Believe it or not, there is one simple thing that you can do that will instantly boost your Bible comprehension, and it’s something that you learned in elementary school. It’s called using context clues.
The Bible is not a book that must be read straight through, but we would serve ourselves better if we didn’t skip around as much as we do. Much of our confusion over what a particular passage means can be cleared up by putting the passage back in its larger context.
We do this all the time. The word bear, for instance, can refer to an animal or to carrying a load. You don’t have any trouble telling which one people mean because in the context of your conversation, only one makes sense.
There are a couple different kinds of context. We’ll take a more in depth look at them in the future. For now, here’s a quick overview.
Our bear example up above relied on the immediate context. If you’re confused about something Paul says in one of his letters, for example, take a look at what he says right before that. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul sounds like he doesn’t like the gift of tongues very much, but if you look at chapter 12, you will see that the Corinthians who could speak in tongues were using it as a status symbol to make themselves look better than everyone else.
The extended context is exactly what it sounds like. If what comes immediately before and after your confusing passage doesn’t clear the problem up, look farther. Looking at all of Paul’s letters might help you learn what he generally means when he uses certain phrases. Or, to go another step, try to fit the passage you’re reading into the grand story line of the Bible to figure out how it applies to God’s rescue plan for humanity.
The literary context just means what type of book you’re reading. The prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, often speak figuratively. The Books of History, on the other hand, like Samuel and Kings, should be read much more literally.
Even though the Bible still very much applies to us today, it is important to remember that it was written thousands of years ago. It was a very different world. Sometimes it’s difficult for us to understand what the Bible is saying because we don’t understand the historical context.
The easiest way to learn the historical context is to use a study Bible. Each book’s introductory notes will set up the timeline, and additional information in the footnotes will do a lot to clear up confusing sections.
Remember that the Bible is made up of 66 books but is really just one story. Placing each book in its proper context is one of the best ways to gain a deeper understanding of what it means.