The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that all scripture is given by inspiration of GOD (2 TIMOTHY 3:16), which simply means that GOD inspired it to be written, that it was HIS inspiration. Then in the next verse Paul added that this inspiration is profitable; profitable for doctrine, for reproof and for correction, which is instruction so that one can become righteous. This scripture which we hold in our hands is from the very breath of GOD, and is intended to teach the reader how to be righteous. That is quite astounding when we finally get our minds around it.
But too often in their zealousness, students go where Paul never intended them to go. All scripture is indeed given by GOD's inspiration, but that does not mean that every word or phrase is a record of GOD speaking. What it does mean is that every word or phrase of the original text of the Bible represents that which GOD inspired someone to record. Sometimes it is indeed what GOD spoke, but often it is simply what others spoke.
Thus, the Bible generally is a record of what HIS prophets spoke, but it is also a record of what liars and unbelievers spoke. And further, sometimes it is what is spoken unto GOD's people for all ages, but sometimes it is a record of what was spoken to a single individual for a specific time or occasion. We are not being honest in our handling of the scriptures, if we take any verse at random and pretend that it is written to us today. When reading the scriptures, we are most safe if we read as if we are reading someone else's mail.
This is why context is so crucial as we read scripture, both the immediate context as well as the remoter context. The immediate context is that which has to do with the story at hand, the verse or the chapter. The remoter context has to do with the rest of the Bible, for if the Bible indeed has one author, then it must all corroborate itself with no contradictions. What is written in one part must flow with the rest of the book, as I think we will find it does.
When reading, we should always know, if we can,
who is writing, or speaking.
We are given an apt example of the importance of this Key early on in the scripture. In the fourth chapter of GENESIS we find written that Eve had gotten "a man from the LORD" (GENESIS 4:1). So we ask, Who is speaking? It wasn't the LORD who was speaking but it was Eve. Eve was thinking that she had a man from the LORD. But was he? As we read on in the next verse we discover that she was referring to Cain, and as we keep reading a few verses later we learn that Cain murdered his brother Abel. So just in the immediate context of Eve's declaration, we have grave doubts about her claim that she had indeed gotten "a man from the LORD".
Later on in scripture we learn that it was not Cain but Abel who was the righteous one (MATTHEW 23:35) while Cain was "of that wicked one" (1 JOHN 3:12). Thus, from the remoter context of scripture we can be confidnet that Eve was indeed wrong when she stated that Cain was "a man from the LORD". Consequently, the context, both the immediate as well as the remote, must be considered in order for us to correctly understand any verse of scripture.
But beyond understanding simply who it is that is writing or speaking, sometimes we will need to discover
to whom are they writing, or speaking.
Scripture is often misunderstood because the reader fails to consider to whom is the passage addressed. This Key in understanding scripture is of paramount importance and yet so sorely neglected. We will always be confused and disappointed if we take a passage written for someone else and act as if it is written to us. This may come as a shock to many readers, but very little of scripture is actually written to us. While it is true that there is a great deal we can learn from reading other people's mail, we are going to be misled when we read as if their mail is addressed unto us. So it is with scripture. A case in point is in Peter's first epistle.
1 PETER 2:9 But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:
So are we to understand that we today are this "chosen generation, royal priesthood and holy nation" to whom Peter is referring? Many read this verse in exactly that way, assuming that they are indeed the ones referred to by the apostle as being called "out of darkness into his marvelous light". Yet in the opening sentence of Peter's letter he specifically states to whom he is writing, "To the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia".
Peter was writing to a select group of people in a specific area of the Roman Empire. And he was writing to those of his own generation, not to a generation two thousand years later. He wrote to this select group of his piers and encouraged them to stay strong "through their manifold temptations" (1:6), that their faith though tried with fire, "might be found unto praise, and honor and glory" at the fast approaching return of their Lord (1:7), who had been "manifest in those last times" for them (1:20).
Just because we wish that he wrote this epistle to us, that doesn't make it so. So also with all of the letters written by the disciples to the early Church. They were written unto others, and though there are volumes we can learn from them, we would do well to always keep in mind, to whom are they written.
Even though some students might concur that Peter and James' epistles were written to others, they stubbornly cling to the hope that Paul's epistles, or at least some of them, are indeed written to today's Church. Let us look and see if that assumption proves true.
In ROMANS 15:24 Paul writes that, "Whensoever I take my journey into Spain, I will come to you: for I trust to see you in my journey, and to be brought on my way thitherward by you, if first I be somewhat filled with your company". Obviously we today do not expect Paul to have written this verse to us, yet many think that the other verses of this same epistle are.
