CONTROLLED BY CONTEXT
By Dr. David Reid
Philippians 4:13 – I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.
It is well known that if you quote people out of context you can have them say just about anything you want. We all know that politicians are expert at this craft–especially around election time! Unfortunately, that’s exactly what some people do with the Bible. It’s amazing what the Bible can be made to say if it’s quoted out of context. In fact, it’s often said that a biblical text out of context becomes a pretext. That is, it is used for the purpose of presenting ideas which are more in line with the mind of the speaker than with God’s mind.
Now most Christians do not deliberately pull Scripture out of context. We all have our pet peeves and axes to grind, but let’s hope that we don’t willfully twist and distort Scripture to serve our own purposes. However, many Christians unwittingly take Bible verses out of context by ignoring the context. In fact, it is sad to say that most Christians habitually run the risk of pulling Scripture out of context because they do not give enough attention to the surrounding context.
Let us take Philippians 4:13 as an example of what it means to be controlled by context. What does the Bible mean when it says, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me”? Does it mean that I can lift 500 pounds if I have enough faith? Does it mean I can jump off a ten-story building and not break a bone because I have supernatural strength? Does it mean that I can walk on water as Christ did on the Sea of Galilee? Certainly no Christian in his right mind takes Philippians 4:13 that far out of context. But what about other cases?
Consider those Christian students who take on too great a work load–academics, athletics, action groups, and other wholesome activities. They go without proper rest and constantly push themselves to take on more load. Is it right for these students to claim Philippians 4:13 for “success” in all of these areas? Does the context of this verse allow such a claim? Should such students feel they have failed in faith or that the strength of Christ has failed them if they end up on the verge of a burn-out? Has the promise of Philippians 4:13 proved false–or has the verse been taken out of context?
Consider further the Christian man or woman who launches out into a new career or even a new ministry for the Lord without first doing some serious preparation and wise planning. Does Philippians 4:13 predict prosperity as long as the strength of Christ is claimed in faith? Suppose the new career doesn’t work out or the ministry folds. Is it right for the Christian man or woman to be frustrated and uptight with the Lord because Philippians 4:13 doesn’t work? Is the strength of Christ really good for “all things” or has Philippians 4:13 been twisted out of context?
Contributing even further to the confusion concerning the proper interpretation of Philippians 4:13 are those Christians who use the verse to explain why they are so successful in various endeavors. Take the Christian businessman, for example, who quotes Philippians 4:13 in his talk at a testimonial dinner to account for his financial success. This sounds pretty good at first, but where does that leave all the poor struggling Christian business men and women in the audience who are not doing so well financially? Isn’t the strength of Christ good for them too? Has Philippians 4:13 been taken out of context? Or what about the record-setting Christian athlete who humbly quotes Philippians 4:13 to explain the triumph? It all sounds so great, and it certainly comes from an attitude of praise, but when this verse is used as an explanation for athletic accomplishments it raises a serious question. Again we must ask about the Christian athletes who are not so talented and did not win any medals. They also trained and tried their hardest but they either lost or never even qualified. Where was the strength of Christ for them? Certainly many of them had as much faith in the promise of Philippians 4:13 as the winning Christian athlete. Was this verse pulled out of context again?
The problem in all the examples above is that the context of Philippians 4:13 was ignored. The use of this verse by all those well-meaning Christians was not controlled by the context, and thus the verse was made to say things that were never intended by the Holy Spirit. Context is so important for our appreciation and application of Scripture. Studying the context is not only helpful but mandatory for the proper interpretation of any passage of Scripture. Checking out the context safeguards us from far-out interpretations that God never had in mind when He inspired the text. A good under-standing of the context acts as a control over our ideas of what a particular verse means. Knowing the context eliminates the need for guesswork and “inspired imagination!” There is less “I think it means…” and “I feel it means…” kind of interpretation when the context of a passage of Scripture is comprehended.
What exactly do we mean by “context”? Context is more than just the surrounding verses of any text of Scripture. Context means the surrounding paragraphs and chapters and ultimately the whole book of the Bible in which the text is located. The more we come to know the historical background and the original occasion and the intended purpose of that book, and the theme and the structure and the argument of that book, the more we will be helped and controlled in our interpretation of any text in that book of the Bible. By the way, this is why one of the best ways of studying Scripture is the “book by book” method. God did not compose the Bible by putting together isolated verses here and there, but rather He gave His Word by books. Why not study it the way God gave it? This is not to say that topical studies or meditations on favorite passages or even “just-open-and-read-anywhere” approaches to the Bible cannot be profitable. But studying the Bible by books has the added advantage of coming to know what is so vital for proper interpretation: the overall context of any verse in that book.
The basic and obvious reason why understanding context is so important is that God did not write a single verse of Scripture without a context. There is always an historical context and a literary context to any verse in the Bible. Therefore the question of “What does this verse mean to us today?” should always be preceded by “What did this verse mean when it was written”? What was the historical situation? Who was writing and to whom was he writing? When, where and why was this Scripture written? What type of literature was used? Was it prophecy, parable, poem, letter, historical narrative or some other form of literature? Knowing the answers to these questions is all part of knowing the context of the verse, and this knowledge enables us to properly proceed from “What did it mean then?” to “What does it mean now?” Once we’ve done this homework, our applications for today will be more sound and less speculative because they are based squarely on God’s original intention of the text.
Now let us look briefly at the context of Philippians 4:13 and see how even an abbreviated contextual awareness can help us with the interpretation of this verse. The apostle Paul was a prisoner in Rome when he wrote this letter to the Philippians (See Acts 28). The church at Philippi was founded about ten years previously, on Paul’s second missionary journey (See Acts 16). A Christian brother named Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25, 4:18) had come from Philippi to Rome with a financial gift to help Paul’s needs. One of the purposes for the letter to the Philippians was to thank the believers there for their gift and to explain Paul’s situation in Rome. Now notice the verses immediately surrounding Philippians 4:13. Paul was very thankful for the gift and also for the fact that the Philippians were concerned about him (4:10, 14-19). The apostle also stressed (4:11-12) that regardless of his circumstances, he was content because he had learned to depend on the Lord to meet his needs. It is in this context that we have the confident statement of verse 13. In times of need and hardship Paul was not worried or uptight because he had come to know from experience that he could depend completely on Christ for strength. And we can, too! That is the wonderful promise of Philippians 4:13 for us today–in context!
Guided by context control, we see that we shouldn’t claim Philippians 4:13 for financial success or good grades or gold medals, but we can certainly claim it for strength in time of need. Remember also, from the overall context, that the needs that Paul faced were all because of his service for Christ, not hardships resulting from selfish ambition or irresponsibility or negligence. This should further control our interpretation and application of this promise for today.
Are you facing any needs, difficulties or hard times right now because of your decision to stand for Christ? Then you too, like Paul, can claim with all confidence, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”
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