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Doctrinal Matters: Bible Interpretation

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Context Matters—Really Matters!

by  Kyle Butt, M.A.

Understanding the Bible is the most important facet of any person’s life. For the honest truth seeker, a proper understanding of the Bible is imperative for him or her to secure an eternal home in Heaven. For the skeptic, a true understanding of the Bible can lead him or her out of the darkness into the marvelous light. One of the most important tools for accomplishing such an understanding is a correct grasp of the idea of biblical context and figures of speech.

CONTEXT CLUES

In your younger years of school, one of the first language skills you learned was to use context clues to help you solve problems or understand the meaning of words. For instance, what does the word “bear” mean? It could be a noun referring to a big, furry mammal with large teeth. Or maybe it is being used in its verbal form meaning “to endure.” Only the context can give you the meaning of the word. Read the two sentences below and decide which meaning goes with each sentence.

The bear jumped into the water after a salmon.
God will provide a way of escape so that you can bear temptation.

Obviously, the first sentence is talking about an animal, while the second sentence is discussing being able to endure. That was easy to figure out, but it could be done only via the context.

In the same way, the Bible puts things in context, and that context must be used in order to understand what is being said. For instance, in the book of Job the Bible says to “curse God” (2:9). That is a very disturbing thought. We know that in other places, the Bible says that we should love, honor, and serve God as our Creator. So which is it? Should we honor and serve Him, or curse Him? The answer is easy to find if we look at the context of the verse in Job. Job had just lost his most precious worldly possessions—children, health, and riches. As he sat in the middle of an ash heap scraping his boils with a broken piece of pottery, his wife looked on him with sorrow and desirous of ending Job’s pain. This is what she said to Job: “Do you still hold to your integrity? Curse God and die!” When Job heard this advice, he was troubled and said to his her: “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” Obviously, once the context is taken into account, the Bible does not tell anyone that cursing God is a good thing to do. Job’s wife mistakenly commented that Job should curse God, and Job set her error straight. Context matters—really matters.

Again, Mark 3:22 talks about Jesus saying, “By the ruler of demons He casts out demons.” But at other times we read that Jesus cast out demons by the power of God. Once again, we must inquire as to which was the case. Did the ruler of demons possess Jesus, or did Jesus use the power of God? Context saves the day again. In Mark, the scribes were accusing Jesus (falsely) of using the devil’s power. Just a few verses later in Mark 3:23-27, Jesus set the record straight and explained that His power did not come from Satan, but from God. Once again, context matters—really matters.

FIGURES OF SPEECH

Suppose a younger brother volunteers to bring his older brother a soda from the refrigerator. On his return, he slips on a rug and accidentally throws the beverage across the room. Witnessing the sight, the older brother comments, “Smooth move, little brother.” Did he really mean that his little brother had just made a smooth move? Of course not. He meant the exact opposite, and used a figure of speech known as sarcasm to get his point across. It may come as a surprise to you, but the Bible does the same thing.

In the book of 2 Corinthians, some of the Christians were accusing Paul of treating them badly. Many times throughout the book he explained that never once had he treated them unjustly. In 2 Corinthians 12:13 he wrote: “For what is it in which you were inferior to other churches, except that I myself was not burdensome to you? Forgive me this wrong!” Was the apostle really asking for forgiveness for not being burdensome to the Corinthian church? No, he was using sarcasm to make the point that he never had mistreated the church at Corinth.

Throughout the Bible, many different figures of speech are used, sarcasm being just one of them. Let’s look at another one known as hyperbole. Hyperbole might look like a confusing word, but you probably are very familiar with it, even though you might not know that you are. Hyperbole is simply the exaggeration of facts to make a point. If you were invited to a party and someone said that “everybody” was going to be there, that person would be employing hyperbole. It is impossible for “everybody” in the world to be at the party. We would not call our friend a liar because he or she said such a thing because we understand the figure of speech that was used. The Bible does the same thing. Consider John 4:39 as an example. In this passage, a Samaritan woman spoke of Jesus and said: “He told me all that I ever did.” Had Jesus really told that woman everything that she had ever done in her life? No, she was using hyperbole to make her point. Hyperbole is one of the more common figures of speech in the Bible.

FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE

When a person speaks literally, he means exactly what he says. If I say that I own a car, then I mean that I own a car. But sometimes a person speaks figuratively rather than literally. When a person uses figurative language, then that person uses words to symbolize something else. For instance, when a person says, “That politician is a snake,” he or she does not literally mean that the politician is a reptile that crawls around on its belly. The individual simply means that the politician is sneaky or sly.
Many of the biblical writers use figurative language. In Luke 13:32, Jesus had been warned that King Herod was trying to kill Him. Jesus replied by saying “Go, tell that fox….” Did Jesus really mean that Herod was a furry animal about the size of a small dog with a bushy tale? Certainly not. He did mean, however, that Herod was a sly, sneaky fellow.

Again, in John 10:1-9 Jesus spoke about a place where shepherds kept their sheep, and then referred to Himself as “the door” of the sheep fold. Did he mean that He was a tall piece of wood with a knob and hinges? No, He simply meant that everyone must go through Him to get to the Father. Jesus often used figurative language.

CONCLUSION

If skeptics, as well as sincere truth seekers, would get a firm handle on the concepts of context and figures of speech in the Bible, then there would be far fewer accusations of biblical discrepancy hurled by the skeptic, and far less doubt and consternation on the part of the sincere truth seeker.




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