Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Bible Study 08 — Context [Part 2]

Another instalment in the re-presentation of our 2013-2014 series about studying the Bible using methods deduced from the Bible itself. The series introduction can be found here.

The second Bible study tool we are discussing is context. For justification, see the previous post on this subject.


It should come as no great surprise that the Bible is full of quotations, most of which are from some other book of the Bible. New Testament writers especially tend to reinforce their points with quotations from the Old.

Referencing something your readers already agree with in support of what you’re teaching — or something they would agree with if they knew about it — is a completely natural and logical thing to do. We teach high school and university students to do it all the time. It’s particularly useful if what you’re teaching is consistent with what has gone before but not intuitively obvious.

When examining quotes from the Old Testament it is useful to remember that what they mean is determined first and foremost by the context in which they fall; by what point the New Testament writer or speaker is seeking to make.

For example, what does it mean that “the righteous shall live by faith”, and how does context factor into our understanding of meaning?

The Original Reference

The quote comes from the book of Habakkuk. The prophet is perplexed at the state of the people of Judah. God’s earthly people have fallen into serious sin since the time of David and the nation is politically, socially and morally corrupt. Habakkuk looks around him and complains, “The law is ignored and justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore, justice comes out perverted.”

God responds that he is going to use the Chaldeans to punish his nation, which baffles the poor prophet even more. How can God use a people even more wicked than Judah as his instrument to discipline his own people? But despite his confusion, he maintains his belief in the righteousness and purity of God and says, “I will stand on my guard post … I will keep watch to see what he will speak to me.”

In light of the prophet’s faith, God responds again:

“As for the proud one, his soul is not right within him; but the righteous will live by his faith.”

In its original context, God seems to be saying the righteous individual in Judah would make it through the coming judgment of his nation by means of his faith in his Lord. That God would not let the faithful down despite what they might have to go through because of their bloodline, national affiliation and unintentional and undesired association with evil.

New Testament Usage

That’s all well and good. But the writers of New Testament epistles use this quote not once, but three times. It’s worth a look to see how context brings out different aspects of meaning and how the same truth can be applied different ways in different situations:

In Romans 1

Here Paul is dealing with the subject of righteousness before God. He starts with God’s impending judgment of mankind, stating, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all … unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” But first he makes it clear that the gospel is the solution to the problem of unrighteousness:

“… for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous shall live by faith’.”

Jew or Gentile, do you want to be declared “righteous” rather than “unrighteous” with respect to coming judgment? Paul says faith is the way: Faith in Christ is God’s answer to the problem of man’s unrighteousness.

His emphasis is on Habakkuk’s words “THE RIGHTEOUS”.

In Galatians 3

Here Paul’s subject is faith vs. works. The believers in Galatia struggled with the concept of being saved by faith alone and had apparently been enticed by false teachers who would have distorted the gospel by having the Galatians comply with some of the rules of Jewish Law as a basis for relating to God. Paul corrects this error by quoting our verse from Habakkuk:

“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith …”

New context, new emphasis: Paul shows that faith, not law-keeping, is the way to Christian liberty instead of legal bondage, and that God is now dealing with man on the basis of grace, not law. He even goes as far as to say that “if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly”.

His emphasis is on Habakkuk’s words “BY FAITH”.

In Hebrews 10

The writer to the Hebrews is dealing with Jews, some of whom have genuinely believed and some of whom have gone along with an exciting new movement for a time, but are now reconsidering their position after being persecuted and now harassed by Judaizers. The writer points them to Christ, who is in every way superior to the things the Jews relied on and trusted in. Then he too references our verse to encourage endurance on the part of those who really have believed:

“Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”

He contends that the preservation of the one’s soul depends on the exercise of faith. Without it, you’re at risk of loss for eternity: “We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed.”

His emphasis is on Habakkuk’s words “SHALL LIVE”.


Many scriptures have more than one aspect to their meaning and more than one way in which they can be read, though these aspects are not in any way contradictory.

Their meaning is only fully understood by looking at them in context.

Next: Types of context

No comments :

Post a Comment