Context Is King, and Sounds Bytes Are It’s Subjects

The enemy of context is a sound byte.

Merriam Webster defines the word “context” as “the parts of a discourse that surround a passage and can throw light on its meaning.”[1] To understand something in its context demands that we carefully study the people, places, words, phrases and information in and around the object or subject at hand. To understand the context of something in the Scriptures means that we know what was said before, during and after a given passage or verse. It means that we understand what the audience would be thinking. It means that we understand the history surrounding the setting. It means that we understand a writer’s tendencies when he scripts his words. It means that we understand the depth of the syntax and vocabulary being used.

Context can never be divorced from the pursuit of finding meaning.

Think about our culture today. Americans – and many professing Christians – love the bottom line. They love sound bytes. When studying a particular individual, they use resources like YouTube and think that a 5-minute clip from a 60-minute sermon will give them everything they need to hear from that pastor and his views on a certain topic.

Let me give you an example. What if I preached the following paragraph and it was being videoed: “Jesus is not Christ. He is a liar or a lunatic. He never performed any miracles. He never rose from the dead. He is an idiot and those that follow him are idiots”? Imagine if those sentences were uploaded to YouTube – and only those sentences! I would be labeled a heretic by all who searched Google for the words “Charles Heck, Jesus Christ, liar.”

What if literally right before that YouTube clip I said, “Here is what the average atheist thinks about Christ …”? Now, that would be a fuller context of my meaning, wouldn’t it?

Context, context, context.

Dear Christians, please work at understanding people and Scripture by studying their contexts. Don’t assume you can get everything from a small sampling of a video clip or a quote or a secondhand blog post. Do the hard work of studying something in its context. Don’t be satisfied with sound byte theology; labor over material and study it hard before you draw conclusions.

Finally, take Paul’s counsel to Timothy to heart: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (II Tim 2:15).

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