Double the Trouble if You Ignore the Context

Never read a Bible verse. Never try to determine the meaning of a biblical text without reading its context. Always read a paragraph before and after. Even better, read the whole chapter or entire biblical book.

You’ve probably heard us at Stand to Reason say this in the past. It’s our way of reminding people to always read Scripture in context. If you don’t, this can create two related problems.

First, when you ignore the context, you don’t know what the author is talking about. That’s a serious liability to figuring out what the verse in question means. That’s because context—more than anything—determines the meaning of the text you’re reading.

Some people think that knowing the original language is the most important element in interpretation. Although knowing Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic can be helpful, it doesn’t tell you everything. The Greek language might tell you the possible options for the meaning of a New Testament word. The context, though, will tell you which of those options is being used in the passage.

When you ignore the context, then, you are ignoring the information the author is giving you to tell you what he’s talking about. If you don’t know what he’s talking about, then it’s possible to misunderstand what he means. If you misunderstand the author’s intended meaning, then you’re misunderstanding what God is trying to tell you.

Second, when you ignore the context, you are more likely to create new context from your life situation. When you don’t read the text before and after a verse, you create a context vacuum that you are tempted to fill with your own life circumstances. Since context determines the meaning of the smaller unit of text, your own life situation becomes the new context that changes the meaning of the verse.

For example, many people read or cite Matthew 18:20 out of context. They’ll be in a small group Bible study at someone’s home and begin their prayer with, “God, you tell us that where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” They wrongly interpret that verse to mean that if two or more believers are together, then God is present with them. That’s not what Jesus meant, though. Instead, He’s explaining how to handle a brother who sins. You can tell because the verses before and after verse 20 (also known as the context!) are about church discipline. Therefore, verse 20 should be understood in that light. Jesus is telling us we need two or more people to properly judge a believer who refuses to repent.

The reason the correct meaning of Matthew 18:20 is commonly missed is that believers often ignore the context, leading to the two problems I mentioned. First, they don’t read the whole passage where Jesus explains the subject He’s discussing. This creates a context vacuum. Second, they use their own life situation as new context, thereby changing the meaning of the verse. The believer thinks, I’m in a Bible study with several other Christians. Jesus said, “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” Therefore, since there are more than two or three of us here in Jesus’ name, we know that Jesus is with us.

This might seem benign, but it’s dangerous. In this case, the Christian has concluded that the verse tells him Jesus is with them. You might think, What’s the harm in believing that? In this case, the belief is not incorrect—Jesus is with them—but that verse doesn’t support that belief. The believer has ignored the Holy Spirit’s inspired context and then created his own context, thus changing the meaning of Jesus’ teaching. Now Matthew 18:20 isn’t about church discipline but rather about believing Jesus is with you. That’s not Bible reading. That’s not allowing the Holy Spirit to transform you. That’s not listening to God but listening to yourself and baptizing your faulty interpretation with the authority of God’s Word. If a Christian wants a verse that supports the fact that Jesus is present with him, he can always turn to Matthew 28:20.

As I said above, misinterpreting Matthew 18:20 in this case doesn’t result in an unbiblical belief, but it’s still incorrect. Letting your own life situation become the context for a Bible verse, though, can lead to a more serious unbiblical or unethical belief.

I’ll close with a final thought, which I’ve already hinted at, and which might sound obvious. The Holy Spirit not only inspired the Bible verse you’re reading, but He also inspired the context—the words before and after. So, when you don’t read the context, you are simultaneously ignoring the Holy Spirit’s inspired context and overwriting it with your own life situation. God gave us the necessary information to figure out what His Word means. Now, I realize there are some passages that are difficult to understand even with the context. Generally speaking, though, reading the Holy Spirit’s inspired context will help you not only steer clear of common misinterpretations but also figure out what God wants to say to you.

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Alan Shlemon