Understanding Biblical context can feel as overwhelming as folding a giant pile of laundry, but today we are going to explore Bible context made easy. While it can seem dry, boring and like something only reserved for someone in seminary, context actually helps us go from exploring the Bible in black and white to full, vibrant color.
What is Bible Context?
Context is defined as:
1. the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.
So Bible context is understanding both the words surrounding the Biblical passage you are studying and the environment, history, culture, and literary devices used as well.
Bible Context 101
Most of us don’t talk in tweets or one sentence quotes. You can easily pull a quote from a politician or celebrity or your sister out of the context of the whole conversation and make it mean the exact opposite.
The Bible is the same way.
Each verse is not meant to stand on its own, but is intrinsically connected to the whole flow of the Bible.
Context of the Paragraph
When you examine what the context of one verse means, pull back a little and examine it within the context of the paragraphs around it. Verses and chapters were actually not a part of the original text. So zoom out a little and look at the full thought behind the section you are examining.
“I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” -Philippians 4:13
This verse is OFTEN taken out of context and used to empower runners or athletes to win races and help anxious test-takers to be at ease. When we pull back, even a little, we can see that is not the intent of the verse in its context.
“I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.” -Philippians 4:10-14
When we read Philippians 4:13 in context we immediately see it is not referring to winning or excelling in any earthly way, but to practicing contentment no matter how troublesome or hard or circumstances.
Context of the Book
It can also be helpful to look at the context within the book of the Bible the verse is in. Here are a few questions I ask to help me understand the context of the book of the Bible…
- Who is the author?
- Who is it originally written to?
- What was the writer’s purpose in writing? (See Literary Context)
I also find it helpful to read the book introductions in my Study Bible (my favs are linked in the bottom of this post!) and view the Bible project videos for each book! Such amazing resources we have can access!
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Context of the Bible as a Whole
Finally, think about the verses’ context within the whole of Scripture.
You can learn more about the context of the verse you’re studying in all of the Bible by using the cross references in your study Bible. You can look up primary words or ideas in a concordance or on a Bible study tool like The Bible app or BlueLetterBible.
There is nothing to help you understand the Bible as a whole like reading the whole Bible.
So many Christians have never read all of it and if that’s you, I’d encourage you to find a group, get a plan, and start reading it! I am reading it this year chronologically with The Bible Recap reading plan on the Youversion Bible app.
These resources that have helped my understanding of the Bible as a whole are…
- 30 Days to Understanding the Bible — Almost a college course in just 15 minutes a day.
- The Jesus Storybook Bible — Yes the kids book–this was huge for me in connecting the big story of the Bible and is so beautifully written!
- Woven: Understanding the Bible as One Seamless Story — Highly recommended from a dear friend.
- The Bible Recap (Podcast and Book) — I am using this in 2021 to read through the Bible chronologically and it is EXCELLENT.
Understanding Literary Context
The Bible is one book, telling one big redemption story, but it is also 66 separate books each showing one unique slice of the whole pie.
Some books are letters. Some are love poetry. Some are historical narrative. Some are epics. Some are prophetic. Some are orations. Here is a great list of all the literary devices used in the Bible.
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Knowing the literary context helps us know how to interpret the text.
Proverbs 22:6 says “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
We know that is a general truth inferred from life NOT a rule for all people or even a promise of God. We see people like Samson who were “raised up right” and deviated hugely from the path God had for him as a prophet and leader.
This is also why it’s huge to understand the whole story of the Bible, so we don’t accidentally elevate one verse on a topic above the rest of Scripture.
Understanding Historical Context
The Bible was written at a very different time than we live in today. It’s hugely important to understand the history of what was happening during the time in the Bible you are reading.
For example, during the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) Israel is under Roman rule and occupation. Understanding the historical tension in the region between the Jews and Romans helps us understand why so many were disappointed that Jesus, the Messiah, wasn’t coming to bring political freedom, but spiritual freedom.
When we understand the anger and tension of the time, Jesus saying things like “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and inviting a former tax collector (who would have been seen as a turncoat at that time) much more radical.
Understanding Cultural Context
The Bible wasn’t written in our time period OR our culture (for me that’s American!). America wasn’t even a twinkle in a founding Father’s eye when the Bible was written so it’s huge to try to step into the cultural context of the Bible.
Some important things to remember:
- The Bible was written from a Jewish culture.
- The Bible was written from an ancient culture.
- The Bible was written from an Eastern culture.
- The Bible was written to some Roman/Greek influenced cultures.
One example from my own life I am examining is my understanding of the kingdom of God. Jesus talked about the kingdom of God (or heaven) over 80 times in the gospels, but I’ve come to realize I have next to no understanding of the concept of a kingdom.
The closest I’ve ever come to a kingdom is Burger King.
So I’ve had to do some studying and unpacking of what a good King, an unimpeachable leader who loves me could be like….it’s so different from my cultural context, but I’m enjoying exploring and learning and expanding my view of God’s kingdom.
Don’t be afraid of understanding Bible truths in their cultural context.
Some people are almost afraid of cultural context because they feel it takes away from a literal interpretation of the Bible and can lead to a “slippery slope” away from Biblical authority.
For me, it has been quite the opposite, the more I strip away my own American, Western, modern context–the more rich and full God’s Word becomes and the more crystal clear I see God’s love and grace.
Resources for Studying the Bible in Context
These are some awesome resources to expand your knowledge of the Bible in its original and full context.
- NIV Cultural Background Study Bible
- Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes
- Crossway ESV Bible Atlas
- 30 Days to Understanding the Bible
- The Bible Project Videos
- She Reads Truth Study Bible — See my Unbiased Review of the She Reads Truth Study Bible
- NIV Study Bible
God’s Word is powerful and true and worth pursuing, my friend!