If I had one chance to give one insight that has helped me better understand the Bible, I think I know what it would be. I would not emphasize that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Nor would I use my one opportunity to emphasize the importance of studying grammar, or the differences between history, poetry, letters and apocalyptic sections of the Bible. I wouldn’t even take my one opportunity to emphasize the Christ-centeredness of all Scripture, or the big story of the Bible. As important as all of these are, I am convinced that the most obvious principle of interpretation is also the most ignored. I’m referring to:
The rule of context
As well known as this principle is,
1. Countless errors of understanding occur by quoting the Bible in a way that we would never want to be quoted or understood– out of context, so that the meaning we intend is changed.
2. No other principle has helped me get insight into difficult passages or resolve apparent contradictions in the Bible.
3. And when I watch skilled teachers of Scripture, I find that all of them use context to open up passages the way we use a key to open a locked door.
So what do we mean by context? At the very least, we mean finding the Bible’s own story behind its statements. Any of us can begin doing this by looking carefully at the words and ideas preceding and following any statement of Scripture. Only by doing this can we begin to find the flow of ideas that determine what a text means.
By starting here we can take the most important step in letting the Bible speak for itself rather than using it to support anything we want to say.
I’ll bet if we take the chance, and without naming names, we can give some pretty good examples of how honoring or ignoring context opens up passages– or subjects them to misquote.