OUT OF CONTEXT

The instructions of the Lord are perfect, reviving the soul. The decrees of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The commandments of the Lord are right, bringing joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are clear, giving insight for living. [Psalm 19:7-8 (NLT)] 

chicoryI have several books of quotations to use when making greeting cards or writing devotions. I’ve never read these books cover to cover; I just use the index to find a few specific quotes to illustrate a point. While I do that for quotes, if I read a novel that way—searching through it for a few choice sentences—I’d miss the whole plot! We certainly wouldn’t study history by arbitrarily reading the text in a hit or miss fashion. If we did, our concept of the past would be incomplete and incorrect. While we might learn something about Adolph Hitler, we might never even see the names Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower or Mussolini. We might know the dates of the Civil War but have no idea why it was fought. We could know the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 but not that it fell in 1989. Since we don’t read most books haphazardly, I wonder why we think it’s perfectly OK to do that with the Bible. In spite of its various books, chapters and verses, the Bible is not a series of unconnected short stories or unrelated verses—it is the continuous story of God’s relationship to man. We can certainly get in trouble by reading just bits and pieces and basing our faith and lives on a few well (or poorly) selected verses.

The story is told of a deeply troubled man who decided to seek spiritual guidance by randomly selecting a Bible verse. He opened the Bible to Matthew 27 and read the verse in which the remorseful Judas hangs himself. Unsure of its meaning, the man flipped to another page hoping for clarification and better guidance. Unfortunately, he ended up at Luke 10:37 where, at the end of the Good Samaritan parable, Jesus says, “Yes, now go and do the same.” Needless to say, for this man, reading the Bible as a random series of verses and instructions had tragic consequences.

The Bible is not a faith-based version of a Magic 8-ball or Ouija board. Opening it randomly and putting a finger on a verse to select our course of events is not its purpose. Moreover, in spite of the verses being numbered, they aren’t meant to be read alone; they need to be read in context. The chapter and verse numbers were added many centuries after the original words were written and are there solely to make it easier for us to locate passages. They are no more part of the Bible than are its page numbers and, unfortunately, they aren’t always well placed. If we’re not going to read at least an entire chapter at a sitting, we’d be wise to follow the advice found in the Talmud: “He that reads in the Torah may not read less than three verses.” [m. Meg. 4.4]

The Bible is filled with poetry, suspense, adventure, letters, history, prophecy, moral lessons, and wisdom. Yet, it is so much more than the sum of all its parts; it is the living Word of God. As such, it deserves more than a cursory glance now and then.

You have been taught the Holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:15-17 (NLT)]

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