Stage 1: Context
Location! Location! Location! If you’ve ever consulted a real estate agent about the first step in finding a home, you’ve heard this refrain. You don’t begin with square footage or the number of bedrooms, although those are crucial parts of the discussion. You begin by identifying the area on the map in which you want to live.
The study of the Bible is no different. When digging deeper into the meaning of a biblical text, the first order of business is to remember the refrain, Context! Context! Context!1 From the Latin terms con (meaning “together”) and textus (meaning “woven”), the word context refers to the surrounding elements into which a given text was woven by its author.
These surrounding elements are essential for giving the text its meaning and purpose. For example, think of the biblical text you want to study as a pocket that has been sown into an article of clothing. The meaning of that piece of material comes from its connection to the rest of the garment. Moreover, the way in which that piece of material has been connected will determine its usage—whether it is a front pocket on a pair of jeans to hold your keys, a shirt pocket to hold one of those nerdy pen protectors, or an inside pocket on a jacket to keep your passport safe from pickpocketers. If you came across that piece of material detached from its article of clothing, you would scarce know what to do with it. It is the rest of the garment that gives that piece of material meaning.
The same is true for any given statement of Scripture. For instance, take Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three have gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” These words have been invoked countless times over the past weeks in response to the social distancing measures prescribed by the government in response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Even though we can’t meet as usual with our local church, we can be encouraged by the promise of Jesus’ presence even when we meet at home in a group as small as two. But is this the proper use of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20? No. His words have been detached from their context—a context that actually refers to Jesus’ instruction concerning church discipline! True is the saying, “A text without a context becomes a pretext.”
It is helpful to recognize that a text’s surrounding elements can be grouped into two categories—one of which is unwritten and the other of which is written. The first category refers to historical context, to that non-written dimension of elements like the geography, culture, and specific circumstances of the writer and his immediate audience. The second category refers to literary context, to that textual dimension that includes the immediate and larger context of the writer’s written work and even the antecedent Scripture to which the writer may refer. Both categories of context are important, and the student of Scripture must get a handle on these elements before he endeavors to dig deep into the text itself. How does this look in practice?
1. Discover the text’s historical context.
The goal of this step is to become acquainted with the world of the writer and his audience. It considers such things as: the identity of the writer; the place and time at which he wrote his text; the identity of the recipient(s); and the practical circumstance that precipitated the writing.
This step arises out of the reality that any given text of Scripture was recorded in response to an historical need for the word of God. In other words, it’s important first to understand that the texts were situational before we begin to consider the implications of their transcendence. We must grasp that they were timely before we can properly delight in their timelessness. It is this reality that gives the texts of Scripture the quality of clarity. They were God’s response to real needs, whether it was the need of the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land (the book of Deuteronomy), the need of Jews returning from exile to repent of their complacency toward God’s law (the prophecy of Malachi), the need of a believing Roman official for accuracy concerning the life of Christ (the Gospel of Luke), or the need of seven local churches facing the challenges of stagnation, false teaching, and persecution (the book of Revelation). The goal is to begin with this context in the forefront of one’s mind—to read the text from the perspective of the original writer and his immediate audience.
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How is this accomplished? Begin by reading the entire biblical book which contains the text you desire to study. The books of Scripture often provide significant historical details missed by students who dive immediately into the exegesis of the text. Next, review the “Introduction” to this book of Scripture in a study Bible, such as The MacArthur Study Bible or the ESV Study Bible. These introductions provide concise and accessible summaries about authorship, recipient, date, location, and occasion. Third, make the effort to access several of the best commentaries that contain introductory chapters dedicated to these background issues. This extra effort in background study will yield dividends later in the process.
2. Survey the text’s revelatory context.
Consider what parts of Scripture had already been delivered prior to the writing of the book in which your text is found. It is possible that this previous revelation is being assumed by the writer of your text, and so should be assumed by you as a reader as well.
For example, if you desire to dig deep into Daniel’s prayer recorded in Daniel 9, you’ll need to recognize that Daniel’s prayer was built upon his own study of the antecedent prophecies of Jeremiah—particularly Jeremiah’s prophecies of the “seventy years” (compare Dan. 9:2 with Jer. 25:11–12; 29:10). Consequently, you’ll need to begin there, where Daniel began. Or, if your goal is to understand Paul’s teaching on the Day of the Lord according to 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11, you’ll need first to trace the development of this concept chronologically in the Scriptures from its beginning in the Old Testament prophets. Otherwise, you’ll construct an understanding of the Day of the Lord in a vacuum—a vacuum which the apostle Paul did not share.
