Keeping the Context
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (II Timothy 2:15)
Throughout the history of the church, odd ideas have been justified by means of Scriptures pulled out of context. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (commonly called Mormons), use proxy baptism on behalf of ancestors who have died. Their justification is I Corinthians 15:29, “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” The popular idea that salvation is by faith alone comes from citing passages which connect faith with salvation, such as John 3:16. The problem is that lack of context often makes a passage appear to say things not intended. For example, Jesus said, “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15:14). Jesus told Judas, “What you do, do quickly” (John 13:27). Judas, we are told, “departed, and went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). Finally, Jesus said, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). By selectively using quotes, we arrive at a conclusion that we know is incorrect – that Jesus wants followers to commit suicide.
Since nearly anything could be justified by the Bible if the context is ignored, it is important for the Christian to check any conclusion about a passage against the context of the Scripture. Even though we complain about others ignoring the context of a passage, we do our Lord disservice if we commit the same error while trying to defend the truth.
Peter warns, “... our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked” (II Peter 3:15-17). The word translated “twist” in this passage comes from the Greek word for torturing a victim on a rack. The ignorant and unstable people of this world are quite willing to torture the meaning of a passage to justify their agenda. We must be on our guard so as to not fall into their dangerous thinking.
For example, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has published papers in 1999 claiming that Jesus was a vegetarian. Their proof? They point to Genesis 1:29-30 to claim that God’s intention was a vegetarian world. They point to Jesus driving out the merchants from the temple in John 2:14-16 to claim that Jesus was saving animals from sacrifices and being eaten. Finally, they claim that no passage mentions Jesus eating meat.
Another example is an article written by Debra Haffner in 1997 titled “The Really Good News: What the Bible Says About Sex.” In this article, the author claims that David and Jonathan were homosexual lovers by citing II Samuel 1:26, I Samuel 18:1, and I Samuel 19:1. She also claims, the Song of Solomon, “does not talk about sex in the context of marriage or procreation: the woman in the Song is never ‘called a wife, nor is she required to bear children. In fact, to the issue of marriage and procreation, the Song does not speak.’” Hence, she concludes that sex outside of marriage is approved. She also claims that “prostitution was an accepted part of urban society during biblical times (see I Kings 22:38; Isaiah 23:16; Proverbs 7:12, and 9:14).”
Most of us find these claims outrageous, but that is because we are familiar with the overall context of the Bible. While these examples are more blatantly false, many religious doctrines are also based on passages taken out of their appropriate context.
The Harmony of the Scriptures
Hermeneutics is the study of how to understand the meaning of the written word. One basic principle in hermeneutics is the general assumption that every author’s writings are in harmony unless it is clearly established to be otherwise. We assume that an author writes in order to be understood. Hence, we would expect consistency in the author’s message. Each writing of an author will contain a theme, or a purpose, to which the points in the message support. It is upon this principle that criminologists examine letters to determine if they are from the same individual or the work of a copycat. In his book Principles of Interpretation, Clinton Lockhart states, “One of two contradictory statements must be false unless corresponding terms have different meanings or applications.” In other words, if you have two statements that contradict, either the two statements are not from the same author, or the terms in the two statements are being used in different ways and with different meanings.
When hermeneutics is applied to the Scriptures, this general principle of harmony in meaning becomes absolute. Men make mistakes, but the work of the all-knowing, all-mighty God cannot contain contradictions. God doesn’t make mistakes. Hence, when we run into an apparent contradiction in the Bible, we must examine the context of the statements to see if there are terms being used in different senses of meaning or application.
Jesus used this principle when Satan tempted him in the wilderness. “Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: 'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the LORD your God.'"”(Matthew 4:5-7). Satan quoted Psalm 91:11-12 where God promises protection, but Jesus countered with Deuteronomy 6:16 with the introductory words, “It is written again.” By pointing out an additional verse that appears to contradict the interpretation given to another verse, Jesus won the argument by showing that Satan made an error. Psalm 91:11-12 must be in harmony with Deuteronomy 6:16 since God wrote both passages. Since the meaning Satan ascribed to Psalm 91:11-12 was not in harmony with Deuteronomy 6:16, Satan must have assigned the wrong meaning to the passage in Psalm.
Application in the Scriptures
How many angels were at the tomb after Jesus’ resurrection? Matthew 28:1-3 mentions one, but Luke 24:1-4 mentions two. Skeptics are quick to pounce on this difference and declare that the Scriptures contradict one another and, therefore, are not inspired. Yet, consider this: Suppose I related an event that happened in a meeting and mentioned that brother John said something important. Would it be reasonable to conclude that only I and brother John met? Of course not! In the same manner, if Matthew mentions the appearance of an angel and records what that angel said, does this preclude the presence of additional angels? The answer remains, of course not! Why are there differences in the details recorded in Matthew and in Luke? It is due to the different purposes the two authors had in writing their respective books.
