Has anyone ever taken something you said out of context? Maybe they walked up in the middle of a conversation and only heard part of what you said. Or maybe someone told them what you said, but didn’t explain the context in which you said it.
We hate when this happens. We feel misunderstood or perceived as saying something we never meant to say. It can even lead to a breakdown in communication or a breach of trust.
Context helps us understand what people mean by what they say. Without it, we are likely to misinterpret their words or get the wrong idea. It also helps us interpret what is written in the Bible.
“Literary context” refers to the setting in which a statement is written. You must be aware of the context of a verse of Scripture to correctly interpret it. Without this awareness, you are likely to misunderstand or misapply what the author is saying. This is especially true when it comes to interpreting Bible prophecy.
There are two ways to discern the context of a verse of Scripture. The first is to consider the content surrounding it. This includes the verses before and after, the rest of the chapter, and the rest of the book. It can even be expanded to include other books written by the same author.
The second is to identify which genre the author is using. “Genre” refers to a literary form, or a style of writing. Genres in the Bible include history, law, poetry, letter, and apocalypse, to name a few. The genre of a book determines how we interpret it.
Old Testament Prophets
There are several books of prophecy in the Old Testament. These books utilize poetry more than any other genre. Poetry often uses figurative language. We must determine what the prophets mean by what they say, rather than taking their words at face value.
We must also be mindful of the context of specific prophecies. Perhaps no prophecy is taken out of context more than Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
We interpret and apply this verse as a promise that God will guide our lives. But at the beginning of the passage 29:1 says: This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to…all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
So Jeremiah isn’t speaking to us. Rather, He’s assuring the Jews that God will restore them to their homeland after 70 years of exile in Babylon.
Book of Revelation
Revelation is the only book of prophecy in the New Testament. It uses apocalypse more than any other genre. This genre was popular among the Jews from 200 B.C. to 100 A.D. It describes the end of the world using detailed (sometimes bizarre) symbolism.
Apocalypses were written during times of persecution. The symbolism often carries political and polemical undertones. In other words, it portrays our victory as God’s people over the forces that oppose and persecute us.
Revelation’s literary context includes not just other apocalypses, but also the Old Testament. It alludes to the Old Testament hundreds of times! So when it uses a symbol, we interpret that symbol by tracing it back to its original meaning in the Old Testament.
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