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Reading the Bible in Context

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When I was learning to read, I was taught to open the first page of a book and read from the beginning to the end. I didn’t start in the middle, skip to the end, or just read the juicy bits. That wasn’t allowed. The emphasis was on reading to understand the entire story, and our comprehension tests reinforced the importance of coming to grips with the characters, plot and other details as they related to the whole.

In my early adult years I was given a Bible and told, “Start reading in the Gospel of John”. I opened the first page of the book, but it was called Genesis, not John. I was a little confused. Searching through the Bible I eventually found John toward the back of the book. I wondered why my friend had suggested I skip everything that came before John. Were the other parts of the Bible not important?

I started attending church services at much the same time as I started reading the Gospel of John. The way the pastor read and spoke about the Bible left me befuddled and bewildered. Most of the time he used isolated texts that he seemed to pluck at random from the book. It was like playing hopscotch – we jumped here there and everywhere.

Then someone gave me a Promise Box. It contained little cards with random Scripture verses. All my Christian friends were using them. We’d pull a new card out in the morning and carry it around with us during the day. Sometimes we’d quote it, chat about it, memorize it, or give it to someone. Now I understood. Obviously the Bible wasn’t meant to be read like other books. It was something you mined for nuggets.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of my story. Maybe because I’m inquisitive, or maybe it was the prompting of the Holy Spirit, but I wanted to read the Bible from the beginning, one book at a time, until I got to the end. So I did. And I found out that the Bible is much more than a collection of people’s favourite verses. It truly is God’s Story, and like any story it has characters, settings, plots/themes, conflicts and resolutions.

Reading through the Bible opened my eyes to something very important. I discovered that many of the texts I’d been learning, in isolation from their context, could be manipulated to say, or be applied in ways that weren’t true to the story as a whole. In fact after reading through the Bible it became evident that some of the verses I’d heard from the pulpit or learnt from my Promise Box, sometimes meant something entirely different when read in context.

Context is vital for biblical interpretation. In a culture that values instant access, instant answers, and instant everything, it can be tempting to take short-cuts with how we read the Bible. But if we do, we do so at our peril. When we read the Bible we must correctly handle the word of truth (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15). And the correct way to handle the truth is to read all of it.

Here’s my concern. If we separate texts from their context we can undermine the authority of Scripture and are more likely to misunderstand the Bible. Or worse, when we use texts isolated from their context, we can distort the truth and justify almost anything we want to say or do.

So here’s a shout-out for reading the Bible in context. Be diligent. Take time to understand each text against the background of its immediate text and the book within which it’s found.

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scripture to be given for our learning, grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life which thou hast given us in thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen. (Anglican Prayer)

Recommended article: Not Everything in the Bible is Biblical, Jeff K. Clarke

© Scripture Union Canada 2016

2 Corinthians 4:5

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