The Preacher's Hub: CONTEXT

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Preaching and teaching have always been my passions. As a young preacher, I learnt the importance of context for a correct interpretation of God’s word and an accurate application of it. I was only 15 but I can still hear my father saying to me: “Never make a doctrine out of an isolated verse!" In other words , he was saying, a doctrine must be supported by the whole of God’s Word and not just a single verse. This fatherly advice has helped me interpret and apply God’s Word faithfully and in balance for the last 20 years. 

Firstly, having a clear understanding of the context will help you form a solid foundation for the truth you are about to preach. Context is as important to your sermon, as the foundation is to a beautiful house. The listeners will relate so much better to the point of your sermon if they have a clear understanding of the context. You build your context by asking questions. These questions relate to the historical background of a particular passage, the personal circumstances of the writer or the wider topic of the book. The context of a verse is in the topic of the passage or the chapter. The chapter sits within a book, which has a particular historical setting. 

For example, Paul writes to the church in Philippi about joy. The context of Philippians 4: 4 is a the topic of unity/ Philippians is written by Paul, who is a prisoner in Rome, during his last days of his life. As you can see, these details enable the listener to relate much better to the topic of joy, knowing the overall topic of the book and Paul’s personal circumstances. 

Secondly, context helps you apply the correct hermeneutical tools (tools of interpretation) and also to draw the correct life application. Context is vital in the way you interpret words, phrases and passages. Preaching cannot be correctly done without clear hermeneutical principles. These principles keep us away from developing erroneous views, opinions or heretical doctrines. When a verse is taken out of context and interpreted on its own, it can result in real disasters. Context allows us to determine wether certain words can be taken literarily or as forms of speech: metaphor, hyperbola or simile.

For example: the word “body” can be interpreted as physical body (flesh and blood) or as a metaphor to describe the church. Context will determine its right interpretation. Does the context render the word “tongue” the interpretation of language or is it the physical organ? And, if it is language, would it be human or angelic? The context will have the answers to all these questions. Another example is the word “ fire”. The context will determine whether the right interpretation is a literal one or a metaphor for the judgement of God.

Thirdly, context will help you give the text its proper application. Application is vital to our preaching. People need to know the Word of God is relevant and applicable to our lives today. The wrong context, or the lack of it, will most likely lead you to wrong interpretations and wrong applications.

For example, I have been in circumstances where people used Mathew 10: 28 to say we must fear the devil and also that unbelievers are destroyed in hell, therefore hell is not eternal. With little attention to the context we can clearly see that Jesus is not talking about the devil but God the Father and the interpretation of the word destroy is not to consume out of existence (kill) but to be lost forever. The lack of context to a passage and the wrong interpretation can lead us to strange applications and the formation of unbiblical doctrines. 

I remember growing up hearing a sermon on how husbands need to be strict with their wives. The preacher had used 1 Peter 3:7 and 1 Thessalonians 4:4 to arrive to the conclusion that as husbands we must posses our wives well. The problem was that in the context of 1Peter 3:4 the word vessel refers to women as “weaker vessels” that need to be honoured, while the context in 1Thessalonians 4:4 makes it clear that Paul uses the word "vessel” to talk about our bodies not our wives.

In conclusion, do not underestimate the importance of context. Context will determine the right interpretation of the text and ultimately the application. During your preparation, keep asking questions and build your context well. Be faithful in your task of expanding God’s Word.

Tags: Context Hermeneutics Interpretation Application Preaching

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