I’ve been conned. In the worst possible way, too. Right where it hurts.
It’s an old game, but people still fall for it (me included, apparently). It hits you right where it’s most important – right at the heart.
It’s the old verse-taken-out-of-context game.
Take for example the Jeremiah 11s. Oh my, I hear this one all the time. You know one of them, right?
declares the LORD,
plans for welfare and not for evil,
to give you a future and a hope.
So you read that verse and it sounds great, but if you move on to some of the other 11s, you may be in for a shock…
Behold, I am shaping disaster against you
and devising a plan against you…
Therefore, thus says the LORD,
Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape.
Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them.
How come you never see Jeremiah 18:11 on any of those nice wall plaques? Why only Jeremiah 29:11? Shouldn’t we be balanced an put both up?
Oh, you say, I’m a Christian, though. God has good plans for me.
Really? And what verse do you take that from? Jeremiah 29:11? Why that one and not the other?
A little context, please…
Well, let’s take a look at the context. Things are going to get even better…
Please do go and read the context yourself, but here are some highlights. This is how the chapter begins: These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. (Jer 29:1)
All right, so this is a letter to the Jews who were exiled – away from the promised land. As you read, you find that this is indeed a message from God. The people are to plant gardens and build houses. (There – this is a green passage! Everyone should plant a garden! Oh, wait, there’s more…)
All right, it looks like God is saying, Make yourself comfortable. You’re going to be in exile for a while. Look after the city you’re in, because its welfare is your welfare.
Don’t let a lying prophet tell you this will be over soon. It won’t be.
However, after 70 years I will bring you back to Israel. This is my plan for you – a future and a hope. Then you will find Me.
I will restore your fortunes (yay – money!) and bring you back to Israel.
But as for those who weren’t exiled with you – I’m sending sword, famine and pestilence!
So it’s better than you thought! What is the future and hope? It’s going back to Israel and getting all your money back (while those guys that weren’t exiled with you will suffer)! (But first you should plant a garden and marry off your kids)
God’s promise is wealth and a free trip to Israel!
Oh, wait – you’re not one of the Israelites living in the 70 years of exile? Well, in that case, maybe this doesn’t apply directly to you.
So what are you saying, Jim – God doesn’t have a good plan for my life?
No, I’m not saying that.
Well, what does it matter, then? So this verse wasn’t written for me personally. It still applies!
Well, the question is, if Jeremiah 29:11 applies, why doesn’t Jeremiah 18:11?
You might think I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill. But it does matter, and here’s why.
This verse has been spread around so much – wet paint just slapped on all over the place – that some people are indeed getting the wrong idea.
The wrong idea is this: God has a good plan for my life. He won’t do anything bad to me. Life will be good and I’ll end up in heaven someday.
Really? Actually, if you read the context, and read all of Scripture, you’ll find out something different. For example, why will the people that weren’t exiled going to suffer? Because they wouldn’t listen to God! (Jer 29:19)
And in Jeremiah 18:11? Well, the people were ignoring God and following thier own evil plans. Jeremiah 11:11? They were worshipping idols.
Incidentally, did you notice that God said He wouldn’t listen to their prayers? It continues in Jeremiah 11:14: Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble.
Quite a contrast with another favourite, Jeremiah 33:3: Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.
So will God listen or won’t He? It depends on the context.
Here’s the point. Does God have a plan for your life? Sure. But don’t count on it being something you’ll like, if you’re living in rebellion against Him. If you want to follow your own way. Don’t sit back in false assurance that God will ignore your sin and make everything turn out great for you in the end.
The good plans are in Jesus Christ – if you’re in Him, you will know hope.
So please stop taking verses out of context! There is a reason!
You’re Being Robbed!
Best scenario, taking a verse out of context is kind of like watching a Disney version of a fairy tale (sorry Walt). You miss out on the rich textures of a story that has grown up over the years in the community. Or take Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. A fun cartoon, but you might miss a lot of the rich political satyr in the book.
But it can be worse than that. You might only get a part of the truth. Or you might get the totally wrong idea. At times, people will actually really try to con you – lie to you – by taking a verse out of context.
Actually, I’m not going to tell you a story about how I was brought up to take verses out of context, and I learnt all kinds of heresy from the strict church of my childhood.
Thankfully, the churches I grew up in, and especially my parents, pushed me to actually read the Bible – yes, in context.
So I suppose I have no one to blame but myself.
I guess for the rest of my life I’ll be rediscovering verses.
Recently, for example, we were studying Hebrews 4:12. Remember that one?
sharper than any two-edged sword,
piercing to the division of soul and of spirit,
of joints and of marrow,
and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
So, it’s talking about how wonderfully powerful the Bible is, right?
Well, yes. But there’s a much more powerful, personal message in context.
We’ve been talking in Hebrews 4 about the disobedience of Israel. They hardened their hearts, and did not really experience the "rest" of God. A rest is still waiting for us – so we’d better be careful to enter it.
But watch out! You think the Israelites were bad? You have the same weapon pointed at you – the Word of God. It can see right into your heart – it can see what you’re thinking.
Sure, you look good on the outside, but how would you like all your intentions, your motivations, your lusts, broadcast on a screen in front of your church?
We’re all exposed before God!
So – let’s run to the Great High Priest, Jesus! He understands (and yet He never sinned). It’s the Gospel we need – the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to save us from the double edged sword.
Now, because of Him … (another familiar verse) … Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:16)
When is that time of need? Now! We who have been exposed as sinners by God’s law can find grace through Jesus Christ!
Don’t those verses mean a lot more in context?
The Ultimate Context
And that brings up another point – the main context of all of Scripture. What is it about?
The Good News about Jesus.
That’s the context, from Genesis to Revelation.
At a recent Bible study, I encouraged everyone to remember some things – and I say the same to you. First, look to God for answers – pray for understanding when you read the Bible. Second, read it in community – talk to people at your church, listen to your pastor’s sermons, ask the elders questions. Third, when you read the Bible, make sure you know what the context is. Finally, remember the theme of it all – Jesus and His Gospel.
Luke says it this way, recording what Jesus said to the disciples after He rose from the dead (Luk 24:44-48):
Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled."
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.
The Bible is about Jesus, and the Good News of His Salvation. It’s not all about me. But it sure is important to me!
So I’m going to keep reading in context. I won’t do it perfectly, and I’ll still get things wrong. But I’ve been conned, and I’m not going to take it anymore.
Another context example… Why do you ask?