Merriam-Webster provides the following definitions for context:

  1. the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning
  2. the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs: ENVIRONMENT, SETTING

Although we might not realize it, our lives are full of context. In fact, everything we do or think is predicated on something else. This means that nothing is done in a vacuum. We eat because we are hungry, drink because we are thirsty, and sleep because we are tired and need rest. Context as a state of being can change. This means the reasons for our eating, drinking, or sleeping might vary based on things like boredom or being sick. However, the natural context of eating, drinking, and sleeping deals with restoring our bodies. It’s when we move away from the natural context of these three things (eating, drinking, and sleeping) that our bodies are adversely affected. This type of context coincides with the second definition of context, according to Merriam-Webster. However, we can apply the same principle to the first definition.

A discourse is a conversation. If you’ve only heard part of a conversation, you know that sometimes you can get the wrong idea about what was said because you don’t know the context. Whenever you read a book or watch a film, you don’t jump into the middle of it and expect to know what’s going on. No, you start reading a book at a beginning point. Note, I didn’t say “the beginning” because books are typically broken down into chapters, and sometimes we can understand what’s going on in a chapter without having read the preceding text, unlike films where we want to start at the beginning, so we don’t miss anything. 

If we can agree that we live in a world full of context, then we ought to apply context to the text we read in the Bible, right? Yet often, people don’t. Just as deviating from the natural context of eating, drinking, and sleeping can adversely impact our bodies and hearing only part of a conversation can impede our understanding of a conversation, trying to understand the Bible out of context can disrupt our understanding of God.

Consider this verse from Luke.

But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

Luke 12:5 (NIV)

While this verse isn’t as quotable as Romans 8:28 or John 3:16, it is, nevertheless, important because it gives us insight into God. It’s one of those verses that is easily misunderstood when used without context. Some say that the person Jesus talks about in Luke 12:5 is the devil, not God. This is based on the idea that we’re not supposed to be afraid of God, so verse 5 can’t be about God if that’s the case. Let’s examine Luke 12:5 and start with the setting and see who Jesus is talking about.

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (emphasis added).

Luke 12:1-3 (NIV)

Jesus is warning the people to not be hypocritical like the Pharisees. When Jesus points out that “nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known,” he’s talking about the omniscience of God. Although the Pharisees claimed to follow the Lord by observing the law, they had no love for God. Hence, their hypocrisy. God knows their hearts and knows everything about them. They cannot hide anything from God! Let’s review the immediate text surrounding Luke 12:5.

4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (emphasis added).

Luke 12:4-7 (NIV)

Verse 4 doesn’t start a new subject. In the first three verses, Jesus tells us about the omniscience of God. In verses 5-7, Jesus informs us about the power of God. Thus, in verse 4, he encourages the people to not be afraid of what other people can do to them; “kill the body.” Don’t fear those people because all they can do is harm your body. In verse 4, Jesus uses the word “afraid,” and that’s what he’s talking about. Being afraid. However, in verse 5, Jesus talks about more than just being scared. He switches gears from the simple state of earthly fear into something much bigger. The fear of God. 

Verse 5 is where Jesus brings up the omnipotence of God. Just as Jesus brought up the omniscience of God in verses 1-3, he’s now pointing out the power of God too (God can destroy our bodies and souls). Jesus couples this with the fact that God sees exactly what happens to sparrows, birds so tiny and apparently insignificant that they are sold for such a low amount of money, but God remembers them. If that doesn’t reflect the awesomeness of God, then consider he knows how many hairs every person has on their head (reflecting the omniscience of God). Then, Jesus told the people, “Don’t be afraid.” 

Jesus told the people to not be afraid because some of them didn’t get what he said in Luke 12:5. Just like some people today don’t get it. Jesus pointed out that people should revere God and see that he is all-knowing and all-powerful. That this same all-knowing and powerful being loves them and cares for them. Therefore, they don’t need to be afraid of anything. However, if they were to be frightened of something, then realistically, be afraid of God because God could destroy their bodies and souls. 

Jesus isn’t talking about the devil in Luke 12:5. It’s talking about the incredible power and authority of God. Why, when nowhere else in the Bible does it say we’re to fear the devil, would Jesus suddenly say something so profoundly out of character with the context of the Bible and the nature of God? He wouldn’t.