There are many different contextual aspects to the Bible — all of which are valuable to its readers. But what does reading in this context look like?
It looks like reading the Bible as a complete, cohesive piece that tells a complete, cohesive story.
It looks like uncompromised truth, sticking to the original authors’ intended meanings.
It looks like reading with integrity, by considering the historical and literary implications of any given passage.
And it looks like using the Bible, in context, to understand the Bible — knowing it can never contradict itself.
To read the Bible outside of this context leaves great insight on the table, and can even lead to some troubling, even dangerous, misunderstandings.
So, here are five important reasons why every Christian needs to read their Bibles in context.
Why Reading the Bible in Context Is Important
1. The nature of Scripture requires context. More so than any other book, what we see in the scriptures are texts that are multifaceted, with numerous contextual veins running throughout. Each like a thread that weaves the bigger picture together. Without which, the great tapestry just unravels into a tangled mess.
First, we have the Bible as God’s Word, and as God’s story. This can be considered the top umbrella of all context, under which all other contexts dwell — that the scriptures help us know all we need to know about God.
In this context, the Scriptures glorify Him, from beginning to end. Something the reader should never lose sight of. Woven into God’s story, sits the glorious thread of redemption. And it is here we zoom in on Jesus Christ, who says,
“You study the (Old Testament) Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39).
Reading the Bible in this context increases the foundation of our faith as we’re able to understand who Jesus is, as seen in both the Old and New Testaments. And this is where we grasp why He had to come, from the very gospel that appears, over and over again, throughout the tapestry of Scripture.
Simultaneously, we can recognize the weaving thread of human experience. Because what we have in the Bible is God — as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, revealing Himself to people.
As a result, the Bible is a composition of various documents and eyewitness recordings, written at different times, for different reasons, all under the overarching themes mentioned above.
This is important to recognize because it means that each book of the Bible has its own historic and literary context to consider, within the greater context.
So, what we end up with are these contextual angles that highlight the innumerable nuances of God’s Word, reading the Bible as it was intended and purposed — to know God, His son, Jesus, and the gospel that saves (Romans 8:28).
It is from this understanding and context that the harder passages become clearer and where the Word becomes alive (Hebrews 4:12), actively at work in us (1 Thessalonians 2:13), and for our own benefit.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
How else are we to know what verses are meant to teach, or rebuke, or train for righteousness, if not for context?
2. The nature of man requires context. Furthermore, as much as the scriptures are God-breathed and focused, it is the very nature of man to be self-centered and me-focused.
Because of this, we are naturally inclined to read ourselves into any given text, through the lens of personal experience, culture, and understanding (words and ideas).
It is by reading the Bible in context we are less apt to read ourselves into the texts where, instead, a proper perspective is needed to pull intended meanings out of the text.
A vital approach to keeping what are descriptive accounts, descriptive, instead of viewing everything as prescriptive when it is inappropriate to do so.
Needless to say, this idea goes against our very nature and is complicated by the fact our perspectives are so far removed from biblical times.
But it is when this practice of reading in context is dismissed, that all sorts of misunderstanding and unintended ideas are inevitably brought to the text.
3. Context is important for proper interpretation. Interpretation is something we all do, without even thinking about it (mostly in the way described above).
However, as we recognize the nature of the Bible and the nature of ourselves as we read the Bible, we can better appreciate the contexts that help us interpret and understand.
Particularly important is the idea that the Bible can never rightly mean to us what it never even meant to the original author and audience.
Ultimately, it is reading the Bible in context that prevents us from taking verses and giving them meanings they were never intended to have.
Look to Jeremiah 29:11, for example, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” This verse is a popular one that is often removed from its context and used to promise personal prosperity and good fortune. Because that’s exactly what it says!
However, within its context, this would be an inaccurate interpretation and misunderstanding. The surrounding paragraphs actually tell us, quite clearly, that God was speaking to a specific group of people (the Israelites), at a specific time (in exile), and for a specific purpose (that they would obey and be redeemed).
This means that, contrary to popular belief, it is not a verse that speaks directly to the modern-day Christian.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of scriptures being misused apart from their context. An all too common practice that has led to many misunderstandings, misapplications, and straight-up incorrect ideas about God.
4. Context helps us rightly handle the Word of God. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
This is a command given to church leader Timothy by the Apostle Paul but is one that we all should pay attention to.
Because reading the Bible out of context, by reading ourselves into the text or giving meanings that simply aren’t true, ultimately goes against how the Bible tells us its contents are to be handled.
Elsewhere, we see that a proper and expected handling of the scriptures is confirmed by attitudes held towards those who are twisting the scriptures. They’re described as ignorant and unstable. (2 Peter 3:16, ESV).
At the same time, we see the early Christians being told, over and over, to hold fast to what they had been taught, what they have read, and what they have heard. All things preserved for us in the Bible, we are to do as well (2 Thessalonians 2:15; Titus 1:9; 2 Timothy 1:13; Revelation 3:3).
It would behoove us all, to make sure we aren’t holding onto an idea that context shows us isn’t biblical in the first place.
5. Wolves don’t use context. Finally, reading the Bible in context is an important discernment tool for Christians. Note Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:15-16,
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.”
Along these lines, it can be said, not every Scripture twister who ignores context is a wolf, but every wolf is a Scripture twister who ignores context.
Because the Bible also tells us, many, many times, that there will be false teachers among us, who secretly introduce destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1). Whose purposes are to scratch the itching ears of those who are self-seeking, not interested in God’s truth (2 Timothy 4:3).
So, we protect ourselves from falling into the hands of these false teachers, with their bad habits and bad theology, by reading the Bible, in context. And by learning from those who interpret with integrity, themselves.
In the End, Context Matters
To read the Bible out of context is to open ourselves up to a load of trouble. Particularly to misinterpretation, misrepresentation, and misapplication.
If you don’t already, start asking the who, what, when, where, why, questions, and read the Bible from front to back, in a trusted translation. Doing so will transform your literacy of the Bible and understanding of God as you gain a deeper reverence for His Word and His truth.
So, we read, we read often, and we read in context.
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Amy Swanson resides in Connecticut where she has recently discovered a passion for Bible study and writing. By God's continued grace, she now enjoys helping others better understand their Bibles, while also being an advocate for biblical church integrity. As a mother of three and a wife of 13 years, she blogs less than she'd like to but shares Scriptural insights, encouraging truth, resources, and musings on her FB page.