doesn’t contradict itself so make sure your concepts and conclusions are in line with all of Scripture.
Context. Context. Context.
Now go study … in context.
Question: What is the most difficult part of studying in context for you? Leave a response in the comments below. **And if you think of any other possible options for “I’m Green” please leave those in the comment section as well.