…rightly handling the word of truth. – 2 Timothy 2:15b
Check out last Sunday’s sermon here. In that sermon, Pastor Mike said “beware of bad proof-texting”. With this longer-than-usual post, instead of commenting on the sermon, I am offering some thoughts about reading passages within their contexts. I pray it will be helpful to you as you read and study God’s Word.
We often like to reference passages that make a point, driving home an argument. These passages are little weapons in our arsenal to be unsheathed when needed to instruct, convict, correct, and train others (2 Timothy 3:16).
Or do they? If we want to be thoroughly God’s people and not people living for a God of our own making, we need to seek to understand the Bible on its own terms, not on the terms that we would like to impose upon it.
Of course, I am not saying that we never bring biases to the Good Book. We all read through a cultural/experiential lens that must be beaten back via healthy study techniques. However, I am saying that there is one universal principle to Scripture reading that by in large will help us understand God’s Word as written to His people.
Have you heard a preacher or Bible teacher overuse this word before? Does it sound a bit lame? Possibly. However, I believe that developing a desire to read Scripture in context will bring us closer to understanding what God is saying to us in His Word.
Do we need to be convinced that context is important in Bible reading? If you are one of the few, imagine yourself having to explain to your teenager why Proverbs 5:19 is NOT a license for him to engage in a promiscuous life.
Verses like Proverbs 5:19 seem to me to be clear evidence that context does matter. That verse is, of course, absurd if read alone. It needs context to make proper sense. If Proverbs 5:19 should be read in context, what about every other verse in the Bible? It seems many of the verses we like to read without context are the ones we can shape and mold into a positive message, communicating what seems to be a universal truth anyone would want to hear (“cough” Jeremiah 29:11)…
What do I mean by context?
The original biblical texts are histories, songs, poems, narratives, and letters composed of literary units, all communicating ideas. Originally they had no chapter and verse numbering systems. Therefore, a statement (verse) in the Bible was then never to be read alone (most of the time) as one of many disconnected thoughts. Rather, a verse should be read in connection (context) with all the other statements written around it. These texts that surround the text help give meaning to the text we want to understand! So, to understand the context of a verse, we should start small (smallest literary unit) and move outward to get the best understanding of the passage.
Contextual factors to consider include:
- Paragraph (literary unit)
- Chapter (helpful but remember that the original authors didn’t include those chapters).
- Entire book/letter
- Other writings from the author
- The entire Bible
It’s important to start small and work your way gradually to the context of the entire Bible. For example, if you run into a passage from Colossians that seems to contradict what you think Jesus says in the Gospel of John, you should first try to understand the passage in context with Colossians before jumping to John to find cohesion. In doing so you will likely find that your perceived contradiction is made clear later on by the author of Colossians.
Before you go, let’s consider one example of trying to understand a passage in its context.
One Practical Example: 2 Timothy 2:13
“The saying is trustworthy, for:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.” – 2 Timothy 2:11–13
“…if we are faithless, he remains faithful”
For a good portion of my life, this statement about God’s faithfulness was a great comfort to the terrifying thought of denying Jesus and therefore being denied by Him (v. 12b).
God’s faithfulness despite our failures is a comforting thought and a biblical truth! Jesus, himself prophesied to the disciples that He would remain faithful to them despite their future abandonment of Him after His arrest and murder (Mark 14:27-28).
However, I don’t believe the statement, “…if we are faithless, he remains faithful,” is meant by Paul to be a comfort. Rather, it is a warning that God will be faithful to Himself to deny any who deny Him.
Why do I think that?
In the immediate context of verse 13, we have a quoted saying with four lines, possibly an ancient Christian hymn. The first two lines are positive.
“If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;”
Considering that the first two lines carry synonymous ideas, it would then logically follow that the next two lines would also be connected, communicating synonymous ideas.
“if we deny him, he also will deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—”
The first statement about denying Christ is clearly negative. There is no way to positively understand being denied by Christ. It seems to follow then that the statement of God’s faithfulness is likely more a warning (a synonymous parallel with denial) that God is a faithful, fair, and consistent judge of deniers than a positive statement about God’s faithfulness to forgive sins. This four-line structure would be considerably hampered if God’s faithfulness were intended to be seen as a comfort rather than a warning?
It is interesting that prior to 2 Timothy 2:11-13, Paul seems consumed that Timothy (and Paul) remain faithful to Christ, despite suffering.
“Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect…” – 2 Timothy 2:10
“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” – 2 Timothy 2:3
Additionally, Paul provides three examples of determined perseverance (the commander-pleasing soldier, the rule-following athlete, and the hard-working farmer) (2 Timothy 2:4-6). These seem to be intended by Paul as motivators for Timothy to keep pressing on in his Gospel work. The question is then, would the following hymn in vv 11-13 be more likely to include a line that disregards the Christian call to be faithful? Or, would the line be a warning (in line with Paul’s prior encouragement) to remain faithful! I think the latter.
How does Paul speak about faithfulness throughout the remainder of the letter?
There are nine additional explicit references to faith in the letter. Timothy has faith (1:5, 3:10). Timothy should continue pursuing faith in Christ (1:13, 2:22). Timothy should pass on what he has been taught to faithful men (2:2). False teaching upsets the faith of people (2:18). Opposing the truth disqualifies one regarding the faith (3:8). Faith in Christ is connected to salvation (3:15). Finally, the keeping of the faith is evidence for Paul that Paul is bound for glory (4:7).
Rather than Paul easing up and considering faithlessness as a Christian quality, he actually treats it as a mark of an unbeliever (3:8). On the other hand persistent faithfulness is, to Paul, a mark of being a Christian (4:7).
Therefore, considering the immediate, near, and whole context of 2 Timothy, 2:13 seems more likely to be a warning to remain faithful than intended as a comfort that faithlessness is a Christian quality.
So, let’s love the Word by reading the words in context. This is a great first step to understanding more of God’s Word in order to live it out.