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The Importance of Context

Whenever one reads the Bible or theology, what I would call the “who-is-who” question always arises. Who speaks to whom and for whom? The mighty message of God was often heard in a wrong way because one listened in on the wrong message. There are many examples of this. Jesus did say, “Man does not live by bread alone,” but he never said that to a hungry person. When he was faced with hungry persons he fed them—4000 or 5000. And he massproduced wine in Cana just to prevent the wedding feast from turning into a fiasco. It was to Satan that he said, “Man does not live by bread alone,” speaking for and to himself. The church, however, often quoted Jesus in the wrong direction—to the hungry, in defense of the well-fed.

Stendahl, Krister. Paul among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1976. Print. p.106

This wonderful observation by Stendahl reminds us of an important principle of interpretation: audience relevance. When a minister, pastor, or author is putting together a message, the first question they must ask is, “Who speaks to whom and for whom?” That is, they must first decipher what the original intention of the message means. This is what Stendahl calls looking at the text as a theologian or an exegete. Once one interprets the passage from an objective standpoint, then they can began seeking out the pastoral or secondary application. This process is an attempt to ensure that secondary applications fit within the intended use of the passage and aren’t too far removed from their original context.

One example of this is any passage from Matthew 5. Any teacher must first seek to determine what the point of the Sermon on the Mount is before trying to apply the passages to themselves and their congregation. For example, what does Jesus mean by “you have heard that the ancients were told…” Is Jesus giving His own law that replaces Moses? Is this the constitution of Christianity? Or is Jesus properly interpreting the Law? Or we could simply ask as Stendahl does, “Who speaks to whom and for whom?” In this case, is Jesus speaking to Jews and Gentiles or just Jews? Furthermore, is Jesus speaking for the future Christian community, including Gentiles, or just those under the Law? How one answers these questions can impact how they read the various statement of Jesus throughout the rest of the chapters, such as the “narrow gate” passage in Matthew 7:13-14.

I’m almost finished reading through this book by Stendahl. I’ve intentionally taken it slowly so that I can digest what he is saying instead of finishing it for the sake of finishing it. I have a few more quotes I would like to share, so I’ll do that in the next few articles. Have a great day.

1 thought on “The Importance of Context”

  1. Thanks again for an excellent illustration on how to study the Bible. It is not uncommon for Christians to transfer the authors of the first century to the twenty-first century in their interpretation of the Scriptures. As a result of this mind-set, many believers interpret their writing in light of the twenty-first century, not the first century, which deals with “audience relevance.” Daniel is seeking to get individuals to transfer, as it were, themselves back to the first century and to stand upon their threshold and look through their eyes, not twenty-first century eyes. By the way, I highly recommend Daniel’s book on How to Study the Bible. If you do not have a copy, you should purchase one for your own studies. I purchased 13 to give to others to help them in their desire to understand the Word of God more accurately.

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