This is really embarrassing…
Once I misinterpreted the ‘Word in the flesh’ in John 1. I thought it had to do with prophecy in general. One day, in small groups at youth, our leader asked us what makes us aware of God’s presence. Being a know-it-all, I said when I see ‘the Word in the flesh’, as in prophecies fulfilled (which I hadn’t seen much of being 13 years old by the way).
I can’t stop cringing about it.
There’s nothing wrong with fulfilled prophecy, but I’d totally missed the point of John’s introduction. The Word was Jesus, and I twisted it in my ignorance to think it meant something else profound.
A Context Checklist
It’s crucial to understand what we’re reading in the Bible. Being written in a different time and place to our world today, it has to be put into context to fully comprehend it. This involves a few bits of information to keep in mind:
- Who’s the author?
- Who’s the audience?
- When was the book written?
- Where is the passage set?
- What genre is the writing?
- Why was this passage written?
- What happens before it? What happens after?
Most, if not all of these need to be under your belt when diving into the scriptures. Here are some examples of verses that people often take out of context.
‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.’ ESV
This verse is often taken personally, as if God is speaking to whoever reads it, reassuring them of their great future. This may be the case for some, but the reality is that life on earth won’t end up great for everyone. If taken as is, the verse becomes rather frustrating.
Firstly, the book of Jeremiah is from the Old Testament. Jeremiah was a prophet, and this verse is from a letter to the Israelites before they went into exile under the Babylonian rule. Before this, he confronted the false prophets, who told them their exile would last a short time. Jeremiah told them in fact, they’d be in exile for 70 years.
In the meantime, he explained that God wanted them to settle down and ‘increase in number’. He told them God would fulfil his promise and save them in 70 years, because of the plans he has for them as a nation. As this is specifically addressed to the Israelites telling them how to live amidst exile, it’s not wise to take it personally. However, we can observe how this verse reveals God’s faithfulness because 70 years later, the Israelites were able to return home.
‘For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.’ NLT
Before I put this verse into context, I’m going to replace the word ‘do’ with some others.
Withstand; endure; bear; persist with; tolerate.
Now that we are in the right headspace, I can tell you that the apostle Paul was writing to the church in Philippi. He started this church, but they were experiencing some hardships, and so Paul encouraged them by the example of his own struggles with persecution.
Beforehand he explained how he learnt to be content. “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…” (4:12).
Many people like to think this verse helps us tap into some superpower that Jesus gives us to win a race or do well in school. But what happens when we don’t win or we fail? Interpreting the verse in this way relies on circumstances, rather than Jesus. But in Youtuber Jon Jorgenson’s video on this verse he says, “Contentment doesn’t come from a circumstance, it comes from a Saviour.”
The Bible Has Its Own Context
Putting stories into the context of the whole Bible is relevant too. The guys over at The Bible Project believe that the Bible tells one unified story. We can see this when looking at Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 (if you don’t know the story, have a read – won’t take long).
While the lesson in this story is to trust God, it alludes to Jesus’ death and resurrection. There’s both a father and a son. The trip to the mountain took three days, and Jesus was resurrected three days later. The end result was life. In the context of the whole Bible, this passage is an example of how God was going to sacrifice Jesus to save us.
The Bible can be read from cover to cover, but know that it was written when you needed a donkey to get around and tunics were the latest fashion. By grasping the context of the Bible, we can better appreciate the story of how God interacted with people before our time. Furthermore, we can reflect on the profound revelation of his Word, which remains forever.