How to Identify the Surrounding Context

Up to this point in Grasping God’s Word, we have spent a lot of time teaching you how to observe details and analyze parts of a passage. Dissecting a text is a pretty good place to enter the world of biblical interpretation, but it is by no means the final stopping place. The Bible is more than a collection of unrelated parts. The Holy Spirit moved the biblical writers to connect their words, sentences, and paragraphs into a literary whole in the normal way that people use language to communicate. Just imagine how a document would appear if the sentences were not linked together to form a unified message. Better yet, read the following paragraph:

I heard an interesting story on the news the other night. The quarterback faded back to pass. Carbon buildup was keeping the carburetor from functioning properly. The two-inch steaks were burned on the outside but raw on the inside. Ten-feet-high snow drifts blocked the road. The grass needed mowing. The elevator raced to the top of the one-hundred-story building in less than a minute. The audience booed the poor performance.[7]

We typically don’t string together randomly selected ideas when we are trying to communicate. Normally, sentences build on previous sentences and lead into later sentences to produce a coherent message. As God’s communication to us, the parts of the Bible connect to form a whole, while the whole in turn provides guidelines or boundaries for understanding the parts. Our understanding of a specific text will always be shaped by the overall message of the book. If a reader fails to take into account what the author has already said or is about to say, he or she is in danger of missing the point of the passage.

When we ask you to identify the surrounding context, we are asking you to see how these sentences (the parts) fit together in a book to communicate the larger message (the whole). We cannot read the author’s mind, but we can trace his thought as it flows through each sentence and paragraph to form the whole book. We want to see how the smaller units connect to form the larger units. This will allow us to interpret our specific passage in light of its place in a larger section (i.e., in its original literary context). Knowing the surrounding context will answer questions such as:

  • What is this unit’s role or function or purpose in the book?
  • What would happen if we removed this section from the book?
  • Why did the author include this section as a crucial part of the whole?

Moreover, it is safe to say that the most accurate interpretation of a passage is the one that best fits that passage’s surrounding context (i.e., one that best accounts for how the smaller sections fit into the larger sections). When our interpretation contradicts literary context (including literary genre and surrounding context), we violate the way people normally use language to communicate and our interpretation is not valid.

We are going to use the short New Testament book of Philemon to illustrate how you identify the surrounding context of a passage. Suppose that you have been assigned Philemon 4–7 for your exegetical paper (since there is only one chapter in the entire book, we will only use verse numbers after the book name). Your assigned section is highlighted in the letter below:

1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—2also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:
3Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
8Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—10that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—16no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
22And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

As you read the passage you ask: Why did Paul say this about Philemon? Is he just praying for Philemon as we would pray for a friend, or is there more to it? Does Paul thank God for Philemon simply because Philemon is a highly respected spiritual leader? Obviously Paul is praising Philemon for something. Why the glowing description?

You won’t really know such answers to these questions until you know the surrounding context. To grasp what Paul really means in verses 4–7, you need to examine what Paul says before and after this passage. This is what we mean by “surrounding context”—how a section fits with what comes before and after it. If you don’t know the surrounding context of your passage, you will probably just skim the surface and miss the real meaning. You need to discover the surrounding context of verses 4–7 in order to grasp Paul’s message in that section. Remember, context determines meaning!

Finding the surrounding context of any passage consists of three steps. (1) Identify how the book is divided into paragraphs or sections. (2) Summarize the main idea of each section. (3) Explain how your particular passage relates to the surrounding sections. Let’s continue with our Philemon example.

1. Identify how the book is divided into paragraphs or sections. Look at several different Bible translations to see how the translators have divided the book and the chapters into smaller units. Note how the following translations have divided Philemon.

