To a child of God, studying and meditating upon the message of the Bible ought to be an enjoyable undertaking: “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97). While we find great pleasure in investigating the message of God’s word, we also recognize that studying the Bible is a serious undertaking. We should approach such a task with diligence, reverence, and prayer.
Is there anything in the context that explains or at least helps us understand the meaning of a particular word or statement? This, too, is an important question that I need to ask myself when I study the Scriptures. The immediate “context” of a Bible passage refers to those statements or verses that come just before or after the passage we are examining. We might think of the immediate context as those words or instructions that are close by. In some cases, we have to look beyond the statements that are “in the neighborhood” to those that are further away, but still within the overall theme of a particular book. For our present study, though, we will confine our attention to taking into account things that are stated in the immediate context, as we look for assistance in understanding the meaning of the biblical text. Here are a few examples.
John 11:11,12 – When Jesus and His apostles got the word that Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, was sick (11:3), Jesus told them, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up. Then His disciples said, ‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get well.’” About what kind of “sleep” was the Master speaking? In what sense was Lazarus sleeping? Here is an instance in which the Bible will provide us with the explanation if we will just continue reading. The next two verses (11:13,14) make the Lord’s meaning crystal clear: “However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’” So, in this case, “sleep” means “death.” The Bible says so. Where did we learn this truth? From the immediate context. Though this is a rather easy example to understand, applying the same principle will assist us as we study more difficult passages.
Ephesians 2:14 – “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation.” In this verse, the pronoun “He” goes back to the words “Christ Jesus” and “Christ” in the previous verse. So, Jesus is the One that made “both” one, but who or what is intended by the word “both?” If we will look back at verse 11, we will find the answer: “Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh – who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands.” The “uncircumcision” points to the Gentiles, and the “circumcision” refers to the Jews. So, the “both” that are made one through Jesus’ peace offering are the Jews and Gentiles. Of course, that oneness takes place among Jews and Gentiles after the flesh only when they obey the gospel, which puts them into the Christ and his spiritual body, the church (3:6).
1 Thessalonians 4:16 – “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” It is a fact that the dead in the Christ will rise “first.” But the question is, “first” in comparison to whom or what? Those who teach the theory of Premillenialism, the false teaching that the Christ will return before He begins a literal reign for a literal 1,000 years, say that the word “first” points to the righteous dead being raised first, then later there will be the resurrection of the unrighteous.
The context of 1 Thessalonians 4 teaches something very different. In the last verses of this chapter, Paul by the Spirit is speaking about two groups, but the groups about whom he speaks are not the godly versus the ungodly. Paul has spoken about those that “sleep in Jesus” (4:14). Those are the same as “the dead in Christ” (4:16). Who composes the second group about which Paul writes? It is those saints “who are alive and remain” on the earth until the Christ comes again (4:17).
Thus, Paul is not comparing the righteous and unrighteous. The context says nothing about those outside of the Christ. Paul gives the answer to this question: “What is going to happen to those saints that have already passed from this life? Will they be able to share in the glory of the Lord’s second coming?” They will, indeed. In fact, the dead in the Lord will be with Him first. Here is the order of events that relate to the saints of God: “first,” the Lord will raise the faithful dead ones, then the faithful living ones “shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (4:17). The context proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Paul is speaking only about Christians – (1) those that are already dead, and (2) those that will continue living until Jesus comes again. The lost are not a part of the discussion in this context.
Context is extremely important. Paying close attention to it will help us understand the truth and will also keep us from making unwarranted conclusions.
— Roger D. Campbell
TRUTH is published monthly by the Klang church of Christ in order to help educate, edify, encourage, and equip the saints of God.