Out of Context

Imagine that you and a friend decided to go to a movie. It was 1976, and the first Rocky with Sylvester Stallone had just hit the theaters! Neither one of you had ever seen this movie and had no idea what it was about! You get ready as fast as you can, grab your popcorn money, and rush off to get to the theater. The traffic is horrible as you make your way to the movie. As a result, you and your friend arrive late and totally miss the first part of the movie. So you grab a bag of popcorn in a rush and head towards the theater. As you both enter, you walk into the part of the movie where Rocky is walking in the slums, bouncing a rubble ball and chewing on a tooth pic. And after a few minutes of watching him bounce a rubber ball and mumble to himself, you decide to leave the movie for lack of excitement.

Now keep in mind that you had only seen this one small part of the movie. Now imagine someone were to ask you these questions about the movie Rocky;

They ask, “So what was the movie about?”

Your response, “Its about a bum.”

They ask, “Did it have any boxing in it?”

You respond, “Well no, it just had some bum bouncing a ball.”

Again, they inquire, “Did Rocky fight for the Heavyweight Championship of the world?”

Your response would be, “Of course not! The movie was about a bum with a speech impediment!” 

You were not lying to this person, you were simply misinformed! You were drawing your own conclusions based on the part of the movie you saw! In reality, you didnt see the whole picture, so there was no way you could accurately describe what the movie was about unless someone who had seen it told you about it or you saw the whole thing for yourself! No person in their right mind would draw conclusions about a movie if they had only seen a snippet of it! If you only saw a part of it and were asked what it was about, more than likely you would tell the truth and say you hadn’t seen enough of it to tell. You cannot just walk into the middle of a movie, see a small part, and expect to draw a correct conclusion about the plot line.

Yet we do this daily when it comes to our study of God’s word. With good intentions, we go to the Bible at times and pull out certain Bible verses in hopes of applying them to our lives. We run to God’s word for comfort. And that is perfectly fine to do that. God is our comforter in times of need. But the problems arise when, just like entering a movie halfway through, we pick and choose scripture from books of the Bible without knowing what the complete book is about. The danger in this is that we end up misinterpreting verses, assigning our own meanings to them instead of understanding what they were meant to say, and in essence, totally taking them out of context. Let me give you some common examples.

One of the most misused verses in scripture is the ever popular Jeremiah 29:11.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Its a coffee cup verse as I like to call them. A verse that even non Christians have heard of due to the fact that it is marketed so much. We quote this verse to people in times of need. Especially when someone is going through a hard time.

People will say “Well you know, Jeremiah 29:11 says that God has a plan for you and those plans are good.”

The implication is that if you are a faithful follower of Christ, then eventually God owes it to you to make your life good. But there are problems with this way of thinking. First off, lets test this line of thinking against the pattern of scripture. Take John the Baptist for instance. Jesus himself called John “The Greatest man to have been born of woman (Luke 7:28)”. John was the most faithful man to have ever lived; past, present, or future. He had a love for Christ that no one will ever be able to match. He was the most faithful of the faithful. But take a hard look at the life of John the Baptist. He lived his life wandering in the wilderness. People thought of him as a mad man. He lived in such poverty that he literally lived off of eating locust and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). And he was thrown in prison and eventually beheaded by a stripper.

If God’s plan is to give the good life to all of those who are faithful followers of His, how does this fit in with Jesus most faithful follower, John the Baptist? Could it be that John’s reward was not to be seen in his earthly life, but in eternity? This is not to mention the other eleven disciples who followed Christ. All of their lives ended badly. Horrible deaths by crucifixion, stoning, exile, one even boiled alive in oil! And these were among the most faithful of Christ’s followers! Yet we have the audacity to use this verse to somehow justify that God owes us for our faithfulness!

If that is not enough, consider this.

Isaiah 53:10 says, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

This verse is about as plain as it can get. That men didn’t frustrate God and kill Jesus. God anointed certain men to rise up against His son. It was God who killed Jesus, and it pleased Him to do so….because He knew that Christ’s death would serve to save the world. Not convinced yet?

“for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,” Acts 4:27.

Read that verse carefully. Better yet, go and read the book of Acts up to this verse. It is clear what is being said….that men were gathered together among who were Herod and Pontius Pilate, and it was God who had anointed their actions.

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” Isaiah 53:10.

The death of Christ was in the plans long before God hung the first star in the sky. It was the Lord’s plan to redeem the world to himself all along.

this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Acts 2:23.

God ordained the murder of Christ, not man. But this predestined death of God’s son brought about good for all who would believe. But think about it….this good was not seen by Christ while he was in human form. The good…the salvation…the fulfillment of God’s promise and the defeat of sin and death, came after death.

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28.

