Context!

It is not uncommon to hear someone in the church emphasizing the importance of considering individual Bible verses in their larger context. A prime example of this might be Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.”

Without any context, someone might conclude that we should never judge anyone over anything. However, if you take the time to read and consider the next several verses, you will find that Jesus was actually warning us against hypocritical judgments in which we apply a harsher standard to others than we do to ourselves. Thus, in verse 5 He clarifies: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Another principle that can be important for understanding the true meaning of a verse or passage is to consider what other passages have to say about the subject in question. Once again, we can apply this principle to the question of passing judgment.

We have suggested that Matthew 7 encourages us to pass judgment, but only when we have first examined ourselves by the same standard. John 7:24 gives us another caution about our use of judgment: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”

We might conclude based on these two passages that judgment is always appropriate, as long as we examine ourselves first, and take the time to consider the issue carefully rather than jumping to conclusions. But there are even more passages that might expand our thinking on judgment further.

“I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:4-5)

Wait a minute… I thought we were supposed to judge with righteous judgment, so why does Paul say we must not go on passing judgment before the time? It appears (from context) that Paul is speaking of matters in which the motives of men’s hearts are not outwardly apparent. We can judge outward actions, but at least in some instances, only God can see into their heart to judge their actual motives.

Also consider 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges.”

This would seem to suggest that we can only judge people who are members of the church. In that case, is it wrong to criticize the behavior of someone who is not a Christian, or to tell them that they are lost and need Jesus? After all, Paul spent the first chapter of the book of Romans calling out the Gentiles for their wickedness, even going so far as to list specific sins, such as the practice of homosexuality, and saying that they are “without excuse” and have incurred God’s wrath.

Examining the context of Romans 1 shows us that the judgment spoken of here is a kind of judgment that applies to all people: the assertion that their sins separate them from God. On the other hand, the judgment of 1 Corinthians 5, which is only appropriate towards those in the church, is a judgment that results in a period of disciplinary dis-fellowshipping that will enable the person to realize their hypocrisy as someone who claims to follow Christ but rebels against his commands.

It turns out that judgment is a more complicated topic than simply “It is always right to judge someone,” or “you should never judge someone.” The word “judgment” itself can have different meanings in different contexts, and can have a different application depending on who is doing the judging, who is being judged, and what the content of the judgment is.

Judgment is only one example. The moral of the story is that we must examine context carefully and consider multiple passages in order to avoid overcomplicating what God has made simple, or oversimplifying what God presents as nuanced.

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The Relevance of the New Testament Today

The Bible is the best selling and most influential book in human history. No matter how many times you read it, you will never stop noticing and learning new things. There will always be more to discover.

Last week each book in the Old Testament was listed, along with one important question that each book answers. This is a similar list for the books of the New Testament.

Matthew: Who is Jesus, from a Jewish perspective?
Mark: What did Jesus do while He was here?
Luke: What do the eye witnesses tell us about Jesus?
John: Is Jesus God?
Acts: What is the church and how did it start?
Romans: What is the gospel?
1 & 2 Corinthians: How should Christians behave themselves when together and in daily life?
Galatians: Does salvation depend on following the Law of Moses?
Ephesians: What is the spiritual significance of Christ’s church?
Philippians: How can we have joy in the midst of troubles?
Colossians: How should we walk in Christ?
1 & 2 Thessalonians: What encouraging words would God give to His church?
1 & 2 Timothy: What is an evangelist, and what do they do?
Titus: What advice does a young preacher need?
Philemon: How does God feel about slavery?
Hebrews:  Should we give up on Christ if He does not seem to be coming through for us?
James: How can we live wisely?
1 & 2 Peter: How should Christians conduct themselves when persecuted?
1, 2 & 3 John: Can we know we are God’s children, and if so, how?
Jude: What does God have to say about false teachers?
Revelation: What do we know about heaven, hell, and how the story of humanity ends?

Trusting God to Tell us What to Do

Many of us know someone who grew up in a Christian environment, but left the faith later in life. You may also know someone who was presented the gospel as an adult, but rejected it vehemently. Maybe, you too have struggled with your own faith, or even considered giving up on living for God. Why?

One of the reasons people often cite for leaving the Lord is that they want to be free to do things their own way. They may say phrases like “no one else can tell me how to live my own life,” or “I have to do what makes me happy,” or “I have to be free to be myself, and the Bible is holding me back.”

There may be some truth to the statement “no one can tell me how to live my own life.” After all, in most cases, no one is going to physically control us and micromanage all of our own choices against our will. At the end of the day, God grants us the right to do whatever it is that we want to do, even if that means to reject Him.

So maybe no one has the power to FORCE us to live a certain way, but surely we all recognize that sometimes it is wise to listen to people who know more than we do.

