So went the saying I was taught somewhere along the road of my education. The subject was English, and the point was that context -- the words surrounding the word in question -- defines a word. You can't know what a word means unless you know how it is used in the sentence or paragraph. Context.
Words have context, but there are other forms of context, as well: social, religious, and more. Virtually every field of study has its own context.
One area where context is often overlooked is the Bible.
It's common for a verse or passage to be taken in isolation, as though it were unrelated to anything else. That leads, nearly always, to an incomplete understanding, or an understanding that is flat out wrong.
I thought of this recently in a discussion of Matthew 3:2, a short verse: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
Here's the context: John the Baptist is preaching to the crowds, preparing the way for the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. He is telling them to change -- to change their way of thinking and acting.
The exhortation to repent -- to change -- is equally valid for us today. And it seems we know that, because we talk about how we struggle to live the sort of life we think qualifies as "Christian." We know there is a better way, and we want it, but are not so successful in living according to that way. It's good that we want to do well, but it's not so good that we struggle endlessly with little progress.
Perhaps part of the problem is that we stack the deck against ourselves by considering the problem of repenting in isolation. After all, there is a context to the exhortation. Perhaps by considering it, we would change the problem and the chances of our succeeding against it.
Look at the verse again, and this time, let's change one word: "for." A good synonym would be "because." So the verse might read, "Repent, because the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
That changes it a little, telling us more obviously why we should repent, without changing the meaning. It tells us why we should change the way we think about something, and from that, the way we act.
Yet, there remains a concern: What's the "kingdom of heaven"?
It's the kingdom of God. Matthew wrote as a Jew to Jews. His gospel is the most Jewish of the four gospels. Someone has said if it were any more Jewish, Jesus would have a Brooklyn accent. And to Jews then and often now, the name of God was to be avoided. So, where other writers mentioned the kingdom of God, Matthew wrote of the kingdom of heaven. Same thing.
But why is it important? What difference does it or should it make in our lives that the kingdom is "at hand."
Now we're getting into meddling, right? Because the truth is, for most of us whatever we believe about the kingdom of heaven is irrelevant and doesn't make any difference in our lives today. It might be pertinent some day, perhaps when we die and "go to heaven." But not now.
And that's a big problem. That belief removes virtually all of the "context" to repentance. If the kingdom is irrelevant, then a lot of other things are also irrelevant.
Matthew said the kingdom was at hand, or very close. That was true, then. Not now. Jesus changed it all. For us, the kingdom is here, not near.
Reading the gospels, we will notice that Jesus taught a lot about the kingdom. In fact, it was a main emphasis for him. And it was not some sort of vague, meaningless concept. It was here, now, and action. Jesus not only showed us God in the form of a man, he showed us the kingdom in action.
We might say, in other words, that in Jesus, God's reality broke into our reality, his "world" into ours.
"But what about you and me, here and now? I'm not so concerned about them." Well, it's pretty much the same.
It matters to us because we want to be obedient to Jesus and live a life that honors him. To do that, we have to consider what he said, taught and did. Especially what he said about his followers, since he was leaving soon, and the ones left to pick up where he left off ... is us.
Jesus told them -- and us -- that God was their father, and that Jesus was their brother (Matthew 12:50). He told them that he was sending them, just as the father had sent him, and he breathed on them and said for them to receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-23).
Then, in Acts, he told them they would experience something described as the Holy Spirit "coming upon" them, after which they would be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). They, and by extension, us.
So, here's the bottom line: Jesus initiated the kingdom of God among us. And he chose us to continue his work after he left, to do the same things he did while he was here. He appointed us his official representatives (II Corinthians 5:17-20), and expects us to act in his name and speak on his behalf.
This is the "because" in John's call to repent that Matthew wrote about. Change our way of thinking and acting -- in that order -- because Jesus has called us to the highest imaginable privilege and responsibility: representing him before the world.
Considering that carefully has brought change in my life, and made my struggles of a different nature. I fail, and I anguish over my apparent inability to win the battles within. But it happens far more when I forget who I am, who has called me, and what he has called me to.
As I remember who and where I am and remain focused, my life is different. And so it should be.