The first lesson in studying the Bible: Read it in context

This is a handout from a lesson I once used with some high school kids at church.  I thought I’d share it here.

The purpose was to give an overview of how to read the Bible, then focus on reading it in context.  I addressed barriers to reading in context then gave examples of commonly misused verses.  Finally, we picked a chapter at random and show how well these techniques work.

——

A simple and effective way to read the Bible – from James MacDonald’s “Walk in the Word” Podcasts*.

  • Read it – 1-3 chapters (less for doctrine, more for history)
  • Question it
    • What stands out to me? Why?
    • Is there an example for me to follow?
    • Is there an error for me to avoid?
    • Is there a duty for me to perform?
    • Is there a promise for me to claim?
    • Is there a sin for me to confess?
  • Plan it – make a plan for how you will use it
  • Pray it – pray scripture back to God
  • Share it – helps others, and helps us to remember it

How to read in context: Don’t just read a Bible verse (a great slogan and lesson from Stand to Reason). Always read at least a paragraph, and preferably a section or a chapter. Looking at what came before and after will help ensure you are getting the right meaning.

We should read it in the way the authors intended it, depending on the context and type of writing.  Examples:

  • When was it written?
  • Who was it written by / to?
  • Type of writing
    • History
    • Metaphor / illustrations / parables
    • Doctrine
    • Poetry
    • Figures of speech – i.e., exaggerations

Barriers to reading in context

We don’t like to admit we’ve made mistakes, so we hold onto bad interpretations.

  • Solution: Swallow your pride, get it right and remember to read in context next time. For the record, I have misused every verse in this lesson.
  • We have all been guilty of reading out of context. Some mistakes are more serious than others. Our choice is to dig in our heels and continue to use it incorrectly or humbly accept and use the correct teaching. As 2 Timothy 2:15 says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.“

Fear of getting it wrong.

  • Reading in context isn’t that hard to do! Don’t be afraid of misinterpreting – just read surrounding passages and study notes.

We have an important point we want to make and we can’t use that verse for it any more.

  • Find another passage to prove the point you wanted to make.
  • If you can’t find another verse to support it, maybe your point isn’t valid or particularly important.

—–

Sample passages – the part in bold is what is frequently used out of context. Note how just reading a couple surrounding verses shows the real meaning.

 

Even one of the most famous verses ever gets misused. Not everyone goes to Heaven – only those who trust in Jesus.

John 3:16-18 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

Philippians 4:13 is one of the most commonly misused passages. It isn’t about achieving great sporting victories or leaping tall buildings.

 

Philippians 4:12-13 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 everything through him who gives me strength.

 

You only have to go back ½ of one verse to get the context. Paul has a secret! A secret about what? A secret about how to be content in every situation. It is a great message – actually, much better than the typical application.

And another very commonly misused verse is Jeremiah 29:11. I see this abused on a regular basis in sermons, on t-shirts, signs, etc.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4, 10-11 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. . . . This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon . . . This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

There is actually a great message in Jeremiah 29:11: God makes huge promises and keeps them. The Israelites had been taken into captivity because of their rebellion and worship of false gods, but God promised to bring them back. And He did. But He did not make a generic promise to all people and at all times to prosper them.

People even throw that verse at non-believers, but that would give them a false sense of security. God’s message to them is the opposite. If they don’t repent and believe, his plans for them are horrible!

If you want to encourage people, try Matthew 11:28-30 instead (Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.) That points them to Jesus.

Both Christians and non-Christians abuse Matthew 7:1. Jesus isn’t saying to never judge, He is saying not to judge hypocritically.

Matthew 7:1-5 Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

People have used Matthew 5:39 to oppose capital punishment. But it is hard to turn the other cheek when you are dead, and it is unjust for the government to “turn the other cheek.” It would mean that we’d never punish anyone for anything.

Matthew 5:39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Christians often use Matthew 18:20 reflexively when talking about praying together, but is Jesus not there with you when you are by yourself?

Matthew 18:15–20 (ESV) If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. . . . And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

The part in bold makes people squirm. Reading the whole passage helps put it in perspective. I doubt many wives will complain about husbands who love them as Christ loves the church.

Ephesians 5:22–33 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior . . . Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself . . . “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” . . . However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Malachi 3:8 gets misused a lot in stewardship campaigns. Robbing God?! That can’t be good. But it is not a New Testament concept (see 2 Corinthians 9:6-7 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.).

Malachi 3:6–10 “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.

*Sadly, MacDonald’s doctrine and presentation have slipped a lot over the years, but this was from when his teachings were sound.

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6 thoughts on “The first lesson in studying the Bible: Read it in context”

      1. Come check out my blog. It is designed to challenge preconceived ideas in light of scripture. It would be right in line with what you are saying in this post.

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