Context is everything! Everyone says that we should read the Bible in context. However, I am convinced that at least some, who say this, have less than the most superficial understanding of what context is. I don’t usually compliment Evangelicals; however, sometimes they get it so right. I was listening to a talk given by an Evangelical minister. He was saying that the person, who hangs his hat on one verse of Scripture, while ignoring other relevant verses, is very likely to come up with an incorrect understanding of the verse. This man seems to have a good grasp of the larger context.
At another time, I was listening to an Evangelical minister quote the Bible as saying “There is no God.” I think an atheist would be happy with his statement, but of course, he didn’t stop there. That little phrase exists in a number of places in Scripture. His point was this; you cannot quote Scripture without bringing in the clarifying words that exist to properly understand the verse in its context. He then went on to give the phrase with the clarifying words, “Fools say in their hearts, there is no God.” (Psalm 53:1). With the clarifying words the verse means something entirely different.
Some might say that the explanation given by the Evangelical minister is simplistic. I don’t think this minister was being simplistic. I believe his explanation is both simple and profound at the same time. I see context violated frequently because people are either leaving out or ignoring clarifying words.
When reading Scripture, it is helpful to ask the questions, “WHO WHAT and WHY” in order to get the correct context. In the following discourse I will present three examples of “who what and why.”
- WHO said only God can forgive sins?
- WHAT clarifying words are being left out in a failed attempt to show that images of the Saints are in violation of Exodus 20?
- WHY did the Apostle Paul speak against “works of the Law” in favor of faith?
THE WHO OF IT ALL: Who is speaking in a Bible verse can make a huge difference. I am often times confronted with the statement “Only God can forgive sins” apart from man. Why do some people believe that only God can forgive sins? The answer is simple, because there is a verse in the Bible that says so.
“Who but God alone can forgive sins" (Mk 2:7)?
The bible says it, therefore it must be true and so, from their perspective, it is wrong for a priest to forgive sins. How can a priest forgive and retain sins in the Sacrament of Confession if it is seemingly forbidden in Scripture?
I always ask the person with this type of reasoning, who made the statement; was it Jesus or one of the Apostles? They usually have no idea. Actually, neither Jesus nor any of His Apostles made the statement that only God can forgive sins; it was coming from the Scribes, who opposed Jesus. “Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, "Why does this man [Jesus] speak that way?” (Mk 2:6).
One person wrote me on Facebook and said that he didn’t care if it was a scribe who opposed Jesus; it is in the Bible and therefore you must believe it. I told him fine; however, in order to be consistent, he must also believe this same scribe when he said that Jesus is a blasphemer because this is in the Biblical context as well. To this he had no response.
“Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, ‘Why does this man [Jesus] speak that way? He [Jesus] is blaspheming. Who, but God alone can forgive sins’" (Mk 2:6-7)?
In believing that only god can forgive sins, apart from any man involvement, he didn’t seem to realize that he was aligning himself with the scribes who were accusing Jesus of blasphemy. Who can forgive sins? Jesus answers this question very nicely and he didn’t say; only God can forgive sins apart from any man. Jesus included man. In fact as we look at John 20, we find that Jesus gave the Apostles the power to forgive and retain sins.
"Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:23).
People who believe that only God can forgive sins apart from man involvement are at odds with Jesus who gave the Apostles the power to forgive and retain sins. And so we contrast the scribes who opposed Jesus “God alone can forgive sins” with Jesus who gave the Apostles the power to forgive and retain sins. In both cases, whether you listen to the Scribes or to Jesus, you have a Biblical precedent. And so the question is this, who will you follow in the Bible?
Will you follow the scribes who said "God alone can forgive sins" and accused Jesus of blasphemy? Or will you follow Jesus who gave the Apostles the power to forgive and retain sins?
The "who of it all" is important because it was not Jesus or His Apostles who said “only God can forgive sins” apart from man; it was the scribes who opposed Jesus and accused Him of blasphemy. Jesus gave to man the power to forgive and retain sins. There are many who ignore these Bible verses for the sake of their man-made traditions.
