Context! Context! Context! (a lesson from Luke 15)


Context is king!

I have been told this for a very long time, especially in seminary where I was learning to rightly divide God’s Word. The Bible was not written in a vacuum. It was written in real history, with real people, making real speeches, writing with real pens & ink & paper, with real burdens to see God’s holiness perfected in God’s people. And each book makes an argument for us to live as God intended: for His glory. Every passage, then, must be taken at face value and interpreted in its context, so that the truth contained will be understood as God the Author intended it to be understood.

Basic right?! However, it seems that often times, I forget this precious truth and divide God’s truth as I think it should be divided. This usually happens because I heard a sermon on that passage and figured that the preacher’s interpretation was the only one. Well, recently, I was working on a passage of Scripture—an extremely familiar passage—and I did not consider the context and I offer myself as a BAD example in order for you, Christian, to always consider the context.

I have been teaching through the Parables of Jesus with my youth, I scheduled to teach Jesus parables of the very familiar stories of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost/Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Before I even started my study, I knew where I was headed (which should have been a tip off in my mind that there might be a problem, but nevertheless … ). My main point was simple: “Jesus came to seek and to save the lost and the lost are those who are repentant sinners.” Then I would preach the gospel to my students and teaching over. So, I reasoned to myself that this was going to be an easy study.

So I opened to Luke 15, pridefully, and began to read vv. 1-3 (i.e., the context), and I got a wakeup call. You know these parables, right? You’ve probably heard them preached multiple times. You might have even been brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ because of the preaching of one of these three parables. But, have you considered their context, as in WHY Jesus taught these parables? I had not. Let me show you the first three verses:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

Jesus then goes on to preach the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son parables (15:3-32). But do you see why Jesus told these parables? These parables were a rebuke to the religious hypocrites. The “them” in verse 3 is the religious leaders. Jesus was aiming these stories at the Pharisees and the scribes. For what reason? To teach them that the lost are found by Jesus? Actually, no. Yes, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk 19:10), but that is not Jesus’ emphasis here. I mean, you can still preach the truth of “God’s seeking the sinner” from this passage (and you should), but that is not the primary lesson nor Jesus’ motivation for telling these parables. Jesus is telling these parables to rebuke the religious leaders for their lack of compassion for sinners and lack joy when a sinner repents. The religious leaders, who knew the Old Testament back and forward, should not be criticizing Jesus for seeking sinners and outcasts. Rather, as Jesus goes on to tell, they should join in the celebration that sinners are repenting.

After realizing this, I began to reason: maybe I am wrong. So, I dug into commentaries to discover, yet again, context is king!

“The primary point of these parables, usually neglected in popular lessons, is that the religious leads should not have been criticizinf Jesus for seeking tax collectors and sinners.”[1]

“An interesting feature of these parables is that they grew out of an attack the self-righteous religious leaders of the day made on Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was ministering to society’s outcasts … That was noticed and resented by the teachers of the law. … The three stories are intended to show that it was not only right but also a revelation of the loving character of God the Father that He did so.”[2]

“The Pharisees and scribes had grumbed in the background, ‘This man receives sinners and east with them.’ In His end stress, Jesus brought the mirror up to the leaders so that they could see themselves in full color.”[3]

“Jesus’ enemies see no relationship between the purpose of God and the ministry style of Jesus, and the parables that follow are Jesus’ answer to their objections.”[4]

“It is in the context of His conflict with the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus created the three parables that make up the chapter. They not only reveal that God and all Heaven rejoice when the lost are found, but at the same time indict the scribes and Pharisees because they did not find joy in Jesus’ mission of saving sinners. … These stores are the mean by which the Lord exposes their complete alienation from God, His joy, and mission of salvation.”[5]

“Jesus combated the religious leaders”[6]

I was humbled and then made sure to teach that the primary point of these parables is that God receives sinners joyfully, in contrast to the religious leaders who saw sinners as “unclean,” “unworthy.” Applied then to my own heart (and my students and maybe yours): the gospel of Jesus Christ to save sinners is not a special message that I share with only those who I think are worthy to hear it. Rather, the gospel is a message that calls all sinners out of their spiritual darkness into the loving embrace of a Savior that rejoices to see them come to Him.

That is the context of the lost items in Luke 15. May God continue to draw me back to HIS context, so that I may rightly divide His Word, so that people can hear the good news.

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[1] Kevin D. Zuber, “Luke,” The Moody Bible Commentary, edited by Michael Rydelnik & Michael Vanlaningham (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 1581.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Parables of Jesus (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1983), 57.

[3] Stanlet A. Ellisen, Parables in the Eye of the Storm (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001), 175.

[4] David E. Garland, Luke, ECNT, edited by Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 613.

[5] John MacArthur, Luke 11-17, MNTC (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013), 295.

[6] John A. Martin, “Luke,” BKC, edited by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 244.

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About Greg Peterson

Greg received his B.A. from Moody Bible Institute in Bible & Theology and his M. Div and Th. M. from The Master's Seminary. Greg has served in various areas of the church, including youth (10+ years), senior adults, events, and choir. Greg currently serves as the co-pastor at Anchor Bible Church in Nw Arkansas -- a church plant as of July 2020. AR. Greg also is the co-host of the "Local Church Matters" podcast. Greg is married to Michelle.