Have you ever received a text message that wasn’t intended for you? A couple of years ago I was texting with a man who was a dear friend and mentor. We were corresponding about a job opportunity and making plans for future meeting times. I deeply admire and respect this friend. At one point, I asked a question and he responded right back with “As you wish, my dear.”
And I froze. I stared at the text message for a very long 60 seconds. I read back over the previous messages looking for any evidence that would explain this response. It was at the end of these very long 60 seconds when he texted right back and said, “So sorry…that last text was meant for my wife…” and he went on to explain the context. It was a funny story in the end (and I know his wife, which made it more entertaining). We had a good laugh and that was the end of it.
The point is this, without context a message can be confusing, or even detrimental. This is true for the Bible also. Many times, we read the Bible looking for what it means for me, how it applies to me and how I can benefit from it in my present life circumstances. The problem with reading the Bible this way is that the Bible was not written for you.
The Bible was written for communities of people living in the ancient world to pass down the Story of Yahweh, then Jesus and the Church. These communities were all facing their own specific issues and conflicts. As we approach reading and especially interpreting the Bible, we must consider the context.
Context brings clarity (Reggie Joiner’s Youth Orange Curriculum uses this phrase as their Week 2 Bottom Line on the “Explained” series). Without context, there can be confusion, and even harm, like receiving a text message or reading an email not intended for you and trying to interpret and apply it to your own life.
Consider Philippians 4:13. I have worked with young people for thirteen years and this is the most common verse that I have seen used on Senior invitations, letter jackets and posters. I have even heard it talked about at pep-rallies, Christian clubs and prayed during prayers before sports games.
“ For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”
“What does this verse mean? For many people, it means “I can do everything, all things, anything with God who gives me strength.” My question is, “Anything?” Can you win the basketball game that you are picked to lose? Can you fly in the air like a bird? Can you ace the test when you haven’t studied? Can you repair your parent’s relationship when they are already divorced? Can you heal someone’s terminal cancer? It is not until we know the context of these words from Paul that we can fully understand and interpret them.
How do we do that? How do we determine the context of the text? Here are a five little words that can get you started.
To get to the context we want to know who wrote the text? For many biblical texts, we don’t know who wrote them. But we can, to the best of our ability, learn who scholars believe wrote it or at least the ideas that they have about the author.
What did the author write? Is it a letter to a group of people or to one person? Is it a poem? Is it a story?
Where was it written from and where was it read?
Around what time? If it’s the NT, how many years before or after Jesus was it written? If it’s OT, can you determine whether or not it was before or after the Exile, etc?
Why did the author write? What is the author doing, or wanting to accomplish?
As we look at the context of Philippians 4:13 we see that Paul wrote the letter from prison. (Who) He wrote the letter to the Church at Philippi, a Roman colony (Acts 16) and he sent the letter with Epaphroditus sometime in the early 60s. (What, Where, When).
Now, to Philippians 4:13. “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” These words are a part of Paul’s closing remarks. He is ending the letter and he is talking about contentment.
How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Even so, you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty. (Philippians 4:10-14 NLT)
Here in this context, we can see that Paul is not telling the church that he can do everything or anything for all places and all times. He is telling them that he can be content with little or with plenty, whether he is free or in jail. He has learned a secret in the midst of suffering and that secret is contentment. It is this contentment that he referring to when saying that he can do “everything through Christ.” Once we know that Paul wrote from prison and he wrote to persecuted Christians and he was writing about contentment, then it gives us a lens through which to view Philippians 4:13. This lens helps us realize that these words don’t apply to every situation in our lives, nor were they written to address our specific situation, but these words can inform how we suffer and how we practice contentment. These words can give us comfort and hope when things are not going the way we want things to go. We can find contentment in the midst of suffering as we interpret and apply Philippians 4:13 in its context.