Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Are you taking Bible verses out of context?"

biblehands “Context, context, context” is what one of my professors said many times during my three years at Bible College. He warned the class that if he ever heard one of us preaching and taking the passages out of context we would be in big trouble! In the twenty years that have passed since I graduated I’ve tried to always remember the context of the scriptures I’m teaching and preaching from. Who wrote it? Who is the intended audience? Why was it written?

In my almost ten years of involvement with The Voice of the Martyrs Canada, I often remind the churches I have spoken at in Canada that much of the New Testament was written by persecuted Christians to persecuted Christians. Think about the letters of Paul, Peter and John. Jesus also spent a lot of time teaching his followers about what they would face by preaching His message. He promised that they would suffer for following Him!

So why don’t we hear more about suffering for righteousness sake during our Sunday morning services, or from our favorite radio or TV preacher if it is one of the main themes of the New Testament?

Let me suggest that perhaps because most Christians in the West have little or no experience with persecution it affects our ability to deal properly with the passages that speak about persecution when we read them and especially when we are trying to preach on them from the pulpit in some sort of relevant way. As our CEO Glenn Penner says, in our pursuit of relevance, we end up being less than accurate in how we handle the Word of God.

Here is just one example of what I am talking about. When Peter wrote to the Christians who had been scattered throughout much of Asia Minor due to persecution, he encouraged them to stand strong in their faith in the face of the persecution that was the consequence of their decision to follow Jesus. He wrote: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may prove to be genuine and may result in praise, even glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed “(1 Peter 1: 6, 7).

In most sermons I’ve heard on this passage, it is used to exhort believers to stand firm in their faith in all of life’s problems and difficulties such as sickness, financial crises, family issues, and the like. While I understand why preachers in a society where there isn’t intense persecution would use those verses that way, it is not, however, their original context or meaning. In the context, the passage referred specifically to suffering for being a Christian. In fact, the context of most of the verses that address suffering in the New Testament is one of suffering not because of sin or because we live in a fallen world but because of righteousness.

Like most Christians in Canada, I’ve never faced the level of persecution of those we serve as a mission. I’ve never even lost of a job or been held back from a promotion because of my faith in Christ. That does not, however, give us the liberty to misapply the passages that deal with suffering in the New Testament.


Audra said...

I appreciated the reminder of how most of the NT is written by the persecuted believers, and certainly agree with Greg that considering context in interpreting Scripture is important in order to prevent error. However I do not agree that finding a new relevance in Scripture to our lives is a "less than accurate" way to handle the Word of God. In fact Scripture itself does this very thing, when New Testament writers quote Hebrew scriptures in their gospels or letters and apply a new meaning to it. One example is 1 Cor 2:9. Paul is referring to God's revelation of his wisdom and plan through the church. But Paul was quoting Isaiah, whose original context was about how God acts on behalf of those who wait for Him.
Another example of how God Himself applies Scripture to my life is when I am reading Scripture and a verse "jumps off the page". Two nights ago this happened and God used it to to speak to a situation I was going through. Because the original context of my passage was for a different sitaution than mine, does that mean it does not apply? Certainly not, in fact this is what makes the Bible the "Living" Word and this is a common way that God speaks to us. The Bible is timeless and eternal because in fact through the Holy Spirit, God makes it relevant for all people and all times. Therefore, there is nothing inherently wrong with applying the word "trials" to mean whatever "trials" may mean to a person at a particular time, and in fact following only the original context will cause us to miss some very intimate and direct communication from God Himself.
I certainly agree that Scripture has been distorted and manipulated and we need to be careful about how we interpret it. But if we accept Greg's point about most Christians in Canada not facing persecution (which I agree is true), then it could be said that most of the Bible is not relevant to North American Christians today. And I hope we can agree that this is definitely not true!
"The original context is only part of true biblical interpretation. By itself it is insufficient for hearing and understanding God's voice as a means of specific guidance in a personal conversation with Him." (author Chris Tiegreen, in his book "Fixing Abraham", who spends a full chapter on this very topic).

Glenn Penner said...

Two problems with your line of reasoning, Adra:
1. If the Bible can mean anything apart from its original intended meaning, how can we possibly know, as you put it, when it " has been distorted and manipulated and we need to be careful about how we interpret it."? This becomes an impossible task.

2. You are confusing application and interpretation. Application can have more than expression. But interpreataiton requires that we seek to find the original meaning and see that as what God intended.

Oluremilekun said...

I can't but understand perfectly what Audra was trying to pass across. For most of us who are not much in theology, God speaks to us still and we understand Him - if indeed we have a sincere heart to learn of Him. Those whose minds are perverted, and tend to twist the word of God to mean what is not, the Spirit of God in the heart of the sincere child of God will make it known that error is being preached. Our God is most faithful to meet each of us at our own level.

In my own experience within my own environment here in Africa, sicknesses, financial crisis and family issues are tools in Satan's hands to make many deny Jesus and seek solution in ways that dishonour Jesus. There was the story of a 'Christian' lady who was suffering from a sickness that defiled solution. In her despair, she succumbed to the pressure from idolatrous family members to seek healing through an idol worshipper. She denied her Lord because of sickness and fear of death, and she never got the physical healing she craved for. I am not in position to tell if she ever had the chance to reconcile with the Lord before she died.

My husband has been facing intense persecution at his work place because he stood for Christ. he would not join in the corruption that is prevalent in his office. Promotions are denied because they felt he won't play along with them their dirty games. We keep encouraging ourselves with God's words. We daily experience the truth that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

The truth is that there are always two options to handling every problem that comes to us as a result of the fact that we are living in a fallen world - Jesus' way of carrying the cross, standing for righteousness in handling issues (sickness, family issues, conflicts at work) and suffering in the process, or looking for solution using means that dishonour Him (worldly wisdom, human philosophy, fetish means). This is very real to me in my environment. And the Lord keeps me and my family standing by speaking His words directly into our hearts. If not for His words that keep coming to us, we would have denied Him and seek solution to conflicts from the many other options been presented to us daily by the wicked trinity of the world, Satan and the flesh. But we keep seeing Jesus who for the joy set before Him endure the cross and despise the shame. Following Jesus in sickness, in family matters and in job situation in my own environment brings some measure of suffering and shame. It may not be anywhere near the intense and excruciating suffering we see our brethren in the Persecuted Church go through - and I don't deny their terrible sufferings, yet they are enough to make one lose one's salvation - and THIS is all that Satan wants to achieve.

Sean said...

Great Post Greg. Correct context in the word is EXTREMELY important. Without it GOD's word and intentions can be distorted into something that doesn't produce good fruit. There are so many examples of how people within and outside of the church will manipulate scripture out of context to legitimize their worldly philosophies. I understand what Audra is trying to say and agree that you can read the word and pull something out of it that is specific to you. That is one of the many joys of reading the word because it draws you into a deeper relationship with GOD. You just have to be mindful not to mix up a message that may be just for you and try and apply it out of context for others.