Thursday, January 28, 2016

Biblical Meaning Stems from the Book, Not the Verse

As a runner I see Philippians 4:13 at almost every race. This is because somebody invariably has "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" printed on the back of their T-shirt. A Christian outreach organization to runners even exists based upon this verse. While the organization seems fine, their use of Philippians 4:13 yanks the verse completely out of context.

This brings me to the topic for today's post. Far too many Christians fail to interpret scripture correctly because they look at individual verses for meaning. When
this happens, even with well-intentioned believers who respect the Bible, they often arrive at erroneous conclusions. For example, Philippians 4:13 has nothing to do with running. Rather, the context of the passage is Paul's God-granted ability to handle both having plenty of physical goods/money and not having enough. God strengthened the apostle to be content regardless of his particular situation.

If Christians who cherish Philippians 4:13 would keep it in the context of book, chapter, and paragraph, they would not even consider using it to refer to running. That application would seem silly to them in the context of Paul's purpose for the letter. One of Paul's primary reasons for writing to his friends in Philippi was to thank them for their financial support. He wasn't planning on running in any 5Ks or marathons (at least I don't think so).

When the Bible was originally penned, no chapter, paragraph, or verse divisions existed. In fact, they were not added until hundreds of years later. They were inserted not to assist with interpretation, but to help readers find specific sections more easily. That is key: the chapter, paragraph, and verse divisions are not inspired.

Where does the primary meaning lie? It lies in the book itself. When determining the meaning of any part of scripture, the reader must take into account everything the author has said prior to that particular sentence he is reading. This can be difficult, especially with long books. This is one reason it is so important to read all the way through Biblical books instead of sifting for favorite passages.

The author(s) of each book had a train of thought and built an argument. The individual books build upon themselves as they progress from beginning to end. For example, it is folly to try to understand Romans 12:1-2 in a vacuum. These familiar verses say:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans chapters 12-16 focus a great deal on how Christians should live in light of what God has done. But how do the Roman believers know what God has done? They already know by reading chapters 1-11. Romans 12-16 only make sense in the context of 1-11.

Another truth to keep in mind during interpretation is that each book is part of the Bible as a whole. When reading, for example, from the prophets or writings in the Old Testament, the reader must keep them in context of the Pentateuch (Genesis - Deuteronomy). When reading the New Testament, we absolutely have to remember all of the O.T. To ignore what has come before a particular passage is to risk poor interpretation.

Many sincere followers of Jesus Christ have great respect for the Bible. Many also come to faulty conclusions about what the Bible means. We have all done this, myself included. One way we can avoid this error is by keeping verses in context. It is the book that provides the meaning God intends.

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