CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING
I recently saw an “inspirational” décor piece, in a store, that astounded me. The quote was a scripture, and the red flag for me was the scripture reference…not because I know every scripture reference to every scripture, but I DID know approximately what was happening during this scripture portion. The block of wood, beautifully printed in muted tones, so as to be a subtle reference to the owner’s allegiances in a cozy room somewhere, had this scripture printed on it:
“I will give You all these things if You will fall down and worship me.” Matthew 4:9
Now the first thing that hit me was the seemingly ever-present teaching that it’s “all about me”, in other words, if I am a Believer & Follower I will get a bunch of good stuff. First, Jesus doesn’t teach that, and neither does He teach that you or I are the only members of the Kingdom. But what struck me was the scripture reference itself; something was amiss.
I looked on my handy iPhone Bible, sure enough, some important information and context were missing…enough to make this piece of “Christian art” laughable. I was right when I thought this passage was in the middle of the “temptations” of Jesus following His baptism. Where does this passage take place? On a very high mountain. Who is speaking? Satan. And to whom is he speaking? Jesus. The irony of seeing this in a consumer marketplace was overwhelming.
However, once you analyze it, it’s not funny anymore. It IS a good lesson about “context” and pulling phrases or words OUT of context and then reading or hearing something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than what was intended. In the study of scripture especially, this is called PROOF TEXTING – proof text: (noun) a singular Scriptural passage produced as proof for an entire theological doctrine, belief, or principle.
Pulling scripture out of context is recognized by almost everyone as an error someone else is guilty of it, but unfortunately tolerated by almost everyone when used to fashion THEIR OWN argument, view, or doctrine. It is a difficult thing to avoid because there are so many quotable and singular verses that say much in few words. It’s difficult not to ignore the verses around and just focus on the one that sounds best to you. Worse, when one has a particular viewpoint they are trying to argue, or a particular part of their own personal or corporate theology and doctrine they are trying to promote, it seems that quoting scripture without context can be quite useful to substantiate any and every view. That practice of “proof texting” has been used to form entire theologies and doctrines…for hundreds of years!
Don’t ignore CONTEXT – The three questions we, as Believers & Followers, must ask of every scripture we read are these:
WHO is speaking?
TO WHOM are they speaking?
WHAT IS THE CONTEXT in time and place?
Only then can a student of the Scripture get closer to what the original intended audience heard, THEN we can know the core of what God says to all places and times. If one doesn’t understand which festival was being observed when Jesus shouted out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to Me and drink!” (John 7:37) and why that would be controversial at that specific time and place, then they do not get the REAL and FULL meaning of the phrase. It is just like the words, “keep away from children” on the aspirin bottle…if you don’t know the context, it’s just plain funny…AND SAYS SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.
When we look for “feel good” passages of scripture that promise “health & wealth” we ignore the COMMUNITY of THE KINGDOM – for the sake of individual, and sub-group arguments. Since the 1970’s our religion has turned very egocentric at the expense of community. Ours is not a Faith that is practiced theoretically or individually, it is a Faith that is exercised through action-love to others; that is how we are to be identified in the world, and how we will be judged at the end of this age.
“Judas went out and hanged himself.” (Matthew 25:7) is rarely a verse anyone pulls out of context and builds an entire theology around, and for good reason…it is not necessarily about us, it is information, as many other scriptures are, as well. For those who believe that EVERY verse speaks to EVERY person of EVERY time and place, this may be a matter of semantics, or it may be a difficult hurdle to jump. Much of the scripture was written for specific people, specific needs, at a specific time…there may be a problem of relevancy to every word in the scripture today, or in any other time. But in the center of every scripture (within context) is a Kingdom Principle.
Why do the folks in my congregation wear clothes manufactured with blended fabric, even though the law of the Old Testament specifically commands us differently? Because:
- we don’t live according to the law, we live by the grace of God in Jesus, and
- that law doesn’t apply to us…and when we Believe & Follow Jesus we fulfill all law.
Every verse does not speak to every person in every time and place, but the core principles of those verses do carry a common thread and Kingdom principle that speak to all at every time. The verse about Judas isn’t a command for me or anyone else to do likewise, but in the context of the story there is a lesson about the desolate nature of turning away from the grace that is God.
Out of context scriptures can ignore wholeness. The main reason it is dangerous is because it looks at scripture as if it were a bunch of little pieces, unconnected from other little pieces, instead of seeing each verse, each chapter, and each book as part of the whole. Why do reasonable Believers & Followers think that slavery is a bad concept for humans who love God? Is it because there is a specific verse that says so? No, it’s because when one reads/studies THE WHOLE OF SCRIPTURE and gets to know God OFF THE PAGE as well, one clearly sees that everything points to a Truth that says “people are not to be owned by others”. This leads to another flaw of IGNORING WHOLENESS, “the scripture is the best commentary on itself.” When one verse or odd collection of various out-of-context verses sit next to THE WHOLE of Scripture and God do they align? If not, it’s most probably not the scripture that’s in the wrong…it is most probably lack of study, poor translation, or resistance of the reader to “re-search” and be open to a different reading than they may want or know.
Scripture out of context sometimes ignores priorities. The WHOLE of Scripture points in one direction…to the person of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus is the point, Jesus is the hub, Jesus is the paradigm through which ALL of scripture has to be seen…or the rest of scripture makes no sense. His words and actions have priority. It makes sense that if the book is ABOUT HIM then His ideas and His theology take precedent over all the rest.
I have watched good friends divide over some national issues and have read many arguments that use Scripture passages (or U.S. Constitution passages) out of context (on both sides). This is perhaps the most important point: the disturbing word here is “USED”. The Scripture is not to be USED by anyone as an instrument of attack, especially for their own agenda. Pulling verses out of the scripture to make them fit what one wishes to be truth and then calling it God’s truth because all the words came from scripture is like me cutting a Picasso up into one hundred pieces and gluing the pieces back together haphazardly and still calling it a Picasso.
When “re-searching” the scripture remember to ask:
WHO is speaking?
TO WHOM are they speaking?
WHERE & WHEN is this taking place?
Our prime objective is TO KNOW GOD AND THE ONE HE SENT (John 17:3) But…all the Bible Study in the world does not override empathy, compassion, and plain old LOVE. No scripture verse has dominance over the continual message of Jesus: LOVE EACH OTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU – in other words, YOU LOVE ME BY LOVING EACH OTHER: friend, family and foe…even “to the least of those.”