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.

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?

Come, See For Yourself!

In the forth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The very fact that Jesus—a Jewish male, would talk to her—a Samaritan female, gets her attention and causes her to realize that there is something special about this man.

In the course of their conversation, Jesus reveals that He knows all about her life, and about her five failed marriages and her current unholy relationship. To this, the woman replies, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.”

As their conversation continues to progress, Jesus finally reveals Himself to her as the Christ, the Savior of the world. When the woman says, “I know that Messiah is coming…” He responds to her, “I who speak to you am He.”

This experience at the well with Jesus must have made a huge impact on the Samaritan woman. Surely His demeanor and countenance must have communicated to her great depths of knowledge, wisdom, spiritual insight, and godly love. She had every reason to believe that this was the Son of God.

The text tells us, “the woman left her water pot, and went into the city and said to the men, ‘Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?’ They went out of the city, and were coming to Him.”

Notice what the woman did not say: “I found a man who I know for a fact to be the Christ. If you don’t believe it, you’re going to hell.” “It is so painfully obvious that this man is the Christ, you’d have to be an idiot to miss it!” “You must not question what I am telling you, He is the Christ. End of conversation.”

Instead, the woman invited the people to come to Jesus for themselves, and have their own unique experiences in His presence just as she had. She invited them to take up and explore the question of His legitimacy for themselves.

The outcome of this woman’s evangelism was very great: “Many more believed because of His word; and they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.’”

Will we learn from the example of this woman when we seek to bring people in our life to Jesus?

When we discourage the asking of questions, we stifle the personal experiences of discovery and genuine learning in those who are seeking for answers.

When we respond with shaming and disdain towards those who question what we should believe, we miss an excellent opportunity to say “let us reason together… turn with me to this passage, what does it seem to be saying?”

Often, when we become angry or upset because someone has challenged what we believe, we betray the reality that our own faiths are shallower than we would like to admit. We may need not only to invite our children, friends, and neighbors to come see for themselves what God is like and what His word truly says, we may need to go and see for ourselves all over again as well.

May we learn, like the Samaritan woman, to invite the people around us to evaluate the evidence for themselves and come to their own conclusions. Memorizing correct answers is not the same as true learning. True learning must take place in the individual.