Too many students make the assumption that Paul wrote this and other epistles to Christians in general, and therefore freely apply whatever verse they choose to themselves. But if Paul intended his epistles to be written to Christians the world over throughout all ages, why then are some verses obviously intended for a specific person or group? And why does not Paul ever say that what he wrote was a permanent Church doctrine?
There is no passage of scripture where Paul, or any other writer states that he is giving doctrine for the Church for all ages. The various epistles are simply letters which were sent to different congregations or individuals for some specific intent, and were never intended to be taken as Church doctrine. True, we can glean many truths from these epistles, but we must always keep in mind that we are reading other people's mail.
How about Paul's letter entitled EPHESIANS? Many believe that it is indeed written to us today, yet Paul opens the letter stating to whom it is written, "to the saints who are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus".
This last phrase about the letter being written to the faithful, leads many readers to jump to the conclusion that this epistle is then written unto the faithful for all time. Howbeit, towards the end of the letter Paul writes, "But that ye also may know my affairs, and how I do, Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, shall make known to you all things: whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that ye might know our affairs, and that he might comfort your hearts" (6:21-22).
Again, no one believes for a minute that Paul's minister Tychicus has been sent unto them, yet they randomly take the other verses of the letter and suppose that they are indeed written unto them, personally. Somehow I don't think that to be handling the scriptures honestly. Thus we must search and see and understand to whom is a particular passage written before we can gain its true interpretation.
The wholesale failing of religion is that entire sections of scripture are read as if they are addressed unto us, today, when in fact they are addressed unto others of an age long ago passed away. Whether it is the observance of a weekly Sabbath, the proper attire we are to dress ourselves with, our diet, our associations, our language, everything we do or say is regulated by what we think the Bible instructs us to do, when in reality it is not instructing us at all. Sure, there are commandments for all men for all times, such as love GOD and then your neighbor as yourself, but not everything we read is to be taken as Church doctrine. Remember, we should read the Bible as if we were reading someone else's mail.
One more Key is required concerning the context, before we are able to fully rightly divide the scriptures. We must know, if we can,
for what purpose are they writing, or speaking.
The book of REVELATION illustrates this concept well. We must ask ourselves, What was John's purpose in writing his manuscript? What was it that was affecting and afflicting those to whom he was writing? What was transpiring in the lives of his readers? I think that it is not too difficult to see that he was sounding an alarm, a warning of a fast approaching day of judgment; because the end of that age was very near. Those to whom he wrote were at the precipice, they were ready to cross over the threshold of a new era, and he was encouraging them to hold the course a little longer and they shall have their reward, their inheritance.
John opens the book with his explicit purpose.
REVELATION 1:1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.
1:3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
Thus, this revelation of Jesus Christ, which John was about to set before His servants, must shortly come to pass. Then again in verse three, for the time is at hand. John was not writing about events which were two thousand years in the distance; he was writing of things which were to come to pass soon, very soon. The plagues and the blessings which are written of in this book were shortly going to become a reality in the lives of John's readers.
This is not only how John opened the book but also how he closed it, for as he penned the last chapter, he declared how it was revealed to him the following.
REVELATION 22:6-7 And he said unto me, These sayings are faithful and true: and the Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done. Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book.
10-12 And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand. He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still. And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.
20 He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Those things of which he had just written, were things which must shortly be done, because the time was at hand. What a hollow warning this would have been for those troubled disciples to which John was writing, if their Lord was in fact not intending to return for thousands of years. Why write then that He was to come quickly three times in this last chapter? How could these servants be promised a relief from their trials, temptations and tribulations, if indeed that reward would be delayed for centuries or more?
The phrase, "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still" in the above verse means simply that the time of the judgment was so near, that there was really no time for the unjust, the filthy, the righteous or the holy to change his true self. What he was he was. On this passage, J. Stewart Russell comments in his book, The Parousia, page 531, "So imminent is the end that it is intimated that now it is too late for any alteration in the character of men; such as they are so must they continue."
To John was revealed tremendous events which were to shortly come to pass in the lives of his fellow disciples. Our choice is to either allow our preconceived ideas to eclipse the truth which is so plainly written here, or we must bow to the scripture and change our understanding to align with it. Some will go one way and some the other. Some students will cling stubbornly to their traditions, while some will bow to the truth and then dance free from tradition's tether.
Another weighty passage where context is the Key to its understanding is when Yeshua was about to raise Lazarus from the dead.
JOHN 11:25-26 Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?
Routinely do we hear this passage given on the occasion of somebody's funeral, where the minister is assuring his audience that the poor soul who has just died is not really dead but is floating up there in heaven with Jesus. The verse is read as if it is saying that when one dies he doesn't really die but instead goes straight to heaven. But is that what Yeshua said? When we look at the context within which the passage is set, we shall see that He meant nothing of the sort.
