Studying the Bible in context is crucial for properly understanding and applying God’s Word. There are several important reasons why we should make the effort to study the Bible in context:
1. To understand the original meaning
One of the most fundamental principles of biblical interpretation is to discover the original intended meaning of a passage. We need to understand what the original authors meant when they wrote the texts and what the original audiences understood from them. When we read Scripture in context, we place ourselves in the sandals of the original recipients. This gives us the proper framework to discern the author’s purpose in writing and the message conveyed to the original audience.
Studying context includes looking at the historical, cultural, and situational settings. It examines the literary styles and genres employed by the human authors. It looks at the words, grammar, and idioms used in the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). It analyzes how a passage fits with the overall flow of thought in the book and the Bible as a whole. All these contextual considerations help us arrive at the text’s original meaning.
John 21:20 provides an example of how context is key to grasping the meaning. Peter had just been told by Jesus that he would die as a martyr (John 21:18-19). Peter then turned and saw John nearby. Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” On the surface, it seems Peter was comparing his future with John’s. However, when we understand the context, we realize Peter’s question likely stemmed from a commonly held misunderstanding that John would not die before Jesus returned (John 21:23). Only with context can we ascertain the reason behind Peter’s question.
2. To avoid misinterpretation
One of the greatest dangers in Bible study is taking a passage out of context and misinterpreting it. We can make the mistake of reading our modern-day assumptions and ideas back into the text. We may apply it incorrectly if we fail to understand the intent and the situation of the original audience. Misinterpretation can easily happen if we focus only on isolated words or verses without considering the whole literary unit and book theme. Misinterpretation can also occur when readers are unaware of biblical genres, figures of speech, and cultural nuances.
For example, in John 6:53 Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” This caused confusion and offense among Jesus’ original Jewish audience because consuming blood was forbidden in the Law (Lev. 17:10-14). But Jesus was not speaking literally about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. In the context of John 6, Jesus used graphic symbolism to teach spiritual truths about believing in Him for salvation. He was not instituting a new ritual of cannibalism! Knowing the contextual setting prevents bizarre misinterpretations.
3. To apply Scripture correctly
Our main goal as Christians is not to merely gain information from the Bible but to apply its teachings to our lives. However, we cannot apply the Bible properly if we don’t understand what it means in context. Interpretation must come before application.
When we ignore the contextual considerations of Scripture, we may end up claiming promises never intended for us. Or we may place commands upon ourselves that were meant only for a specific person or group in biblical times. We fail to apply biblical principles correctly when we don’t discern whether they are universal or limited to a particular circumstance. But when we work carefully through the meaning in context, we are then ready to bring personal application.
For example, 1 Timothy 2:9 says, “Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.” In context, Paul was addressing a specific issue with women’s conduct and appearance in Timothy’s church at Ephesus during that era. Therefore, it would be wrong to conclude that this prohibits all braided hair, gold, pearls, and nice clothing for Christian women today. Content becomes application only when the contextual considerations have been properly understood.
4. To defend against false teaching
Unfortunately, there have always been false teachers distorting the message of Scripture. Cults like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have twisted Bible verses to prove their errant doctrines. The prosperity gospel movement abuses biblical texts to promise health and wealth. Even within evangelical Christianity, controversies have occurred when preachers quote verses out of context.
The Bereans were commended because they “examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Like the Bereans, we need to become so familiar with the contextual meaning of Scripture that we can discern when a verse is being misapplied or wrongly taught. Knowing the Bible in context equips us to recognize theological error and defend the truth (Titus 1:9-11).
For example, cults have used Hebrews 1:5 (“You are my Son, today I have begotten you”) to argue that Jesus was a created being. But in the context of Hebrews 1, this quotation from Psalm 2:7 refers to Christ’s resurrection and exaltation to God’s right hand. It does not imply Jesus was a created being. Studying the Bible in context helps us counter false doctrines.
5. To grow in discernment
As we dig deeper into Scripture, comparing passages, understanding themes, and examining context, we grow in discernment. We are trained to observe, interpret, and apply the biblical text carefully and accurately. Studying the Bible in context sharpens our interpretive skills so we can judge wisely in complex situations.
In Acts 15, a dispute arose over whether Gentile believers needed to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses. The early church examined Scripture but realized that circumcision was not required in their current situation. They had to discern that the Old Testament ceremonial laws applied only before Christ. Increased discernment is a fruit of studying the Bible in its literary and historical settings.
