Most often, when preparing a message, I have way too much that I want to say. (which is why I usually say way too much, occasionally in mild disorder) While I was writing my most recent message (obviously I don’t preach every week!), I was thinking I might enjoy writing out a few posts on the thoughts that got me there… who knows? Maybe you’ll be blessed in a study of the passage – or maybe you’ll pick up some nugget of truth for studying Scripture in general.
Often the most widely known verses in Scripture are understood and applied entirely apart from their context. It might shock you to know that Philippians 4:13 or Jeremiah 29:11 don’t exactly mean what you thought they meant when you had them tattooed on your forearm. (Don’t worry, they’re still great verses with amazing promises – don’t start planning that cover up yet)
The Word of God is alive. (Hebrews 4:12 – which also has a context!) And as such, God can certainly speak to anyone at any time and in many ways. But the reality is, every passage in the Bible has a singular interpretation, one meaning. Granted, there may be multiple applications… but the meaning doesn’t change. Our responsibility is to prayerfully dive in to mine out the specific interpretation, so we don’t arrive at misguided applications.
For my most recent sermon, I jumped into Matthew 7 and the oh-so-familiar passage about judging one another. I always like to start with asking relatively simple and normal questions… Who: Who is in the scene? Who is speaking? To Whom are they speaking? And the song continues with What, When, Where, and Why.
Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, is speaking in this passage. Matthew 7 is part of the larger portion of Scripture called the Sermon on the Mount. (covering Matthew 5-7) Nothing cryptic here… Jesus climbed a mountain and began to preach.
My (incorrect) tendency is to take this blessed sermon of the Lord’s and chop it to bits. Please don’t take this next comment as dodging responsibility or passing the buck, but I believe modern Bibles help us to make this mistake by breaking everything into sections. Paragraphs that belong together are torn at the seams. A story that is recorded over multiple pages is diced up until you forget that what you’re reading happened right alongside something three pages earlier.
I understand the value of breaking up the text. But I also see the danger.
Our sound bite culture thrives on the complete absence of context.
I think we’ve always been good at this. Our modern culture is certainly driven by memes, 140 characters, emoticons, and abbreviations. We even remember many great modern speeches or events by a single line… in fact, we often only remember these single lines:
We hold these truths to be self-evident…
Ask not what your country can do for you…
I have a dream…
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall…
I would imagine you know who said each, maybe even where, when, or why. But do we remember them because the lines, in and of themselves, are great? Or is it because they became symbolic of something so much larger and greater? Sometimes the lines are great, most often they just point to a great moment.
In one sense, and I mean this with the greatest reverence, the same can be said of the Sermon on the Mount. We remember lines, or at least ideas.
Anger runs deeper than our actions.
Turn the other cheek.
Love our enemies.
Judge not, lest ye be judged. (coming back to that one!)
It’s all in there. And just as in mere human speeches, there is a danger of misunderstanding or forgetting the context and, in doing so, misplacing the bigger picture. Was Jesus standing to offer a series of fascinating one-liners? Or was He standing to paint a bigger picture?
I liken the chop-chopping of the Sermon on the Mount to treating Jesus as though He were Mitch Hedberg. (This is the part where you Google Mitch Hedberg, heeding my warning that though he was 100% brilliant, he was most certainly not 100% clean) Hedberg was known for his one-liners. Jesus is known for getting just a little deeper.
I was recently required to read the Bible two times in two years using two different translations. On one level, it was a blessing. Every day I was swarmed with context – big picture stuff. If you’ve ever read a book like Isaiah or Job in just a few sittings, you know the blessing. It’s not easy, but it’s a blessing. Central ideas fly from the page.
(On another level, I missed digging into those very same passages. I studied deeper where I could, but nowhere near where my brain wanted. I missed digging so much, that when I finished the 2nd year, I spend the next four months in Galatians – from one extreme to the next.)
I believe proper study habits, of any subject, require a balance of context and detail. The Word of God is no different. We cannot ignore context without ignoring the big ideas of Scripture. We’ll miss the scarlet threads without context. We’ll miss redemption in the midst of pain, joy amidst difficulty, etc.
Moment of conviction: Did you meet the Lord in His Word today? If so, what did you read? What was the context? Do you know? Did you care? There’s nothing wrong with finding comfort in the 4:13’s and the 29:11’s of the Word. But they take on so much more meaning when we understand them in context.
Of course, even Christians… even pastors… even scholars disagree on context at times. But that’s never a reason to ignore context. In fact, those discussions are often enjoyable for different reasons. To choose ignorance, though, is simply destructive. Maybe you don’t like history. Maybe you don’t like to read. That’s OK. But you owe it to yourself (and your forearm tattoo) to understand the Word that moves you.