Bible Study Tips for Beginners: Five Types of Context

Context is crucial for Bible study success. Learn different types of context in Bible study, why they matter, and how to use them as we dig into God’s Word.

Have you ever read words taken out of context? Perhaps, whether deliberately or accidentally, a journalist clips a partial phrase from an interview and reframes it to imply a different meaning from the speaker’s intent. After the interview is released to the public, the speaker might resort to social media to defend themselves. ”My words were taken out of context. What I really meant is…”

Context is important in Bible study to ensure we understand the intended meaning of the words. The previous post in this series outlined how to study the Bible in context. In this post, we look at different types of context in Bible study, why they matter, and how to use them as we dig into God’s Word.   

Five Key Types of Context in Bible Study

The 66 books of the Bible were written by various God-inspired authors, at different times, and in different locations. The original intended audience of each book lived in a specific culture and set of circumstances. Some of the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, some in Greek, and some in Aramaic. 

These details—and more—comprise the context of the Scriptures, contribute to the accurate interpretation of the text, and therefore affect the right handling of the Bible and its application to our lives (2 Timothy 2:15). 

Historical Context 

The Bible is not organized chronologically, so as we study a particular passage, we must determine how it fits into the timeline of history. Who wrote the book? To whom was it written? What was going on in the world at that time? Who was in power? What were the circumstances of God’s people at the time? This is historical context.

Think of historical context as the setting or scenery—details that enable you to imagine the people, places, and events of the Bible passage you’re studying so you gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of the text. 

For example, when we read the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—we notice some tension or conflict surrounding Jesus. The historical context of these books gives us deeper insight: Under Roman rule and occupation, the people of Israel believed the prophesied Messiah would bring political freedom—not spiritual freedom—so they were disappointed when Jesus didn’t overthrow the Romans. In fact, he instructed his followers to “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” (Matthew 20:21). In the political climate of that day, a statement like this would have been radical to those listening to Jesus.

Unless you’re a “history buff”, you probably won’t know a lot of this historical information without referring to some outside sources. A good study Bible or commentary can give you a sufficient understanding of the basic historical context of each book. If you don’t have either of these resources, Blue Letter Bible or Bible Hub are free online resources with historical commentary. 

Check out Bible teacher Don Stewart’s explanation of the value of studying the historical context of the Bible in his article: Why Should the Historical Background of the Bible be Studied? 

Cultural Context 

The Bible was written in ancient Eastern culture—specifically Jewish culture, sometimes influenced by the culture of the day like Roman or Greek. Examples of cultural context include social structure and religious practices. The culture in which the text was written has deep significance because it affects many of the references and symbols used in the biblical text. 

For example, when Peter wrote, “You who are slaves must submit to your masters with all respect” (1 Peter 2:18), it’s helpful for us to understand that slavery was a normal part of society. Some of the Christians to whom he wrote were actually slaves. 

Another example is the plagues God brought upon Egypt in Exodus 7–12. Did you know each plague was a direct confrontation with an Egyptian god or goddess?

As with historical context, a study Bible or Bible commentary can be helpful in learning the cultural context. Also Bible dictionaries and Bible encyclopedias. Again, Blue Letter Bible and Bible Hub provide many of these resources for free online. 

Geographical Context

The Bible includes countless references to specific geographical locations. Understanding where these places are, and sometimes even understanding some of the geographical details like the type of landscape (e.g. mountains or desert) can deepen our understanding of the text. 

For example, when God delivered the Israelites from Egypt, they traveled for six days and came to Mount Sinai. They traveled another 11 days to reach Kadesh-Barnea, then spent 38 years wandering in the desert before finally entering Canaan. The distance between Egypt and Canaan is just over 525 miles, but the Israelites journeyed a total of about 2,700 miles. Clearly, they didn’t take the most direct route! 


Another example of the value of geographical context is in Revelation 1–3, which includes the letters John wrote to seven churches. In his letter to the church of Laodicea, he wrote, “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15–16).

Laodicea was located near Hierapolis, which had therapeutic hot springs, and Colossae, which had refreshing cold springs. But Laodicea’s water was lukewarm, making it tasteless and undesirable to others. This geographical information helps us understand that the church in Laodicea was like the water in their city—lukewarm and useless.  

Some Bibles include maps, but I usually find online sources more helpful. Depending on the geographical information you’re looking for, a simple Google search can be sufficient. Again, Blue Letter Bible or Bible Hub are also helpful sources. 

Literary Context 

One of the Bible’s most interesting traits is its inclusion of books of various genres—some letters, some poetry, some historical narratives, etc. We don’t read a recipe book in the same way we read a fictional novel. And we read poetry differently from how we read a historical non-fiction book. In the same way, the genre of the book of the Bible in which we find a particular passage of Scripture affects how we should read it. 

