Webster defines it this way: con•text \ n [ME, weaving together of words, fr. L contextus connection of words] 1: the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light upon its meaning 2: MILIEU, ENVIRONMENT.

One of the most important elements to consider in hermeneutics [a fancy word for Bible interpretation] is context. The context often makes all the difference between understanding and misunderstanding a passage. The Bible has been divided into chapters and verses for our convenience. Without these divisions, it would be much harder to find things in the Bible. It also causes many problems, though, because the chapter and verse divisions tend to make us ignore context. We tend to think that the verse or chapter stands alone, which is almost always not correct.

Our communication is based on letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. Many Bible verses are simply parts of longer sentences, and thus cannot be properly understood without considering the rest of the sentence. Further, a sentence often cannot be understood without considering the paragraph in which it is found. Beyond this, a paragraph often cannot be understood without considering the surrounding chapters, the whole book, or the entire Bible. All of this is context.

Consider this example of stringing together individual Bible passages without consideration of context:

“Then Judas, which had betrayed him … cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:3-5). “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31). “And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly” (John 13:27).

Consideration of the context is so important, because without it, we run the risk of making the Bible say what we want it to say. Instead, we need to let the Bible speak, and learn what it really says, not just what we want or expect it to say. “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). Context would tell us that it is not just any truth that makes us free, but the truth of God’s Word. And if we love truth as we should, we will make sure that we consider context.


Benjamin Hapgood Burt (1880-1950) wrote the following song in 1933:

“One evening in October, when I was one-third sober,

An’ taking home a ‘load’ with manly pride;

My poor feet began to stutter, so I lay down in the gutter,

And a pig came up an’ lay down by my side;

Then we sang ‘It’s all fair weather when good friends get together,’

Till a lady passing by was heard to say:

‘You can tell a man who “boozes” by the company he chooses’

And the pig got up and slowly walked away.”

Many have made light of the sin of drunkenness. Dean Martin, the singer and actor, joked, “You’re not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on.” Humorist Robert Benchley (1889-1945) was scolded by a friend, “Don’t you know alcohol is slow poison?” Benchley replied, “So who’s in a hurry?”

Drinking alcohol is no joke, however. The drinker likes to overlook the lives ruined and ended by the drunk driver, and the families destroyed by alcohol. Solomon said, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). Alcohol deceives every day, because the drinker sees neither the damage he causes, nor the foolishness he spouts. Over two hundred years ago, Samuel Johnson said, “One of the disadvantages of wine is that it makes a man mistake words for thoughts.”

Solomon also said, “They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine. Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder. Thine eyes shall behold strange women, and thine heart shall utter perverse things. Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast. They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick; they have beaten me, and I felt it not: when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again” (Proverbs 23:30-35).


In her best-selling book about punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,  Lynn Truss made a striking point concerning the way punctuation can change a sentence (New York: Gotham Books, 2004, p. 74). She cites Luke 23:43 as an example. The King James Version renders the verse, “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Thus Jesus promised the repentant “thief on the cross” that they would be together in paradise that day. 

As Truss points out, however, the preferred Roman Catholic rendering of the verse is “Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in paradise.” Notice the subtle change by moving the comma. While the KJV gives the understanding that Jesus and the thief would be together in paradise that very day, the sense of the Catholic rendering is that while Jesus and the thief would be together in paradise at some point, the time is unspecified. 

Why does this comma make any difference? The reason the placement of the comma matters is the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, defined as a place intermediate between heaven and earth, where the dead who have not done sufficient penance in life may endure suffering for a certain period of time to satisfy the demands of justice left from life. Under current teaching about purgatory, the righteous on earth can pray, burn candles, and do works of penance to help those in purgatory make that last step from temporary suffering to heaven. 

The choice of where to put the comma in Luke 23:43 is one that the translators have made, since the original autographs of the Greek do not contain commas. (Biblical Hebrew does not even have vowels!) Wherever we place the comma, however, there is no mention in the Bible of purgatory. Two false doctrines—original sin and salvation through meritorious works, made the idea of purgatory necessary. Let us be sure that we do not read into the text those things which are not there!


Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894) was a writer and physician, and the father of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Dr. Holmes, Sr. loved to be flattered, and in his old age he took advantage of his loss of hearing to get more flattery. When someone would compliment him, he would say, “I am a trifle deaf, you know. Do you mind repeating that a little louder.” The usual result was a repeated and broadened compliment, A LITTLE LOUDER.

Who among us does not like to be praised and flattered? Praise is valuable, but we have to be careful with flattery. When Eddie Haskel “complimented” Mrs. Cleaver on the old Leave it to Beaver show, his flattery was dripping with insincerity. Someone has said, “Flattery is like chewing gum─enjoy it briefly, but don’t swallow it.”

On the other hand, though, sincere praise and commendation may be just what many of us need. One of the great servants in the early church was a man named Joses, a Levite from Cyprus, who “having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37). Because of his great works in the kingdom, the apostles renamed him Barnabas, or “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36). 

This Levite from Cyprus had a tremendous effect on the early church. “For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord” (Acts 11:24). Without his influence, the church at Jerusalem might have never accepted Paul (Acts 9:27). His work as a missionary was invaluable to the spread of the gospel. He was able to have such a significant impact because he was an encourager.

The world, and the church, are both filled with people who just need to hear a good word some time. Many struggle through day after day, unable to see anything or anyone to cheer them on their way. You could just make someone’s day, just by saying the right thing. They don’t need dishonest flattery, but honest encouragement and appreciation could make such a great difference. We’re all “a trifle deaf” when it comes to hearing compliments and good things. I challenge you to be a Barnabas this week!


Joe Theismann had a very successful NFL career playing quarterback for the Washington Redskins (now Commanders) for twelve seasons. He led them to two Super Bowls, and was an all-pro. At Notre Dame he set several records, and had a 20-3-2 record as a starter. He was in contention for the Heisman trophy in 1971, when Notre Dame publicity man Roger Valdiserri  insisted he should begin pronouncing his name to rhyme with Heisman (as he still pronounces it today), although he had always pronounced his name “Theesman.” The ploy did not work, as he came in second in the voting behind Jim Plunkett of Stanford.

I suppose many of us would change our names if it meant fame and fortune for us. Biblical name changes have had much more significance, however. At the age of ninety-nine,  Abram who fell on his face before the LORD, as the LORD said, “As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee” (Genesis 17:4-6). With God’s renewal of the promised blessing, Abram, “exalted father,”  becomes Abraham, “father of many nations.”

After a night wrestling with the angel of the Lord, Jacob, whose name meant  “supplanter,” or “deceiver” became Israel, “Prince of God.” The father of the twelve patriarchs was a changed man, with a new outlook.

Other significant name changes include Joses, renamed Barnabas, “son of consolation,” or “son of encouragement,” by the apostles (Acts 4:36), and Simon, called Cephas, or Peter, “a stone,” by Jesus (John 1:42).

Seeing the age of the coming Messiah, the prophet predicted, “the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the LORD shall name” (Isaiah 62:2). Peter commanded, “if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Peter 4:16). “The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26) Since that time only those who have obeyed Him may rightfully wear this new name. Do you wear the name Christian? Does your life bring honor to this name?