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.