My last two articles dealt with understanding the Bible from a macro to a micro examination. So, how do we grasp the meanings of phrases, words, verses, and passages in the Bible? Far too often, when faced with something in the text we do not understand, we immediately head to a commentary. We believe that the Bible was made to be understood. We believe that God is powerful and wise enough to provide us with a text we can comprehend, and He is just and loving enough that He would do so. So, how do we find the meaning of a text? Context is key.

When you come across a verse, phrase, or word and you do not know what it means, start expanding outward in both directions. Context flows forwards and backward. As you look in both directions, you will be surprised at how often the context defines that at which you are looking. Let’s use a verse in John to illustrate this.

John 13:34-35 says,

A new commandment I give to you, that you LOVE one another: just as I have LOVED you, you also are to LOVE one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have LOVE for one another” (emphasis added by me).

Jesus is in the upper room talking with His disciples. He is preparing them for life without Him. He gives them this new commandment of loving one another. Clearly, the emphasis of these two verses is that the new commandment is to love like Jesus. The real question is, “How do we love like Jesus?” The context becomes key in understanding what Jesus says, but one must look forward and backward.

Returning to John 13, the chapter begins by telling us Jesus loved His own and that He loved them to the end. Then comes that sober scene of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Twice, He mentions the fact that they do not understand what He is doing. And then, in verses 23-25, there is a transition.

“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (emphasis by me).

Have you noticed how that last phrase in verse 25 sounds similar to the words in the middle of verse 34? Compare “Just as I have loved you” to “Just as I have done to you.” There is our contextual clue!

As we advance in John, when you get to 15:12-13, Jesus says,

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Again, note how similar the phrase “love one another as I have loved you” in verse 12 is to 13:24‘s “as I have loved you, you are to love one another.” Again, we have a contextual clue!

In John 13:34-35, Jesus tells the disciples of a new commandment. It is imperative to love one another as He has loved. How do we love like Jesus?

  • First, from chapter 13, we love like Jesus by serving others.
  • Second, from chapter 15, we love like Jesus by being sacrificial.

That is, by being willing to give ourselves to and for the ones we love. How did we figure that out? We used the excellent study habit of letting context define terms and meanings. So, before you head to the commentaries, remember that John and Jesus will always do a better job of explaining that any man can! Before heading to another source, let the context guide you to what the inspired author is trying to communicate! Keep Studying!

Corey Sawyers
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Corey Sawyers is the preaching minister at the Martin (TN) Church of Christ and an adjunct instructor with Bear Valley Bible Institute. He began preaching at the age of 15, filling in throughout Northwest Tennessee. He has been in full-time ministry since 1998 and has served with congregations in Tennessee and Colorado. He and his wife, Melody, married in 1996, and both are graduates of Bear Valley Bible Institute. They have three sons. Garrett is the youth minister at the Greenfield (TN) Church of Christ and is soon to be married to Bailey Jones. Gordon is the preacher for the Knob Creek Church of Christ in Dukedom, TN, and is soon to be married to Lauren Kelly. Gannon is still at home and wants to go into ministry when he grows up. Corey loves his family, ministry, the Tennessee Vols, the Andy Griffith Show, drinking coffee, and banana pudding.