THE WHAT OF IT ALL: When reading Scripture what is being said and what are the clarifying words? I was once asked by a Baptist friend as to why we make graven images of Mary and the saints, since the Bible prohibits this practice.
“You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them” (Exodus 20:4-5).
In response to her (Gina), I asked this question; did Mary and the other Christian saints exist at that the time of Exodus? She answered, "no;" they didn’t exist till many centuries later. I then said to her, if the Christian saints didn’t exist at the time of Exodus 20, then these verses could not be speaking specifically against carved images of them. I further explained that in order to carry Exodus 20:4-5 forward to see if you can apply it to Mary and the other saints, then you first have to go back and find out what were these images. I then asked her if she knew what graven idols God was speaking against at the time. She said that she didn’t know. If we look at Exodus 20:3, we find out what the clarifying words are in order to determine the context. Verse 3 does not say all carved images, but idols of “other gods”; "You shall not have other gods besides me" (Ex 20:3).
And so the next question is this, are the saints and Mary other pagan gods in competition with the one true god? No, they were not pagan gods, but friends of the one true God. And so if we use the graven idols (other gods) in Exodus 20:3-5, against the Christian saints, who are not other gods, then we are using the Bible out of context. She got this whimsical look on her face and began to smile and said “I never thought of it that way before.” When, Gina realized that she had been taught Scripture out of context, she eventually found herself worshiping God in the Catholic Church.
I find time and time again, when people quote Exodus 20, they will quote verses 4 and 5, but leave out verse 3 the context. Why is verse 3, the clarifying words that give us the context being left out? The answer is simple, their tradition has taught them that images of the saints are in violation of Exodus, now they have to give this argument up, because the moment verse 3 is quoted, you realize it is speaking of idols of “other gods”; the Christian saints are not other gods, but friends of the one true God.
There are some who would like us to believe that Exodus 20: 3-5 is a prohibition against all images, when in fact the text limits the images to that of other gods. As the Evangelical minister correctly pointed out, clarifying words are important. We need them in order to understand the Bible in context.
And furthermore God ordered images of angels and a snake to be made. Was God in violation of Exodus 20:3-5 (no carved idols) when he ordered images in the sky and on the earth? No, He was not because these images were not carved idols of other gods, but images that were used for His good purposes. “Make two angels of beaten Gold for the two ends of the of the propitiatory” (Exodus 25 17:18); And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and if anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he will recover” (Nm 21:6-9). When God ordered images to be made, He was not in violation His own commandment?
“You shall not have other gods beside me. You shall not
carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you hall not bow down before them or worship them” (Exodus 20:3-5).
The "what of it all" is important. What are those clarifying words? In this particular case, the clarifying words which are often times being left out are “other gods”. The Christian, saints are not other gods.
THE WHY OF IT ALL: In many cases it is relevant to the context of a given passage to ask why a particular passage is being brought up at any given time. Romans 3:28 and other Bible passages are frequently used to speak in favor of “faith alone” apart from any good works. By saying it this way they are presenting a false contrast. They are confusing good works with works of the Law which are two entirely different things.
Good Works: "See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (Jm 2:24).
Works of the Law: "For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Rom 3:28).
Here are a few more examples where works of the law are spoken against in favor of faith; “by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law (Gal 2:16) did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing (Gal 3:2) by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing” (Gal 3:5).
This of course begs the question, why does the Apostle Paul keep speaking against works of the law in favor of faith? The Church was first of all Jewish, Jesus and the Apostles were Jews, but now gentiles were coming into the Church and they had never been circumcised. There were Jews who were insisting that the gentiles be circumcised. "Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). There was much dissension and so Paul and Barnabas took the issue to the Apostles and presbyters.
Peter responded, after much discussion on the issue of circumcision by saying; “Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they." (Acts 15:10-11)? We hear the word circumcision today and it means little or nothing to us because it isn’t an issue today, but in the early Church it was a huge issue.
Even though the issue was settled for all time at the Jerusalem Council; it didn’t go away. There were still others insisting that you must be circumcised and Paul continued to respond to the issue. “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing” (1 Cor 7:19). Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:3). Paul at one point became so exasperated with those insisting on circumcision that he said “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:13).
