Bible Study Tips for Beginners: The Importance of Context

The 1st in a series of Bible study tips for beginners, learn why context is important and can even be life-changing. Jana Carlson uses 1 John 4:4 as an example.

My early exposure to the Bible primarily consisted of “Scripture snippets”. Personal devotions often took the “flip and point” approach—opening the Bible to a random page and reading whatever caught my eye. I’d hear a verse quoted in encouragement or as part of a topical sermon. Though often edifying, I always felt the real message of the Bible eluded me. 

When I began to learn how to study the Bible in practical ways, I learned the importance of context. It became a floodlight, illuminating truth and nuances of meaning that had been in the shadows of my understanding. Bible verses I’d heard all my life suddenly came alive as I realized their intended purpose, how they fit in God’s story, and what they meant to the author and original audience. Rather than reading my favorite verses as disconnected fragments, each one gave me a deeper understanding of the Bible as a whole, and more importantly, of who God is.  

Does your diet of Bible verses come primarily from well-designed Instagram quotes? When a friend sends you a verse in a text, do you ever consider the context of those encouraging words? Are you super familiar with certain verses, but you don’t know what comes before or after them, or why they were written in the first place? If you can relate to any of this, understanding the importance of context could literally change your life.  

Why is context important in Bible study?

The importance of context in Bible study cannot be overstated. Other posts in this series will show how things like culture, history, figures of speech, genre, and more are crucial to a proper understanding of God’s Word. Context can be the difference between harmful theology and healthy theology. For now, here are five reasons why context matters.   

The Bible is God’s story

When you receive a handwritten letter from a loved one, do you open it up and quickly skim it to find a phrase that jumps out at you? Do you pick and choose the parts you want to read and ignore the rest? Of course not! You want to read the whole letter because you want to understand its message so you can better know the author and understand what they are asking of you.

In the same way, the whole Bible is God’s message to us. From Genesis to Revelation, God wove a continuous thread that tells his story of redemption. The entire Bible reveals who God is and testifies about Jesus Christ. Each book of the Bible has a purpose. The various types of composition and content emphasize the nuances of God’s Word. To fully know him, it’s best to read his entire message.

Context in Bible study is important because we must understand each part of God’s Word in light of the whole message.

The Bible was written for us, not to us 

Humans are selfish by nature. We like to make everything about us, so our natural inclination is to read the Bible through our own personal lens. “What does it mean to me?” We tend to interpret Scripture according to our experiences, preconceived beliefs, and our own limited understanding. 

God gave us his Word for our benefit. As we read in 2 Timothy 3:16–17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”. However, the books of the Bible were not written directly to us. For example, Paul’s letters to Timothy were written to Timothy—not to you and me—yet God inspired those letters and included them in the Bible for us. 

While the Bible is useful for teaching, training, and equipping us, we must read it in context to understand its intended meaning for its original audience. What did this passage mean to the original readers? What message did the author intend when they wrote the passage?

We must rightly handle God’s Word

Paul urged Timothy to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Context is important in Bible study because it helps us to “rightly handle” God’s word instead of twisting it to mean something it doesn’t actually mean (2 Peter 3:16).

Context leads to discernment

The Bible warns of false teachers who will “cleverly teach destructive heresies” (Matthew 7:15–16; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1). Also, some of us will choose to believe teaching that appeals to our selfish desires, even though it’s not true (2 Timothy 4:3). Because of this, God’s Word exhorts us to test everything (1 Thessalonians 5:21) like the Bereans who were commended for daily examining the Scriptures to see if what they were taught was true (Acts 17:11).

Context is a tool we can use to practice discernment. Studying the Bible in context guards us against believing false doctrine.

Context prevents misunderstanding

When we take Bible verses out of context, we tend to misunderstand the text. Misunderstanding leads to misapplication. This means we have wrong beliefs about God’s Word. Our beliefs lead to our actions. So if our beliefs are wrong, the way we live our lives probably won’t line up with God’s will either. 

Every Scripture was written to a specific group of people, at a specific time, for a specific purpose. This is part of the context, and it’s absolutely crucial for a right understanding of God’s Word. A correct interpretation of the Bible is never different from the meaning intended by the author for the original audience. 

Check out Context Matters, a series at Knowable Word, examining Bible verses commonly taken out of context. 

An Example of Context in Bible Study: The Context of 1 John 4:4

Before I learned how to study the Bible, 1 John 4:4 was one of my favorites. I thought of it when I felt defeated and needed encouragement. You’re probably familiar with the popular line: “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world”.

The meaning most people apply to this verse is this: God is in you, and he’s greater than the devil or anyone else in the world, including your enemies. Is this statement true? Yes, according to many Bible passages, we know this statement is true. But is this the intended meaning of this particular passage? 

When I decided to study this verse in context, I was surprised to discover this famous quote isn’t even the complete verse! Here’s the whole thing: “You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”  

Who are the “them” God’s children have overcome? To find out, we must read the verse in context of the rest of the passage. First John 4:1–3 talks about the importance of testing the spirits because not all are from God—some are of the antichrist and are false prophets. Verses 5–6 are about discerning the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 

Why did John write this passage? To find out, we must look at the whole letter of 1 John. In doing so, we learn that he wrote it to a body of believers who had lost a portion of their group to false prophets. It was deeply disturbing for the faithful who remained. They were questioning the truth of everything they’d been taught about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. “Are we really saved? How do we know what’s true?” John wrote the letter to assure these precious ones of the truth about genuine fellowship with Jesus Christ—that you can know for sure if you’re in Christ, and you can know what is true. 

So, our key verse is in the context of practicing discernment. The meaning of the “greater is he” phrase is not that we can overcome any obstacle in front of us, or that we are better than anyone else. The meaning is specifically about discerning truth from lies. It encourages us with the message that the spirit of God in us enables us to discern truth.

The new understanding I gained from reading the verse in context still encourages me. It’s a different meaning than what I first thought, but it’s still a powerful truth about who God is and who I am in him.

The Importance of Context in Bible Study

Context in Bible study gives us a better understanding of God’s message—to the original audience, to the world, and to each of us. The next post in this series will dive deeper into how to study the Bible in context. Stay tuned!

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4 Responses

  1. This is absolutely key to understanding Scripture, and you explained it clearly. I know a lot of believers who depend on Instagram for their spiritual food, and that leads to all kinds of errors and false expectations. Thank you for laying out the importance of context in such an accessible way.

    1. Thank you for your encouraging words, Andrea. I wish more people would discover the treasure trove of truth awaiting us when we take the time to dig just a bit deeper into the context of some of our favorite verses. It’s so worth the extra effort!

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