When Romans 4:5 is held up against James 2:24, we cannot state that the two authors contradicted each other. To so claim would be claiming that the message in one or both of the books is not inspired. Instead, we need to examine the context of the two passages to see how the terms are being used. In particular, we need to see if the terms are being used with a different sense of meaning or application.
Both verses mention faith. Are there multiple faiths? Most realize that the faith exhibited by demons, mentioned in James 2:19, is different from the faith discussed in Hebrews 11:6, even though what is being believed is the same in both verses. When we examine the context of James, we realize that James’ point is that the faith of demons is missing an essential element that causes it to be a useless faith.
Since Romans 4:5 and James 2:24 both mention works, we must also ask “Are there multiple works?” A quick glance through the New Testament shows us that there are:
• Works of God (John 6:28-29; 9:3-4).
• Works of the devil (I John 3:8),
• Works of man’s hands (Acts 7:41),
• Works of the Law (Romans 3:20,27-28; Galatians 2:16),
• Good works (Ephesians 2:10; I Timothy 2:9-10), and
• Dead works (Hebrews 6:1).
Because both faith and works can take on different meanings in different contexts, we cannot make a blanket statement concerning faith or works without defining the kind of faith and the kind of work we are considering.
When we mention that baptism saves, as stated in I Peter 3:21, many object and hold up John 3:16. Yet, their very line of argument is in error. All that is being claimed is “my favorite verse is better than your favorite verse!” The reality is that all verses in the Bible come from one God. As Jesus pointed out to Satan, you cannot use a select set of verses against the rest of the Bible’s teachings. Unfortunately, the denominational world does not look to harmonize the Scriptures. Instead, they search high and low for ways to dismiss the verses that do not agree with their preconceived notions. There must be an understanding of I Peter 3:21 and John 3:16 which allows both baptism and faith to save. Anything less is a declaration that the Scriptures contain contradictions and are not, therefore, inspired.
In order to understand God’s Holy Word, we must be willing to seek the harmony of what is stated. We cannot pull a passage out of its context because the context defines how the words are being used. We cannot pit one passage against another without denying the inspiration of the Scriptures (Psalm 119:160; II Timothy 3:16-17).
Quotes should be used in the same manner in which the original passage was used. As an example, in the “justification” of suicide given above, Jesus is quoted as saying “Go and do likewise” in Luke 10:37. The usage implies that Jesus is telling us to do the same as Judas. But the reality is that Jesus was discussing the Law of Moses with a lawyer who wanted to play word games with the term “neighbor” (Luke 10:25-29). When Jesus proved that everyone is a man’s neighbor he told the lawyer to “go and do likewise” – meaning to go and treat everyone as his neighbor.
Similar errors can be made by juxtaposing two passages discussing different topics to give the impression that they are discussing the same topic. One author made the following claim: “Jesus came to ‘seek and save’ only ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 1:21; 2:6; 15:24; Luke 19:10).” The phrase “seek and save” comes from Luke 19:10 where Jesus stated he came to seek and save that which was lost. However, there is no limit in Luke 19:10 that the lost were only the lost in Israel. The phrase “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” comes from Matthew 15:24 where Jesus tells a Gentile woman, who was asking Jesus to heal her daughter, that he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Even in this context, Jesus did not mean he could not do miracles for the Gentiles because he proceeds to heal this woman’s daughter. Instead, Jesus is simply explaining that the focus of his mission was only toward Israel. But the author of the quote combines a passage dealing with salvation and a passage about the focus of mission to make a claim that neither passage supports.
Each book in the Bible has a stated purpose and is directed to a particular audience. Any meaning assigned to a passage quoted from a book must be in harmony with the overall purpose of the book. For example, Seventh-Day Adventists pull passages from the Law of Moses to justify their worship services being on the Sabbath day (the seventh day of the week). Quoting one of the Ten Commandments and applying it to Christian violates the context of the book. The lead-in to the Ten Commandments states “The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are alive” (Deuteronomy 5:2-3). Further, in discussing the Laws, Moses stated, “For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:7-8). Obviously, the laws, including the Ten Commandments, were intended for the nation of Israel. They were not given to any other people prior, nor were they given to any other nation. To apply them now would be a violation of the context in which the book was presented.