We can summarize the literary forms in the Bible into three types: 

  1. Discourse—words spoken or written from one person to another 
  2. Narrative—words that tell a story 
  3. Poetry—formally structured words that convey meaning through imagery 

Ignoring the literary context of a passage can have devastating effects. Take Proverbs 22:6 as an example, which says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Many devoted parents read this verse and, because it’s found in the Bible, they take it as a promise from God. “If I train my child properly, he’ll never stray from living righteously. It says so right in God’s Word!” If that child grows up and exercises their independence in ungodly ways, the parents endure a faith crisis, scratching their heads in confusion because things didn’t turn out the way God promised they would. 

The problem is a misinterpretation of the verse because the genre was ignored. The book of Proverbs is just that—a collection of short yet profound sayings to present wisdom. A proverb is not the same as a promise; it’s a simple concept to represent a fundamental truth. When we read the book of Proverbs with this understanding, we won’t treat each verse as a guaranteed formula for an ideal life. Rather, we read the proverbs simply as God-inspired words of wisdom for us to live by.  

How can you know the genre of a book of the Bible? Simply read it. It’s not mysterious. For example, it’s easy to recognize a letter in the New Testament because most of them begin with a standard greeting from the writer, followed by a note about to whom it’s written, and then a greeting. The book of Luke is another one with an easily discernible genre because he begins with a clear statement about what he’s writing in the first four verses: A chronological account of “what happened among us” based on eyewitness reports (Luke 1:1–4). 

Language Context

Remember those English classes back in your school days when the teacher droned on about literary devices like personification, allusion, and metaphor? If this isn’t a fond memory, I urge you to resist the temptation to skip this part because it can help you study God’s Word, understand and apply it properly, and even enjoy it. 

The Bible employs many literary devices in its text—here’s a list of all of them—and it’s important to recognize them if we want to understand the intended meaning. Let’s look at a few examples. 

Figurative Language

Today, I’m suffering through a record-breaking heat wave in our city, and I’m melting. When I say, “I’m melting”, I’m using figurative language. You know I’m not actually liquefying into a puddle beneath my desk because it’s physically impossible for a human being to literally melt. 

Figurative language is common in the Bible, and to properly understand God’s Word, we must not take figurative language literally. For example, in Luke 13:32, Jesus refers to King Herod as “that fox”. Obviously, King Herod wasn’t actually a fox; he was a human being. Jesus used figurative language to describe Herod as a cunning but weak man. Jesus also used figurative language to describe himself as bread (John 6:35) and the door (John 10:7, 9). Naturally, Jesus is not a literal loaf of bread or a physical door. This figurative language implied that he is our life-giving source and the way to enter Heaven. 


Satire is the gentle use of irony or ridicule to expose foolishness (unlike the derisive nature of sarcasm). One example of satire in Scripture is in 2 Corinthians 12:13. The Corinthian Christians had falsely accused Paul of treating them badly, and in this verse, he implores, “For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!” Paul didn’t need to ask for their forgiveness because he hadn’t done anything wrong. His “forgive me” was intended to expose the foolishness of their accusations.


Hyperbole is simply a form of exaggeration to make a point. Back to my current misery in this heat wave… If, as I sop the sweat off my forehead with a towel, I say it’s 1,000 degrees here, you know that’s not the actual temperature. You understand I’m describing extreme heat. I’m not lying or trying to deceive you; I’m simply making a point. 

An example of hyperbole in the Bible is in John 4:39 when the Samaritan woman tells others that Jesus “told me all that I ever did”. Did Jesus literally tell the woman everything she had ever done in her entire life? Of course not. She was exaggerating to make a point. 

Practical Resources to Study the Bible in Context 

This post is already long enough, so I’ll leave you with a handy list of practical resources to help you study the Bible in context. 

  • The Bible Project—Bible resources to help you “experience the Bible in a way that is approachable, engaging, and informative” by tracing biblical themes from beginning to end. 
  • The Bible Effect—brief historical overview videos of each book of the Bible
  • Bible Timeline—a comprehensive tool that allows you to explore every person and major event of the Bible
  • Blue Letter Bible and Bible Hub—featuring topical, Greek and Hebrew study tools, plus concordances, commentaries, dictionaries, sermons, and devotionals
  • How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth—An excellent Christian classic to help you understand the whole Bible
  • 30 Days to Understanding the Bible—a simple, straightforward guide that helped me put Scripture into context 

In the next post in this series, we’ll explore how context and application work together.

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