Even with only a cursory reading of the verse, these two sentences seem to contradict one another. First Yeshua says, "He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live", but then He says that "Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die". If whosoever believes in Yeshua never dies, then how can he be raised from the dead? Even on the surface we seem to have a problem; but as we dig a little deeper, all is made clear.
We learn from the immediate context that even though Lazarus had believed in Yeshua, he died a few days earlier. Likewise, John the Baptist had died some time before this and Yeshua Himself was soon to die and remain dead for three days, so obviously Yeshua wouldn't have taught that whosoever believes in Him would never die. John the Baptist died, Lazarus died and Yeshua Himself died.
Even after His resurrection and ascension into heaven, some of those who believed in Him died. Let's consider Peter's raising from the dead the disciple Tabitha, which occurred many years after Yeshua's ascension into heaven.
ACTS 9:36-41 Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did. And it came to pass in those days, that she was sick, and died: whom when they had washed, they laid her in an upper chamber.
And forasmuch as Lydda was nigh to Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent unto him two men, desiring him that he would not delay to come to them. Then Peter arose and went with them.
When he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber: and all the widows stood by him weeping, and shewing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them.
But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed; and turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up. And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive.
This disciple had died, and remained dead for some time; so the common belief that when a believer died he went straight to heaven is not supported by scripture, or if it is, it is only scripture which has been taken out of context.
Yeshua's statement in John's Gospel about a believer never dieing must likewise be taken within the context wherein He was speaking. He was telling His dear friend, Martha, just before He raised her brother from the dead, two things. First, that He indeed was the one by whom even the dead would be raised to life again. But also, He was promising Martha that whosoever is alive and believes in Him shall never die.
He was speaking of two different classifications or categories of people; on the one hand there were the dead who would be raised, and then on the other hand there were others who were still going to be alive. The individuals who were never going to die, were the believers who were still alive. But when? At the Resurrection! The subject about which Martha and Yeshua are discussing is the Resurrection.
JOHN 11:21-27 Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.
Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?
She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.
Yeshua attempted to comfort Martha by promising her that her brother was indeed going to be raised from the dead. She misunderstood and thought that Yeshua was referring to the Resurrection, at the last day. Yeshua reaffirmed her belief that indeed, all believers who had died would be raised at the Resurrection, but even beyond that, He revealed to her that at the Resurrection, any believer that was then still alive would never die.
In the days leading up to this incident, Yeshua had often taught on the Resurrection, at the last day. This remoter context we must keep in mind as we consider what was on Martha's mind as she discoursed with Yeshua.
JOHN 6:39-40 And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.
JOHN 6:44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.
JOHN 6:54 Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.
These believers were to be raised from the dead unto eternal life, at the last day. It was then, at the last day that there would be a Resurrection. Martha had no doubt heard Yeshua teach on this subject, and so she commented, "I know that he shall rise again in the Resurrection at the last day". Thus she was confident that her brother Lazarus would be raised from the dead in the Resurrection, at the last day.
But Yeshua went on to teach her something beyond what she knew. He taught her that all those believers who are still alive at the last day, at the Resurrection, will not need to die. They instead will be changed, (1CORINTHIANS 15:51), and gathered into heaven with those who will have just been resurrected, as Paul explained in his epistle to the Thessalonians.
1 THESSALONIANS 4:16-17 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
Scripture is clear that at the Resurrection, all believers which had died would be raised from the dead; and then right after that those which had not died would be changed and immediately join their fellow believers in heaven. Thus, when Yeshua taught that whosoever lives and believes in Him shall never die, He was referring to Lazarus and others who might very well still be alive at His return and the Resurrection. They are the ones who would never die.
Here again is a most vital Key in rightly dividing the scriptures. Without a proper chronology of the events portrayed in Biblical accounts, our understanding will be sketchy and fragmented at best. This is especially true when we have two different Biblical sources recording the same event. A good example of this is given in John's Gospel concerning John the Baptist baptism of Yeshua.
JOHN 1: 26-28 John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose. These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing.
29-31 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.
32-34 And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.
35-39 Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples; and looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God! And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye? They said unto him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou? He saith unto them, Come and see. They came and saw where he dwelt, and abode with him that day: for it was about the tenth hour.
We might at first reading think that this whole scene took place around the time of Yeshua's baptism, but when read in conjunction with the other Gospel accounts we know that this cannot be the case. In MATTHEW and LUKE we read that immediately after Yeshua's baptism, He went into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted of Satan. But here in John's record He was hanging around Bethabara, and then was joined by two of John's disciples at His residence.