This step accounts for the progressive nature of special revelation. By recognizing where a text is located in the historical flow of divine revelation helps you identify the backdrop which gives a particular text meaning. This can be done through a quick step of consulting a chart listing all the books of the Bible and their assumed dates of composition (some books can be dated more accurately than others). A better and longer-term approach is to practice daily Bible reading chronologically—that is, reading through the books of Scripture according to their date of composition rather than according to the order in which they appear in our English Bibles.
3. Recognize the text’s book context.
This step identifies the scarlet thread that ties the biblical book together. It locates the foundation which supports and connects all the parts of the book from 1:1 to its end. In a word, it answers the question, Why was this book written?
Repeated reading of the book is fundamental to this step. In some cases, this repeated reading will uncover direct statements which indicate the writer’s overall purpose. These direct statements may occur at the beginning of a work (e.g., Jude 3), in the middle (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:15–16), or at the end (e.g., John 20:30–31). In other cases, this repeated reading will uncover recurring words or phrases which indirectly reveal the writer’s purpose. For example, Moses’ repetitive use of the phrase “these are the generations of” indicate that his purpose in writing the book of Genesis was to provide an account of origins (see Gen. 2:4; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12; 36:1, 9; 37:2).
At other times, a biblical book’s purpose will be more difficult to recognize. This is not a literary defect, but an intentional effort on the part of the writer to elicit careful consideration. After considering various clues (the chief exhortations in didactic books, the focus of narratives and their arrangement in historical books, etc.), you can find answers, once again, in the book introductions of a study Bible and in the introductory sections of good commentaries. The reader who thinks he knows the purpose of the biblical book, but cannot state it clearly in his own words, is most likely mistaken. A reader who successfully understands a biblical book’s central argument will be able to state it in a concise statement: “The purpose of this book is . . . .” Ultimately, the better you understand this book context, the better prepared you will be to interpret its contents.
4. Discern the text’s structural context.The goal of this step is to detect the most prominent features of the book’s literary structure. It requires viewing the book as if under an x-ray machine, so that any given text can be appropriately placed within the book’s literary skeleton—not merely in terms of chapter and verse location, but in terms of the book’s flow of argument.
Once again, repeated readings and surveys of the book are important in order to identify its main sections. You must look for crucial transitions in the writer’s thought, transitions which may be biographical, historical, geographical, logical, or theological in nature. As you read, begin to construct a working outline. This outline should be general at first, focused on the areas where major transitions occur (e.g., Eph. 4:1–3 serving as the transition from Paul’s indicatives in chapters 1–3 to his imperatives in chapters 4–6). But as you read in progressively greater detail, add depth to your outline. Then, consult the outlines provided in the appropriate book introduction in a study Bible and your select commentaries to review the accuracy of your own findings.
This outline provides a crucial interpretive map for handling your text later in the process. Once you begin the careful work of exegesis, you will encounter moments where decisive interpretive decisions are necessary. Crucial to success will be your ability to connect the decisions you make to the emphasis the writer is making in the particular section in which your text is found.
5. Identify the text’s immediate context.The breadth of contextual analysis was broadest in the first step. Since then the focus has progressively narrowed. Now, in this final step, the focus is most restricted. It is turned upon the paragraph that precedes the text you aim to study, and the paragraph that follows it. Spend time acquainting yourself with the contents of these paragraphs by repeated, careful reading.
Bernard Ramm provides a helpful illustration to explain the importance of these entry- and exit-paragraphs:
The material before the passage is the radar which guides the approach, and the following material is the radar of the leaving. And if we can track the material approaching and leaving the particular passage, we have the framework in which the passage is to be understood.2
Indeed, the importance of this immediate context cannot be overemphasized. This writer has heard numerous sermons over the years by students who have made assertions in their expositions which clearly exposed their ignorance of the surrounding paragraphs. This context is no less mandatory for sound Bible interpretation than the radar which guides a plane’s landing or departure.
Every interpreter must recognize that the more he interprets apart from context,
the more he interprets according to convenience
The need here is not a better understanding of one’s own context, or even of the context of another contemporary reader! Indeed, we hear all too often today that the best way to minimize the influence of one’s own bias is to read the text of Scripture through the experience of the other sex, from the perspective of a different culture, or with the lens of a different skin color. These are all beside the point. The need of the hour is to learn to interpret the biblical text in its biblical context. Anything else will lead to a pretext for error.
Want to learn more? Continue to Stage 2: Getting into Details.
For more on everything from hermeneutics to homiletics, see the free guide: Handling Scripture.
 But someone might counter, “Shouldn’t prayer be the first order of business in Bible study?” Yes, and no. Prayer is not only the first order of business, but the second, and third, and fourth—all the way to the end. Because prayer must permeate the entire process of Bible study, it is best not to consign it to a specific step.
 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), 139.