In this series of studies, let us now consider a third question that we should ask ourselves as we study God’s word: “Were there any special circumstances that existed at the time a statement was made that might help explain a particular term or entire verse?”
Jesus once told His apostles, “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 10:5-7). Are we also restricted from preaching to non-Jews, and should we be telling folks that the Lord’s kingdom is at hand? Jesus’ charge on this occasion to the twelve was limited to that period of time. The mission of Jesus Himself was to go “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). So, it should not surprise us that his apostles temporarily focused their attention on the Jews, too. Later, that would change when the Master sent them to be witnesses all over the world (Acts 1:8). In addition, in our day the kingdom already exists. In fact, it was already in existence when Paul wrote to the saints in Colosse in the first century (Colossians 1:23). For a brief period of time, the apostles worked under “the Limited Commission” (Matthew 10:5-7). Now you and I are living under “the Great Commission” – the charge of our Lord to preach to all people in all places (Mark 16:15,16).
A second example of unique circumstances is found in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul speaks extensively about matters pertaining to marriage. He wrote that unmarried people care about the things of the Lord, while the married care for the things of the world (7:32,33). The tenor of several statements in that chapter seems to be that, for a member of the church, remaining single is a better choice than getting married. All such instructions must be taken in view of what is written in verse 26: “I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress – that it is good for a man to remain as he is.” There was some kind of distress, some type of special situation that existed at that “present” time. What it was, Paul does not explain. Surely the saints in Corinth knew what Paul had in mind. It may have included some form of severe trials, even persecution. Paul said that such could cause “trouble in the flesh” for married Christians (7:28), so in view of the potential for severe stress on one’s maintaining his faithfulness to both his mate and the Lord, Paul wrote that it would be better for some not to marry. Do not lose sight of Paul’s motive, as he clearly had their best interest at heart: “And this I say for your own profit . . . that you may serve the Lord without distraction” (7:35). With his apostolic authority, Paul neither spoke against nor forbid marriage. He simply wanted the brethren there to weigh their choices carefully, always making decisions that were best for them spiritually.
Consider a third New Testament example of special circumstances that contributed to the message that we read in the biblical text. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, the apostle exhorted him, “Be diligent to come to me quickly” (2 Timothy 4:9). He went on to say, “Do your utmost to come before winter . .” (4:21). What was so urgent that Paul twice pleaded with his friend and fellow gospel preacher to come to him quickly, even before the arrival of winter? Paul was in a Roman prison at the time he wrote this epistle (1:16-18). Paul’s time on earth was coming to an end. Hear him: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (4:6,7). In view of such a scenario, Paul pleaded with his good friend to come to him, and to do so as quickly as possible, bringing along some personal items for the aged apostle (4:13).
Here is another example. The New Testament plainly teaches that physical circumcision is not required in order to be saved (Galatians 5:6; 6:15). Titus, a co-worker of Paul’s, was a Gentile. He was not circumcised, despite the fact that some of the Jews claimed that such was necessary in order to please the Lord (Galatians 2:3). On the other hand, Paul dealt differently with a second co-worker of his, Timothy: “. . . he took him and circumcised him . . .” (Acts 16:3). Why would he take such an action that, on the surface, appears to be inconsistent with not circumcising Titus? The very same verse in Acts 16 tells us that Paul circumcised Timothy “because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek” (Acts 16:3). Timothy’s mother was Jewish, so the circumcision of Timothy was to make him more acceptable in the Jewish culture. Thus, Timothy’s circumcision was a matter of culture and becoming all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:22), and had nothing to do with Timothy’s personal salvation.
— 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.