Part 3: Why Context Matters

What comes to mind if you hear: “It’s brick outside.”? 

What about: “Can I get those fries animal style?” 

Or perhaps: “that’s sick!”

Well, the way you interpret those words will largely be dependent on where you live and the generation in which you were born. If you live on the East Coast, you know it to mean, “it’s freezing out, like a brick of ice.” If you’re from the West Coast, you can assume someone is ordering fries with cheese, Thousand Island dressing, and grilled onions. And again, depending on where you live or your social circle, “that’s sick,” could mean something is really gross, or it’s totally awesome. 

Those examples confuse you? Let’s try again.

Tell someone who doesn’t live in Michigan that you need to “run into Meijers and grab some Faygo pop,” or that your sister is a “troll,” and they may look at you cross-eyed. But locals here all know precisely that Michiganders love adding an “S” to everything, “Meijer” is a Michigan-based grocery store, and that Faygo is a local carbonated beverage called “pop”, never “soda.” You also aren’t using an offensive slur toward your kin, you’re merely saying your sister lives in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, under the Mackinac Bridge, hence from which the term “troll” is derived. 😉 

Putting that into perspective, if there can be that much contextual difference within the same time period, just from region to region, how much more would we need to be mindful of contextual differences with Biblical accounts written thousands of years ago on the other side of the world? Jesus was not preaching in Mid-Western America. He was speaking to Jewish audiences in the Middle-East over 2,000 year ago. 

We want to be mindful of the cultural context we are bringing to the table when we open our Bibles. We can very quickly interpret scripture incorrectly when we view it through 21st Century Western culture. Our natural tendency will be to view things through our own cultural lens. So before reading a passage or chapter, take a moment to stop and think about the original context first. 

Let’s look at some examples from the Bible. In the NIV translation of the Bible, Jesus addresses his mother in John Chapter 2 as “Woman!” Understandably, I’ve witnessed people react to that as Jesus being disrespectful and misogynistic. Well, gee, when we read it within our cultural context, it does appear that way. But while the NIV often provides a literal translation, the cultural equivalent of what Jesus said would actually be like saying “Madame.” Do you see the difference in the level of respect by understanding just one word within its original context?!  

Now let’s address an oh, so popular verse: 

“I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” – Philippians 4:13 

This is a classic verse taken out of context. Our Western, 21st Century culture loves this verse. It fits in perfectly with the cultural notion that 

“You can do anything!”

“She believed she could and she did!” 

“Work hard enough and you can achieve your dreams!”

Philippians, most likely written while Paul sat in a prison cell in Rome, was written to encourage the church of Philippi as they may face further persecution. 

Let’s look at verse 13 in full context of the paragraph: 

“I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” 

Interesting. When read all together, what is the main subject Paul is addressing? Is he talking about climbing the corporate ladder or killing it at a presentation or stashing away enough money to build that dream house? Paul is talking about contentment here! Not quite what is typically associated with that verse, now is it? 

I love that the NIV has actually updated the wording of verse 13 to read as “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” By merely changing “things” to “this”, it directs your mind back to the aforementioned verses, as opposed to reducing Paul’s words into a motivational chant. 

Begin to practice pausing before you read scripture to consider that the original context was not 21st Century Western culture, and therefore, how would the original context have impacted its meaning? Below are some ideas for what to ask or pay attention to regarding context.  

Some study Bibles offer contextual info at the beginning of a book. Utilize that!

You absolutely do not need to answer every single one of these every time. They are merely meant to guide and assist, to provide you with some direction, not to bog you down. Again, don’t expect perfection from yourself pertaining to context, and certainly don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers. This coming Sunday we’ll return for Part 4 about the Bible as one big story and that will really help create some anchor points. 

Have a great weekend and I hope to see you here in a few days for Part 4!


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