Evidently then, this entire scene in JOHN took place after the forty days of temptation, when He returned to Bethabara where He had previously been baptized.
We read further in John's Gospel that after Andrew abode with Yeshua that day, that he straight away found his brother Simon Peter and then introduced him unto Yeshua.
JOHN 1:40-43 One of the two which heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ. And he brought him to Jesus.
And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone. The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me.
We might assume here that Simon Peter then joined Yeshua and began traveling with Him, but we discover that this is probably not the case when we consider the accounts given by the other evangelists. Matthew and Mark both tell us that Peter and Andrew were fishing while James and John were mending their nests when Yeshua first called them to follow Him (MATTHEW 4:18-21 and MARK 1:16-20).
Then Luke tells us that Peter, James and John (but not Andrew) had been washing their nests after a fruitless night of fishing when Yeshua once again called them to follow Him (LUKE 5:2-10). This time Peter exclaimed to Yeshua, "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord".
When we combine all of the accounts we then see the full and complete picture. What had evidently happened was that right after Yeshua's temptation in the wilderness He returned to where John had baptized Him in Bethabara. Two of John's disciples then followed Him home, one being Andrew. The next day Andrew went and got his brother Simon Peter, to introduce him to Yeshua, but evidently neither of them at this time became His disciples. Perhaps they were John the Baptist's disciples and decided to stay with him.
Then some time later, after John the Baptist was cast into prison, Yeshua again came across Simon Peter as he and Andrew were fishing. This time they left their nets and followed Him, with James and John joining them shortly after that. But for one reason or another, Peter, James and John left His ministry and returned to their trade.
Finally, once more Yeshua comes to Simon Peter and with the miracle of them netting a "great multitude" of fishes, after catching nothing all night, Peter convicted in his heart fell at Yeshua's feet saying that he was not worthy to follow Him (LUKE 5:8). But this time, after Yeshua's encouragement, he with James and John at last became His dedicated disciples.
To read more, see a Chronology of the Four Gospels.
Another aspect of Chronology might also be considered, and that would be First Usage. The First Usage of a word or phrase is always important to notice. Oftentimes scripture gives us great insight into a word's Biblical meaning in its first usage. As an example, let us consider Yeshua's words given in Matthew's Gospel.
MATTHEW 24:29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.
Too many have taken this to mean that Yeshua was saying that the sun and moon were to be destroyed at His return, His second coming. And yet when we consider the first usage of the two words sun and moon together, we see that they can and often do represent individuals, not just celestial bodies.
GENESIS 37:9 And he [Joseph] dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me.
Joseph was suggesting in the interpretation of his dream that someday his family would all be doing obeisance to him (see verse 10). Thus, in MATTHEW Yeshua was teaching that the powers of the heavens are represented as the sun, moon and stars (see also REVELATION 1:20).
Another valuable Key in understanding the Bible, is to recognize its Structure. The Structure of the Bible is sort of like an outline, where sections of scripture correspond with one another. Here is one of my favorites.
A. That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus,
B. and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead,
C. thou shalt be saved.
B. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness;
A. and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
Observe how A. corresponds to A., and B. corresponds to B., while C. is the focal point, the apex upon which it all turns. Because of the Structure we can see what is the intended emphasis of the passage. Not only verses, but chapters, even whole books, indeed the entire Book is assembled upon and within a divinely ordered Structure. Thus as GENESIS opens with a sin and a curse and death, REVELATION closes with the sins being washed, and with no more curse and with no more death. To read more on these divinely ordered Structures, see Understanding Biblical Literary Structures.
The Practice and Activities of Biblical Characters
Still another important Key in understanding the Bible is to consider the practices and activities of the individuals about which the record speaks. We have a good example of the importance of this Key when we read a verse like the one below, which supposedly is the formula on how we are to pray.
MATTHEW 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
And yet we never, not once see anyone in the Biblical records praying in this fashion, or in this manner. Nor do we find any writer using this phrase, except for here in this one verse of MATTHEW. We must therefore consider as suspect this formula, and wonder if it wasn't added to Mathew's text by some later scribe or translator.
Eusebius was an Historian who wrote extensively about the scriptures in the fourth century. In fact between A.D. 300 and 336 he quoted this verse more than twenty times but never with the phase, "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" but always as simply, "in His name". This tells us that Eusebius probably quoted from a text which was older than any now in extent but that it did not have the phrase now found in our texts today.
The original texts which were GOD breathed, have been copied and translated so many times through the centuries, that we are not surprised to find errors and additions. Our chore, if we wish to accept it, is to read and re-read, to search and re-search so as to sort out to the best of our abilities just what it was that was originally GOD breathed. Only then do we have the word of GOD.