Don Carson credits his late father for saying “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text”. What that basically means is that if you don’t provide the context for a sentence or quote then you can interpret it or make it say whatever you want.
A further way of looking at that is to say that words only make sense in sentences, and sentences only have meaning in paragraphs, etc. Within biblical poetry that can be extended to include that a word or sentence only has meaning within a stanza. Without context, without an environment then a group of words can be construed or misconstrued to suit different purposes.
I’ve heard a number of examples used in the past, and I’ll throw in one of my own:
- What does the word “green” mean. If someone is green does that mean they are a newcomer, inexperienced, feeling queasy, a good gardener, envious or a resident of Mars?
- How about the word “dark”. Is that moody, or mysterious, of African extraction or going off-grid and under the radar?
- And how about the word “hand”. Does that relate to providing assistance, or to applaud, or the unit of measure of the height or a horse or perhaps to a bunch of bananas?
Words only have meaning within sentences, and a group of sentences formed into a paragraph should represent one unit of thought or idea. In reading/preaching/teaching the Bible, a paragraph (or stanza for poetic works) should be the minimum unit to work with.
Too often Bible verses are quoted (and even memorised) that don’t provide context. As a result they can be regurgitated ad nauseam (what a great bunch of words), sound impressive and Biblical and yet be quite misleading. A fairly popular, often-quoted verse is Matthew 18:20:
For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them. [NKJV]
This is used to suggest that if two or three (but apparently not four or more) Christians gathered in one place agree on a course of action then God is obliged to meet that request. Bizarre. Firstly, it totally ignores the idea that God is omnipresent – present everywhere. Secondly, it ignores Jesus’ promise that He will be with believers always (Hebrews 13:5). Thirdly, it seems to suggest that God’s will can be overridden by two or three people conspiring for something. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly it ignores the context. And the context is of church discipline – of a legitimate process to investigate and propose discipline for a believer who is acting contrary to church/Biblical authority.
The context is that the agreement or verification by two or three people/witnesses is necessary before a believer can be approached to explain and correct their behaviour. If there are those two or three who can confirm the errant behaviour then Jesus, in matters of church discipline, will agree that corrective action is needed.
Context. Don’t leave home without it!