Getting Serious about Context

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“Christians who desire to pray more effectively must first spend more time reading those portions of God’s word which emphasize His holiness.”*

Job knew of God’s holiness. You can hear it in the words “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” [Job 42:5-6]. Consult Isaiah 6:1-6, Ezekiel 1:25-28, and the Elders in Revelation 4:8-10 for more examples.

But no matter how many Scriptures you consult, the problem of context may be a major stumbling block to understanding the significance of Scripture, understanding the words from the point of view of the writer [in the writer’s timeframe].

When I went to college, I had a fascination for American Civil War history and to a certain extent I still do. I would find a .58 caliber minie ball rifle bullet in an antique store and my imagination would go wild thinking of all the circumstances where it could have been used. The tangible item transported me mentally to warfare in the Civil War. However, the more I began to study history in college, the more I had to write about the war in many term papers every semester.   Very seldom did I get to use actual accounts from the battlefields; most of the research material I worked with was 2nd or 3rd hand accounts, people commenting on the action many years from the actual event.

I began to feel more distant from the war. My imagination was influenced by words from distant observers. I just could not understand the context of the actual conflict. I wanted to see what the soldiers saw and feel what the soldiers felt but I just couldn’t.

As Christians, do we have the same problem? Can we lose the context of what happened in Bible days?


Let’s take the idea of Jesus dying for our sins. That is a life-changing idea but some people seem to lose the idea that He did it for us. Maybe when we examine this event, His suffering hides us from the notion of how destructive our sin can be and how imminent judgement can be. We can’t imagine how awful the suffering was for Jesus.   I was shocked to the point of crying several years ago when I saw the 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ.” Some critics felt that the scourging scenes were too graphic as the Roman guards whipped Jesus but maybe they weren’t. I could not stand the treatment of Jesus because I knew He was suffering for me.   The movie put it right before my eyes. I cried for it to stop; right to the movie screen. Maybe it was just a movie and it was really not like that but it made it real; it provided some context.

Israel’s exile took place thousands of years ago so that context seems distant. The Hebrew people were punished but in a time and place so distant that most of us can’t really relate to it. They sinned over and over again and God said He would punish them and eventually He did. How significant was that punishment? It is hard to determine. We can’t understand an insular people who were forced to lose their cultural identity as a punishment. The context is so hard to relate to but by all accounts, it was devastating. Intermarriage occurred, worship of other gods occurred and the Hebrew nation lost its identity, except for a remnant.

Believe it or not, Bingham also feels the certainty of our salvation works against us when it comes to understanding the context of prayer. We presume that God’s love for us will always be there so we take it for granted. Romans 8:39 says “neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s very reassuring but should we still not mourn over our sin [see Matthew 5:4]. In short, this (what I call) “grace abuse” can make us seem “bulletproof” to the problem of sin in our lives.   We can do what we want and get away with it because we are covered by grace. In my Bible, I read many calls to understand repentance and contrition which are essential to confession and consequent forgiveness and cleansing.  Maybe we are so far away from Bible times that we think we can skip some of those steps.

Let’s get real.

God does not want us to skip steps and our God wants even more.

God expects us to do a daily cleansing. That is a very foreign concept in today’s world. Why would we need that? Because we need to die daily to our sins. Every day that I live, I sin, and in the hustle and bustle of life, I become blind to it or I choose to ignore it. “It is little wonder that sin grieves the Holy Spirit who lives in us. Yet the greater and more astounding wonder is that sin grieves us so little” [Hunter, 26].

“Christians who desire to pray more effectively must first spend more time reading those portions of God’s word which emphasize His holiness.”

But even more than that, we should make an effort to understand what was happening in the time of the Scriptures.   I know we don’t have access to time capsules to take us back to the days of the Bible, but the more we can take God’s words out of our world and try to put them into Biblical times, the more we have a chance to understand them.

The more we have a chance to understand “the context”.


From his book The God Who Hears

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