Baptist would not fit in well with the custom made suit industry. In
addition to his general appearance, he seemed to have little concern for the
need of a tailor-made single person fit: “He that hath two coats, let him
give to him that has none.” Horrors.
Yet as anyone
knows who has benefited from hand-me-downs or second hand shops, a good coat
that once warmed person A can generally keep person B just as warm. There
are some obvious exceptions; attention should be paid to whether you’re
shopping in the boys section or the girls section, and a coat from Goliath
is clearly not going to fit Zacchaeus.
So it is with
texts and contexts. Some texts are obviously one-size-fits-all, like the two
Some texts fit one context, but not another; “Israel… remember that you
were a slave in the land of Egypt … therefore the Lord your God commanded
you to keep the Sabbath”
(Dt 5; but cf. Col. 2.17).
Some texts appear in a specific context, but certainly fit elsewhere just as
well. When Paul warned the Corinthians that “bad companions corrupt good
morals,” the context was an anti-resurrection influence; yet the
applications fit far beyond that. Indeed, this simple statement of truth was
already borrowed when Paul employed it here (it was a well known maxim among
please, some common mistakes regarding text & context.
Ignorance of Context
A man walks
into the middle of a conversation. Everyone else understands what’s being
said, while the man coming in partway is confused. People get confused by
the Bible in the same way. Reading random verses from the middle of Romans
or Hebrews will not give good Bible knowledge just as sampling random
sentences from a stack of history books would not give good history. Context
helps the text make sense.
Misapplication of Context
steps up to a conversation, hears a name, and jumps to a premature
conclusion. He thinks he understands, but may discover he does not after
offering congratulations or condolences to the wrong person. Likewise with
the biblical texts, when attention is not paid to context people jump to
flawed conclusions and end up misinterpreting the text. Consider some
“If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself
shall be saved”
referring to a man walking in sinful works, but being saved regardless (in
contradiction to ch. 6.10,11)? Read and see the context to be the
construction of the Corinthian church, with Paul, Apollos and others being
and the Corinthian converts being the work
with some converts enduring like gold, and others being burned up like
to the reward, or loss, of the worker in the gospel
(cf. Php. 2.16).
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my way your ways”
have biblical texts that focus on the omniscience of God (Job 38ff, etc.).
But is that the point of this particular text?
In this text, is the point: you are not expected to be all knowing as God is
(cf. Dt. 29.29)?
Or is the point: you are expected to stop being carnally minded and become
Let the context tell you: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the
unrighteous man his thoughts… For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither
are your ways my ways”
(Isa. 55.7-8; cf. Php.2.5).
Textual dismissal by contextual strait-jacketing
context is good Bible study. Abusing context to the point of hindering the
text is not. Perhaps you’ve heard some of these:
is not applicable to us since it was addressed to Jews in Jerusalem.
2 Thess. 3:6ff
applicable beyond busybodies that won’t work. None of the instructions in 1
Cor.14 apply today, since the context is spiritual gifts.
ought not to be
read before collection since the context was a special collection for needy
Yes, Acts 2 was
addressed to Jews, but doesn’t it apply to those afar off (v.39)?. Yes, 2
Thess. addressed a particular problem, but is discipline limited to lazy
gossips (cf. 1Cor.5)? Yes, the context of 1 Cor. 14 is spiritual gifts
(ch.12 and 13 as well). Does that negate the teachings on love, edification,
maturity, gender roles, or decency and order? Yes, the instructions of
giving in 1 & 2 Cor. related to benevolence. But for other works of the
church, ought we to abandon them in favor of giving grudgingly, in assigned
amounts, regardless of income, every time the doors are open? Or ought we to
let the biblical principles, precepts and precedents be applied to more than
just the details of their first application?
the original contexts, but let’s also not leave the word in the first
century. The word is living and active, and needs to be brought into our
contexts too. As the old saying goes: if the shoe fits, wear it.
Hypocrites in the Church
It Can't be Done
The Widow's Mites
A Mixed Up World
Why No Instruments of Music?
Seven Faces of
A Matter of Choice
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