About Jesus     Steve Sweetman

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Biblical Context

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Thereís one hermeneutical rule that most people know, but donít necessarily follow.  It is the rule of context.  Iíve already mentioned this in my introduction.


We donít follow this rule in life let alone in interpreting the Bible. One reason why people communicate poorly with one another is because they take things that are said out of context.  Husbands and wives often do this.  A husband may say something and his wife responds, but what she says in response has little relevance to what her husband just said. She might be upset at what her husband said or did yesterday and so her response is a reaction to that and not what her husband just said. She is thus responding out of context.  At this point the communication between the two becomes disjointed because she is not responding exactly to what her husband has just said.  Thus the train of thought is broken and shifts in a different direction.  Then her husband may do the same in return.  He may not respond to what his wife just said, but responds to an earlier event.  The conversation gets even more disjointed at this point.   Nothing usually gets accomplished in this kind of dialogue.  Things only get worse. 


The same thing happens when we attempt to interpret the Bible.  Taking phrases out of context makes matters worse.  We often take sentences out of context and make them mean more than the immediate paragraph wants them to mean.  Our response to a particular verse may be influenced by what we think the verse should mean.   Or, our response to the verse might be influenced by lifeís experiences.  Our own thinking and lifeís experiences should not dictate what the Bible says.   The Bible should dictate to what we think and to our lifeís experience.  If our thinking and experience is not in line with the Bible, we change.  More often than not, we try to make the Bible change.       


Hereís one example that Iíve noticed over the years concerning taking a verse out of context.  Paul, in Romans 4:17 says that "God Ö calls things that are not as though they were".  The misconception here is that God calls things that arenít as if they were and therefore we should do the same.  This means that if you want a new car and donít have a new car, you act as if you have the new car already.  The acting as if you have the car already will eventually bring about a new car in your driveway.  In this case the thing that isnít is the car, and by calling it ours even though its not, weíll end up with it.  We thus call something that isnít as if it is. 


There are a couple problems here.  One problem is that some say that God is so positive in His thinking that even if something doesnít exist, if it is not, he thinks and acts as if it does exist.  This verse is not saying anything like this.  


Also, the other problem is that even if God does act like this according to this text, it doesnít mean we are to act this way. It is a leap of logic to suggest that we should act this way because the text doesnít say we should.


This wrong thinking is seen in the Prosperity and Positive Thinking Movement. The example of the new car in your driveway is an example of how both teachings would interpret Romans 4:17.  They teach that we should view things that are not, meaning the new car, as if they were, meaning, and the car in the driveway.  This is simply mental gymnastics and not Biblical doctrine.  


Hereís the context of Romans 4:17. The paragraph that this sentence closes is all about Jews, especially those Jews who had long since departed from their God.  If you understand the Old Testament book of Hosea, who will know that God divorced Israel .  Israel became a nation that was not His people.  Paul states that through faith in Jesus, those who were not God's people, the Jews, now are God's people.  God is calling something that isn't as though it is.    


The words "things that are not" apply to one thing and one thing only, and that's the Jews.  Beyond this, there is no secondary meaning to this phrase, and we should not invent one.  This sentence has nothing to do with positive thinking, naming and claiming a new car, or speaking things into existence that do not presently exist.   Such an interpretation is way beyond the scope and meaning the paragraph intends for this sentence. Thus the doctrine that is formulated by this wrong interpretation is in error.     


Hereís another way of saying this.  You ask me, "How are you doing"?  I answer, "Iím fine".  You may interpret my answer to mean, "Iím fine with same sex weddings, with my back ache, with my job, and so onĒ.  But all these interpretations of ďIím fineĒ are wrong.  When I say, "Iím fine", I mean at that particular moment of time when you ask me "how are you doing", Iím dong fine.  I may not be fine the next moment.  I may not have been fine one hour earlier.  Iím not fine with same sex wedding, or with my back ache.  You cannot take the words "Iím fine" to mean more than what the context of our conversation wants them to mean.          


Iíve just spoken of the context of a sentence within a paragraph, but thereís more to context.  There is the context of the book or letter in which the paragraph is found.  For example, what does Paul say in the rest of the book of Romans that would shed light on Romans 4:17.  If you read the previous chapters youíll clearly see that Paul said Jews were sinners, no different than Gentile sinners.      


Then there is the context of the Bible as a whole.  What does the rest of the Bible say about a particular verse that might shed some light on the subject?  There are many other statements to consider when thinking about Romans 4:17.   


So there are three Biblical contexts to consider when interpreting a verse Ė paragraph, book, and Bible context.  There is one more context to consider as well, and that is the Historical context.

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