Context Matters–Really Matters!

From Issue: R&R Volume 22 #4

Understanding the Bible is the most important facet of any individual’s life. For the honest truth seeker, a proper understanding of the Bible is imperative for him or her to secure an eternal home in Heaven. For the skeptic, a true understanding of the Bible can lead him or her out of the darkness and into the light. One of the most practical tools for accomplishing such an understanding is having a correct grasp of the concept of context and the Bible’s use of various figures of speech.


In your younger years of schooling, one of the first language skills you learned was to use context clues to help you solve problems or understand the meaning of words. For instance, what does the word “bear” mean? It could be a noun referring to a big, furry mammal with big teeth. Or perhaps it is being used in its verbal form, meaning “to endure.” Only the context can give you the actual meaning of the word.

In the same way, the Bible puts things in context, and that context must be used in order to understand what is being said. For instance, in the book of Job, the Bible says to “curse God” (2:9). That is a disturbing thought, because we know the Bible elsewhere states that we should love, honor, and serve God as our Creator. So which is it? Should we honor and serve Him, or curse Him? The answer is easy to find if we look at the context of the particular verse. Job had lost all of his most precious worldly possessions—his children, his health, and his riches. As he sat in the middle of an ash heap scraping his boils with a broken piece of pottery, his wife looked on him with pity and sorrow. Desirous of ending Job’s pain, she said to her husband: “Do you still hold to your integrity? Curse God and die!” When Job heard this advice, he was sorely troubled, and replied by saying: “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” Obviously, once the context is taken into account, the Bible does not tell anyone that cursing God is a good thing to do. Job’s wife wrongly urged her husband to curse God, and Job set her error straight. Context matters—really matters.

Consider another example. Mark 3:22 talks about Jesus, saying, “By the ruler of demons He casts out demons.” Yet at other times we read that Jesus cast out demons by the power of God. Once again, we must inquire as to which was actually the case. Did the ruler of demons possess Jesus, or did Jesus use the power of God? Context saves the day again. In the passage in Mark, the scribes were accusing Jesus (falsely) of using the devil’s power to perform miracles. Just a few verses later in Mark 3:23-27, however, Jesus set the record straight and explained that His power did not come from Satan, but from God. Context matters—really matters.


Suppose a younger brother volunteers to bring his older brother a soda from the refrigerator. On his return, he slips on a rug and accidentally throws the beverage across the room. Witnessing the sight, the older brother remarks, “Smooth move, little brother!” Now, did he really mean that his little brother had just made a “smooth move”? Of course not. As a matter of fact, he meant the exact opposite, and used a figure of speech known as sarcasm to get his point across. It may come as a surprise to you, but the Bible does the same thing.

In the book of 2 Corinthians, some of the Christians were accusing Paul of treating them badly. On numerous occasions throughout the book, he explained that never once had he treated them unjustly. In 2 Corinthians 12:13, he wrote: “For what is it in which you were inferior to other churches, except that I myself was not burdensome to you? Forgive me this wrong!” Was the apostle really asking for forgiveness for not being burdensome to the Corinthian church? No, he was using sarcasm to stress the fact that he had not mistreated the church at Corinth.

Throughout the Bible, several figures of speech are used, sarcasm being just one of them. Let’s look at another one known as hyperbole. “Hyperbole” might look like a confusing word, but you probably are familiar with it, even though you might not realize it at first. Hyperbole is simply the exaggeration of facts to make a point. If you were invited to a party and someone said that “everyone” was going to be there, that person would be using hyperbole. It is impossible for everyone in the world to be at the party. We would not call someone a liar because he or she said such a thing, because we understood the figure of speech that was being employed. In a similar fashion, the Bible employs figures of speech. Consider John 4:39 as an example. In this passage, a Samaritan woman spoke of Jesus and said: “He told me all that I ever did.” Had Jesus really told that woman everything that she had ever done in her life? No, she was using hyperbole to make her point. Hyperbole is one of the more common figures of speech used by the Bible writers.


When a person speaks in a literal fashion, they mean exactly what they say. For example, if I say that I own a car, then I mean exactly that—I own a car. But sometimes a person speaks figuratively rather than literally. Whenever a person uses figurative language, then he or she employs words to symbolize something else. For instance, when a person says, “That politician is a snake,” he or she does not literally mean that the politician is a reptile that crawls around on its belly. The individual simply means that the politician is sly or sneaky.

Many of the biblical writers used figurative language. In Luke 13:32, Jesus had been warned that King Herod was trying to kill Him. Jesus replied by saying, “Go, tell that fox….” Did Jesus really mean that Herod was a furry animal, with a bushy tale, that was approximately the size of a small dog? No, He did not. He did mean, however, that the monarch was a sly, sneaky fellow.

Again, in John 10:9 Jesus spoke about a place where shepherds kept their sheep, and then referred to Himself as “the door” of the sheep fold. Did Christ really mean that He was a large piece of wood with a knob and hinges? No, He simply intended to convey the message that everyone must go through Him to get to the Father. Jesus quite often employed figurative language.

The New Testament book of Revelation is filled with figurative language. If a person does not understand the concept of figurative language, or the manner in which it is used, then it would be impossible to understand the timely and important message of the book of Revelation. It would be like me saying that my dog “kicked the bucket.” You would understand that I mean my dog died. But what if my statement had been buried for 2,000 years and then was read by people in the future who did not comprehend the phrase “kicked the bucket.” Would they think I had owned a “ninja dog”? Figurative language plays an important role in the Bible.


If skeptics, as well as sincere truth seekers, would get a firm handle on the concepts of context and figures of speech in the Bible, then there would be far fewer accusations of biblical discrepancies hurled by the skeptic, and far less doubt and consternation on the part of the sincere truth seeker.


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