Ben Witherington lll, one of my favourite New Testament scholars, states “A text without a context is just a pretext for what we want it to mean…” The Indelible Image p 41 What he means by that is without the proper context for understanding the text of the Bible we can make it say whatever we want.
I grew up in a tradition that relied upon proof texting for understanding and presenting its Biblical teachings. We would give Bible studies that consisted of dozens of texts pulled at random from throughout the Bible without any historical consideration regarding what the texts meant in context to the time they were written. The result was we ended up with teachings that didn’t often fit or present well what the original Biblical author was stating.
It is important to understand context for Scripture and the best way to do that is by grasping the principle that we should always ask ourselves what the text meant to the people that were receiving it. By ripping every text out of context and applying it to our own day can have real consequences for our understanding of Scripture.
Let me give an example. During the early history of Christianity the Emperor Nero issued coins that presented him as the son of God. When Christians worked out the Roman numerals on the coins they added up to the number 666. So the original number 666 for the early Christians was Nero.
When John wrote Revelation he spoke of a coming authority that would be 666 who would persecute God’s people. This simply meant one like Nero, a political authority that would have demonic power and would persecute God’s people. This persecution was taking place under Emperor Domitian. He actually led two different persecutions against the Christians and many of the early church leaders were martyred under his attacks. It is possible that even Timothy died from severe beatings during this era.
So the man with the number 666 was Domitian for the early church, but John never intended us to understand the number 666 to apply to just one person in history. It is a code or a symbol of any union of church and state where the state takes on the role of persecuting Christians as a form of oppression.
Throughout history different Christian groups equated their persecutors to the number 666. One of the most famous was Martin Luther who understood the man with the number 666 to be the Pope who used the political power of the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire (most of Europe) to persecute Luther and his new understanding of the Gospel.
Many in Rome during the time of the barbarian invasions associated different tribes and pagan leaders as the man with the number 666. Later during the second world war Christians were convinced, especially in Europe, that Hitler fit the bill. Even later during the Cold War Christians found the number 666 in regards to certain Russian and Chinese leaders.
For millions of Christians facing persecution and death throughout the Middle East it is easy to understand certain leaders and organizations fit the understanding of the man with the number 666. So, who is the man with the number 666 in our own time here in North America. Time will tell, but we can be assured that it will be a political power or individual who has the nation’s authority to persecute Christians with absolute power. What I am trying to show through this simple illustration is that we need to understand the principles and context of Scripture in order not to come to the wrong conclusions.
Another thing we can do to help in receiving the proper meaning of the text is to read the verses around the text. For example, many New Testament quotes are taken from Old Testament sayings. Take the time to read those Old Testament texts in context with the verses around them and it adds an amazing amount of information to what the New Testament author is getting at.
Also read the verses or chapter around the verses you find interesting or confused about. Sometimes we have to read the whole Chapter to know the context of the verse and in some cases we will have to read the entire book. For those of us who like to dig even deeper into the text there are plenty of helps on the market in the form of books, videos, etc., that can help us dig into the culture of the different time periods in the Old Testament and life in the 1st Century. And a good concordance helps with the root meanings of the Greek words in the New Testament.
You might be thinking, why bother? We bother because Bible study should be fun and informative. We want to mine Gems of understanding and wisdom out of our study and apply Biblical wisdom to our lives to aid in our spiritual growth. The more we know about the Bible and the world of the Bible the more we will grasp its meaning and wisdom.
Lastly, I should mention that we often are confronted by people who ridicule the Bible and mock it as myth or outdated ramblings from two thousand years ago. Every Christian should read a book or two on how the Bible was written to get a grasp on how unique and reliable the book is. There are a number of great books on the market that help to understand just how reliable the text is and how it was preserved throughout the ages. The Bible is reliable, and we need to be able to push back on people who argue differently.
For example one of the earliest books in the New Testament is Galatians (possibly only 1 Thessalonians is older) and it was written in early AD 50’s. Jesus was crucified around AD 30 so here is Paul presenting the gospel in a well thought out manner regarding salvation, the Holy Spirit, law and grace, Christian living (fruit of the Spirit) and the centrality of Jesus as the Messiah (death and resurrection) only twenty some years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Historians tell us this is way too short for myth to be built up in the telling of the story. As a result, whether or not you believe it, Paul is unfolding truth as he knows it and understands it from early sources including his own personal experiences with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Critics of the Bible have to deal with this historical information.
Our faith is built upon solid ground and the more we know about the origins of our faith and the historical context of the Bible the more assured we become. Happy reading.
Please check out the following video to better understand the context of this blog…