Does reading the Bible “in context” limit application?

No, it really doesn’t.  But that’s a criticism that comes up occasionally.  If you challenge a slightly careless or assumptive interpretation by pointing out what the verse specifically means in context, you’ll find that some people will defend the poor interpretation based on their belief that it needs to apply to something (usually outside the boundaries of the context).  Phrases like “the appearance of evil,” “the day the Lord has made,” “the nation whose God is the Lord,” “stumbling-blocks,” “a new song,” “owe no man any thing,” and numerous others find themselves often abused by over-broad interpretation.  Are we losing something valuable if we limit those words to what they actually mean in context?

Reading in Context

First of all, if reading a verse in context limits its application, that’s just fine.  We ought to be more concerned about God’s intention in His Word than we are about our creative applications!

Second, sometimes reading a passage carefully actually expands the application!  Take the story of Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas, for example (I Sam. 2-3).  If you read quickly, the story looks an awful lot like a lesson in parenting.  Eli failed to discipline his sons, therefore his sons misbehaved badly, therefore God punished both parent and child.  What difference would that make today?  I suppose the application (of a reading on that superficial level) would be “Be sure you discipline your children to obey or else you’ll get punished by God.”  While raising children to serve the Lord is an excellent thing to do, that’s really not a great application to pull from this text.  Here’s why.

Reading Too Quickly

A superficial reading of this passage only applies to a fraction of readers.  I don’t have kids – should I just put this passage in my “save it for later” drawer and apply it when I’m older?  What about parents who are already raising children who love God?  I suppose they should just say, “Good stuff, glad I’m doing well here.  Next chapter, please!”

A worse problem with the superficial reading, however, is that it misses Christ.  Really, where does the Gospel of Christ fit into that application?  I’m not saying it’s impossible to tie the two together; I am saying that the “parenting advice” interpretation makes it really easy to rattle of a moralistic application that doesn’t leave much room for connecting to Christ.

Of course, the biggest problem with reading carelessly is that you may miss what God actually says in His Word.  Whether application is broad or narrow is immaterial if you don’t know what the passage actually says.

A Better Application

We should notice that God gives His view of the situation in I Sam 2 – that should get our attention and focus our application.  God identifies the root problem.  It wasn’t parenting; it wasn’t corporal punishment; it wasn’t even learning self-control.  The root of the issue was idolatry.  Look at I Sam. 2.29: “Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?”

Wow.  Do you see what happened there?  No longer can we read this passage as mere parenting advice.  Now we see that the real application strikes at a sin that affects each of us constantly: the sin of idolatry.  Now I can’t skim the passage and say, “Great, I’ll apply that parenting stuff later.”  Now the mirror of the Word reflects my own heart and I pray, “Lord, I don’t have any sons to ‘honor above You,’ but I’ve got gadgets, money, clothing, lust, entertainment, comfort, self, and far too many other thrones before which I bow.  Forgive my sin and turn my heart back to Your worship alone!”

This still applies to parenting, of course.  But now we see that the root issue in a family might not merely be style, technique, or method; now we’re forced to examine our hearts to see if family problems are actually the by-products of our idolatry.  Simply preaching parenting advice from this passage could easily overlook the core issue, allowing hearers to salve the symptoms without treating the causative disease.

And the cross of Christ fits right into the careful interpretation – the Gospel meets idolatry head-on!  The problem with all of us is idolatry: exchanging God’s glory for images of creation, worshiping creature rather than Creator (Rom. 1.18-32).  The solution for all of us is justification by faith: God’s righteousness imputed to those who have fallen short of His glory (Rom. 3.21-31) and enables them to worship Him alone (Rom. 12.1-2).  Do we still struggle with idolatry?  Yes, we do.  But our solution is not “better parenting,” “more discipline,” or “self-control.”  Our sole solution is still the Gospel: it is the message that Christ paid the penalty for our idolatry and that in Him we can rightly worship God.

The Real Issue

Confronting our idolatry is a powerful application – one that hits us right between the eyes.  It’s something that we’d miss if we read too quickly and get sidetracked on the “obvious” point of the passage.  You see, the real question is not whether paying attention to the context limits or widens application.  Paying attention to the whole passage means finding the application that God intended (regardless of how it compares to our assumption about the passage).  And the application that God intends is always more powerful and practical than any application we can invent!