In Step #6, we considered Biblical context, examining contexts on the basis of immediate and near textual proximity. In Step #7, our concern is theological context – a contextual consideration of theologically (topically) similar passages. The goal here is not to introduce extra-Biblical theological constructs; rather, we are simply trying to recognize the inherent theological components and implications of the passage we are studying.
First, we identify theological principles in the passage we are considering; second, we recognize the connection between those principles and the rest of the book; third, we compare with far reaching (but theologically similar) contexts to verify the theological principles; finally, we summarize our findings regarding the theological themes and principles based on context.
(a) Identify theological principles in the passage.
Recognize that generally larger contexts must be observed in order to identify theological principles, although sometimes, key individual words can provide significant theological framework (i.e., justification, redemption, propitiation, predestination, etc.).
For example, what theological principles of the church (ekklesia) are presented in Matthew 16:13-20? Who is building the church? What is the scope of the church? Note the importance of a sufficient lexical and grammatical study here, as “upon this rock” has been understood in several different ways: (1) the rock is Peter – a foundational understanding for the development of apostolic succession, (2) the rock is the earth – an argument for the earthly scope of the church and a cog in the defense of replacement theology, (3) the rock is the confession that Peter made – detaching this phrase from key prophetic significance, and (4) the rock is Christ (the view that properly considers each of the necessary exegetical elements).
Note Peter’s explanation in 1 Peter 2:4-10 appealing to Isaiah 8:14, etc. If the previous steps (grammatical, syntactical, lexical, contextual, etc.) are not given sufficient attention, the theological principles in a passage can be significantly misunderstood, leading to wide ranging and inaccurate conclusions.
In Romans 3:21-31, what is the theological significance of righteousness? In Ephesians 1:1-14, what is meant by predestination? How does the principle of predestination impact the passage? In James 2:14-26, what is the theological relationship between faith and works?
(b) Connect the principles to the overall context of the book.
What significant theological principle arises from Romans 5:12, 17-19? How does it support the argument of the epistle? In Galatians 3:15-29, what was the purpose for the Law? How does this relate to the theological theme of the epistle?
(c) Compare with far reaching contexts to verify theological principles.
In James 3:1-12, regarding the theology of the tongue, compare Ephesians 4:15, 29-30; 5:4, Colossians 3:5-10; 4:5-6, and also Proverbs 6:17, 10:20 and 31, 12:18-19, 15:2 and 4, 17:4; 18:21, 21:6 and 23; 25:15 and 23, 26:28, and 28:23. What theological principle is clarified by a comparison of John 14:1-3, 1 Corinthians 15:50-58, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 with the outline of the book of Revelation? What key theological principle is outlined in Ephesians 2-3, and how does a comparison of Jeremiah 31, Romans 9-11, 2 Corinthians 3, Galatians 3 and 6:16, 1 John 2:25, and Rev. 19:11-14, 20:1-6 clarify the issue?
(d) Summarize theological themes and principles based on context.
At this point we are simply recording our findings. With the completion of this step, technically we have completed the purely exegetical portion of our study. The first seven steps are all exegetical – drawing out directly the meaning of the text. The final two stages are actually not exegetical, but have to do with external verification and then application. But before we move on toward Step #8, lets take a moment and look at one extended example.
In John 14:1-3, Jesus describes His plans for Himself and His disciples. He says,
“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. 2 “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. 3 “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”
Let’s trace what Jesus is saying, particularly in vv. 2-3:
I go to prepare a place for you.
I will come again
And receive you to Myself
Where I am, you may be also.
Notice the verbs: I go, I will come again, I will receive you, you will be where I am. Now let’s reproduce these verbs graphically:
First, He ascends. Next He descends, but with purpose of receiving them to himself (thus, they ascend). Now, let’s look at some other similar passages and see what we can learn.
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 seems to be describing a similar series of events:
“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”
First, He descends. The dead in Christ rise. Those alive are caught up with them in the clouds to meet Him. We are always with Him. Let’s look at this graphically as well:
Notice the similarities. Both passages describe Jesus returning, not to the earth, but in the air for the purpose of receiving His own to Himself, to take them back with Him to where He is. 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 add helpful information about stage #2 in the 1 Thessalonians passage (resurrection of the dead). Because of similarities in content we can recognize these three as parallel passages, and by comparing their theological content we can begin to develop an understanding of the Biblical event we call the rapture, and by a similar comparative process, we can distinguish this event from the events described in Matthew 24 and Revelation 19, thus helping us understand that what Jesus describes in John 14:1-3 is not the same event as His second coming in Revelation 19. That, of course, has tremendous implications for how we understand the future. Further, these distinctions help us to recognize the importance of accurately handling the theological context of passages.