Learning to Preach: Putting the Pieces Together – CONTEXT

Preaching is letting texts talk, according to an expositional luminary such as J.I. Packer. Of course, he’s spot on: if the preacher is talking rather than the text, that’s not biblical preaching.

However, every text has a context. Without it, goes the old saying, all you have is a pretext for a proof text. In other words, if I fail to take into account the context of a passage, I put words in God’s mouth, when it should be the other way around (Jeremiah 1:9).

A dictionary will tell you that context is the parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning. In exposition, there are two types of context, literary and historical. Literary context addresses the passages that immediately precede and follow the particular text with which you are dealing at a given time. Historical context deals with the events that were occurring at the time the text was written, as well others prior to and after which might have impact on its meaning.

Some say context is king. One thing is for sure: we understand a text through its context. Otherwise, we are in danger of putting words in God’s mouth and attributing meaning to Scripture that is simply not true. The best example is Philippians 4:13. (Someone tweeted recently: “I can all do things through a verse taken out of context.” Or at least I can try to and base my actions on an erroneous imagination of God’s will.) If there was ever a refrigerator magnet verse, this is the one. A famous NBA basketball player used to write the reference on his shoes. And so as a result of disregarded and ignored context, many people today believe that they can do anything. But that’s not what that verse means Paul is speaking about contentment in any circumstance of life, not the infusion of a previously un-manifested athletic ability. Failure to place it in context has resulted in well-intended Christians trying to do things they simply were not able to do but even worse things which God never desired for them to do.

How do we acknowledge this important expositional principle? Read on both sides of the text. Expand outward from there. Read the entire book. Discover the overall purpose of the book and put any particular text into that context of purpose. Even beyond that, make sure you anchor your interpretation of a text in the overall story-line of the Bible. But that’s the subject of another post.