Context Matters

I’m working my way through Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and I’m struck by how he uses Scripture. Anyone can work Scripture, and communicators are masters at it. It is easy to throw a quote around and make the Bible say what you want it to say.

What is important to remember when reading the Bible, a book on theology or listening to a sermon is that all Scripture was written by someone. It was written to a person, to a group of people, maybe a church. It was written during a specific time, in a specific place with a specific point. The book of Genesis was written by Moses with a specific audience in mind to make a specific point. This is why the list of names and genealogies are there. They matter. They are not just taking up space.

The letters of Paul and Peter in the New Testament are written from a place, to a place in a specific culture to make a specific point.

A great example of this is the book fo Hebrews 10:25 where the writer says, “Let us not neglect meeting together.” I have always heard pastors use this to say, “Be at church.” Yet, the writer of Hebrews was writing to a group of persecuted believers who were being arrested and killed for their faith. The writer is telling them, “Don’t go underground. Don’t have fear.” Do you see how context changes things?

When you read a passage, here are important questions to ask:

  • Who wrote it? Where was this person? Are they in prison? Think about 2 Timothy where Paul writes at the end of his life from prison, not knowing if he will get out and he says, “I’ve run the race. I’ve kept the faith.” Imagine the power of those words in that setting.
  • Who is it written to? Where are they? What is happening in that place?
  • How does this fit with other Scriptures? The Bible does not contradict itself, it flows together and Scripture must be weighed with other Scripture.

This is one of the reasons I love preaching through books of the Bible. It helps to get the context. When I preached through Hebrews, chapter 11 and 12 took on a new meaning for me because of the first 10 chapters of that book. Right now, preaching through James, what James says about faith and works and how they play and why they matter makes all the difference because of the context.