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The story goes that there once was a man who, in order to seek God’s will for his life, was fond of opening up his Bible and reading whatever verse he first laid his eyes on, so that he might obey it. One day, as this man was going through a particularly difficult time with his family, he sought the Lord for guidance. Opening his Bible and pointing, he found his finger resting on the second part of Matthew 27:5, which read “Then Judas went out and hanged himself.” Puzzled by the Lord’s directions, but still hungry for a word from God, he called a “do-over” and flipped to another page, where his eyes fell on the latter half of Luke 10:37: “Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Flustered, but chalking it up to coincidence, the man decided to give his method one last chance. Saying a quick prayer, he flipped the pages and inserted his finger between two of them, pointing to the end of John 13:27. There, staring up at him, were these words: “‘What you are about to do, do quickly,’ Jesus told him.”
Beginning this month, I have challenged our church to make a greater effort to memorize Scripture, so that we might be people who are led and transformed by the truth of God’s Word. This month’s verse is 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” which reminds us that the sins of past have been forgiven and that we now belong to Jesus and have His Holy Spirit giving us new spiritual life (among many other benefits of salvation). However, as the above story reminds us, one of the greatest cautions with Scripture memory is the folly of taking verses out of context, so that they speak things which they were never intended to speak. Certainly no one would read Matthew 27:5, “Then Judas went out and hanged himself,” and take that as a directive, but even the most mature Christians are guilty of doing similar things all the time with other verses. It can be hard for even seasoned Christians to know sometimes whether the commands or promises of Scripture were meant for us, or only for the original readers.
Consider two examples that attract a lot of attention in Christian circles. The first comes from 2 Chronicles 7:14, which reads “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” This verse is often used for large scale prayer and repentance gatherings: it was the theme verse of the Promise Keepers million man gathering in Washington D.C., and has been used for the National Day of Prayer. It is a stirring call to prayer and repentance, with the promise that God will then forgive sin and bring healing to the land. But did God really intend for this promise to apply to 21st century America? When you read the context of this verse, you find that God speaks this promise to Solomon after he finishes building the temple in Jerusalem. In verse 13, God tells Solomon “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people” before giving the promise found in verse 14. Now, I went to Washington D.C. for the Promise Keepers event, but I can’t say I remember any droughts, locusts, or plagues being the impetus for the call to repentance and prayer.
Or, consider this example: many Christians love Jeremiah 29:11, which reads “‘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.’” Few Christians, however, can quote you the preceding verse, which reads “This is what the LORD says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.’” , or verses 12-13, which read “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Once again, the context shows us that this promise was made to the people of Israel as they were in captivity, encouraging them that when their time of discipline was finished, and when they had again returned to seeking the Lord, then God would restore them to their homeland. The verse is not just a blanket pronouncement that God has good plans in store for everyone, regardless of whether or not they seek the Lord.
Without getting into too much detail, since books have been written about the interpretation of Scripture, let me encourage you to do three things as you read and memorize Scripture:
(1) Read the verse in its context. Be sure that it is truly saying what you think it is saying. For example, one favorite verse of many people is Philippians 4:13, “I can do everything through him [Jesus] who gives me strength.” Often this verse is used as a motivator for people to overcome fears and achieve great things (I’ve seen “Phil 4:13″ inscribed on the eye black of University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, for instance). In the context, Paul is telling the Philippians that he has learned to be content in every situation, whether he has plenty or is in poverty, because he knows that God will give him the strength he needs in each situation. Whenever you are memorizing Scripture, be sure that you understand the purpose for which it was written by reading it in its context.
(2) Consider the audience for whom it was intended. Was the verse directed to all believers? Or was it a promise given to a specific person or people in a specific situation? In the case of the Chronicles passage from above, the promise was given to Solomon about the people of Israel. In the case of the Jeremiah passage, it was given to the Israelite people in captivity in Babylon about their return to Israel.
(3) Look for timeless principles. Even if the promise or command was given to a particular people in a particular situation, that does not mean it is not valuable to memorize or not applicable to today. With the Chronicles passage, the principle of repentance for wrongdoing and seeking God’s face for forgiveness and blessing applies not only to the ancient Israelites, but certainly to Americans today. While I would be reluctant to take that promise word for word, since the promise was dealing with drought, locusts, and plagues, the timeless principle is that there is healing that occurs when we repent of sin and turn to faith in God. And with the Jeremiah passage, although it was spoken to the Israelites, we have a similar promise in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The timeless principle is that, even when we find ourselves in captivity, that God’s desire is to give us a future full of hope and blessing, if we would only turn to Him and seek Him.
In your desire to know God and His Word, be careful not to cherry-pick verses and, by doing so, develop a faith that is based on out-of-context verses that inspire or encourage you. Learn what the verses really mean by reading them in context.
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