How to Study the Context of a Passage | Bible Study Blueprint

How to Study the Context of a Passage

Introduction

Welcome to our 3rd post in our series entitled the 7 Rules of Bible Interpretation EVERY Christian Should Know.

In this post I want to introduce you to Technique #3 – Context, Context, Context. Our goal in this step is to study the paragraphs that surround our passage of study in order to 1) better understand its meaning or 2) to add depth to it.

Better Understanding of the Meaning

Take for example the following verse:

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13)

This is a favorite verse that has been applied to everything from passing a test, to moving overseas, to testing the limits of one’s endurance in a marathon.

But is this verse a blanket promise of divine strength for any situation?

Well, maybe, but not likely.

In its context, Paul here is speaking about being content regardless of his circumstances.

Whether he is in need or is hungry or whether he is living in prosperity and has an enough to be filled, “he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him” (Phil 4:10-13). Contentment comes from knowing Christ, not from having or not having riches or food.

That is the gist of what this verse is saying.  In this case, reading the context helped us to better understand the meaning of the verse.

Adding Depth to a Passage

At the same time, reading the surrounding context helps you to clarify and add depth to any passage.

Here, it is best to illustrate this point with an example using Matthew 18:15-20.  You may find it useful to open your Bible to that section:

Matthew 18:50-20 describes a process of reconciliation when one person has offended another.  The process begins with a one-on-one confrontation which can eventually be escalated to involve the entire faith community.  As a last resort, the process calls for radical measures if the person refuses to own up to their offense.

Context of Matthew 18:15-20

But notice what happens when we study Matthew 18:15-20 using Technique #3 – Context, Context, Context. What does the surrounding context add to the meaning?

  • 18:12-14 – Parable of the lost sheep – We must go after those who stray from the flock with a relentless compassion
  • 18:15-20 – Process of reconciliation between two people
  • 18:21-35 – Parable of the unmerciful servant – We must be radical in our forgiveness toward others just as God has been radical in his forgiveness towards us

You don’t need to be a seminary professor to see that with a careful glance to the surrounding context, our initial passage is greatly enhanced.

Is it possible that the lost sheep is the erring brother / sister in the reconciliation process that follows?  Perhaps.  And the parable of the lost sheep tells us that our goal when confronting another brother is restoration not judgment.

Furthermore, the passages that follow our reconciliation process speak to the type of divine forgiveness we should extend to that erring brother / sister.

In this way, a look at the context of a passage helps to clarify and add depth to what we are studying.

How Do You Study “The Context?”

Using this Technique #3 is a fairly straightforward process.

When you sit down to study a verse or passage, pay careful attention to the paragraphs that come before and the paragraphs that come after your passage.

Ask yourself the following questions.

  1. Do these paragraphs add any clarity, understanding or meaning to my passage?
  2. Do these paragraphs enhance or provide more details for my passage?

It’s really not much more complicated than that.  How far back and how far forward you go depends on how much useful information you are getting from the surrounding context.

Example of Technique #3 – Context, Context, Context

As an example of using this rule, let’s take 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, which we looked at previously.  This passage describes Jesus’ second coming and the resurrection of those who have died in Christ upon that return.

The verses that directly precede this passage speak to three issues: 1) avoid sexual immorality; 2) love one another 3) work with your own hands (1 Thess 4:1-12).

The verses immediately following this passage tell us about the timing of Christ’s second coming.  No one knows the hour or day, therefore we should always stay spiritually sober so we don’t miss it (1 Thess 5:1-11).

Based on this quick use of Rule #3, Context, Context, Context, we could make the following observations:

  1. Jesus is coming back at some point and those who have died in Christ will be resurrected when that happens.
  2. While we wait for Christ’s return we should lead exemplary lives, both in our moral character and in our love for our Christian brothers and sisters.
  3. Since we don’t know when Christ will return, we should stay spiritually vigilant and awake so that we are not taken by surprise at his return.

As you can see, Technique #3, Context, Context, Context allows us to clarify and add many details to our passage of study.

Conclusion

In this section, we have explained how to use Technique #3, Context, Context, Context and the way it opens up any passage of study for further insights.

The process of applying this tool is more common sense than sophistication.  The key is to closely read the passages which surround your text to see how they can add clarity, meaning or richness to the message of that text.

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