Spend any amount of time in a Christian giftshop or bookstore and you are likely to see all manner of items with inspirational Bible verses printed on them. You’ll see posters and wall art with Lamentations 3:23 “…his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning,” coffee cups with Jeremiah 29:11 “…for I know the plans I have for you…,” and t-shirts with Matthew 19:26 “…with God all things are possible…” or Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” And it doesn’t just stop there.
Inspirational verses find themselves in social media bios, sporting events, street signs, and even written on the bottom of fast food containers. If you’ve been in the church for very long, you will have heard your fair share of one-off verses. People love to share them as quippy encouragement or admonishment. But why exactly do we do this? Well, we love reading our Bibles in a way that lets us have verses in our back pocket (or on a refrigerator magnet) for whatever situation we find ourselves in. Using singular verses rather than longer passages can help make the Bible consumable, friendly, and practical. And while it’s completely okay to read our Bibles like this at first, the Bible can offer us so much more!
Often, we may be tempted to make the Bible say what we want it to say, rather than what God wants it to say. One of the most common ways we do this is by selecting singular verses out of their context. We view Bible verses as something to be consumed à la carte rather than something to understand deeply and thoroughly. By doing this, we can make the Bible say nearly anything we want.
Now, this isn’t always done maliciously or even consciously. We often do it simply because it is convenient or because we were never taught how to read the Bible. However, the true meaning and proper interpretation of any particular Bible verse is rarely found in the verse itself, but in the verses and passages surrounding it. Answering “What does this verse mean?” and “How should I apply this verse to my life?” require more effort than we might initially expect. Without looking at verse’s context, we will inevitably miss out on what God is actually trying to tell us in it.
What does it mean to read a Bible verse in context? Reading the Bible in its context means looking at every verse or passage in relation to the verses, chapters, and broader narratives that surround it. It means knowing what other ideas, themes, or stories the author was thinking about when writing. It is seeking to understand how all this context affects or influences how a verse should be read.
In order to begin investigating the context of a verse, here are three helpful steps for reading in context:
First, understanding the Bible in context requires reading longer sections of Scripture. You can practice this by finding a popular verse that you like, say Philippians 4:13 for example, and reading the entire section it is contained in. After doing so, ask if the immediate context changes anything about what that verse means. Repeat this process again, but now read the entire chapter. Each time you expand the context to a larger level (eventually seeking to understand verses in the context of the entire biblical story), you will gain a better idea of the themes, ideas, and history that the author would have considered when penning that verse. You may see similarities to other passages, or allusions to other stories. All of these realizations can be valuable.
Second, when your Bible suggests a path to follow, take it. Most modern Bibles will contain a wealth of footnotes and references that help you track down the context for particular verses. For example, if you notice a New Testament verse has a note referencing a verse from the Old Testament, go check it out. Was the New Testament author quoting from the Old Testament or alluding to something that happened before? Maybe it’s something like in Luke 4:18-19, when Jesus reads directly from Isaiah 61. Following this path to Isaiah and reading more from that book will give increased insight into the promises Jesus is fulfilling in Luke. Practices like this can help illuminate additional areas of the Bible you may want to mine for contextual clues to understand verses.
Now, admittedly, these first two steps can be quite time consuming. Seeking to fully understand a singular verse can require quite a bit of work. But do not be overwhelmed! There are some incredible short cuts.
You can both save time and gain a better understanding of verses using a Bible commentary. Thankfully, there are thousands of faithful men and women who have gone before us in studying the Bible in context. They have put substantial work to investigating every verse in the Scriptures. This is why it can be so helpful to use these resources to supplement your regular Bible reading. Commentaries can help clue you in to the context you may be missing when you just quote a memorable verse because it sounds encouraging. They can provide the historical, cultural, and literary context needed to understand what the Biblical authors were trying to accomplish.
Many study Bibles (we highly recommend the ESV Study Bible) will include commentary on nearly every passage, often explaining many of the key ideas you should be aware of when reading verses. More detailed works (such as The NIV Application Commentary) go in depth on particular books and provide additional context and explanation.
Be warned, starting to care about biblical context will probably make you less appreciative of all the mugs and t-shirts with random verses on them. Before long, you will understand that perhaps Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t the best verse to quote every time something bad happens, and that Matthew 19:26 doesn’t make the best work-out motto.
Studying context helps to align your understanding of the Bible with God’s intent for it. As you start to read longer sections of Scripture, you will see the Bible less as something to consume in small bites, but instead, as something to feast on as a whole. Singular verses will still be useful and applicable at times, but now they will call to memory the surrounding meaning and story of Scripture.
Ultimately, context makes your Bible more beautiful. It presents the Bible as it actually is; not a simple collection of inspirational verses, but the most brilliant story ever told.