Why is context so important in studying the Bible? What is wrong with looking at verses out of context?
The main reason it is important to study the Bible in context is in order to obtain a correct understanding of the passage. Misunderstanding a portion of the Bible can lead to misapplying it in our lives as well as teaching something wrong to others. These are quite the opposite of God's desire for our lives, which includes knowing His Word accurately, applying it in our own lives, and teaching it to others, following the example of Ezra, "For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel" (Ezra 7:10).
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Another concern with taking the Bible out of context is the temptation to make the Bible say what we want rather than what it originally meant. Those who have taken this misguided approach have used Scripture to "prove" a wide variety of practices as "biblical." However, a practice is only biblical if it is based on an accurate understanding of Scripture that includes studying the context surrounding a passage.
For example, some have taught that slavery was biblical since this practice can be found in the Bible. However, while it is true slavery is found in the Bible, the New Testament did not teach Christians to enslave one another. On the contrary, in Paul's most personal letter regarding this issue, he wrote to Philemon with the intention that Philemon should free his runaway slave Onesimus (Philemon 1).
In addition, Genesis 1:27 speaks of men and women being created in God's image. Christians are called to love neighbor as self (Mark 12:31), a practice that would certainly contradict the practice of modern slavery. Further, a close examination of slavery and servanthood in first century times shows that it often differed widely in application from modern slavery. A doulos (Greek word for servant) could have a servant of his or her own and held much responsibility. While there were certainly masters who treated their servants poorly in that time, slavery then was not practiced exactly as slavery has been in modern times. Without studying the context of biblical passages on this topic, however, past generations have used Scripture to support the most tragic of interpretations regarding the enslavement and mistreatment of people.
Scripture encourages readers to study the full counsel of God. In Acts 20:27, the apostle Paul told the elders in his presence, "I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God." Our lives are to follow this same practice of studying all of God's Word to accurately understand its teachings and apply them to our lives. Second Timothy 2:15 is clear, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth."
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Which parts of the Bible apply to us today? How can we know?
Applying the Bible – How can I do it in my life?
Is there a proper way to study the Bible?
Should the Bible be interpreted literally?
Truth about the Bible