The Expository Files.

 Context: Just A Couple Of Points

Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary says that context is "the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light upon its meaning." At the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Web Site, the etymology is given: "Middle English, weaving together of words, from Latin contextus connection of words, coherence, from contexere to weave together, from con + texere 'to weave,'" ((c) 1996 by Merriam-Webster, Incorporated).

When I teach a class on how to study the Bible, I identify at least six different kinds of context:

  1. The Immediate-Literary context: the words, phrases and information that surround the passage.

  2. The Historical context: this is the time factor, the dispensation and events that have some bearing on the passage.

  3. The Cultural context: there are certain words, expressions and sayings that are best understood in their cultural context. Many statements in the New Testament have a Jewish cultural context.

  4. The Geographic context: this brings into your study any pertinent geographic facts.

  5. The Remote context: all other Bible passages that have some bearing on the verse or passage.

  6. The Personal context: the people mentioned in the context.

The attention we give to context simply means, we intend to bring into our study of a single verse or passage everything in the Bible that can help us, whether on that page, in that book or wherever there is anything connected with the matter at hand. I hope we do not just take for granted that we all understand the elementary principles of context. Perhaps we need to be reminded of a couple of things:

Context means much more than proximity on the page.
Certainly we must attend to all the surrounding information; the verses before and after the verse we have in focus. But the fact that something is on the same page with something else, doesn't always mean there is some definitive connection crucial to interpretation.

Example - James 1:26,27 is concerned with the individual action of Christians who are not forgetful hearers but doers of the work. We have pointed out, there is nothing in the passage or context suggestive of any collective pooling of resources or institutional involvement. I once heard this argument: Jas. 2:3 says, "if there should come into your assembly." That implies a local church. Therefore, the duties in Jas. 1:26,27 involve collective action. The man who made this argument had a testament that was so arranged, Jas. 1:26,27 was on the same page with Jas. 2:3. He believed this was an argument from context.

Consideration of the context of a passage should certainly give attention to any and all surrounding information. But the fact that one thing is near to another on the page does not necessarily constitute any kind of argument.

In the name of respecting context, some seem willing to eventually consign the entire New Testament into the first century, and leave it there.
We have often heard preachers explain that when we read the New Testament, we are "reading somebody else's mail." Or, perhaps you have heard someone say that the New Testament was written for us, but not to us. Certainly, Paul wrote to the church at Rome, Corinth and Ephesus; and John wrote to the seven churches of Asia. Most of us have never been to Rome, Greece or Asia and none of us were in those churches in the first century. Yes, we are reading their mail. There were original recipients. But I think we are doing more than just reading somebody's mail. The illustration seems to me to be lacking.

All through the New Testament there are direct statements which make it exceedingly clear that the contents is intended for a larger audience than the original recipients.

Acts 2:38-39:
"Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call'."

It cannot be argued, therefore, that "repent and be baptized" applied only to those who stood before Peter on that day. The promise was extended to those people and was intended for their children and "as many as the Lord our God will call." If I read somebody else's mail, it is unlikely I will find a statement indicating that I am included. Here, I know I am included in the promise and therefore the conditions upon which the promise is predicated. No contextual argument can be made to limit repentance and baptism to that audience!

Matt. 19:9:
"And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery."

All kinds of effort has been exerted to find some way to limit and/or dismiss what the Lord said in this verse. Some of these theories sail under the banner of a contextual argument. It is admitted, Jesus said this before the day of Pentecost; and that He said this to the Pharisees who came to test Him. Yet there is a single word in His statement that extends this law far beyond that immediate audience: "whosoever!" No argument based on context changes or minimizes the impact of the word: whosoever!

1 Cor. 5:
Another so-called "contextual argument" is made almost every time the instructions in first Corinthians five are followed. There are two people living in an unlawful, adulterous relationship. After repeated appeals, they refuse to repent (abandon their unlawful association together). The time comes for the brethren to withdraw from them, and someone will complain that this passage only applies to a man who "has his father's wife." I'm waiting for someone to take that "contextual argument" further and assert that the passage only applies to a man who "has his father's wife" in Corinth! When these arguments are made, the issue is not context but compromise. The problem is, somebody does not want to do what the Lord said.

Do you think Paul gave the withdrawal instructions just for a man with "his father's wife?" Was this a measure Paul commanded just for the first century church at Corinth? Will we relegate this chapter, the whole epistle and the New Testament to the first century, in the name of context?

Verse 9 says Paul had written to them "not to keep company with sexually immoral people." So the instructions pertain to all sexually immoral people; not just incest. But withdrawal is also necessary for impenitent idolaters, revilers, drunkards and extortioners (see verse 11). The specific case at hand in Corinth was incest, but Paul applied the withdrawal mandate to all sexually immoral people as well as those specified in verse 11.

One purpose served by withdrawal is, PURGING (see verses 6-8). Was this needed only in the church at Corinth? Does context limit the withdrawal to incest IN CORINTH? No sophisticated contextual argument can be used to limit the required discipline.

Before we assert a "contextual argument" we need to objectively and fairly think through what we are about to teach. I'm afraid sometimes, when we really want to believe something - we just assert it boldly and then try to dig up something in the "context" in support of what we want to believe, connected or not. We all know that's a misuse of God's Word. Shame.

By Warren E. Berkley  
The Front Page
From Expository Files 4.7; July 1997