Why Is Context Important When Studying the Bible?

Just a little reminder that when studying the Bible context matters!


I remember the first time I heard the saying, "The Bible was written FOR us, but not TO us." It just didn't make sense to me. I mean, what's the difference, right? But after wrestling with it for a while, I realized there's actually a vast difference between the two.

When we say the Bible was written FOR us, it means that its teachings, wisdom, and messages are intended to guide, inspire, and instruct us in our lives today. It's a timeless source of truth and guidance that we can apply to our daily experiences, challenges, and spiritual growth.

However, when we say the Bible was not written TO us, we acknowledge that it was originally written to specific people in specific historical and cultural contexts. The letters, stories, and prophecies were addressed to ancient communities with their own customs, languages, and issues. Understanding this helps us interpret the scriptures more accurately, appreciating the context in which they were written and applying their principles to our lives.

Since not all scripture is addressed directly to the reader, reading the verses and chapters surrounding an isolated verse allows us to understand the cultural or situational context, providing important insight into who the original writing was meant for and, sometimes, the reason for including it.

Ready to dive into the importance of Context? Let's go!

It's Not All About You

I know this sounds harsh, but hear me out. Not all promises in the Bible are ours to claim. Let me show you what I mean:

In Genesis 12:2-3, God makes a promise to Abram:

"I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."

If we read the verse in context, Chapter 12, verse 1 makes it clear to whom God is speaking in verses 2-3 ("The Lord said to Abram"--These promises were given as an incentive to Abram when the Lord first called him, instructing Him to leave behind his home and family for a place that God would show him. While it may be appealing to claim verses like "I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse," these verses aren't specific to us but rather to Abram in this situation.

Another familiar verse that is frequently taken out of context is Jeremiah 29:11:

"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."

While at first glance, this verse looks like it was PERFECTLY made for a graduation card, it wasn't written to an individual person. If we look back to verse 4, we discover that these verses were written to "those carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon"-in other words, the Jews in captivity. The promise was given to them as a word of encouragement- that although they were enduring God's judgment/punishment for a time, He still had plans and a purpose for them.

Or what about the ever-popular Philippians 4:13:

"I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength."

This is a favorite life-verse for letterman jackets and yearbook quotes or in reference to upcoming sporting events, but it actually originates from a letter written by Paul, and a quick glance into the verses surrounding it reveals that the speaker is not claiming to have superpowers to conquer the world.

Instead, Paul states that he has learned to accept any circumstances or trials he faces- whether in times of plenty or want- with a contented heart because God provides him the strength to do so. Some might argue that because our talents and abilities are given to us by God, acknowledging that anything we accomplish is due to Him. This is a humble (and not inaccurate) stance, however, it is not the intended meaning of Philippians 4:13.

Context Brings Clarity

By taking the time to explore the origin of a passage of scripture, we are better equipped to determine how best to interpret not only who it was intended for but also what its intention was.

Ephesians 6:5-9 offers a whole discourse on the attitude of slaves toward their masters and masters toward their slaves.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slaves or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

If taken out of context, these verses could (and have) be used as a basis for condoning slavery. However, if we look at them in context, we learn that Ephesians was a letter written by the apostle Paul to the church of Ephesus (so that, in and of itself, might offer a clue that it was written to a specific group of people at a specific time in history, related to the practices and culture of that day and age).

Paul also penned Philemon, a letter to a man he considered to be a "brother and fellow worker." In it, Paul addresses a slave named Onesimus, who had been owned by Philemon. A careful reading of this letter to Philemon helps the reader put together the pieces of this mysterious character (who is also briefly mentioned in Colossians 4:9) to reveal that Onesimus likely ran away from his master. In his letter to Philemon, Paul implores him to receive Onesimus (whom Paul sent with the letter) back, not as a servant, but as a brother.

The context of Philemon gives Paul's instructions in Ephesians more interest and weight. It also offers a completely different perspective of the same writer of the words, "slaves obey your earthly masters," as he seems not to be in favor of Onesimus maintaining his status as a slave, but rather of him being forgiven, welcomed, and received as a brother.

Context Helps Us Identify Counterfeit Claims

One of the best reasons for reading scripture in context is to familiarize oneself with truth. In Acts 17, Luke commends Jews from Berea for being "of noble character," as they received Paul's message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what he said was true.

When we use the Bible as the filter through which we run all claims for godly living (as these Jews did), we will have a more true representation of God's will, separate and apart from the teachings of man. If we truly accept the Bible as God's inspired Word, it should hold more weight in our lives than the words of any other teachers. The more we familiarize ourselves with the Bible, the better equipped we will be to recognize and discern good teaching from faulty teaching (which scripture also warns us to be on the lookout for).

Why Bother Reading the Bible if So Much of It Isn't Written to Us?

If the majority of the Bible was written for other people in a different cultural setting, geographical location, and time period, then why is it relevant now? Is it still relevant to us today? Absolutely!

As I mentioned before, the Bible wasn't written to us, but it was still written for us. In the same way that we can learn valuable lessons from studying history (so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past), the Bible offers insight not only into how we should live today but also into why we were created, what we were made for, and why our heart has specific longings that we can't explain.

Although I mentioned earlier that not all promises are ours to claim, that doesn't mean that we can't still pray those words back to God, asking for him to bless us or others in that way. While God may not have promised to prosper and not harm us in Jeremiah 29:11, we can still ask him to do those things for us or our loved ones.

Likewise, there ARE some promises in the Bible that do apply to us, and careful, contextual study of God's Word can help us to discover those promises for ourselves and look forward to them.

One such universal promise/truth is found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which reads:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

These verses remind us that whether or not the verse was written to us, it is still the Word of God and, therefore, beneficial to us.

Okay, you've convinced me context matters, but the Bible is big and overwhelming. How Do I Start?

If you want to start reading the Bible in context but are feeling intimidated or unsure of how to go about it, here are a few ideas.

  • It's always a good idea to pray for guidance, wisdom, and understanding before diving into scripture.
  • The next time you hear (or see) a verse referenced, instead of taking it at face value, look it up. Check that the verse being quoted is correct- you'd be surprised how often speakers accidentally give the wrong scripture reference for a verse!
  • It's usually a good rule of thumb to back up a few verses to figure out who was speaking, to whom they were speaking, and what they were speaking about. Sometimes, this may require a little extra sleuthing to determine. For example, in many of the Epistles, the author and recipient are often listed at the beginning of the first chapter.
  • Take into account the source---does the scripture come from a historical book (like Genesis or I Samuel), a poetic book (like Psalms or Song of Solomon), a prophetic book (like Daniel or Revelation), a gospel (like Matthew or John), or an epistle (like 1& 2 Corinthians or Philippians). Knowing whether the book is historical or prophetic can have a huge bearing on how it should be interpreted!
  • Try Inductive Bible Study or the SOAP Method (check out our printable journals here - they are a great place to start!) to help you organize your thoughts and take notes on what you learn.

All throughout scripture, God's people are implored to hide His Word in their hearts. These instructions still apply to us today, as do the promises that doing so will bless and enrich our lives. If you are interested in learning more about how to read and interpret God's Word, memorize scripture, or are looking for connection and community with other believers, be sure to check out the Bible Study Collective Membership or browse our blog posts for more information!

God's Word is one of His most precious gifts to us--don't be afraid to open it!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.