A lot of people act like context is a special "bonus" to Bible study.
It's as though, when they learn from the scriptures, they believe it simply provides an added level of understanding... Modern preaching has typically misrepresented the issue, because preachers and teachers often give the impression that they can serve the text just fine without context. And bringing up a bit of it here or there, they suggest, is somehow going above and beyond what is necessary to be faithful to the text from their position.
The reality is that context is the bedrock of understanding, and it is often the most powerful thing we have when it comes to reading clearly and groping towards interpretation. Context can disarm passages that come across as offensive, rooting them in a culture we no longer have a frame of reference for. Context can inform the revolutionary depth of passages that seem otherwise simple and uninteresting. And, above all, context is key to revealing the scandal of Jesus within first century Judaism and Roman Empire... It's context that helps us draw the parallels to our own time when we recognize that scandal.
The point of bringing this up is simple: Bible study is a delicate and complex undertaking far more often than we have been led to believe. For every amazing contextual insight I come to understand, I'm left wondering, "How many more hundreds or thousands of passages would benefit from a similar infusion of context... and yet I will never know it?" It's staggering, really. It should humble us. (Thankfully, the WORD became FLESH in Jesus, and then promised SPIRIT to help us and guide into all truth, and that's the truly essential thing.)
But there's no getting around it. When it comes to scripture...
IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW HIGHLY WE EXALT THE INSPIRATION AND TRUTH OF THE WORDS IF WE STILL FAIL TO EMBRACE THE SPACE BETWEEN THEM.
That space between them is their context, and that context often speaks as loudly as the words themselves.
To put it a final way... and since people love food metaphor when it comes to truth and scripture... maybe it's best to think of it like this:
Context is not the dash of salt sprinkled over the food...
It is the very soil from which the food grows.
Just something to remember.