I was talking to a person who had previously been Catholic and is now Baptist. He asked me the question “What does the word “works” by itself mean?” If you look in any dictionary, you will find that any given word has multiple meanings depending on the context. I was stunned because he wanted me to come up with a definition of the word "works" without including the context. He was presuming that the word “works” meant “good works” when in fact the word has multiple meanings.
The word “works” can be the works of Jesus (Jn 5:31); evil works (Jn7:7); good works (Mt 5:16); living your faith (Rev 2:9); judgment by works (Rev 20:12; pagan works (Acts 7:7); works of the law (Rom 3:28); works of the flesh (Gal 5:19); dead works (Heb 9:14); etc. When we hear the word “works” in Scripture, the first thing we should do is to listen for the context because the word "works" has so many meanings.
We started out this discussion with Romans 3:28 which contrasts "faith" with “works of the law.” There are those who insist that this is a contrast between “faith alone” and "good works." Is this verse 28 referring to "good works" taking care of the widow and orphan? Or is it referring to that “work of the law” we call circumcision?
“For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28).
As the Evangelical minister puts it, the answer is found in the clarifying words found in the context. The clarifying words say “circumcised” just two verses down and no mention of good works.
“For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law” Does God belong to Jews alone? Does he not belong to Gentiles, too? Yes, also to Gentiles, for God is one and will justify the circumcised on the basis of faith and the uncircumcised through faith (Rom 3:28-30).
Now with this in mind, go back to acts chapter 15 and you will discover that this is Paul’s response to those Jews who were insisting that gentiles must be circumcised in order to be saved. And so to confuse Romans 3:28-30 with “good works,” when it clearly says “works of the Law,” is not a use of Scripture, but an abuse of Scripture. The concept of “Faith alone” apart from “good works” fails because the contrast is between faith and “works of the law”. And that particular work of the law, circumcision, is in the context.
On more than one occasion, I have had people tell me “dead works” won’t save you. I totally agree with them and then add, dead faith won’t save you either and that is faith without good works. Here are the respective Bible verses that defend both positions.
Dead Faith: For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (Jm 2:26). When we read faith without works, the Apostle James is speaking of good works, James 2:14-17. If we do not feed and clothe the hungry and give them the necessities of life that dead faith cannot save you.
Dead Works: Dead works are in the Bible and no these works will not save you, "cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” (Heb 9:14). The persons often times presenting this, define dead works as being good works. They then use this verse to speak against good works in favor of faith. But are they right; are these dead works in fact good works? There is an understanding among most Christians that the Bible properly understood in context does not contradict. However, if dead works are in fact good works then the Bible speaks both for and against good works and so there is a Biblical contradiction. Which time should we believe the Bible or would it be better if we just read the Bible in context?
The solution to the problem is again in the context. Hebrews 9 is not talking about good works, feeding and clothing the hungry. These dead works are specifically the blood offerings of animals. “He [Jesus] entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer's ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” (Heb 9:12-14).
The dead works, blood of animals, are no longer necessary because we have the blood of Christ who offered himself unblemished to God. And so to call dead works (animal sacrifices) “good works” is an abuse of Scripture, not a use of Scripture. James is speaking for good works, feeding and clothing the hungry. Paul is speaking against dead works, the sacrifice of animals; there is no contradiction.
Not by faith alone: There are those who cling to “faith alone” apart from good works even after the context is explained to them. “Faith alone” is found in the Bible; however, it is preceded by two clarifying words, “Not by”. "If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day
Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (Jm 2:24)?
If we claim the concept of “faith alone” apart from works, we are following man-made tradition which is at odds with the Bible. If we believe we are “justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jm 2:24), we are following the Bible.
And so when the Bible says “not by faith alone,” where did the concept of “faith alone” come from? It doesn’t go back to Jesus and the Apostles; it goes back to Martin Luther.
