Where do you start when you want to understand a verse, passage, or chapter of the Bible?
There are a lot of things you could do to help you understand it. But the most important tool—other than prayer—comes before all of those.
That tool is context.
The Importance of Context
My mom once said that every verse you study lives in an environment. If you were going to study an animal—say, a species of butterfly—what would you do? Would you just dissect the butterfly in a lab? Or would you go find somewhere with flowers and watch the butterflies in their natural habitat?
Unfortunately, sometimes we treat the Bible like that butterfly in the lab. We look at just one verse here and one verse there, but we don’t look at the “environment” surrounding the verse.
That environment is context.
Context is literally “what goes with the text.” The chapter a verse is in is that verse’s context. So is the book that chapter is in. So is what was going on in the world when that verse was written.
If we don’t understand the context, we can’t interpret a passage correctly. Imagine reading this verse without knowing it was God’s command to the ancient Israelites at the time of the Exodus:
“But every woman shall ask of her neighbor and the woman who lives in her house, articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and you will put them on your sons and daughters. Thus you will plunder the Egyptians.” (Exodus 3:22)
If we read that verse without knowing the context, we might think that all of us girls should go over to our neighbors’ houses and demand they hand over their jewelry!
Learning the context of what you’re studying may take a little work. But it’s crucial to understanding God’s word. And in case you were wondering, it’s not as complicated as it sounds!
Here are the three different kinds of context, and how we can study them.
1. Biblical Context
If you’re studying a verse or a passage, the first thing to do is read the rest of the chapter. In our example above, a lot of confusion could have been avoided just by reading the chapter and understanding that God was giving Moses instructions for the ancient Israelites as they prepared to leave Egypt. Even iconic verses should be read in light of their surrounding context—you might be surprised what you learn about them!
In a larger sense, the book that your verse or chapter is in is also its context. If you’re studying the whole chapter, it’s worth it to read the entire book at least once. If you don’t have time to do that, then learn what you can about the book (resources like The Bible Project are helpful for this).
Ultimately, the entire Bible is context. A professor I know says the different books of the Bible are like scenes in a play. The Bible is one overarching story, and you can’t understand one part of it without understanding how that part fits into the overall story.
Reading through the whole Bible takes time. But it’s worth it to make a habit of seeing the big picture and learning how the different parts fit together to make one overarching narrative.
2. Historical Context
Historical context is the time period in which the book was written and what was going on in the world at that time.
We would interpret Exodus much differently than we would interpret one of the gospels, because the history surrounding it is completely different. With books like the prophets, it’s helpful to see where they fall in Israel’s history and which king the prophet served. In the gospels, understanding certain historical events (for instance, the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD) can help us understand certain statements of Jesus (like His declaration that “not one stone would remain upon another” of the temple in Matthew 24:2).
If you’re getting a little worried at this point, don’t be alarmed – you don’t need to take a history class to understand the context! There’s a plethora of resources you can use to gain a basic understanding.
First, do everything you can to understand the historical context from the book itself. Does it give dates, numbers of years, or names of kings who reigned then?
Then, look up the introduction to the book you’re studying in a commentary; there’s often historical information there. Another option is to go to a website like blueletterbible.org and type a key word into the search bar. The “Dictionaries” tab under the results will give you several Bible dictionaries that can shed light on the subject.
3. Cultural Context
Understanding the culture of biblical societies can give you a lot of insight into certain events or instructions. For instance, knowing a little bit about Egyptian religion reveals what it means when God says He will “execute judgment upon the gods of Egypt”. If we understand the religious culture of Jesus’ day – with its legalistic Pharisees and their rivals, the Sadducees – we’ll also understand more of Jesus’ interactions with the Jewish religious leaders. Even knowing something about the culture of cities like Corinth, Colossae, Ephesus, or Philippi can shed light on Paul’s words to the believers there.
Like historical context, the best place to find information about cultural context is often a Bible dictionary. Search a key word (whether it’s “Egypt,” “Philippi,” or “Sadducees”) and you should be able to learn more about the culture that influenced the events and would have colored a contemporary reader’s understanding of the writing.
Studying context takes time and effort. But it is more than worth it to understand the words of the Bible as they were meant to be understood.