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.

Wrong to Celebrate Easter?

Easter is a time when millions pause and think about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For many it is also a time of fun, games, and traditions such as Easter baskets and egg hunts. But not everyone is so fond of Easter.

Some Christians claim that Easter, like many other modern “holidays,” has roots in ancient paganism. While Jesus’ resurrection itself is described in the Bible, there is no mention of “Easter” (except for an unusual and contested translation of “Passover” in the original KJV.)

On top of this, it is argued that it is wrong to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on just one Sunday, since we should be celebrating it every day of our lives. Indeed, God deserves so much more than just one or two days a year, He deserves our all.

But is it wrong to celebrate Easter? Paul appears to answer the question in Romans 14. The chapter begins with the command: “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.” Among the “opinions” over which we should not judge each other, two clear examples are identified:

  • “One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables 
  • One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike.”

In both of these cases, Paul says only that “each person must be fully convinced in his own mind,” and he concludes in verse 13, “let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.”

So is it wrong to regard one day above others as a time to remember divine truths? Not necessarily. Is it wrong to celebrate Easter with baskets and eggs? It appears that there is no problem unless it causes a brother to stumble.  But it is certainly a good thing for us all to be reminded that it is not a certain “day” that is holy, but Christ Himself, to whom we owe everything.

It is important for us to understand what does and does not constitute an opinion. So as a final question for personal consideration, which of these things do you think would also fall into the category of “opinions” as the word is used in Romans 14, and why?

  • Which translation of the Bible to use?
  • Choosing to be single or to marry?
  • Deciding to have a scriptural divorce or a scriptural remarriage?
  • Participating in or not participating in any particular church ministry?
  • Being present every time the church meets?
  • Choosing to drink wine or to abstain from it?
  • Wearing a bathing suit at the beach?
  • Choosing to use homeschool, private school, or public school?
  • Attending a private university, a public university, or joining the workforce?
  • Being a stay at home mom or having a professional career?
  • Choosing if and when to have children, and how many to have?
  • Driving a nice car and owning nice things?
  • Political stances on issues such as gun control, death penalty, or global warming?
  • Choosing to vote or to abstain from voting in an election?