I don’t know about yours, but my Facebook news feed is often flooded with memes quoting the Bible. Most of the time it’s just a singled out verse by itself, with little to no context. “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13) “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.” (Jeremiah 29:11) I could go on. There are a lot great of one liners in the Bible and I am sure you have a few favorites. One of the more common verses I see, although not exactly inspirational, is Deuteronomy 22:11 which commands God’s people not to wear clothing made from two different fabrics; a seemingly senseless and burdensome rule on the surface. Memes that highlight verses like these are often used to make Christianity look bad and without understanding them in their proper context they can do just that.
So it got me thinking, what do we need to fully understand some of these cherry-picked Bible verses? Here are some thoughts below.
- Dive Deeper
When we see a stand-alone verse, we often take it at face value. While its ok to appreciate the beauty of individual words and sentences, it’s never ok to stop here, which is what too many of us do.
I think in some ways this is a reflection of our culture. We are used to getting information via small bites. We live in a world of tweets and snaps where we share our thoughts in 140 characters or less.
The problem, however is when we don’t investigate any further. When it comes to something like a tweet or status update, it’s easy to control what you want your audience to see. It’s easy to make your side of the argument seem like the right side, as you delete and re-word your perfect one-time statement. Of course some tweets aren’t so artfully crafted and they get politicians and leaders in trouble. Their main rebuttal is that their words were taken out of context. In a way they’re right, by their very nature tweets are out of context of a larger picture. Exploring the larger context always sheds more light on the statement (but it doesn’t always redeem what was said!)
We could do ourselves a lot of good by researching further into the things we see online, tweets included. After taking in the phrase, sentence or verse for what it is at face value, we have to remember the surface level meaning of any statement is often very limited; think of it like one small part of a larger conversation that needs to be uncovered or the rest of the lyrics to your favorite song. Next time you think of your bible favorite verse, read the chapter it’s in, read the book it is in and even go so far as to connect it with other verses in the other testament. There is a saying that the Old Testament is the good news announced and the New Testament is the good news revealed. When you learn to connect the two, your Bible study becomes so much richer.
- Cultural Application
So many things are lost on us when we do not understand the culture of the original Biblical audience. Parables of fig trees, lost coins and Samaritans are so much better understood in light of a Jewish culture.
Not only that, we also tend to interpret scripture through our own culture. Instead of applying the Bible to our culture, we apply our culture to the Bible. We even do this with the nature and personality of God. The phrase “God will open up a door” typically assumes that God wants the same door open that we want open. A million-dollar business deal is a good thing in our culture, so God must want that too, right?
One of the best examples of this is something that kind-hearted and well-intended people say to me when they find out I am nearly thirty and not married. “Oh, well, God will send along the right person.” Instead of putting all of my hope in these words, my response is balanced with honesty, “maybe He will, maybe He won’t and either way is ok.” For some in our culture, falling in love is the ultimate prize.We have no shortage of romantic movies, love songs and fairytales.
Don’t get me wrong, marriage is a beautiful thing and is even a reflection of the Trinitarian relationship itself. However, to say it is the be all-end all or that you can’t be happy without it, isn’t biblical.
In fact, Paul tells us that it is a wonderful thing to be single so that we can increase our devotion to God all the more (See 1 Corinthians 7). So, biblically speaking, faithfulness to God is the ultimate prize. (Side Note: So maybe instead of telling teenagers to wait to have sex because God has someone special in store for them, we should tell them instead to not have sex unless (instead of until) they are married because that is what faithfulness to God looks like. I digress.)
When we think we know what God would do in a situation or how His word applies to our lives, we must always pause and ask ourselves if we are fitting God into what our culture says is important.
- Original Language
How many times have you heard a pastor talk about the original language of a verse, as they pull out a whiteboard and mesmerize you with their apparent bilingualism? Thankfully, you don’t need to be a Greek or Hebrew master to understand the Bible. However, I would highly recommend learning a few of the original words here and there. This can easily be done by using what is called a concordance. When you know some of these words, verses take on a whole new meaning. For example, 1 John 4:8 simply says “God is love.” On the surface this seems like an easy sentence to understand, but watch what happens when you put it through our culture. It might become mushy, romantic or even worse, cute. Love is more ambiguous in our culture than you might think. Is God love like “I love chocolate” or is He love more like “I love the color orange” When you discover that John uses the word “Agape” for love in this verse you understand the kind of love he is referring to is a sacrificial love. It’s a love seen through action. When you understand that the culture and original audience he was writing to was struggling with telling apart true Christians from false prophets, it takes on an even deeper meaning.
So there you have it, some thoughts on how we can study God’s word within its context. Yes, it takes a little bit more work, but the understanding and life application you walk away with is so much better. Am I saying to stop memorizing your favorite verses? Absolutely not. I just want to encourage you to fully understand their meaning before you make it your favorite.