In the web world, there is phrase used in business called “In-Context Messaging.” It’s used for customer communication in a website. Although I don’t grasp everything about it, I like the phrase. I think it’s very applicable to Bible study. We need to understand that the Bible message should be read, studied and memorized in context.
I remember our pastor at Bellevue Baptist (Dr. Rogers) would say – and I’m sure he got it from someone else: “A text taken out of context becomes a pretext.” When someone takes a Bible verse out of its original context, it can lead to a pre-conceived thought about the meaning of a verse. This leads us to bad or erroneous interpretation and then to wrong application. It is not healthy for us in our Bible study.
Although most of us know that the Bible was originally written without chapters and verses, and not in the book order in which we’ve come to know it today, I think it’s easy to forget this when we study or memorize it. It’s great to know the “address” of the verse we are putting to memory or quoting, but we need to remember that a single verse out of context can be as bad for us as not knowing the Bible at all. While it is also not wrong for a pastor/teacher to preach using only one verse, hopefully he or she will emphasize that it is only a part of a broader thought than the one single verse.
Too often, people use verses to paint a picture, tell a story, create a rule, write a song, and even become a “life statement” – and yet often in each instance the verse they use is taken our of the context of the passage. The Bible may be the only book (it’s actually a series) of its kind where it is absolutely necessary to read every verse in context of a paragragh; a paragraph in context of a chapter; a chapter in context of a book; a book in context of the whole. Paul reminded Timothy to continue in what he had learned and said to him to remember “how from infancy you have known the holy writings, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” All scripture is useful, but a single scripture pulled out of its original purpose is not useful. It is dangerous and has even been deadly.
Many people have been swayed to believe something that is actually in the Bible but has been taken so out of context, its meaning has become twisted or perverted. As a parent, pastor’s wife, friend, and a person of influence, it is of vital importance to me to obey Paul’s continued advice to Timothy to “make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately.” I love God’s Word. And I have a responsibility to pass it on in its context, whether I like what a particular passage says or not. Some passages are more difficult than others to understand. Some are easy to understand, but difficult to obey. Sometimes our experience doesn’t jive with a particular passage and we are tempted to change the meaning to fit our experience.
While it’s true that after 30 years of studying the Bible, I still find certain passages that seem to contradict each other, it’s also true that the more I study it as a whole, the more the Bible comes together. I love what BH Carroll said:
When I was a boy, I thought I had found a thousand contradictions in the Bible. In the Old Bible of my young manhood I marked them all. Well, I had then nearly a thousand more contradictions than I have now. I do not see them now; they are not there. There are perhaps a half dozen in the Bible that I cannot explain satisfactorily to myself . . . I have seen nine hundred and ninety-four out of those thousand coalesce and harmonize like two streams mingling/ I am disposed to think that if I had more sense I could harmonize those other six.”Reading and studying the Bible in its context helps us overtime to harmonize it. And even when there are those passages we aren’t able to “fit together”, when we trust that ALL the Bible is ALL useful, we will find ourselves humbly approaching it and asking Abba for His wisdom and waiting for His timing to understand what we don’t yet get.