The writer of Hebrews rebuked readers who were still immature in their understanding of Scripture. “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12). Studying context is a key component of moving past milk to digest solid food.
6. To gain a balanced understanding
Sometimes Christians developing their theology can be tempted to highlight only their favorite verses and ignore the rest of the Bible. However, reading passages out of context can lead to imbalanced thinking. We need the totality of Scripture to correct our faulty perspectives.
For example, God’s love and grace are beautifully portrayed in texts like Psalm 103, John 3:16, Romans 5:8, and Ephesians 2:4-9. But that is only part of the picture. The Bible’s full revelation of God also includes His holiness and righteous judgment against sin (Nahum 1:2-3, Romans 1:18, Hebrews 10:31). We arrive at a balanced view of God’s nature by studying everything in context, not just our preferred verses.
The Bible contains diverse voices across different genres and books. Listening to each within context keeps us from extremist positions. Then the whole counsel of God can shape our thinking in a balanced way (Acts 20:27).
7. To confirm biblical unity
At first glance, the Bible seems like a disjointed collection of documents by 40+ authors over 1500+ years. However, when studied in context, the Bible displays a unified message centering on God’s revelation of Himself and His plan of salvation. This confirms divine inspiration.
For example, the salvation that was vaguely hinted at in Genesis 3:15 becomes progressively clearer in the promises to Abraham, the deliverance from Egypt, the sacrificial system, the Psalms and prophets, and finally the arrival of the Messiah. Tracing God’s consistent redemptive plan through Scripture in context demonstrates the Bible’s internal unity. It is not merely a human book.
In Luke 24:27, Jesus showed His disciples how Moses, the Prophets and all the Scriptures testified about Him. This Christ-centered unity is only apparent when we interpret each part of the Bible in its context. Seeing how it all fits together in one consistent story inspires our confidence in Scripture.
8. The examples of Christ and the apostles
Jesus and the New Testament authors consistently demonstrated the importance of context when studying the Old Testament. In Matthew 4 during Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the Devil repeatedly quoted Scripture out of context, trying to make Psalms 91:11-12 and 91:11-12 promises of unconditional protection. But Jesus corrected the misuse of these passages by citing Deuteronomy 6:16 in context (Matt. 4:7).
In Galatians 3, Paul built his case that Gentiles were included as “sons of Abraham” by quoting Genesis 12:3 in its context. This showed that the promise to “all the families of the earth” was the original intent, not just a blessing for the Jewish nation (Gal. 3:6-9). The apostle James pointed to Genesis 15:6 in context to prove that Abraham was justified by faith long before he was circumcised (James 2:21-23). The biblical authors’ use of the Old Testament in context reinforces why we must study context as well.
9. Because details matter to God
God could have given us a short bullet-pointed list of theological facts. Instead, He revealed Himself in a complex book full of details, genres, literary techniques, and historical particulars. Clearly God wants us to pay attention to the specifics. This is why taking time to study context is honoring to God.
In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), the master expected his servants to faithfully steward the resources entrusted to them. Like those servants, we are accountable for what God has given us in His Word. Rather than treating the Bible casually, we demonstrate faithfulness by carefully handling the Word in context (2 Timothy 2:15). The details matter when handling Scripture.
The Bible declares that “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). Therefore, every part deserves our close attention in context. When we understand the original meaning and apply it correctly, we show reverence for God’s Word.
10. The Holy Spirit uses it
While context gives us the foundational meaning, the Holy Spirit takes that basic sense and applies it personally in our lives. As we study Scripture in context, the Spirit often enlightens us, giving wisdom beyond the passage’s original purpose. Illumination reveals contemporary applications we would never see if we ignored the context.
For example, on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus opened the meaning of the Old Testament to His disciples in context. Next, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him” (Luke 24:31). When the Spirit applies God’s Word to us in context, our spiritual eyes are opened to recognize Jesus! Though originally written millennia ago, the Spirit uses Scripture to transform us today.
According to 1 Corinthians 2:12-13, “We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.” As we diligently study the Bible in context, the Holy Spirit grants wisdom for applying it.
While many more reasons could be given, it’s clear that studying the Bible in context is crucial. Scripture was written for us but not directly to us. We gain insight into our own lives by first digging into the lives of the biblical audiences. Context provides the indispensable foundation for accurate interpretation, theology, and application of God’s Word. We should continually pray for the illumination of the Holy Spirit to teach us as we humbly study the Bible in context.