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Understanding The Bible In Context

Here's an important Bible study word defined:

Context -

  1. The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.
  2. The circumstances in which an event occurs; a setting.

context. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved August 19, 2009, from website:

Every text has a context. The same is true of the Bible. Making sure you contextualize (or grasp the context of a portion of text) is a very important step in Bible study. It can be extremely difficult to understand any text without a knowledge of the context.

If 1,000 years from now someone were to pick up a copy of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal dated January 1, 1995, they would have a really hard time understanding what they're reading. Why? Because no matter what text a person reads, they need to know the context in which is was originally written.

There Is No Text Without Context

Context is often overlooked or totally ignored when people read the Bible. That is part of the reason why so many people misunderstand the Scriptures. Let me give you a few examples to help you understand more about the context of a text.

The third book of the Hebrew Scriptures, a.k.a. the Old Testament, is called Leviticus. Now, many people read Leviticus and have a very difficult time understanding how it should be understood. There are a few reasons why it's difficult. One reason is because people do not take into account the fact that Leviticus is titled such because it is a manuscript written to the Levites. Leviticus was written for (or to) the Levites, whom God had appointed as priests to serve in the tabernacle among the tribes of Israel after their exodus (exit) from Egypt as they journeyed to their promised homeland. Everything that is written in Leviticus is specific to those people, in that place, at that time, as part of that "Old" covenant that the LORD established with the nation of Israel before they settled in the land of Canaan.

Everything written in Leviticus is specifically written to the Levites for the tribal community of Israel. Did you know that? Most people don't. Most people that read Leviticus, try to understand it as though it is God's specific instruction to them right now. This can lead to some confusion. Let's be clear. God is not the author of confusion. Read each book in it's proper context first, then after you have a good understanding you can identify practical and/or spiritual applications to be applied today .

Lesson 1 - Learning the meaning of the book title is a part of knowing the context.

The first book of the Greek New Testament, a.k.a. the New Testament, is called Matthew and the third book is called Luke. Matthew is also known as the Gospel of Matthew and Luke is also known as the Gospel of Luke. Both Gospels were accounts of Jesus' life and the message of good news about the kingdom of God. Let's use the geneology of Jesus as a focus. Both books list a geneological record. The geneologies are not the same. Now, most people see the difference and pass over it without understanding why they are different. Bible critics or skeptics might be quick to assume that this is a Bible contradiction. This is an unfortunate reality.

Neither the average person nor the skeptic take the time to find out why the geneologies are different. If they did, they would learn that Matthew was written for a predominantly Jewish audience and therefore, Matthew lists Jesus' geneology in light of His lineage through the line of King David. Matthew wrote his gospel in such a way as to reveal (through Old Testament prophecy) the true identity of the promised Messiah, in Jesus of Nazareth. Luke, on the other hand, wrote to a mixed, Jewish & Gentile, audience and was more concerned with the legal paternal lineage. Luke's gospel was written to proclaim Jesus, to both Jews and Gentiles, as the Son of God. Both geneologies are correct. They do not contradict; they are different.

To further understand why the geneologies are different, I recommend studying a little bit about ancient Jewish laws and customs regarding historical record keeping. The Jews took geneologies very seriously and had a number of system that they used to preserve and pass down their heritage and history as a people. Understanding these kind of facts helps us learn today how to better understand the Bible.

Lesson 2 - Learning about the author is a part of knowing the context.

Lesson 3 - Learning about the author's intended purpose is a part of knowing the context.

Lesson 4 - Learning about the intended audience is a part of knowing the context.

Lesson 5 - Learning about the writing style is a part of knowing the context.

Lesson 6 - Learning about the culture and customs of the author and intended audience is a part of knowing the context.

Lesson 7 - Learning about the history related to the text is a part of knowing the context.

Without understand some of these key items of information it can difficult to understand anything we read. How much more when it comes to the Bible?

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