Christ Lutheran Church - Marshfield, WI

1st Principle of Interpretation

I once read a story of a Calendar that had a Bible verse written on it each day.  As you turned the Calendar, each day gave you a new, inspirational Bible verse.  One day the Calendar had the following verse on it, “I will give you everything if you fall down and worship me.”  Matthew 4:9

Sounds good right?

Of course, it is not so good when you remember that the person talking in Matthew 4:9 is Satan, and he is trying to get Jesus to fall to temptation.  Fall down and worship me?  The answer here is no, not yes.

Welcome to our first principle of interpretation: Context.
Just like how real estate is all about location, location, location.  Scripture is all about context, context, context.

Never believe someone who tells you, “this is what the Bible teaches.”  And then inserts a random verse from the Bible without giving more explanation or details.

By ignoring context, people have made much mischief with Holy Writ.  You can make the Bible say anything you want it to and justify anything you desire simply by ignoring the context.
Context comes in many appearances.  The simplest is the form that Scripture comes in.    

The Chapters and Verses of the Bible are helpful because it is easier to tell someone to go to Luke 19:10, then it is to search forever to locate “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”  

However, chapters and verses are not helpful because it gives the impression as if each verse stands on its own.  They often do not.  Verses are a part of paragraphs and paragraphs are part of sections, and sections are a part of genres and books, structures and arguments.  Nothing is placed in the Bible by random.

Other forms of context are the authors and the original audience themselves.  Moses, Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc. And they never say things halfway.  This means they risk sounding contradictory at times.

We will end with an example.  Look up Galatians 3 and James 2.  Read and compare.  Paul argues that Abraham was justified by faith and not by works in Galatians 3:6. But then James 2:24 states that Abraham was justified not just by faith but by works.  Yikes!  What do we make of this?

We need to consider context: Paul is writing to an audience who thinks that they can get good with God by acts of circumcision and remaining kosher to Jewish dietary and worship laws.  For Paul’s audience, Jesus Christ only loves you after you become a Jew!  For Paul, this is unacceptable, and he reminds us that Abraham was made righteous, made good, before God when he believed the promise that God told him.  Paul’s point is this: “We are good before God when we believe, like Abraham, that we are made right before God because of Jesus Christ and his work for us.”   Thanks be to God for that, that is the essence of the Gospel!

James, on the other hand, is dealing with people who think that since they are forgiven before God by faith alone means that they can now live however they want before their fellow man.  James is quick to remind his audience that this faith in Jesus which justifies us is an active faith, a faith that does works!  James would remind us that our deeds give witness to others of our saving faith in Christ.

So, Paul is describing the relationship between God and you (think vertical), and James is describing the relationship that exists between your neighbor and you (think horizontal).  God doesn’t need your works, Luther would say, but your neighbor does!

Paul and James are not contradicting each other but are rather helping us define a web of relationships that exists between God and you and you and other people.

Context, context, context.  Can’t say it enough, it is crucial to understand Scripture!

In Christ,
Pastor Andrew Belt

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