Rule #2: Read Contextually

Rule #2: Read Contextually. Every passage must be interpreted in light of the surrounding passages and the entire Bible. The historical and cultural context should also be considered whenever possible.

Reading scriptures without taking into consideration their immediate and biblical context is perhaps the primary cause of misinterpretation.

It is possible to make the Bible say anything you want it to say by isolating scriptures from their context. For example, did you know that the Bible says that God doesn’t exist? In Psalm 14 we read, “There is no God” (Ps. 14:1). If we want to interpret those words accurately, however, we must read them within their context: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Ps. 14:1, emphasis added). Now this verse takes on a whole different meaning!

Another example: I once heard a preacher give a sermon on the Christians’ need to be “baptized in fire.” He began his sermon by reading the words of John the Baptist from Matthew 3:11: “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Based on this one verse, he built a sermon. I remember him saying, “Just because you are baptized in the Holy Spirit, that is not enough! Jesus also wants to baptize you in fire, just like John the Baptist proclaimed!” He went on to explain that, once we had been “baptized in fire,” we would be full of zeal to work for the Lord. Finally he had an altar call for people who wanted to be “baptized in fire.”

Unfortunately, that particular preacher had made the classic mistake of taking a scripture out of its context.

What did John the Baptist mean when he said that Jesus would baptize with fire? To find the answer, all we need to do is read the two verses before that verse, and one verse after it. Let’s begin with the two preceding verses. There John said:

And do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father”; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt. 3:9-10, emphasis added).

We first learn that at least part of John’s audience that day consisted of Jews who thought their salvation was based upon their lineage. Thus, John’s sermon was evangelistic.

We also learn that John was warning that unsaved people are in danger of being cast into the fire. It would seem reasonable to conclude that “the fire” of which John spoke in verse 10 is the same fire of which he spoke in verse 11.

This fact becomes even clearer when we read verse 12:

“And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12, emphasis added).

In both verses 10 and 12, the fire of which John was speaking was the fire of hell. In verse 12, he metaphorically states that Jesus will divide people into two groups—wheat, which He will “gather into the barn,” and chaff, which He will burn up “with unquenchable fire.”

In light of the surrounding verses, John must have meant in verse 11 that Jesus will baptize people either with the Holy Spirit, if they are believers, or with fire, if they are unbelievers. Since that is the case, no one should preach to Christians that they need to be baptized in fire!

Moving beyond the immediate context of these verses, we should also look to the rest of the New Testament. Can we find an example in the book of Acts where Christians are said to have been “baptized in fire”? No. The closest thing is Luke’s description of the day of Pentecost when the disciples were baptized in the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire temporarily appeared over their heads. But Luke never says that this was a “baptism in fire.” Moreover, can we find an exhortation or any instruction in the epistles for Christians to be “baptized in fire”? No. Therefore, it is quite safe to conclude that no Christian should be seeking a baptism in fire.