Context is Key: Literary Context

Welcome back friends. This is the second of three posts about context. The first post dealt with historical context and this post will deal with the most widely used literary context. The literary context is the set of circumstances that define how a passage is understood through a variety of factors like genre, the occasion, and purpose of a document. Genre of course deals with what type of book it is, poetry, history, a letter, a biography, and so on.  The occasion of a document has to do with what was going on at the time the author wrote the document or the circumstances that caused the author write the recipients.

Sometimes the purpose is stated plainly in a book and other times you must connect the dots from the majority of the text itself.In many of Paul’s letters he begins with a similar greeting and prayer and will share the purpose for his letter at the start. Other books of the Bible will give a purpose in the middle or at some other point of the book. For example in John 20:30-31 the author states the purpose, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” 

Bible scholar, Darrell Bock defines it as “the context of the surrounding passages. It’s the way in which you move into the passage that you’re looking at. It’s the way you move out of it. It’s even the way the wording is expressed within the passage. All these generate literary features, things like genre—and just the way in which the sentences are put together, the things that are appealed to, make up the literary context.”[1]

One of the easiest ways to understanding the context of a passage is to look at the text around the passage at different levels. First take a look at the 30,000 ft up view.  What are the main subjects of the entire book? If you can read the whole book that’s the best option. Most Bibles will have a introduction at the beginning of the book to give you some general ideas if you can’t read the entire book in one sitting. Next you can zoom in a bit closer and look at the main topics of each section. Most Bibles will include headings that divide the book into larger sections. Keep in mind that these were added by publishers and may vary in their location. You can’t always trust the chapter markings either, because sometimes the flow of though will continue through the chapters. Next zoom in closer and look at the paragraphs before and after the passage that you are looking at. Can you summarize the paragraph in one sentence?

Occasionally, Bibles will have an outline at the beginning of the book as well. Different publishers or commentaries may disagree on the sections and outline arrangements so it is good to look a couple of them. See where you agree or disagree with the author or publisher as you read through the book of the Bible. Fee and Stuart note that as you read through a book of the Bible, “the most important contextual question you will ever ask—and it must be asked over and over of every sentence and every paragraph—is, “What’s the point?” We must try to trace the author’s train of thought.”[2] Let’s look at a couple of examples, one from 1 Corinthians and another from John 3 and try it.

John 3:5

Let’s start with John 3 and look at a single verse in the Bible. In John 3 Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night and begins a discussion over Jesus’s origins from God. Jesus immediately turns the conversation to what it takes for someone to see the kingdom of God, he “must be born again.” Nicodemus questions “How can a man be born when he is old?” v. 4 and then Jesus makes this statement in verse 5. “I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” Some who believe that baptism is necessary to having eternal life will use this verse to point out that Jesus is hinting at baptism which was a practice that was done by first century Jews (like John the baptist). Is that really what Jesus was saying? Others that believe that this verse is referring to a specific point of salvation for someone who puts their faith in Jesus.

So we have two interpretations, but which one is the right one? They both cannot be right. The answer lies in the context.  Our first step is to read the verses before and after verse 5 that we are questioning. Can we find any immediate clues that help us? Nothing in verse 4 really offers any help but the verse that follows does. Verse 6 begins, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” Jesus expands on the two births (water and the Spirit) required to see the kingdom of heaven. The Spirit gives birth to the spirit. Notice the difference between the upper and lower case showing that the Holy Spirit gives birth to the human spirit. But the word “water” in verse 4 is now changed to “flesh” when Jesus says that “flesh gives birth to flesh.” Water in verse 4 cannot refer to baptism, as verse 5 clearly points to water being the physical birth. Anyone who has had a child knows that the mother’s water has to break first for the child to be born, hence Jesus’s allusion to it in verse 4.

1 Corinthians 13

Now let’s look at a entire passage and zoom out a little for this next example. Many people are familiar with the Love chapter (1 Corinthians 13) as it is affectionately called. It is used at countless weddings for Christians as a example of what true love should look like between two people. While it is used for many weddings it is actually written not for 2 people who are being married.The context tells us that it has a much larger application for the church. If you read the chapters before and after chapter 13 you will find that they are talking about spiritual gifts (12:1-11) and the body being made up many parts all working together using these gifts (12:12-31). In chapter 14 Paul returns to a discussion on spiritual gifts (14:1-25) and then having order in church worship services (14:26-40). All these chapters seem to flow and fit together but the love chapter is placed right in the middle. Paul is trying to convey in the importance of gifts how they can be divisive among believers that they should above all “love each other” as a church as they use their gifts. In addition to these chapters before and after 1 Corinthians 13 we know that one of the main purposes that Paul wrote the first letter to the church in Corinth was to address the many problems and fights that were taking place among the believers there. After Paul opens his letter to the church at Corinth with the standard greeting and prayer he wastes no time with the purpose of his letter. “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you” (1 Cor. 1:10-11). While we can still enjoy 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings the next time you hear it quoted remember that it was meant for the church to operate their spiritual gifts in love together as the bride of Christ.


[1] Darrell L. Bock, BI100 Learn to Study the Bible, Logos Mobile Education (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).

[2] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 27.

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