Reading the Bible in Context

What do we make of this? After feeding the 5,000 in John chapter 6 we read:

Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

The people already had a king; why would they need another? Perhaps they wanted to recognize Jesus as the head of the Kingdom of God on earth; if so then why would Jesus resist?

King's Crown

The Background to the Story

Answers to these questions are easy but require an understanding of the context. A few hundred years earlier the Seleucid Empire ruled the Jewish people. Antiochus IV went so far as to desecrate the temple with an idol of the pagan god Zeus.

A group of brothers, the Maccabees, led an enormously popular resistance movement that, against all odds, defeated the Seleucids and restored independence to the Jewish nation. The Maccabees became founders of a dynasty of Jewish kings who ruled the country until the Roman Empire gained control.

This history was fresh in the minds of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus and now, with the Romans in charge, many hoped fervently for a repetition of the miraculous revolt led by a new hero like Judas Maccabeus.

And there was no shortage of men willing to take on this role. One after another they proclaimed themselves to be the expected leader, and many established significant followings and were declared kings. But each time a leader appeared, the Romans destroy him.

So when Jesus attracted thousands of followers, many of them saw him as the political leader they hoped for. Jesus was aware of their intentions and made himself unavailable. His kingdom was not a political one but a community of followers based on his spiritual and ethical teachings.

None of this context can be discovered by simply reading of the Bible. We know these things through other written documents—primarily the First Book of Maccabees and Josephus. Without them, we cannot understand the significance of this episode.

Knowing this context also explains why the Romans were so quick to subdue the Jews during Temple feasts, for rebellious fervor often reached a frenzy during the feasts. And it explains why the Romans killed Jesus and why they mocked him with a crown of thorns—Context!

The Importance of Context

Some insist that the Bible is clear on the main issues. But how can we expect to understand the Bible clearly without learning the context—the culture, issues, and historical background? Our time and culture is so much different from that of the Bible.

It also helps if we understand the purposes of the author.

This is true of any book written outside our own culture and generation. Without context we don’t recognize allusions or the significance of important details. Even novels are more understandable if we know the historical and cultural setting. We may wish the Bible was written in clear language understandable to every age and culture, but it is not.

We must realize that the books of the Bible were not written to us. Each book was written to hearers and readers of that time and place. So to understand a passage we must understand as much as we can about the audience to which it was addressed, the writer who composed it, and the occasion for which it was written.

For example: Paul the Mentor

Paul established a number of churches throughout a large area, and he kept in touch with them by messenger, by letter, and by occasional visit. Some of his letters now form the earliest documents of the New Testament.

When we read Paul’s letters to his distant churches, we might think he served as the authoritative voice of God to establish doctrines and practices that all believers should observe. The truth is: Paul was a mentor to those churches and addressed issues that arose in the congregations.

He wrote the Ephesians:

Masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

Paul addresses a situation that existed at the time; he is not validating slavery. In another situation he says women should be silent in the church because he knew the situation and gave his opinion on how to handle it. He does not describe God’s plan for women in all churches.

Paul didn’t write letters to us, so we must read them in context to understand them. I admire Paul, and many things he says to others are helpful to me as well—just like any other author. But we can’t say about Paul: ‘The Bible clearly says…’ We can only say that Paul says this, to this particular group of people, at this particular time, on this particular occasion. It is his opinion as mentor to that group—Context!

Learning the Context

The Bible is not a simple book, but we can understand it better with research. Reference tools are easily available, but be aware that Bible research tools aren’t equally sound. Choose the best you can and read as widely as possible, and you will understand the Bible better in context.

Next time we will talk about genre as context.

Image credit: Heralder via Wikimedia Commons
I invite your comments and observations below.
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Have a great day! ~Tim
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16 Responses to Reading the Bible in Context

  1. michaeleeast says:

    The context of the “king” passage is important in relation to “Jesus is King” because it shows the difference between an earthly king and a spiritual King.
    When we say “Jesus is King” we mean he is our guiding spirit.
    It was never meant to mean an earthly king.
    This is the value of context.
    All passages from the Bible should be read with maximum background information.
    i.e. the cultural and historical context.


