How to Read the Bible in Context and Stay on Track
It is common to hear admonishments to read the Bible and interpret it in context; that is, that we ought to avoid detaching a particular verse, story, or portion of Scripture from the immediate and original context in which it was written. An accurate meaning of words, verses, and stories may be found only as understood in context.
For example, “He hit a home run,” may mean different things depending on whether it was written in the context of a business presentation or a baseball game. “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” has meaning in light of its Matthew 2 and Hosea 11 contexts. On the other hand, in Exodus God identifies Israel, while they were enslaved in Egypt, as his firstborn son (Exod. 4:22). In each place there is the immediate context, but there is a broader context—the context of the entire revelation of God contained in the Bible. There are different human authors (i.e. Moses, Hosea, and Matthew), yet there is one divine author—God himself. There is an immediate context, and there is an overall biblical context—the overarching story of God’s mighty acts of redemption in Christ Jesus.
Though we may be tempted at times to overemphasize the human author over the divine author, or the divine over the human, it is important to understand both together as we strive to accurately understand the word of God. Questions include, how are the two writers related to one another? How do they work together in Scripture? Is the Bible a human book, written merely by human authors, or is it a divine book supernaturally dictated to men of old? The answers are found in Scripture itself, which reveals that the Word of God was written by both humans and a divine author—every word is simultaneously human and divine.
Let’s consider 2 Peter 1:21 concerning the nature of prophecy:
For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
The word of God in the Bible comes to us through human writers. We find the humanity of the writers in variations of vocabulary, idioms, structure, and style. For example, there is the difference between the exquisite Hebrew poetry and varied vocabulary of Isaiah and the straight-forward narrative of Joshua. Similarly, in the New Testament there is the difference between the complex and elegant Greek of Hebrews and John’s more elementary Greek. We can detect the presence of the human authors throughout all of Scripture.
On the other hand, and at the risk of sounding obvious, we ought not neglect the divine author, God himself. Here, the incarnation of the Son of God in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh (John 1:14), is a helpful analogy for understanding the human and divine together as one. As Christ Jesus is indivisibly and inseparably divine and human, so Scripture is harmoniously divine and human. Each human author, as inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16), had his particular context, but it came within the overarching context of the divine author, God himself. What are we to make of this when reading Scripture? How are we to do justice to the context provided by both authors?
Context: Immediate and Canonical
It is important to recognize the presence of both writers without overemphasizing one over the other. The Bible is the word of God that was first spoken by God and then written down by his chosen human authors. The prophets were commissioned in the midst of God’s council to receive God’s word (see Isa. 6:1-5; Jer. 23:18, 22) and then to declare it to God’s people. God spoke to Moses, who then wrote it down. Writing in the circumstances and the idiom of their time and place (context), the prophets communicated the word of God. Yet through these men, God was telling his story—his mighty acts of creation and redemption, his overarching context and story, and the “big picture” of the entire canon of Scripture.
Consider how Scripture begins and ends with creation—the old creation described in Genesis 1 and 2 and the coming of the new creation, the new heavens and earth, described in Revelation 21. These bookends serve to frame the creation motif of Scripture (see Isa. 47:13; 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13). We even find ourselves in God’s creation story—his context: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Likewise, it is a story of redemption from a fallen creation with fallen humans to a new heavens and earth with redeemed humans. The context? Our salvation in Christ Jesus. Here we also find the central theme of Scripture—the central overarching context. But isn’t Christ Jesus found only in the New Testament? What about Old Testament stories and prophecies? Don’t they have their own context apart from Christ? Not entirely.
Christ in All Scripture
When we read Old Testament prophecies, surely they can be difficult to understand at times (e.g. dreams, visions, and riddles, Num. 12:6-8). Even angels were not aware of all things the prophets wrote about Jesus (1 Pet. 1:10-12). Jesus similarly alluded to the difficulty in understanding how the Old Testament Scriptures pointed to him (John 5:46; Luke 24:27), yet he ascribed the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies to himself (Luke 4:16-21). Of course, we want to recognize the immediate context of the human prophetic and narrative writers, while we also recognize the divine author, the Holy Spirit, who unifies the entire message of Scripture. The unity is the gospel message of redemption we have through our Lord Jesus Christ, the suffering servant (Isa. 53, Matt. 8:17, John 12:38, Rom. 10:16, 1 Pet. 2:24, etc.) who lived, died, and was resurrected according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3, 4), and who poured out his Spirit to us at Pentecost (fulfilling Joel’s prophecy, Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:16-18).
God’s eternal truth, all his promises, find their yes in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20). This is the central message of Scripture—the promise of redemption, of new creation, of the love of God poured out in the promise, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord.
Therefore, remembering that Scripture is the word of God, which he has spoken and which has been written down by humans and inspired by the Holy Spirit, we read his word considering both the immediate context of the human writers and the unifying context of the divine author. This is not an either/or argument but is both/and—human and divine. It is God’s word—his divine revelation to us and received by us through his instrument of human writers.
Recommended: Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God's Story by Michael Horton
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