1–3 1–3 1–3 1–3 1–3
4–7 4–7 4–7 4–7 4–7
8–11 8–25 8–16 8–16 8–16
12–16 17–20 17–21 17–20
17–21 21 22 21–22
22 22 23–25 23–25
23–25 23–24

As you can tell, there is some agreement about how the book should be divided, but the translations are certainly not all uniform. Remember that editorial decisions such as dividing the book into units are intended to help the reader, but they are not inspired. If you want to do the work yourself, you need to look for changes in the text as clues to a shift in the author’s flow of thought. Items that mark changes or transitions include the following:

  • conjunctions (e.g., therefore, then, but)
  • change of genre (e.g., from a greeting to a prayer)
  • changes of topic or theme (main idea)
  • changes in time, location, or setting
  • grammatical changes (e.g., subject, object, pronouns, verb tense, person, or number)

You will notice some of these transition points in Philemon. There is a change in topic between verses 3 and 4 as Paul switches from a greeting to a prayer. Don’t miss the conjunction “therefore” in verse 8 and the “so” in verse 17, both beginning new sections. You will also find other change markers in last few verses of the book: “one thing more” (v. 22), change to a greeting (v. 23), a final blessing (v. 25).

In our example, all the translations agree that verses 4–7 form a section and most agree that verses 8–16 constitute another section. Although the translations will rarely agree 100 percent on how to divide the book, make some tentative decisions and move on to step 2. Writing the summaries in step 2 is one way of checking the validity of your section divisions in step 1.

2. Summarize the main idea of each section in about a dozen words or less. For each summary statement that you write, make sure that you summarize the point of the whole section and not just a portion of the section. After writing a summary, you might want to read the section again and see if your summary truly captures the entire section. When writing your summary, think about two things: (a) the topic or main idea of the section, and (b) what the author says about the topic or main idea. As you do this, you will have to resist the temptation to get lost in all the details. Stick with the main point, the big idea. Take a look at our summaries for each section of Philemon:

  • vv. 1–3: Paul identifies the letter senders/recipients and offers a greeting
  • vv. 4–7: Paul thanks God for Philemon’s faith and love and intercedes for him.
  • vv. 8–16: Paul appeals to Philemon for his “son” Onesimus and he would receive Paul himself.
  • vv. 17–20: Paul urges Philemon to receive Onesimus and offers Philemon perspective on God’s providence in the matter.
  • v. 21: Paul expresses confidence that Philemon will do even more than he asks.
  • v. 22: Paul shares his hope to come in person and visit Philemon.
  • vv. 23–24: Paul shares greetings from his fellow workers.
  • v. 25: Paul closes the letter with a benediction of grace.

As you write a summary for each paragraph or section, you will be able to evaluate your decisions about section divisions. Don’t be afraid to reconfigure the units as you try to summarize the main point of each.

3. Explain how your particular passage relates to the surrounding sections. Now that you can see the author’s flow of thought through the entire book by reading your section summaries, it is time to look at how your passage fits into its surroundings. We tell our students, “If you do nothing else besides read what comes before and what comes after your passage, you will eliminate about 75 percent of all interpretive mistakes.” The heart of identifying the surrounding context is observing how your section relates to what comes before it and what comes after it. Let’s try to identify the surrounding context of Philemon 4–7 (this serves as an example of the kind of explanation that you need to write in this step).

Our section (vv. 4–7) is sandwiched between the opening of the letter (vv. 1–3) and the body of the letter (vv. 8–22). Almost everything that Paul says in the thanksgiving and prayer passage prepares the reader for what he is about to say in the body of the letter. In this case, the thanksgiving becomes the basis for the request that follows. Paul attributes a number of qualities to Philemon in verses 4–7, the very qualities that will enable Philemon to respond positively to Paul’s upcoming request. Paul thanks God that Philemon trusts the Lord and loves people. This love, Paul goes on to say, “has given me great joy and encouragement.” He also commends Philemon for refreshing the hearts of the saints. Now Paul has a favor to ask about one saint in particular, Onesimus. Thus, the thanksgiving and prayer section (vv. 4–7) prepares the way for the body of the letter. Philemon’s good qualities that are highlighted in verses 4–7 provide the character anchor that will motivate him to do what Paul is about to request in the rest of the letter. When we study Philemon 4–7 with its surrounding context in view, we can truly grasp the meaning of the passage.

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