Why Context Matters When We Write About God’s Word
A few years ago, I drove past a billboard that screamed “WPS!” in giant letters, with the name of a heating and air company along the bottom. If you were visiting my area and saw that billboard, what would you think? Would you be able to guess what the advertiser was trying to communicate?
You might think it was a new brand of heat pump or energy efficiency plan. You might try to guess three words that could make those initials. You could come up with some interesting combinations, but you probably wouldn’t walk away with the intended message.
To understand that billboard, you need to understand its geographical, cultural and historical context. I live in Arkansas, where we love to cheer for the Arkansas Razorbacks in every sport they play. If you come to a Razorbacks game, you’ll see that we have a tradition known as “calling the hogs.” We raise our arms and wiggle our fingers and yell, “Wooooo, pig sooie!” This long-standing tradition has recently been shortened to hashtag length. When the Razorbacks win, this is how we celebrate on social media or in texts with our friends: “WPS!”
That WPS billboard was designed for an audience of Arkansas Razorbacks fans in the social media era. If you were to guess what the billboard advertiser intended to communicate without understanding the context, you might completely miss the message.
The same is true with God’s Word. Each book of the Bible was written in a specific time and place for an original audience, and God made sure His Word was preserved for us today. If we want to discern what the divine author — God Himself — was communicating through the human author of a particular passage, we need to come as close as possible to understanding the author’s intended meaning. If we draw conclusions from the text that the author never intended, we miss God’s message.
We have several tools to help us get to the author’s intended message, such as studying the original language or related passages of Scripture. Context is also an essential tool in our biblical interpretation toolbox.
Understanding the geographical, historical and cultural context of the human author and his original audience helps us get closer to the intended message. Since each word of the Bible was written in a completely different context than the one in which you and I live, this will take some work — but it’s worth it.
When we write about the Bible, we may be tempted to jump straight to a current-day application and share this insight with our readers. But we’ll gain important insight when we take the extra time to consult study Bibles, commentaries and other resources to learn the historical context. (If you need help finding resources to facilitate your research, ask your pastor for recommendations.)
Handling God’s Word rightly is so much more important than understanding a billboard, and we don’t want to share a misleading or mistaken teaching with our audience. When we take time to understand context, our study of the precious Word of God will be even more profitable for us and for our readers.
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