An important principle has jumped out at me time and again in recent months: context is air in studying Scripture. People need more than air to breathe to stay alive, but without air, life is impossible. You need context to understand Scripture—and other things as well, but without context, you don't understand the passages at all.
This point has been made often, but perhaps not as thoroughly as it needs to be. People have a bad (however natural) tendency to think that examining the context means reading the verses immediately preceding and following the verse studied. That's a good start, and far better than reading the verse without those surrounding it. It simply doesn't go far enough.
A recent post on Evangel helped crystallize this thought for me. Sarah Flashing was spending a little time and thought critiquing some of Beth Moore's approach to Scripture, and noted, "Beth does not explain the meaning of the passage as derived from the context, she reads the passage in isolation, an elementary Bible study error" (emphasis in the original). That's precisely the issue I've observed in the little of Moore's writing I've read, and more importantly, it's also one of the biggest blunders I see Christians (and Christian teachers!) making.
Around the same time, I was writing the last article in my series on alcohol at Pillar. The first two articles were relatively straightforward: one was a quick summary of Scripture's teaching on alcohol, and one was a rebuttal of a common but very flawed argument against consuming alcohol. The last article, Tripping People With Beer, took me hours longer than the first two. I had to work my way carefully through four chapters of dense, Pauline reasoning on general Christian liberty mingled with his own apostolic actions. I had to get his argument as a whole before I could begin to tackle just a few short verses.
The answer to the questions raised by 1 Corinthians 8:9-13 (should we always abstain from anything that might make our brother stumble?) don't get totally answered until 1 Corinthians 10:25-31. The two chapters in between are a mix of Paul's exhortation to the Corinthian church to serve one another and his own example of sacrificing to serve others. Without following the argument all the way through, you might be inclined to think that Paul was urging the Corinthians to permanently forsake meat and many other freedoms. Without considering that Paul's statement at the end of chapter 8 that he will never eat meat is a transition into his lengthier discussion throughout chapter 9 of the way he forsook his own prerogatives to serve them, one would think he was suggesting it sinful for others not to follow his example.
But in tracing through his thoughts, it becomes clear that Paul was defending his own apostolic work without condemning the other apostles or the Corinthians. His final, resounding conclusion is that whether people eat or drink or whatever they do, to glorify God—proclaiming their freedom loudly immediately after he has spent two chapters tempering it with the need to serve others. In other words, the context—the whole, broad context, not simply the few immediately surrounding verses—informs our understanding of a few specific words. We cannot understand the part without having at least some grasp on the whole.
This has fairly radical implications for how we ought to expect preachers to handle Scripture. It has equally important ramifications for our Scripture study. We cannot simply approach the text, grab a verse and maybe the verses immediately above and below it, and assume we understand the point fully. We need to look at the entirety of the context.
Obviously, that's a lot of work. I am not suggesting that every time we sit down to read the Bible, we read an entire book. In some cases, that would be frustrating—in others (I'm looking at you, Jeremiah) it would be entirely impossible. However, I think it is important that as we study the Scriptures over time, we make a point to read as much as possible. Plans that take us through the whole Bible in a year are a great tool for helping grasp the greater flow of the Bible. (I know of a few that take you through even faster; Tim Challies recently referenced one that covers the whole Bible multiple times in a year, for example.) Then, when we do sit down to study particular chunks of Scripture, it is helpful to familiarize ourselves with the full context. That has two applications.
First, whenever I sit down to study, it's usually a book. Instead of just grabbing random places to read at any given time, I pick a book and go. I'll start by reading the whole book, front to back, to get as good a handle on the flow as I can. Then I start taking it in smaller chunks. The size of the chunk depends on the book in question. Narratives, for example, beg to be read large chunks at a time, while Paul's letters might demands that I slow down and tackle a sentence at a time. Doing this allows me to slowly pull apart the connections in a book. (Look at the various ways that "appearing" happens in Titus, for example. It's pretty interesting.)
Second, if I'm only planning to study a particular passage, I will read as much of the book around it as possible to familiarize myself. For example, when I was tackling 1 Corinthians for my alcohol posts, I actually skimmed the whole book, which is part of what took so long. Then, I try to ignore verse and chapter breaks. One handy way to accomplish that is to use a tool like esv.org, where you can disable verse and chapter markings. I read sentences, then the surrounding paragraphs, then the surrounding arguments, and finally the whole book (except for the Psalms, where the flow caps at the top of the psalm, at least for me). If possible, I try to understand the passage in the broad flow of all of Scripture. (To be honest, that's often beyond me, but I try when I'm on my game.) This is what II d in dealing with the Pauline passages on surrendering one's freedom for others.
So that's the practical. Returning again to the reason for writing the post: why does this matter? First, it matters because if we don't take the time to work at Scripture, we miss much of what it has to say. God certainly can and does speak to us even as we simply skim along the surface. But there is a great deal more to be had. Second, it matters because if we don't study carefully, we'll flat out misinterpret even more than we missed—or be led astray by those who have misinterpreted it themselves. We can hardly be faithful listeners if we cannot hold our teachers accountable to teach the word correctly. (That's also an argument for clarity of teaching—anyone who intentionally obfuscates Scripture is dangerous, as is anyone who acts like Scripture is generally too difficult for anyone but trained theologians to understand. It isn't.)
I challenge you, even as I challenge myself, to step it up in this area. Wherever you're at, go a little bit farther along. If you're still in the grab-one-verse-and-apply-it-to-my-life-immediately phase, that's okay. Try stepping out in your perspective a bit and see how the sentences around that one help explain it. If you're already doing that, start trying to grasp paragraphs at a time. If you're there, start trying to wrap your head around whole arguments, and maybe even whole books. Wherever you're at, seek to be more faithful with the text. In so doing, you'll see God more clearly. Since eternal life is knowing God (John 17:3), you couldn't have a better goal.