In college I worked for a painting contractor. He taught me to paint, stain, varnish, lacquer, texture, hang wall paper… all kinds of finishing skills for home and office construction.
In new construction our work began after the trim (windows, baseboards, doors, and crown molding) was installed. We would putty, sand, seal, caulk, prime and paint all the trim in the house. A truism in painting, “preparation is the 70% of the work.”
The carpenters who install trim used pneumatic nail guns. You’ve probably seen these tools that “shoot nails.” They are incredibly fast. But because they are so easy to use, rather than finding a stud and using few nails, they’d just keep shooting nails until they “find” a stud. The result: the trim has hundreds of nail holes that have to be puttied or caulked before staining or painting.
So our job required tedious attention to detail. We had to fill every nail hole and every cracked piece of trim. Then we applied a primer coat and sanded everything piece of trim. The trim had be nearly perfect before you applied paint or varnish. In other words, we had to cover all the mistakes so that the finished product looked beautiful.
My boss was great at puttying and caulking. He could hide any hole or split piece of trim. He’d often say, caulk covers a multitude of sins.
Over the years of studying and teaching the Bible, I adapted his adage: context covers a multitude of interpretational sins.
I suspect we’ve all been guilty of grabbing a verse – without regard to its context – and using it to say something it does not say. I imagine all young Christians (I certainly did) make this mistake. We don’t necessarily know how to carefully read and interpret the Bible. So in our eagerness we simply find a “proof text” to make a point. At the same time, we’ve all heard a person say something about a verse and wondered, “Is that really what that passage means?” As we grow and mature in the faith, we have better ears when someone takes a verse out of context.
Context covers a multitude of interpretational sins.
When it comes to understanding the Bible, most of the work is preparation. Just like my “nail gun happy carpenter friend” we don’t keep shooting nails in hopes of finding the right verse or meaning. Bible study is not speed reading and jumping to some conclusion. Nor is it reading a verse in a small group and then asking, “What does this mean to you?” The good news is that anyone can learn to study the Bible before jumping to wrong conclusions or misapplications.
At the most basic level, observation and interpretation are the beginning steps to understanding the Bible. Perhaps the major key is understanding the context. Once we understand this, we are better prepared to know how to apply it to our lives.
This is my hope for inContext. Anyone, truly anyone can learn how to read and interpret the Bible carefully. After all, if the God of the universe chose to reveal Himself through His word, would it not follow that the understanding isn’t left only to theologians, pastors, or academics? It seems clear to me that if a person can learn to read, he / she can learn to study. It does not make any sense that God would give His word but only some select few could understand it or apply it.
When we finished staining cabinets, painting interiors, intricate moldings, the results were beautiful. But few people understand the preparation to make that home look so good. But anyone, truly anyone can learn how to do careful preparation.
In thirty-some years of teaching and pastoring, I’ve been asked 1000’s of questions about the Scripture: “What does this mean?” “What do you do with the contradictions in the Bible?” “Why don’t we have to obey parts of the Old Testament?” “How can the Bible really mean that?” “How can that be true today?” “I know the Bible says _______ but I believe _________.”
Most of the time, simply understanding the context answers the question.
My hope and prayer is that inContext might nudge you along in your growth so that when you read the Bible, when you face a seemingly tough question, you won’t take things out of context, but you’ll see that understanding the context covers a multitude of interpretational sins.