As 2024 draws near, you may be thinking about New Year’s resolutions. How about renewing your commitment to read and study God’s Word? And as you study it, let me offer a tip on how to correctly understand what you read.
Many use the Bible to prove preconceived ideas, looking for verses that show the way they see things is right. Or they hear an inspirational passage and draw inaccurate conclusions.
Take, for example, Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse is often quoted on posters and bumper stickers as a rallying cry to accomplish great things like running a marathon or winning the championship. However, Paul wrote this short statement as part of a commentary on contentment. Reading the whole context makes it clear he was telling the Philippians God had taught him to be content in times of plenty and in times of desperation. Remember, Paul wrote this letter from prison.
Understanding context begins with four principles: (1) literal meaning, (2) historical setting (what was happening when it was written, to whom was it addressed, and how it was understood at that time), (3) grammar, and (4) synthesis (comparing it with other parts of Scripture).
Taking phrases and verses out of context leads to error. For instance, taking the phrase, “God is love” (from 1 John 4:7-16), out of context, we might decide God loves everyone with a romantic love. But in its grammatical and literal context, John is referring to agape love (sacrifice for the benefit of another). The historical context is also vital, because he was writing to believers in the first century church and instructing them not on God’s love, but on how to tell true believers from false Christians. Agape love is the mark of a true believer (v. 7), those who don’t love don’t belong to God (v. 8), God loved us before we loved him (vv. 9-10), and all of this is why we should love one another and thereby prove we are his (v. 11-12).
Also, considering the phrase “God is love” in the context of all of Scripture (synthesis) will keep us from coming to the false conclusion that God is only love or that his love is greater than his other attributes, which is not right. We know from many other passages that God is also holy, trustworthy, graceful, merciful, kind, compassionate, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and many other things. We also know from other passages that God not only loves, but he also hates certain things.
The Bible is the “God-breathed” Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16), and we are commanded to read, study, and understand it. Our study is enhanced by carefully looking at context because it’s easy to come to wrong conclusions by taking verses out of context.
Make a resolution to read the Bible, and to read it in context.