"We account a man to be justified by faith without the works of the Law" he renders by the interpolating of a word: "We hold that a man is justified without works of the law by faith alone" (Rm 3:28). His answer to Emser's exposition of his perversion of the text was: "If your Papist annoys you with the word [alone], tell him straightway: Dr. Martin Luther will have it so: Papist and ass are one and the same thing. Whoever will not have my translation, let him give it the go by: the devil's thanks to him who censures it without my will and knowledge. Luther will have it so, and he is a doctor above all the doctors in Popedom" (Amic. Discussion, 1, 127) (Luther and the Bible, Ohare).
The concept of “faith alone” comes from Martin Luther who inserted the word “alone” into Romans 3:28. We have already mentioned that Scripture says “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jm 2:24)? Who will you follow? Will you follow Martin Luther’s faulty insertion of the word “alone” or will you follow the Bible that says “not by faith alone”? In fairness to non-Catholics of today, they have removed the word alone from Romans 3:28.
Even though this incorrect word has been removed, the notion of "Faith alone" continues to live on in many Christian traditions today.
James speaks for good works: The tradition of some tells us that James writings have nothing to with being saved, even though James spoke of salvation in relation to good works. What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (Jm 2:24)? James ties Good works to justification and salvation. Those who deny that James is speaking about salvation are misrepresenting James for the sake of their man-made tradition.
Were Paul and James at odds with each other? Some people say that Paul and James were in disagreement over the issue of good works; however, the Bible never mentions any such conflict. These same people take the side of Paul, who they think is speaking against good works and reject James because he is obviously speaking for good works. Half of their understanding is correct; James is speaking for good works. However, there is no indication that Paul ever spoke against good works. He was in fact speaking against "works of the Law" (circumcision) in favor of faith.
The Apostle Paul speaks for good works: This of course begs the question, did Paul ever speak about good works and if he did, was he in favor or against good works? Yes, Paul did speak about good works. In fact, not only was Paul, not at odds with James, but in agreement with him on the subject of good works. Paul spoke for good works just as James had done;
“who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works” (Rom 2:6-7).
Paul is saying that we must persevere in good works and ties these same works into eternal life. There was no disagreement by Paul and James over good works; they were both speaking for good works? Paul spoke both for "good works" and against "works of the law," circumcision.
Jesus speaks for good works: Paul and James were not the only ones who spoke for good works; Jesus did as well. Jesus said that those who do not do good works in love will end up in eternal punishment. “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me' (Mt 25:41-43). Jesus also said, “And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" (Mt 25:46).
Jesus ties eternal punishment and eternal life directly into good works and how we love others.
The "why of it all" is important in order to understanding the context. Paul spoke for faith and against works of the law (circumcision) because there were people insisting that you must be circumcised in order to be saved. We also know why Paul and James could not have been fighting over faith and good works. They were in agreement. And we know why some people believe in “faith alone” even though the concept is contrary to the Bible, in the book of James.
I have given three different examples of how specific Bible verses are misused and how this can be remedied by a proper understanding of context.
WHO: We need to ask who is speaking. It was the scribes who opposed Jesus and accused Him of blasphemy, who said “God alone can forgive sins” (Mark 2:6:7). It was Jesus who breathed on the Apostles and gave them the power to forgive and retain sins, (John 20:23).
WHAT: What are the clarifying words that help us to properly understand the meaning of any given verse? What were those idols spoken of in Exodus 20:3-5? They were pagan idols “of other gods,” not to be confused with images of the Christian saints, who in no way qualify as Pagan gods.
WHY: And why is a particular verse being spoken of at any given time? Why was Paul, in Romans 3, speaking for faith and against the “works of the law” including circumcision? This was his on-going response to the people who were insisting that you must be circumcised in order to be saved. "Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved" (Acts15:10-11). Paul was not opposing good works he was in agreement with James and spoke for “good works” in Romans 2:6-7.
It is important to look at the immediate context both before and after a verse. Also notice the larger context in the whole of the Bible, especially parallel passages. It can also be helpful to check and to see how the historical Church has understood a particular verse, noticing the commentary of the early Church Fathers and councils of the Church?