by Brad Bell
The tractor is running.
The computer is running.
My nose is running.
He runs every day.
We’ll give him a run for his money.
The machine is running.
It was a quick run.
This is a long run of sentences.
The English word run has a large range of meaning. It can refer to many different types of action, some literal and some figurative. As well, it can serve as a noun with several shades of meaning.
Words and mountains have at least one thing in common—ranges. Words have a range of meaning and mountains often stand in ranges.
When traveling in the mountains, it is important to know where you are within the range. This is accomplished by observing where one is in relation to one’s surroundings.
If El Capitan is on your left and Half Dome rises in front of you while you sit by the stream, you can determine your location in the Yosemite Valley.
By observing your context, you can determine your location within a mountain range.
The same goes for words.
By observing the context in which the word occurs, you can determine which part of its range of meaning is intended.
We do this automatically in day to day conversation.
There are several aspects of context which we observe. Context includes the other words in the sentence, paragraph, and larger discourse, the time of day, the location of the conversation, cultural background, and much more.
If your mechanic says, “It’s running great!” while leaning over your engine, you have context clues which inform what he is talking about. Yet, there could be ambiguity. He could be talking about the car in general, the engine, the air conditioner, or any number of components. Or perhaps you just asked him how his computer is working since you repaired it last week.
If you’re sitting in the stands at a football game and your friend remarks, “the clock is running out” he means something much different from if he says, “the quarterback is running out”. Although both have the same physical context, the differing subject (clock vs. quarterback) informs a much different usage of “running”.
If context matters in our day to day understanding of communication how much more important is it to understanding the communication God has recorded in His Word.
One of our desires is to have our theology constantly refined by understanding the words of Scripture in their proper context. This is often hardest to do with words which have been Christianized. I am referring to words such as save, justified, election, heaven, hell, and kingdom. Such words have become so theologically entrenched that we tend to automatically assign a fixed meaning without giving heed to the context of Scripture.
Some of my biggest “Aha” moments in understanding Scripture have come from seeing words differently in light of the context.
I encourage you to study Scripture with an eye for context. Read larger portions at a time and be willing to reconsider how words are used. God’s Word displays a vibrant beauty when you see where you are in the range of meaning.