Context is vital. Without it, we can’t communicate with one another. The meaning of our words is determined by their context, the setting or background in which those words are spoken. Consider, for example, the words steel sinks. If you hear these words at Lowe’s or Home Depot, you would assume there are steel sinks available for purchase, whether for your home or workshop. But what if you hear these words spoken by a professor lecturing on material sciences and engineering? You would assume the professor is describing the material properties of steel. Steel is denser than water, so steel sinks to the bottom of a body of water. Context determines the meaning of our words.
This is no less the case with God’s Word. It is divinely situated within an ancient historical context. We also have to pay attention to the grammatical and theological context of the Bible. But it’s definitely important to consider the historical context when reading Scripture. Obviously, we do not need to understand all the intricate historical, cultural, and social details behind Scripture to believe its primary message. God’s story of redemption in Christ is simple and clear. But understanding the ancient context provides at least two advantages for readers of the Bible.
The first is that it helps us become better readers of the text. How so? By reminding us how far removed we really are from the ancient setting of Scripture—some two thousand years. If we forget this contextual distance, we will read God’s ancient text through our modern glasses, and this will inevitably lead to misreading the text. A good example of this is how we, as Americans, can read Philippians 2:12 through our Western, individualistic glasses: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” From our perspective, “your” means “my,” and we assume this text calls me—as a lone individual—to work out my salvation. But from an ancient perspective, “your” primarily meant “ours,” not only because this word is plural in the Greek (better translated in Texan talk as “y’all”) but also because the ancient mind-set was far more communal. Back then, no one believed a person had his own private relationship with God. Personal relationship, yes, but private relationship, no. Working out our salvation was—and still is—a joint effort in the church. We need one another to reach the end, all the while knowing that our perseverance depends ultimately and sovereignly on God (Phil. 1:6; 2:13). If you have interpreted Philippians 2:12 in this exclusively individualistic way, don’t be discouraged. Even the best interpreters are guilty of reading their modern presuppositions into God’s ancient Word. Nevertheless, it’s a good reminder of how easily our interpretation of Scripture can be misguided by our own context.
The second advantage to understanding the ancient context of Scripture is that it adds color to our reading of the text. Just as the background of black velvet brings out the beauty that already resides within a diamond, so, too, context can draw out the beauty of God’s Word. It’s just as beautiful without it, but the background helps us see its beauty more vividly.