It’s important to study Bible passages and stories within their context. Taking verses out of context leads to all kinds of error and misunderstanding. Understanding context begins with four principles: literal meaning (what it says), historical setting (the events of the story, to whom is it addressed, and how it was understood at that time), grammar (the immediate sentence and paragraph within which a word or phrase is found) and synthesis (comparing it with other parts of Scripture for a fuller meaning). Context is crucial to biblical exegesis in that it is one of its most important fundamentals. After we account for the literal, historical, and grammatical nature of a passage, we must then focus on the outline and structure of the book, then the chapter, then the paragraph. All of these things refer to “context.” To illustrate, it is like looking at Google Maps and zooming in on one house.
Taking phrases and verses out of context always leads to misunderstanding. For instance, taking the phrase “God is love” (1 John 4:7-16) out of its context, we might come away thinking that our God loves everything and everyone at all times with a gushing, romantic love. But in its literal and grammatical context, “love” here refers to agape love, the essence of which is sacrifice for the benefit of another, not a sentimental, romantic love. The historical context is also crucial, because John was addressing believers in the first century church and instructing them not on God’s love per se, but on how to identify true believers from false professors. True love—the sacrificial, beneficial kind—is the mark of the true believer (v. 7), those who do not love do not belong to God (v. 8), God loved us before we loved Him (vv. 9-10), and all of this is why we should love one another and thereby prove that we are His (v. 11-12).
Furthermore, considering the phrase “God is love” in the context of all of Scripture (synthesis) will keep us from coming to the false, and all-too-common, conclusion that God is only love or that His love is greater than all His other attributes, which is simply not the case. We know from many other passages that God is also holy and righteous, faithful and trustworthy, graceful and merciful, kind and compassionate, omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, and many, many other things. We also know from other passages that God not only loves, but He also hates.
The Bible is the Word of God, literally “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), and we are commanded to read, study, and understand it through the use of good Bible study methods and always with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to guide us (1 Corinthians 2:14). Our study is greatly enhanced by maintaining diligence in the use of context because it is quite easy to come to wrong conclusions by taking phrases and verses out of context. It is not difficult to point out places that seemingly contradict other portions of Scripture, but if we carefully look at their context and use the entirety of Scripture as a reference, we can understand the meaning of a passage. “Context is king” means that the context often drives the meaning of a phrase. To ignore context is to put ourselves at a tremendous disadvantage.