Context is important. If you hear a woman screaming in the hospital, it makes all the difference whether she is in an oncology unit or Labor and Delivery. Failure to consider context in that moment will inevitably lead to a misinterpretation of reality. Both are screams of pain, but one is of death and the other of life.
Likewise, we need to consider context every time we pick up our Bible. Correct interpretation of truth is at stake. Is this your approach to the Bible?
When you use the encyclopedia you simply turn to the entry you are interested in, say “Asparagus.” The fact that the entry before “Asparagus” was on “Asps” (cobras) and the one after it was on “Aspartame” (an artificial sweetener) is irrelevant. In fact, you don’t even look at them, unless you get bored with reading about asparagus.
Imagine reading a novel in the same way: you open the book up halfway through, and read the third paragraph down. Try it if you like. We can guarantee it won’t make much sense. You don’t know who the characters are or how the plot is unfolding; you have no idea what is going on. That is why we read a novel from beginning to end.
(HT: Unashamed Workman)
The Bible isn’t exactly like a novel. But it is much more like a novel than an encyclopedia. If we are to interpret the Bible accurately, we will need to understand the difference. Being aware of the context surrounding the verse(s) under consideration will often make or break our interpretation.
So the next time you pick up God’s word, remember. Remember that the text you are reading is part of a larger section (almost always); that section is contributing to an overarching point being made in the book (e.g., all the sections of Mark’s Gospel are telling the good news of Jesus as “the Son of God” [1:1]); and that book is located somewhere in the grand biblical storyline of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation.
Sometimes you can grasp the context with little effort. Other times further reading and reflection will be required. At all times the effort is necessary.
Understanding the verse(s) you are reading within the context of the entire Bible won’t make you an infallible interpreter, but it will make you a better one.