What is “context” in writing? It’s the information with a bearing on a word, verse, or larger passage that must be recognized to understand and interpret the text correctly. It’s what both precedes and follows a word or passage that clarifies its meaning. If we don’t take this information into consideration when studying a written text, it’s likely that we could come away from it with some kind of misunderstanding.
While context is essential in any number of circumstances, it’s especially true for the Bible and other religious books. When Christians read the Bible, we have to understand the context of what we’re reading to ensure that we understand it properly. If we disagree with some religious text, we have to understand it, also. If we don’t, then our objections will be meaningless.
Taking passages out of context is a popular tactic for critics of the Bible. In the meme at the top of this post, we have the juxtaposition of two passages—Acts 2:21 and Matthew 7:21—which seem to contradict one another. Once we understand the contexts of each, we’ll find out that they actually agree. Tearing these verses out of context to obscure the important details is precisely the reason why the critic who made the meme deliberately chose to place these two statements side-by-side.
In Acts 2:21, the greater context is Peter’s preaching the first recorded gospel sermon in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. He tells his audience that “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” What does Peter mean here? Simply put, calling upon the name of the Lord is a kind of shorthand for obedience to the gospel, which he later defines as, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Here, calling upon the name of the Lord includes an expression of faith following the person’s decision to trust fully in the saving work of Christ, and then submitting to baptism. It’s synonymous with conversion.
In Matthew 7:21, the greater context sees Jesus contrasting those with genuine faith and others who merely go through the motions. In the few verses before, he mentions false teachers and others who bear fruit that exposes their true nature, whether healthy or diseased. In the following verses, he contrasts the wise and foolish builders to illustrate what it means to call upon his name sincerely. Jesus is talking about the one who says, “Lord, Lord,” who is disingenuous, while those who will be saved do God’s will.
Here we have two very different uses of the phrase, “call upon the name of the Lord.” One is synonymous with obedience, while the other is merely said by those who are inauthentic and who put their trust in something other than God. Again, the reason why the meme’s creator put these two phrases together was to generate mistrust in the text.
Understanding context is not only vital for biblical interpretation—it also plays a significant role in Christian apologetics. After posting a four-part series on the top ten passages in the Qur’an, an atheist criticized my posts, claiming that the Bible also included homophobic, misogynistic, and violent passages. When I asked for evidence, he merely provided a handful of passages taken out of context. I called him on it. Unable to rally defend his position, he ran to his Facebook page and joked to his fellow atheists that I accused him of taking passages out of context but that I was guilty of doing the same. Let’s put that to the test.
If those posts, I examined ten different passages, often placing each in its context in its chapter in the Qur’an. I gave the historical background to each selection, offered references to other passages where similar ideas appear in Islamic sacred texts, noted how Islamic scholars have traditionally understood them, and provided links to modern imams teaching the very interpretation I gave. In short, I looked at each passage in its literary, cultural, and historical context. I also provided a wealth of evidence to show that my interpretation of these passages was indeed accurate according to the body of Islamic sacred texts and modern Islamic scholarship.
Proper Bible interpretation rarely matters to many critics of the Bible. As we can see, some deliberately choose to spread false information, it seems, because they are dishonest. Believers have to be careful when defending the gospel that we don’t appear to be doing the same.