Similar contextual errors are frequently made regarding the book of Revelation. Many fanciful ideas concerning the present times and near-future are based on passages pulled from Revelation. Yet the book of Revelation was written near the end of the first century and concerning his book, John wrote, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants--things which must shortly take place. ... Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Revelation 1:1, 3). Jumping to the end of the book, the time frame of the book is again mentioned. “And the Lord God of the holy prophets sent His angel to show His servants the things which must shortly take place” (Revelation 22:6). While the future might be mentioned in the book, the overall contents of the book deals with events that would soon take place after the writing of the book. To assign twenty-first-century meaning to a first or second century targeted book is a violation of the context.
Paul told the Corinthians that God does not author confusion (I Corinthians 14:33). He does not tell one person one thing and another something different. A young prophet learned this the hard way. The prophet was told to deliver a pronouncement against King Jeroboam and then return without eating or drinking (I Kings 13:16-17). An old prophet, who wanted the man as a guest claimed, “I too am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the LORD, saying, 'Bring him back with you to your house, that he may eat bread and drink water'”(I Kings 13:18). The young prophet lost his life because he did not understand that God does not change His commands and this prophet was lying to him.
It was to this consistency of God’s message to which Paul appealed. “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-9). Hence an understanding of one verse that causes a conflict with another passage is not an understanding, but a misunderstanding. It may take a deeper study, but all of God’s message is a unified message.
Handling contextual problems
When a passage can be interpreted in a variety of ways, it is helpful to make a list of all possible meanings. Then take your Bible and examine the immediate context, the book’s context, and the Bible’s context to see if any of the possible meanings conflict with the context. If they do, then you can eliminate that possibility. Often you will find yourself with only one possibility left.
As an illustration, take a verse that has caused difficulties for many ever since Paul wrote it, “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” (I Corinthians 15:29). What is meant by “baptized for the dead?” Make a list of the of all the possible meanings that you can including the outlandish ones.
Here are several that I have heard
1. Paul is talking about being baptized for Christ, who had died for our sins.
2. People are being baptized to be numbered among the dead.
3. Paul is asking rhetorical questions. Baptism is supposed to bring life. If there is no resurrection, there is no future life, so those baptized are being baptized into the realm of the dead. Hence, Paul is pointing out the paradox of practicing baptism while denying the resurrection.
4. People can be baptized on behalf of others who had already died.
5. Since Paul uses the third person “they,” he is referring to a heretical sect that practiced baptism for people who had already died.
6. The phrase “for the dead” can be rendered “on account of the dead,” thus Paul is discussing people who are following the example people who have died before them or a desire to join loved ones who were Christians but are now dead. In other words, the phrase speaks of the motivation for being baptized. Hence, Paul is arguing why continue to practice baptism when the motivation is removed because of a denial of a resurrection.
7. People are being baptized to take the place of those who have died; thereby, they are keeping Christianity alive.
First, we need to consider the immediate context of the passage. Whatever the practice under discussion, Paul is using it in a favorable sense to prove that there must be a resurrection from the dead. Truth cannot be proven from error. If Paul was referring to a Corinthian practice which he did not approve, why wasn’t it rebuked as all the other erroneous practices mentioned in the letter? Hence, the immediate context eliminates the heretical sect argument (#5).
In the immediate context, we can also examine the word “dead” and find that it is a plural noun in the Greek. The dead refers to a group of people and not a single person. This eliminates the argument that Paul is referring to Christ (#1).
Since Paul is using this baptism to argue for the resurrection, it would be strange to claim that people are being baptized to be numbered among the dead. As Paul argued in Romans 6:4, baptism is to bring life. Hence by immediate context and biblical context, argument #2 is wrong. Similarly, while there is nothing wrong with the idea that Christians would continue to spread the gospel, bringing in new people to replace those who have passed on, the idea does not further Paul’s argument that there must be a resurrection. Hence, we eliminate #7 as a possibility.
If we continue to examine the biblical context, we see that God has always made men responsible for their own actions. In Ezekiel 18:20 we read, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” Even though Jesus died for us while we were sinners, God still requires sinners to respond to the invitation to be saved. Dead people cannot repent. They cannot respond. This is why there is an urgency to teach the gospel while people are still living. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:10). Hence, being baptized in substitution for the dead (#4) is not true.
Who then are the “they” in verse 29? It is a reference back to the group mentioned in verse 12. There were people in Corinth who were denying the resurrection. Paul is wondering why they are practicing baptism and why he and others were placing their lives in jeopardy (verse 30) if there was no resurrection.
While we might not firmly establish exactly what Paul meant by his statement in I Corinthians 15:29, the use of context does narrow down the possibilities quickly and allows for more reasoned discussion.
1) List other possible meanings for I Corinthians 15:29.
2) Using the context, which possible meanings are eliminated?