Many people are trying to do a better job of reading and studying their Bibles, and that is to be commended. However, for far too many people there is one mistake that is made probably more than others. This can lead to disastrous results when you are trying to study, understand and most importantly apply Scripture to your life.
The one big mistake people often make is context. They take a verse and create a point of view, a belief or even a doctrine, and since they don’t look at the complete thought, they take the verse out of context.
What Does It Mean to Look at a Verse in Context?
When you are reading the Bible, it is important to look at the entire verse, the entire thought or passage surrounding that verse, and then beyond that look at the entire chapter. Eventually you should look at the entire book, and then finally you have the context of the entire Bible.
One of the things you can consider is what is called hermeneutics which is the study of the principles and methods of how the Bible is to be interpreted. There are many hermeneutic principles when you study the Bible, and one of those is that Scripture interprets Scripture. This means that before you draw a conclusion based on one Scripture, how does that thought align with other scriptures, because Scripture interprets Scripture.
In other words, verses of Scripture don’t usually stand in isolation; they will align with other portions of Scripture. When you adhere to principles like this, it will help you to keep the context of the verses in mind so you can understand what they mean.
Example of a Scripture often Taken out of Context
Let me give you an example of this so you can see why context matters, and in many cases, can change the meaning of what is generally taught.
“You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).
Have you ever heard preachers – or anyone for that matter – say this? Often what is implied by these words alone is that the reason you are not getting anything from God is because you don’t ask him. If you look at these words in isolation, that would be true and there is little room for debate. Based on those words you could simply conclude “I just need to ask God and then I will have what I want or need.”
However, let’s dig a little deeper and look at the whole verse to see if we can get the complete context of the verse. The portion of the verse I used earlier was King James Version, I am going to use the NIV, but the point is still the same.
“You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2).
When you read this full verse in context you begin to see there is a little bit more going on then not asking God. I will ask you, what else do you see happening in this verse? The first part of this verse mentions things you desire but you do not have so you kill. Look at how the AMPC Bible words this part of the verse:
“You are jealous and covet [what others have] and your desires go unfulfilled; [so] you become murderers. [To hate is to murder as far as your hearts are concerned.]”
The first part of this verse speaks to the jealousy a person holds in their heart towards someone else who is getting the things they are desiring. This person is so consumed by their own desires going unfulfilled, they are in essence murdering someone else. Look at the next part of the verse.
“You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.”
We just saw jealousy leading to hatred, and now we see covetousness that leads to quarreling and fighting among Christians. Remember, James is not writing to people in the world, he is writing to fellow believers. Again, let’s look at this in the AMPC.
“You burn with envy and anger and are not able to obtain [the gratification, the contentment, and the happiness that you seek], so you fight and war.”
As we examine the context of this verse, I hope you are beginning to see that people who behave like this have a big problem on their hands. They are dealing with jealousy, hatred, envy, anger, unfulfilled lusts, and desires. This seems to be saying a lot more than just “you have not because you ask not.”
I think you are seeing how much context matters. Let’s now expand that context and look at the complete thought from this portion of James.
The Whole Thought
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3).
As you expand the passage, you are now beginning to get an even clearer picture as to what is going on and why this person or people are not getting their prayers answered. We have a group of people who are fighting and quarreling with each other because they can’t get the stuff they want, and they are upset because someone else has it. All of this is happening before you ever get to the point of “you don’t have because you don’t ask God.” However, you can’t stop there because we don’t have the full context yet.
You Are Asking with Wrong Motives
When you consider the full context, we see that not only is this person not receiving because they are not asking, they are not receiving because they are asking with wrong motives.
Let me ask you this question. Based on James 4:3, what is the basis for this person praying and asking from God? I hope you came up with an answer along the lines of selfishness. This almost seems crazy, but it happens all the time – people are asking God for stuff for their own pleasure and nothing else. Is there any wonder these types of people were not receiving anything from God?
This is not only true for those living when James wrote this, but people who pray this way today are still not receiving anything from God. When you consider the full context of the verse you can see this is way more than just “you have not because you ask not.”
One Step Further with Context
Since we are talking context, just look at the next verse in James.
“You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
James is not pulling any punches. These people are selfish, greedy, covetous, jealous, fighting, arguing, and now he calls them adulterous, meaning they identify as Christians, but are more interested in the things of the world. Is there any wonder why God would not answer their prayers? I think you see this is not just because they didn’t ask God for what they want.
The Wrap Up
This verse is one of many I could have used to make this point. I hope it is clear to you why the context is so important. If you neglect this, you can end up changing the tone, texture, and meaning of what the Bible says.
I want to encourage you to take the time to study the context of what you are reading. When you do, you will begin to understand Scripture a lot better, and most importantly you won’t add meaning to verses that were never truly intended in the first place.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Roter Panther
Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.