Knowing the context to any conversation or message can help us avoid misunderstandings and potentially huge mistakes. How many times have you heard half of a conversation and your assumptions to fill in the gaps led you down the wrong path? Knowing who said what to whom and for what reason can help us appreciate the true intent and meaning of what is said.
It’s the same when we read scripture. Knowing who wrote the text, to whom it was written and the circumstances behind it are a great place to start in understanding a passage. Many a high school football player has stepped onto the field claiming, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) And half as many have walked off the field at the end of the night wondering why God lied to them. But author and audience are only a couple examples of context.
Looking at the cultural context will give us a completely different understanding of a text at times. When we read Romans 12:20-21 through our own filter, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head,” those of us with a more vindictive nature might see it as license to give our enemies what they truly deserve. But the cultural context is far different. One of the important responsibilities of the woman of the house was to keep an eye on the fire. The fire was used not only to cook but to provide light and heat during the night. To let it go out was a dereliction of duty and it was a humiliating admission for the woman to have to go to a neighbor asking for coals to start it back up. Paul was encouraging believers from an earlier proverb to be generous and restore the dignity (save face) of even their enemies. What a beautiful (and vastly different) message when we understand the cultural context.
For a further look on context (physical, digital or audio), I recommend Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, by Richards and O’Brien as an introduction.
For an oldie but a goodie, check out the ever hilarious “Wayside Chapel” context mixup.