Preachers often talk about context. Why is this word so important? Context is closely tied to meaning. To take something out of context is to change its meaning. We want to know the word of God, but when it is taken out of context, we have the word of God masquerading as something it is not. It is being used in a way it was not intended to be used. Everyone has probably done this at some point, and I believe most people do it unintentionally. Still, it is a problem, and it is something we need to be aware of so that we treat the Bible appropriately.
Some of the most famous verses in the Bible are the ones most frequently taken out of context. They sort of jump off the page and seem to stand on their own, but each verse in the Bible has a context we must heed. There is an immediate context (the few verses before and after the one we are looking at). There is a broader context (the chapters before and after the verse, as well as the book it is found in). There is a big picture context (the entire story of Scripture). It is best to start small (immediate context) and work outward to the larger context.
Let me give you an example. A passage I sometimes see quoted and applied to various situations is Matthew 7:21-23. This is a passage that seems to stand on its own but has a very specific context.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matthew 7:21-23)
This text is used in multiple ways. People use it in regards to how they understand Scripture. They think that unless you understand Scripture the way they do, then you are lost. People use it of themselves or their church. They believe they have found the narrow way, but everyone else is lost. Sometimes this passage is combined with Matthew 7:13-14 to prove that very few people will be saved. The problem with each of these interpretations is they take the passage out of context.
Matthew 7:21-23 is one of the easiest texts to figure out the context. Why? Because it comes at the end of a sermon. Jesus is talking about something specific. He is making his final remarks, and he is challenging people to put into practice the things he has just talked about. We don’t have to guess at the meaning. We know the meaning. All we have to do is read Matthew 5-7.
When Jesus talks about the narrow way (Matt. 7:13-14), and “the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21) he is referring back to everything he has already said. This is what preachers do at the end of a sermon. They encourage their listeners to take action. To follow the narrow way is to not get angry (Matt. 5:21), practice forgiveness (Matt. 5:23-24; 6:14-15), not lust after someone who is not your spouse (Matt. 5:28), not practice cheap divorce (Matt. 5:32), keep your word (Matt. 5:37), turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), love your enemies (Matt. 5:44), give to the poor (Matt. 5:42; 6:2-4), pray (Matt. 6:5-13), fast (Matt. 6:16-18), avoid materialism and consumerism (Matt. 6:19-24), trust in God and do not worry (Matt. 6:25-34), do not judge (Matt. 7:1-5), and practice the golden rule (Matt. 7:12). Jesus had very exact things in mind when he says, “Do this” and mentions the narrow way.
Matthew 7:21-23 is an invitation at the end of a sermon. Jesus is inviting us to a different way of living. He knows it is not easy (narrow) and that not everyone will want to follow him (Matt. 7:21), but these practices are the path to blessing and life. Although we may be tempted to lift this passage from the sermon in which it was delivered, this is not what Jesus had in mind. This is not a text that proves our rightness and other people’s wrongness. This is a text that should challenge us each time we read it. We should ask ourselves, “Am I walking the narrow path? Am I following in the footsteps of Jesus? Am I practicing forgiveness, loving my enemy, giving to the poor, praying, fasting, etc.?” To keep this passage in context and focus on ourselves is much more difficult than to take it out and focus on others, but he never promised us that following him would be easy. In fact, he said the way would be narrow.
Honor the memory of Daniel Isaac Whitworth by donating to the Memorial Scholarship benefitting his preschool at the Keller Church of Christ.
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