Dangers of Disregarding Literary Context


You have probably heard it said that you can make the Bible say anything you want. That is true only if you disregard the literary context. When you honor the literary context (including the covenant of communication implicit in the genre), you cannot make the Bible say just anything. Cults are famous for Scripture twisting, and most of their misreadings stem from a breach of literary context. Just because we approach Scripture as evangelical Christians does not make us immune to misinterpretations should we decide to neglect literary context. There are a number of dangers associated with disregarding literary context. Here we will discuss only two of the most common problems—the first associated with individual interpreters, the second with preachers.

Ignoring the Surrounding Context

The first danger is simply ignoring the surrounding context. This usually happens when individuals focus on a single verse without paying attention to how the surrounding verses might affect its meaning. For example, the following verses are quotable favorites. Do you know their contexts?

  • “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Rev. 3:20)
  • “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20)
  • “Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22)

Revelation 3:20 is commonly used to describe Jesus’ promise to anyone who might accept him as Savior and Lord; that is, it is seen as an evangelistic promise: “If you will open the door of your heart, Christ promises to enter.” But in context, Revelation 3:20 is a promise from the risen Christ to a congregation of “lukewarm” Christians. He assures these disobedient believers that he is ready and waiting to renew fellowship with them (standing at the door knocking) if they will repent (open the door). This verse applies directly to Christians living out of fellowship with Christ. As a believer, have you ever strayed so far from Christ that you wondered if he would ever take you back? Revelation 3:20 promises that he loves you and is waiting to restore you if you will repent.

Matthew 18:20 is commonly quoted to remind everyone that group prayer is especially effective. But we rarely stop to think about what we are actually saying. Is Jesus with us only when we are with other Christians? The context of Matthew 18:20 is that of church discipline, as verses 15–17 make clear:

15“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

In other words, Jesus is saying that if congregations (even small ones with only a few believers) follow God’s guidelines for corporate discipline, they will have his blessings.

Second Timothy 2:22 is a favorite verse for fighting off sexual temptation. But how does the surrounding context define “evil desires of youth”? Paul is writing to Timothy, who is facing the problem of false teachers within the leadership of the church at Ephesus. The previous unit (2:14–19) makes it clear that Timothy must resist the false teachers. This is supported by an analogy from the household (2:20–21). Likewise, 2:23–26 speaks of false teaching. In verse 22 Paul tells Timothy to run away from foolish discussions, arguments, and theological novelties so attractive to young ministers (i.e., “evil desires of youth”) and to run instead after righteousness, faith, love, and peace with the true people of God. Much to the surprise of some, this verse has little (if anything) to do with sexual temptation.

These three examples illustrate the problem of ignoring the context that surrounds individual verses. The way our Bibles have been divided into chapters and verses doesn’t help matters much. The chapter and verse numbers help us find passages quickly, but they can also lead us to believe that each verse stands alone as an independent unit of thought, like a number in a phone book. Just because we attach numbers to the sentences in a paragraph doesn’t mean that we can rip one particular sentence out of its context and disconnect it from what precedes or follows.

We also need to remember that the chapter and verse divisions are not part of the original documents, but were added much later. When we speak of the Holy Spirit’s inspiring the Scriptures, we are talking about the text itself, not about the reference numbers. Don’t let these later editorial additions cause you to lift individual sentences out of their surrounding context and give them a meaning never intended by their authors.

Topical Preaching

A second danger associated with disregarding literary context is that of topical preaching. Topical preaching is a valid approach to preaching when the various passages are understood in context and the overall message doesn’t violate those individual contexts. But far too often topical preaching distorts the meaning of Scripture by disregarding the literary context. Here is how that happens.

The diagram below shows how a biblical author’s thought flows through a particular text. Expository preaching (in contrast to topical preaching) will follow an author’s flow of thought through a particular text (e.g., John 10) in order to grasp the intended meaning and communicate that meaning to the congregation.

Topical preaching, by contrast, often jumps from one passage to another by stringing together a series of originally unrelated thoughts (see the resulting diagram below). That is the same as jumping from the newspaper to the menu to the poem to the love letter, picking thoughts at random, to construct a message of your own choosing. You can see how this approach could easily violate the literary context and lead to all sorts of unbiblical conclusions.

Quoting Bible passages out of context may make for an entertaining sermon, but it will mask God’s true message. Misreading the Bible ultimately hurts people by enslaving them rather than setting them free with truth. What if the young man we mentioned at the beginning of the chapter really believed God had told him to marry his girlfriend when in fact God had done no such thing? The young man’s failure to consider the context would cause a misreading with serious relational consequences. Who would want to enter such an important relationship without the Lord’s blessing? Of course, his girlfriend might say no to his proposal and encourage him to take a class on interpreting the Bible. Then all would be well.

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