Keep It in Context
by Dianne Neal Matthews
During my childhood, I occasionally heard the story about a man who asked God to send him a message. Then the man flipped open his Bible and stuck his finger at a random spot on the page, ending up at Matthew 27:5: “Then he went and hanged himself.” That can’t be right, he thought. Flipping over to another page, he again randomly pointed. This time his finger landed on the last phrase of Luke 10:37: “Go and do the same.”
As an adult, I discovered Precept Bible studies and frequently heard the guiding principle: “Context is king.” These in-depth, inductive studies began with an overview of the Bible book we were studying. Before we dug into individual verses or passages, we learned everything we could about the book’s historical and cultural setting. Who wrote it? What type of literature is it? When was it written and to whom? What was the author’s purpose for writing? What was happening at the time?
In order to apply Scripture to our personal life, we have to first understand its meaning. In order to understand its meaning, we have to carefully observe the text to discern the context. A single verse or phrase pulled out of its original context can distort or even reverse the intended message.
Understanding context is crucial not just in Bible study, but in everyday communication. A snippet of a video, a photo showing part of a scene, or a line pulled from a longer message can distort or even reverse the intended meaning. Social media is notorious for this, and often leads to disastrous consequences.
Last year I was reminded of the danger of jumping to conclusions without knowing context. I had traveled to visit my mom, and my younger son had met me there. He was looking through one of her many photo albums as she and I talked quietly. Suddenly, he looked up and said, “I’ll be! Here’s a picture of Grandpa with some naked ladies!”
Confusion filled my mind. My dad passed away in 2016, and I was sure that he had lived a moral life. I was also sure that even if he’d suffered lapses in judgment, my mom wouldn’t have documented them in her photo albums. As I looked over my son’s shoulder, I remembered (with relief) that she likes to take pictures of loved ones by the flowers in her yard—including the lilies with the funny nickname.
That’s when I learned that misunderstanding context can lead to a near fainting spell.
Dianne Neal Matthews is a freelance writer and the author of four daily devotional books including The One Year Women of the Bible and Designed for Devotion, which won a 2013 Selah Award. She collaborated with Ron L. Deal on Daily Encouragement for Smart Stepfamilies, and she writes regularly for websites, blogs, and compilations (including Guideposts’ Mornings with Jesus). To learn more, visit www.DianneNealMatthews.com or connect with Dianne through Facebook or Twitter.