Imagine being accused of a crime you did not commit. In court, a lawyer asks the jury, "Did this person commit the crime? Let's hear their own words." They then produce a hidden audio recording in which you are heard to say this:
"...I did it...people get what they deserve."
Should that count as evidence against you? Or would you want the jury to hear the rest of the tape, where you actually said this:
"I'm sorry to hear that happened. I wasn't even there, so I hope nobody thinks I did it. I'm sure they'll catch the culprit and lock them up. People get what they deserve."
First of all, those words were never an admission of anything, let alone that particular crime. And the whole sentence was you denying you were involved. You weren't wishing bad things on the victim; you were talking about the criminal! The lawyer is twisting your words to mean the exact opposite of what you intended, and now your original statement has been totally lost. That, in a nutshell, is exactly why context matters.
When we read or study the Bible, we need to know what God ACTUALLY means, not what we can MAKE His words mean. Understanding what came before, during, and after a statement is "context." Knowing who the speaker is and to whom they are speaking, as well as when and where the narrative takes place, and what the situation is at that moment is also a part of understanding context. Unless we know those details, we can’t claim to really know what a person's words mean.
A lot of people make this mistake by accident. They treat Bible verses like fortune cookie messages. They take a sentence or verse, read all by itself, and then try to give it a meaning that it never was never meant to have originally. Common examples of this are Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13. Jeremiah was written to Israelites about to be sent into exile; it is not God guaranteeing a happy life for all people, everywhere, for all time. Philippians discusses Paul's ability to cope with hardship for the sake of Christ; it's not Jesus promising to help you hit a curve ball or pass a test.
As inspirational as it may be to say, "God has good plans for me (Jeremiah 29:11), and he will help me accomplish any task (Philippians 4:13)," that's not what either of those verses really means. Wanting to give yourself happy-feelies is not an excuse for twisting anyone else's words—let alone God's Word.
Context solves both of those mistakes. Knowing WHO the passage is written to, WHAT it's about, and the THEME of the passage help us understand better. That's what lets us know what God actually meant by those words, instead of making it mean something else.
Sometimes, context helps counteract the argument of a person who's deliberately trying to twist the Bible. These kinds of arguments are usually made by someone who doesn’t really care what the Bible means; they're just interested in trying to make it look bad.
This happens all the time when it comes to Old Testament instructions on things like eating shrimp or wearing clothes made of two fibers or stoning adulterers. The context of those instructions is clear: they're for the nation of Israel, in that era, not all believers, today. But some critics of the Bible will quote them—totally out of context—and then claim a completely incorrect interpretation.
This mistake also happens when someone uses a "description" as a "prescription." This is when someone says, "In this verse Jephthah burns his daughter. If God's so good, why would He command him to do that?" As if that's something God would command! In context, we see this story as an example of Israel's ignorance of the law, not as an act God celebrated.
Whether we’re studying a verse or passage, discussing the Bible with a friend, or reacting to something we’ve heard, context is always the most important place to start. Know the who, what, where, when, and why of that verse. Sometimes this means reading the verses around the one in question, the whole section or chapter, or sometimes even the whole chapters before and after the verse.
There’s a time and place to debate whether something is good or bad or what it means to our lives. But none of those discussions mean anything unless you’re talking about what the words were actually intended to mean. This is why context is so important; without it, there’s nothing to discuss.
A great reference for looking up the context of any given verse is our network site BibleRef.com. They are working hard to provide a commentary on every verse of the Bible!
The Bible was not meant to be read in single fragments—like a fortune cookie. The whole Bible is a complete picture of what God wants to tell us, so we must always study with context in mind. This means knowing what’s happening “around” a verse or a passage. You may need to read the verses around the one in question, the whole section or chapter, or sometimes even the chapters before and after. Unless you know WHO was speaking and TO WHOM; WHAT was said before and after; WHERE they were talking; and the current circumstances of those involved, you can’t even pretend to know what they really mean. When we take Bible verses out of context, even accidentally, we wind up making the Bible say things it was never meant to.
Jeff is a staff writer with Got Questions Ministries and used to be a mechanical engineer. When he's not accidentally setting things on fire in his workshop, or petting strange dogs, he loves helping people better understand God’s Word and how it applies to our lives. Jeff's calling is to untangle the "big picture" of Christian faith, making it easier to understand.