  2. Chas says:

    Tim, in view of your background knowledge and reading, I am surprised that you think that there is a need to know about the Maccabees to gain a context to this passage, doesn’t it refer to the fact that the authors of the Gospels believed that Jesus was the future king, known as the Moschiach, whose coming was declared in prophetic books of the Old Testament. Moschiach means Anointed One in Hebrew, which is Christos (Christ) in Greek. This Anointed One was to be a direct all-male line descendant of king David, and he would, among other things, conquer all of Israel’s enemies, build the third Temple and establish the rule of Jewish law throughout the world, where everyone would live together in peace. In certain of the ‘prophetic’ books of the OT, this Anointed One was shown as living in Heaven with God, until he came down to earth to do these things.

    The fact that Jesus did not fulfill a number of these things is why many Jews find it very difficult to believe in Jesus, because he did not fulfill these attributes of the Moschiach, and it is the reason that many of these things have been addressed in Revelation, where Jesus can be seen leading an army and behaving like an Old Testament king.

    In this context, the crown of thorns would be though an appropriate mocking for a Jewish crowd to make on someone who had not shown the attributes of the Moschiach.

    Since we believe that Jesus was the Son of God, he could not be the Moschiach, who had to be the son of a man, and, yes, I am saying that I do not believe that Jesus was the Christ, although that might be felt reason enough to ban me from this blog. However, that will not be necessary, as I am not required to contribute here any more.



    • Chas, you are in no danger of being banned. Quite the contrary! You bring a perspective that no one else currently brings. Even if we disagree, there is no problem; but in fact we might agree on this point more than you imagine.

      You are correct that Messiah and Christ are essentially the same word–the anointed one, but the idea that the Old Testament prophesies the coming messiah forms no part of my theological framework.

      However, post-captivity Jews did develop a messianic expectation, which was strong in the time of Jesus and afterward; just think of the messianic candidates mentioned by Josephus or Bar-Kokhba of A.D. 132. The success of the Maccabees certainly helped form the way in which the Jewish people thought of the expected Messiah.

      The concept of Jesus as Messiah was important among the writers of the New Testament, which is reasonable since the audience was Jewish, along with gentiles who had converted to Jewish-based Christianity. The NT writers appealed to OT prophecy to support the view. But the messianic concept was transformed among believers: the ‘kingdom’ was not seen as an earthly political kingdom, as the Jews anticipated; rather it was the community of believers with Jesus at the head.

      Though the idea of Jesus as Messiah was important among believers of that time, I don’t see it as relevant to me today as a believer.


      • michaeleeast says:

        Jesus was never an exact fit for the Messiah.
        The Old Testament prophecies vary widely.
        Jesus preferred prophet Isaiah provides the closest fit.
        As for the Anointed One Jesus mission statement at Nazareth
        from Isaiah 61 shows his understanding of it.


        • Yes, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” is pretty straightforward. But of course, Jesus’ concept of his mission was quite different from the conquering king Messiah the Jews expected.


          • michaeleeast says:

            Yes. The Pharisees say that no prophet hails from Nazareth.
            But in Isaiah we have the passage about Galilee of the nations
            “the people in darkness have seen a great light”.


  3. fiddlrts says:

    This topic has been an ongoing conversation between me and a few of my evangelical friends over the last year or so. We certainly have been fed the idea the the Bible interprets itself, and it has become increasingly clear to me that that is only true to someone who is convinced that they already know everything. Once one starts exploring context, the subtleties become apparent, and one realizes how much one does not know. I guess this is true for any area of study. The more one learns, the more remains to be discovered.

    I appreciate the tone of your writings, which thankfully lack the arrogance that permeates too much of theological discussion these days.


    • Fiddlrts, you said, “I appreciate the tone of your writings, which thankfully lack the arrogance that permeates too much of theological discussion these days.”

      I really appreciate that! This is what I try to do, but I feel that I often come short of it. Thanks for the kind comment.

      Also, I really like your statement: “The more one learns, the more remains to be discovered.”


  4. Marc says:

    Tim – This is one of your best posts. It is concise about the need for context. Scripture does not interpret itself, and those that think it does are rather deluded. Outside the boundaries of Holy Apostolic Tradition, context can be very difficult to understand. You do a better job than most.


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