Most of us do not take our car to the mechanic only to insist on disregarding necessary repairs because “no one can tell me what to do.” Most of us do not pay for music lessons and then ignore everything the teacher says because “I just have to do what makes me happy.” Most of us do not go to the hospital in crippling pain but reject a necessary surgery because “that is just not what I want to do with my time.” We recognize that the path to wholeness often requires us to do things that we do not want to do, and may not even fully understand. But we trust those who can guide us to where we need to be.

The Bible describes the Christian life as a battle between the flesh and the Spirit. Oh, how easy it can seem to just throw in the towel and indulge our fleshly tendencies because we long to “be true to ourselves,” and “not let some ancient book control us.” But notice something about the flesh and the Spirit.

The flesh does not practice wisdom or discernment. For example, the body will crave an unhealthy diet with no regard for how much the “daily recommended amount” of sugar is. A body that is addicted to drugs or alcohol will crave those things with no regard for the wellbeing of the person who possesses it. A body will desire sexual relations with an attractive counterpart, even when the long-term outcome could be catastrophic.

The Spirit, on the other hand, is characterized by discernment, wisdom, and higher order thinking. It is informed, ultimately, by the God who designed the universe and knows intimately how it works. The Spirit encourages us to follow a path of moral development rather than simply “living in the moment.”

Often our feelings, being motivated by our flesh, will pull us in a direction that promises to be gratifying. That direction might be jealousy, outbursts of anger, pornography, consumerism, gluttony, or any other number of things. On the other hand, the Spirit steps in and “tells us what to do,” applying a long-term wisdom to our short-term decisions.

Yes, God does tell us what to do. Frequently. And we would do well to listen. A doctor knows how to help a physical body. A mechanic knows how to fix a car. A piano teacher knows how to play piano. And God knows how to fix YOU. And just maybe, if you do not understand every instruction given by your doctor, mechanic, or piano teacher, you might not understand every instruction given by your God either. That does not make Him wrong.

Choosing a Bible to Pick up and Read

A friend of mine recently got a new Bible. But unlike most printings of God’s word, this Bible does not have any chapter or verse markings whatsoever. It has no footnotes, no cross-references, no headings, and nothing in the margins, and the text is arranged in one column that takes up the entire page. It is also printed in four volumes, each one about the size and thickness of a typical library book.

Picking up a Bible like that might seem pretty strange, until we stop and consider that the chapters, verses, headings, and other study and reference tools in our modern Bibles were indeed put there by man centuries or even millennia after the original works were complete.

As I flipped through one of the volumes of this Bible, I was struck by the way this arrangement of the text altered my perception of it. No longer did the Bible feel like an academic reference book to be squinted at, or digested in little doses. It felt like a powerful story to be read, perhaps even for hours at a time.

There is no doubt that the way any text is arranged, including the Biblical text, can affect the way we respond to it.

Translations are another factor in our experience of God’s word.

One translation might make it a priority to translate the same Greek word into the same English word as consistently as possible, and that might help us to recognize patterns and recurring themes in the text more easily, but in the process it will sacrifice some ability to account for the effect of the context of a word on its meaning.

Another translation might make literalness a top priority, allowing us to focus on the specific role of each word in a sentence, and the specific definition of each word as it relates to the overlying message. Of course, this approach may yield a text that is more difficult to read and comprehend quickly.

Another translation might seek to draw out the ideas in a text using more contemporary styles and expressions in order to make the text easier for our modern minds to understand quickly, but it may give up some of the specificity present in the original language.

Translations lie all across this entire spectrum, from works so literal they are barely readable, to works so liberal in translation technique that they would be more aptly referred to as a paraphrase or a commentary than a legitimate translation.

So how do we decide which text to open?

Here are some tips on selecting a Bible text to read from:

  • Do not choose just one text to use exclusively. We have access to so many different translations and arrangements. Why settle for just one approach when you can consult many?
  • Use a Bible that corresponds to your intended purpose.
    • If you are engaged in a topical study that requires you to jump around frequently and look up various references from commentaries, using a Bible without verse markings could be a nightmare.   On the other hand, if you just want to dive into the narrative without any distractions, the plain uninterrupted text could be perfect.
    • If you are concerned with what the specific grammar in a particular passage can teach us, be sure to use a “word for word” translation.  On the other hand, if you want to listen more passively for the ideas and the flow of a particular work, and idea-for-idea translation or even a paraphrase may be more appropriate.
  • Read the introduction written by the translators. You may have to read between the lines a bit, but this will tell you which principles were most important to the translators for this particular project.
  • Try something new! Getting a new Bible or looking at a translation you do not spend much time in can give you a fresh perspective and a renewed interest. You may notice something that you missed before.