How Context Helps Us Interpret Words

It is written:

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)

One of the most important factors in studying the Bible is to give careful heed to context. Understanding the context of a passage (i.e., the verses surrounding a text of Scripture) is crucial to properly interpreting the Scriptures.

For example, if I am studying with a person who asks me, “What must I do to be saved?,” I could answer:

Genesis 6:14-Make yourself an ark of gopherwood.

Now, this is a true statement of Scripture!

It is an accurate rendition of the text.

However, does this verse teach that sinner who wants to be saved must go build an ark of gopher wood?

Of course not!


Because the passage was originally describing God’s command to Noah during a time long before the Christian Age.

When the devil tried to trick Jesus, he took Scripture out of its context to try and convince the Lord that He could jump from the Temple and not be harmed. Yet the Lord quoted another Scripture showed that the devil was twisting the Word of God (Luke 4:1-13).

In the same way, we must consider Scripture in context when we study. Thr Word of God is often misused and abused by well-meaning people who do not consider the context of Scripture.

Here is an excellent example of this.

Quite often when I study with friends who believe in Calvinism, they will claim that babies are born as sinners. They argue that Romans 3:23 says “all” have sinned, so therefore, this must include babies.

But what does a study of the context of this passage teach us?

“Finally, what about the “all” in Romans 3: 23? Since “all” have sinned, does this not include babies? No. Sometimes the Greek word “all” (pas) refers simply to all who are in a certain category, a category that is defined or limited by the very action attributed to the “all.” The “all” in Romans 3: 23 is already defined in v. 22, which speaks of “all who believe.” I.e., Paul here is speaking only of those who are capable of believing; thus the “all” in v. 23 should likewise be taken thus: “all who are capable of sinning have sinned.” This kind of contextual limitation of the word “all” is seen many times in the New Testament. E.g., Matthew 2: 3 says that “all Jerusalem” was troubled. No one would think of applying this to babies; it clearly means, “All who were capable to understanding Herod’s mood were troubled.” In Matthew 10: 22 Jesus tells his disciples that they “will be hated by all.” This clearly does not apply to babies, but only to those who are capable of hating. Matthew 12: 23 (NIV) says that “all the people were astonished.” Again, this can apply only to those old enough to be capable of astonishment. Matthew 21: 26 says that “all regard John as a prophet.” Babies cannot form such opinions. We are commanded to preach the gospel to “all creation” (Mark 16: 15), i.e., “preach the gospel to all who are capable of understanding and receiving it.” No one would insist that Mark 16: 15 means that the gospel must be preached to infants and small children. Many other verses could be cited, e.g., John 1: 7; 1 Corinthians 1: 10; Galatians 3: 26; Ephesians 4: 13; Hebrews 13: 4; 1 Peter 5: 5. In these verses the actions attributed to the “all” are things that only older people can do: believe in Jesus, be in mental agreement and unity, believe, attain unity in faith and knowledge, hold the marriage bed in honor, be humble toward one another. In all these verses, the subject again is “all,” but no one would insist that little children must be included therein. This is likewise the only rational way to understand Romans 3: 23: “All who are capable of sin have sinned.” There is no intent to include babies in the “all.”” (Jack Cottrell, The Bible Versus Calvinism (The Collected Writings of Jack Cottrell Book 4), 99-100 (Kindle Edition); Mason, OH; The Christian Restoration Association).

We must study context to properly interpret and apply God’s Word.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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