Literary Context

Imagine that you are a college student strolling to class one day when a total stranger hits you with a one-liner: “Go for it!” How would you respond? Would you say, “Sure,” and walk away thinking that he or she was one fry short of a Happy Meal? Or would you take the message with all religious seriousness and conclude God must be speaking to you through that person, answering your prayers about your relationship dilemma or your decision regarding a major or your problem of whether to take the summer job?

To unveil the meaning of “go for it,” most of us would probably come back with a few questions of our own. “What exactly do you mean?” or “Go for what?” We would ask questions as part of our search for a context to give meaning to those three little words. Without a context, “go for it” can mean almost anything. Without a context, words become meaningless.

When it comes to interpreting and applying the Bible, context is crucial. In fact, we would go so far as to say that the most important principle of biblical interpretation is that context determines meaning. When we ignore the context, we can twist the Scriptures and “prove” almost anything. Consider the example of a young man seeking advice from God’s Word about whether to ask his girlfriend to marry him. As he dances around the Scriptures, he finds a couple of verses that provide the answer he so desperately wants, with a timetable to boot.

1 Corinthians 7:36c: “They should get married.”
John 13:27: “What you are about to do, do quickly.”

The young man sees in the first verse a direct command to get married and in the second a timetable—get married now! God has spoken!

What keeps us from taking this ridiculous example seriously? Context! Apparently the young man did not bother to read the entire context of 1 Corinthians 7:36c, where the apostle Paul gives advice to engaged men in light of the distressing circumstances in Corinth (notice the italicized portions):

36If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married37But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. 38So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.

In light of the situation, Paul actually says that it’s better not to marry. In the second verse (John 13:27), the phrase “what you are about to do” refers to Judas’s betraying Jesus and has nothing at all to do with marriage. Under the spotlight of context, we see that these two verses give the young man no scriptural basis for proposing marriage.

Not all examples are this ridiculous, of course, but every violation of context is a dangerous matter. By honoring the context of Scripture, we are saying that we would rather hear what God has to say than put words in his mouth. Context determines meaning!

To understand and apply the Bible, we need to be concerned with the two major kinds of context: historical and literary. Historical context is the historical-cultural background of a text, which we discussed in unit 5. Literary context relates to the particular form a passage takes (the literary genre) and to the words, sentences, and paragraphs that surround the passage you are studying (the surrounding context). Literary context is the topic of this section.

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