Context & Structure

A. Context

1. How is the term “context” used?

  1. the entire historical and literary setting in which the author wrote
  2. the cultural context
  3. the text immediately surrounding the verse in question: what is with (con) the text

2. The Biblical Context

  1. The first context of any passage is the entire Scripture.
    • View the Bible as a whole unit with one overall theme: God’s great plan of salvation for sinful man through His Son, Jesus Christ. Each of the 66 books is there for a reason: we shouldn’t neglect any of them.
    • We need to know well the content of the whole Bible: we can understand a particular passage fully only if we know what the whole Scripture teaches, but we can know what the whole Scripture teaches only by knowing the meaning of its parts (the hermeneutical circle). This means that we need to be constantly reading and studying the Scriptures. This is a lifelong responsibility and delight.
    • A key hermeneutical principle is that “Scripture interprets Scripture” (the analogy of Scripture). This means that Scripture itself sets the limits of meaning. Scripture cannot contradict itself. We shall be talking more about this later in the course.
  2. The second context of any passage is the testament it is in: is it in the Old Testament or is it in the New Testament? Is it near the beginning of God’s revelation or near the end?
    • Because God’s revelation is progressive, we need to know what has gone before and what comes after. As Augustine said, “Truth shines brightest in the New Testament.” Doctrine is clearer in the pastoral epistles than in the prophecy of Ezekiel. In Genesis 3:15, we have God’s promise in a germinal form of a Saviour, a descendant of Eve, who would bring deliverance from Satan and his power; this promise was clearly fulfilled in the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ to this earth.
  3. The third context is the book in which the passage occurs.
  4. The fourth context is the immediate context: what comes before or after the passage that you are studying?

3. Activities that may produce harmful effects because they don’t pay sufficient attention to the context.

  1. Memorizing individual verses or parts of verses.
    • Often we don’t realize (or we forget) that they form only part of a sentence or a thought.
    • You can prove almost anything from the Bible if you ignore the context, for example “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1).
  2. Using only a concordance for word study.
    • It is easy to look up a number of verses on “patience.” It is more difficult to study each verse in context. Beware of “coat hanger” studies, messages, or sermons where verses are disconnected from a passage without considering the context and attached to the subject you are examining.
  3. Using “proof texts”
    • We quote a verse to support our position, but we neglect other verses on a topic which do not appear to support our position. To be fair, we have to consider all the main verses on a subject as much as possible.

B. Studying a Book of the Bible

1. The Purpose of the Book

  1. To determine the purpose of a book, read through the entire book quickly, at one sitting if possible.
    • With longer books like Genesis, read large portions; stop at logical stopping places (For example: Gen.1:1-11, 12-23, 24-36, 37-50). Concentrate on following the flow of thought. Note key words and phrases that are repeated or that control the thought in certain passages. This procedure will help you to see the book as a whole before you look at individual units. As the saying goes, “They cannot see the forest for the trees.” They cannot see the big ideas because they are too wound up in the details. In like manner we can get so involved with the details of the book that we miss the main ideas. Looking at the book as a whole will help to prevent this.
    • After you have read the book quickly, read it again more slowly. What is the main theme (or themes) of the book? Note the main theme and the key words and phrases. What do you learn about the author? about the recipients?
  2. Look specifically at the beginning and the ending of the book.
    • Sometimes these give a clear indication of what is happening in the book. In the first two chapters of Judges, we note the gradual deterioration of Israel: they did not drive out completely the inhabitants of the land; they worshipped other gods, and insisted on doing things their own way. Judges ends with the verse, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). After the tranquil interlude of Ruth which presents us with a community where God is honoured, we come to 1 Samuel and the choosing of a king for Israel.
  3. Sometimes the author indicates the occasion (reason) for writing.
    • We noticed this when we were looking at the Gospels of John and Luke (Luke 1:1-4; John 20:31). A book like 1 Corinthians seems to have several purposes.
  • You should read the book directly before consulting the opinions of others so that you can allow the Spirit to give you a fresh impact.
  • But it is also wise to consult others who can correct or expand your thinking.

2. The Plan of the Book

  1. There may be a great variety of relationships between the different passages in a book.
    1. a historic sequence of events ex. Genesis
    2. a historical sequence - not necessarily chronological ex. Matthew
    3. a poetic arrangement for beauty or emotional impact ex. the Psalms
    4. a closely reasoned theological discourse ex. Romans
    5. a collection of loosely related maxims ex. Proverbs
  2. The plan influences the interpretation.
    • The location of a passage in a book can have a strong influence on the interpretation.
  3. To discern the plan, you should make an outline of the book.
    1. Do not feel bound to use the existing chapter and verse divisions. They were not in the original: they came later. Often they are helpful, but they can be a hindrance in determining the units of thought. For example, 1 John 4:7 begins a passage on love that does not end until chapter 5, verse 3.
    2. Outline the flow of thought. Look for change: a change of event or a change of thought. Words like “if,” “for,” “but,” and “therefore” are significant indicators as to how a statement should be understood.
    3. Use main headings and subheadings.

3. The Immediate Context

  1. Observe what immediately precedes and follows the passage that you are examining.
  2. Observe parallel passages: in the same book, in other books.
    1. identical or similar language - Compare Eph. 5:22-6: 9 with Col. 3:18-4:1.
      • This is not always significant: the content or idea needs to be similar. Note that “leaven” is used in Matthew 13:33 in a different way than in Matthew 16:6.
    2. identical or similar ideas - not necesssarily use of common words
      • Ex. incarnation: Hebrews 2:9-18; Philippians 2:5-11
      • the last times: Matthew 24 & 25; 2 Thessalonians 2
    3. 2 or more books describing essentially the same events
      • Ex. Samuel, Kings, Chronicles
      • The Gospels
      • Paul in Acts and the Epistles
      • The Prophets - note where and when they were prophesying

Credit: Much of this page makes use of material from Sheila Evans

Updated 2009-10-07 (build:7) by Andrew Fountain