Learning to read scripture in context is one of the biggest gifts you can give yourself in Bible study. When the books of the Bible were first written they had no chapters numbers, verses or nifty headings. Those three things were not inspired and, although helpful to get us all looking at the same words at the same time, can be detrimental to us really reading and understanding some of what we find in scripture. I used to hear people say that context was reading the verse before and the verse after. That is insufficient. The meaning that context helps us to discover can run across chapters. It can even run across entire books of the Bible. I have gotten to where I have started ignoring the chapter breaks to read the books of the Bible as they were originally written and what has jumped out at me has been a rich blessing to my study and to my relationship with God. Here is an example of the fruit of this approach in case you didn’t read it – What did Jesus mean when he talked about causing “little ones to stumble”?
Tips on reading scripture contextually:
- Pretend for a moment the headings, verses and chapters don’t exist and read for the meaning of the whole rather than reading isolated chunks (because that is how the text existed in its original form). Usually big connections require you to hop over chapter numbers to find. If you teach a book 1 chapter a week without looking back to the previous chapter you will miss these connections.
- Look for broader themes that encompass multiple stories and teachings rather than stopping at a verse just because someone 500 years ago decided to stick a verse number in there.
- Ask questions of the text that cause you to search beyond the story at hand (like in the post mentioned above). When you start asking why this verse is here, you begin finding answers in surrounding verses (context). Investigation is key to comprehension.
- Don’t be quick to pick up a commentary. Commentaries give you the fruit of someone else’s labor in an instant. It is like you are a boxer who finds the title belt on a shelf somewhere, picks it up, holds it high and declare yourself the champion of the text when reality is, you didn’t have to fight for it. Fight with the text. Struggle through it. Interrogate it.
- At the same time, realize that not everything is complex. Not everything has a deeper meaning hidden in the context. Once you select your approach to study, realize its limitations. What ends up happening is, once you decide to study and read more contextually (studying bigger chunks at a time) it is easy to think that everything is solved this way and that everything has deeper meaning that is spread out across stories and teachings. That can lead you to make some mistakes in your interpretation, finding connections that don’t really exist.
- Time – this is going to take more time than studying a verse or a chapter by itself. You are going to have to go back and look at what has already been said that leads up to the text you are studying and/or teaching on. But the results of this effort are great and you will start reading scripture more like the story it was intended to be in the first place.
- Last, this helps prevent prooftexting. Prooftexting is when someone finds a verse or two that seem to be saying something they agree with, lift it out of context and present it as backing up their case. The reality is, context may actually prove that the text is saying exactly the opposite of what is being presented.
I am glad you brought up this topic. I wished for a long time that the bible would be read intact in the service, most especially around the holidays when the gospels detail the actions of Jesus. Now, I have been told that people got bored during readings and so they were discontinued. To me, this is ridiculous. I think the bible is far more important than a laundry list of announcements that could be put on paper or emailed out. I have said for too long that proof-texting is bad and leads to weird and potentially incorrect interpretations and assumptions.
I have been told by hard line conservatives that I should read the bible on my own as no provision is made in the scriptures for bible readers in the service but for teachers, preachers, etc. I totally disagree with this idea. Many of the younger people are heading for liturgical churches. Those are the ones which have a portion of the epistles, psalm, and gospel read every Sunday using a one or three year guide. This generally prevents proof-texting and results in 11-minute homilies based on the gospel portion. For a great example of one of these, look at Rachel Held Evans’s website where she posts a link to a homily she gave recently.