Many a career and reputation has been ruined by a quote out of context that became a soundbite in the media.
We have all been in situations where our words were taken out of context.
The quote might be accurate but absent from the context in which it was said it takes on a totally different meaning than we intended.
There are three principles concerning context that we need to apply to life and when reading the Bible.
First, we need to understand the circumstances in which it was said or written.
Second, we need to understand what it meant to the person who was saying it or that it was written to.
Third, we need to understand what they are saying now, in light of everything else they have said.
For example, a person might have been quoted indicating that the best advice he ever got was to “throw everything overboard”. Taken out of context this sounds like something that someone might say about a boat taking on water. But what if he was talking about ditching his troubled past? Or what if he was referring to an accounting system he was replacing?
Knowing the circumstance under which he made the comment would help you understand his intention. If you read what he said before and after this quote, his comments could take on a totally different meaning.
Knowing something about the person who wrote or received the quote would also be helpful. Whether these involved parties were fishermen, psychologists, or businessmen would help place the quote in context and shed light on its meaning.
Knowing what else he said about a particular subject would allow you to give proper weight to his comments. What if he was stating something that he was morally opposed to for dramatic effect?
Not surprisingly, things can and have been taken out of context in the Bible. Prior to the Civil War many people used the Bible to support the concept of slavery and racial superiority. There are few today who would forward that position.
When Satan tempted Jesus (Matthew chapter 4) he misquoted the Bible. Part of verse 6 is from Psalm 91:11-12. Notice that Satan left out part of the verse. He also did not quote what went before or came after his quote. When read in context we see that there is a condition to the promise of God’s protection. Notice the use of “if” and “then”. God promises his protection if we dwell in his presence. In other words, if we go where he leads he will protect us. He does not promise to take care of us if we take foolish and unnecessary risks.
Understanding the circumstances, the person who is speaking and being spoken to, and what else they have said on the subject is a necessity to understanding what they mean.