All things do work together for the good of those who love God. But that doesnt always mean that we will see that good on this side of Heaven. And if that is the case, we should rest in the promise of eternal life we have been given. Again, to claim Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise that our faithfulness equals God making all our problems vanish is simply not biblical. If it pleased the Lord to crush His perfect, spotless, son so that we may have eternal life, who do we think we are to shake our fists at the Heavens and claim that we deserve any better!

Jeremiah 29:11 is one of those verses that is ripped right out of the middle of a book and used by Christians worldwide without ever glancing at the rest of the book of Jeremiah! If one were to examine Jeremiah more closely, looking at the verses that come before 29:11, it would be clear that the verse was never intended to be made about us! Jeremiah 29:11 was a promise made to the nation of Israel. It was never a singular promise, but rather a plural one! It was historic in its context. Yet somehow, over the years we have selfishly twisted this verse out of its context in order to make it about us.  Its no different that watching three minutes of the middle of a movie and then claiming to know what it is about.

The “you” in Jeremiah 29:11 is not referring to you and I. God is speaking to Israel.

Here is another example of a commonly misused verse of scripture.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2.

This is a very common verse that we at times quote to people if they are dealing with a death. People attempting to find comfort in mourning will cling to this verse, saying that the cloud of witnesses is a group of people that their loved one is among, looking down from Heaven and watching over them. But once again, in order to correctly interpret the verse, we have to go back to the previous chapter in Hebrews 11.

Chapter 11 of Hebrews speaks of men such as Abel, Moses, Abraham, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets. Hebrews 11:39 says of these men….

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,  since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

These men listed throughout scripture were witness to the promise given in the messiah to come, but didnt live on earth long enough to see it fulfilled. They were witnesses to the promise given that was fulfilled in Christ! The cloud of witnesses was never meant to be about our loved ones, but rather pointing out the culmination of the promise to reconcile all things that began in Genesis.

I have personally lost loved ones. It would be saddening to me to think that they had nothing better to do in Heaven than to look down on this broken earth and miss their earthly relatives. It is much more comforting to me to know that they are so enamoured with Jesus that they have yet to be able to take their attention off of praising Him! There are no tears in Heaven, and that is because they are no longer looking upon the pain of this world, they are forever awestruck by the beauty and majesty of King Jesus.

One last instance Ill share comes from a true story. There was a youth camp with close to 500 kids arriving for the summer. The camp councilors came up with a Bible verse slogan for their camp.  This was the camp verse that was plastered on all the t shirts for the kids and was their memory verse for the week.

“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.” Habakkuk 1:5.

They councilors were constantly quoting it to all the kids and saying, “God is going to astound us with the great work He is going to do in our day and in your life!” They made it a happy, fuzzy bunny, verse that was all about them. They spent tons of money marketing and branding their camp with this verse. But they only saw a portion of the movie, so to speak. The neglected to read the book of Habakkuk and instead, just ripped a verse out and assigned their own meaning to it.

If you go back and read the historical context of Habakkuk and read the beginning of the book, we see that Habakkuk was a prophet in the land of Judah. The people of the land were turning on God and rebelling into a sinful lifestyle. Debauchery was rampant, and God’s people were eaten up with living sinful lifestyles. Habakkuk asked God in 1:1 why He would allow His people to act in this sinful manner so passively.  Then God answers Habakkuk in verse 5. But look at verse 5 and then lets read on to verse 6.

“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.”

God was doing something that would astound and leave them in unbelief alright. But it wasn’t something they would like. God basically said to Habakkuk, “Oh no, Im not passive. Im going to do something amazing that you won’t believe! Im going to raise up the Chaldeans, that evil army of ruthless people and Im going to allow them to destroy Judah as a judgement for their rebellion!” If only those poor youth councilors would have known what the verse actually was saying before ripping it out of context and slapping it on the back of hundreds of t shirts. Instead of wearing a happy verse on their backs, hundreds of kids were walking around sporting a shirt that was not about them, but about God’s wrathful judgement of sin.

Its alright to read the Bible in parts. You dont have to start at the beginning to read the Bible. But it is important that we understand the full context of the book of the Bible in which we find a passage of scripture we are drawn to. You cant interpret a movie if you only see part of the middle. And in the same way, we cannot properly expect to interpret the scriptures unless we understand the context in which they were written. Thats why its important for us to be students of God’s word, not merely use it to improperly fit the mold of our life circumstances. God is a God of love. And God is a God of comfort in our time of need. But we will find greater comfort and greater intimacy with Christ in knowing Him in truth. May this realization not serve to scare us, but to push us deeper into a desire to truly know our Heavenly Father who gave up His only son in Christ so that we may glorify His great name eternally.

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