Context: The Key to Unlocking the Gospels

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imagesWhen it comes to Bible study, the most important rule to proper interpretation is, context, context, context. A verse can never mean what the context will not allow. I remember thinking, “We have three people here for Bible Study, therefore, the Lord is with us” (Matthew 18:20). However in context, this verse communicates church discipline. The Lord is always with believers – this is the priesthood of believers (Hebrews 10:19-25). Context acts as a fence or trail. It guides the meaning. When studying the Bible, we would do better to read large chunks over and over again rather than spend all our time on word studies.

Scripture was not written in mere sentences. God composed it in paragraphs and narrative (see yesterday’s post). When Matthew organized his Gospel, He did not shot gun different stories together intending for them to all be read individually. He placed them near each other to help communicate and teach at both the micro and macro level. Too often I have read a parable or story about Jesus and not asked, “What does this story have to do with the previous story and is Matthew trying to tell me something with all three of these stories together?”. I repent.

Questions to Ask

Matthew masterfully composes his Gospel intending for both narrative and didactic sermons to communicate. Didactic, simply means instructional. It’s like sitting in the classroom taking notes whereas the narrative is like going to a movie. When reading the different events in the Gospels, we need to ask questions.

  • What does this story have to do with the previous story?
  • Is there similar content between the stories?
  • Does a theme or question reoccur in this section?
  • Is the same person (or people) involved or interacting with Jesus? (i.e. the Pharisees, the crowd, the disciples, Jesus mother?) Why?
  • Why would the Gospel author put these stories together?

Matthew provides us with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It allows the reader to sit in Jesus’s classroom. But chapters 8-9 continue the narrative. After sitting in the classroom, you can see the video. The Centurion’s faith is great, not just because he recognizes Jesus’s authority, but also because he is an example of the beatitudes. Go read Matthew 5:3-11, then read about the Centurion. His faith is great.

Questions Applied

Recently I preached through Matthew 14:1-12, the story of John the Baptist’s death. But after studying the passage, I came to realize this is not about John’s death. This is about Herod’s rejection of Christ. The context and grammar will prove this.

Consider the broader context. Chapter 13 provides a series of teachings on the kingdom of heaven. This is the third of five didactic lessons from Jesus recorded by Matthew (5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25). Beginning in 13:44 Jesus teaches different responses to His preaching.

  1. Some will abandon everything to follow Him (13:44 -46).
  2. God will respond in the end and cast unbelievers into hell and believers to eternity (13:47-50)
  3. Jesus’s hometown rejects Him (13:52-58).

In the third response, Matthew brings up an important question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” (Ultimately Matthew will provide the answer in 16:15-20). His hometown discounted him, “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” He offended them (13:55-57). They should have sold everything to follow Him (13:44-46). Their response is wrong. Matthew, weaving these teachings and events together brings us to contemplate, “How will I respond to the Gospel? Who do I say Jesus is?”

Matthew is not done showing us responses. Enter Herod. “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him” (14:1-2). Although I find the chapter headings correct most often, here is one place I think they do a disservice to us. We should interpret this pericope with a relationship to Matthew 13:44-58. NT professor and scholar RT France, in his commentary, observes this story’s relationship to the previous chapter. [1]

Herod heard about Jesus miracles and teachings. How should he have responded? He should have sold everything, been willing to abandon his authority to follow Christ. We learned this in Matthew 13:44-46. But how does he respond? “Herod, who is Jesus?” “Jesus is really some demonic, magical ploy of the guy I killed, John the Baptist.” It seems logical to deduce Herod even heard the content of Jesus’s preaching because he associates it with John’s preaching. John had enough interaction with Herod for Herod to be familiar with the message. Herod groups them together. Herod thinks John has come back, probably even to torment him . . . in today’s vernacular I could hear someone saying, “It’s my karma.”

So why would John torment Herod? Why would Herod think this? Matthew gives us the reason in 14:3-12.

Verses 3-12 tell us how John the Baptist dies, but it isn’t about John the Baptist. It’s about why Herod rejects the Gospel. The grammar supports this assertion. Proof? Verse 3 begins with one important word “For.”

unknownNow, this is such an important word to understand in our study. Therefore take note of it. “For” comes from the Greek word, γὰρ. My Greek professor called this the explanatory gar. “When it occurs in narrative proper, the proposition introduced by γὰρ fleshes out some aspect of what precedes. It may be in the form of background information; it may introduce the reason or rationale for some preceding action or state.” [2] In Matthew 14:3-12, Matthew provides the background information why Herod believes Jesus is the resurrected John the Baptist.

If we were alive back then and I knew this story, then I would tell it to you like this, “Herod believes Jesus is the resurrected John the Baptist. Let me give you the back story . . .” The γὰρ makes this a slam-dunk. So why does Herod reject Jesus? First, he fears the crowds and not the Lord (14:5). Second, He lives under his own system of righteousness (14:6-11). The story is about the depravity of man exemplified in Herod.

Think macro-level. Why the book of Matthew? So that you and I can be an instructed and informed disciple (Matthew 28:19-20). Matthew makes sure we understand, naturally people will reject Jesus and His kingdom, not fear the Lord, and live under their own principles. Paul says the same thing in Romans 10:3, “For being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” Herod (and all humanity, including myself, if we really watched) proves this. It’s not just Jesus’s hometown that will reject the prophet. Kings will reject the prophet. The crowds will reject the prophet. And if you and I were there at Golgotha, we’d reject Him too.

Therefore, it is essential we contemplate the context of Gospel narratives. It is essential we allow the grammar to speak in harmony with context. We cannot pit these against each other for they are marriage partners, joined as one flesh.

** For a more in depth treatment of Gospel hermeneutics pick up Jonathan Pennington’s Reading the Gospels Wisely. It made Al Mohler’s top 10 books its published year.

[1] RT France, Matthew NICNT, Eerdman’s, 547.

[2] Steven E. Runge Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 52-53

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Jason Vaughn

About Jason Vaughn

Jason is a graduate of the Master's Seminary and the pastor of Cornerstone Las Vegas, a Grace Advance church plant. He loves Christ, his wife Kyla, sometimes his kids :), the church, missions, people, and coffee. You can also follow him on his personal blog at shepherdthesheep.com.