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The Art of Taking Verses out of Context
If you’re British, or a lover of tea, you might want to brace yourself for what I’m about to tell you. It’s difficult to say and genuinely quite horrifying, but I promise you it is prudent to the topic at hand. With that said…
If my better half asks me to make Tea, this is how I make it:
1. Pour approx. 100-150ml of hot water over a fresh teabag
2. Remove the teabag almost as soon as the water has been introduced
3. Add a teaspoon of sugar
4. And then…
5. Add at least 150ml of milk
As I say, I am sorry to have subjected you to that knowledge, but here’s why that’s relevant.
For some of you, that was genuinely difficult to read, for others, you have no idea why I’ve raised this because you’ve never made English Breakfast Tea and so that may very well be the way you make it! (It is most certainly not!) It’s also important because it shows how what a word means to one person means something totally different to another. It’s all a question of comparison. Comparison with prior information, comparison with prior experience. If my wife asks other people to make her tea, she must explain what it is that she really wants, because otherwise, she’ll get something she won’t be able to enjoy. She takes information and brings it alongside the hearers current understanding to bring light to what she means. When we read scripture, oftentimes we need to do the same thing, we read a passage over and over and it simply doesn’t make any sense to us, the wording is unclear, too poetic, or prophetic or maybe we get the idea that it’s alluding to something we aren’t aware of yet. Thankfully, we can use the Bible itself to help us clear up some of these issues.
How Comparison Helps us to Read Scripture Better
The Bible is full of incredibly complicated verses, passages, and even whole books. Last week we talked about Context and about how helpful it can be to read everything in the light of the time, the author, the book, and the wider context of the Bible but sometimes we’ve done all of that, we’ve looked up and down at the verses around it and it just doesn’t make any sense to us. I’ve called this Article, somewhat sarcastically, ‘The Art of Taking Verses out of Context’ and what I mean by that is that often it can be helpful when we are reading the Bible to take other parts of the Bible, in other contexts, and lay them alongside the one we are currently in to better understand what we’re reading. Thankfully we have some great help from the Bible itself about how we can do this because the Bible quotes itself often to better explain the point that it’s making or to show how scripture has been fulfilled or will be fulfilled. Before we look at what I believe is the best possible way to do this, I’d love to run you through some easy ways to get started.
Sometimes the Bible explicitly references another verse or passage of the Bible, but sometimes we’re tempted to see that but forget to find out the deeper meaning by going back to the original text and reading it’s context.
An example of this is when Jesus was on the cross (Quotation in Bold):
“From noon until three in the afternoon, darkness came over the whole land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Elí, Elí, lemá sabachtháni?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Matthew 27:45-46 CSB
The quotation in bold is the first verse of Psalm 22, which if we read further includes verses like:
“Everyone who sees me mocks me; they sneer and shake their heads” v7
“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are disjointed; my heart is like wax, melting within me” v14
“For dogs have surrounded me; a gang of evildoers has closed in on me; They pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people look and stare at me. They divided my garments among themselves, and they cast lots for my clothing.” v16-18
All of which have direct and prophetic relevance to the Passion of the Saviour and so are not just helpful to study but tell us far more about our Saviour’s death on the cross. I would urge you to read the whole Psalm and find even more examples.
Direct reference isn’t necessary to evoke memories of previous events in the Bible, at other times we’re led to reread passages when they are simply alluded to. In the book of Hebrews, the author says this:
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and yet he was offering his one and only son, the one to whom it had been said, your offspring will be traced through Isaac. He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead; therefore, he received him back, figuratively speaking”
We have something of a double portion here in so far as there is both a reference as well as an allusion, but let’s focus for now on the latter. I’ll let you go back and read the whole story of the Offering of Isaac in Genesis 22:1–24, but I can promise that doing so, remembering, and reliving the stark severity of that story you’ll be far more touched by these words, encouraged by Abraham’s Faith and the power of our God.
“The Bible not only has diverse genres, it was written by diverse human authors “in many times and in many ways” (Heb. 1:1). Because inspiration is organic rather than mechanical, Scripture reflects the humanity and the divinity of its authorship.”
Michael S. Horton, The Reformation Study Bible
As Scripture has been written down by human beings and with their concerns, personalities, and vocabulary intact, there are times when it is helpful to line one portion of scripture against another to help us to understand what is being said. It has been said, for instance, that Paul writing to both slaves and masters is a de facto acceptance of the practice of slavery. Thankfully, we can line up his writing to the slave-owner Philemon, a whole book which details his desire for Onesimus, a slave of Philemon who had run away and followed Paul, to be freed and gain some clarity on Paul’s real thoughts about Slavery were. We can also assume, given that the letter was then reproduced and disseminated, that the wishes we carried out under his leadership. This is just one of many examples. Many writers of the Bible have written multiple writings, psalms, or books (David, Solomon, Luke, Paul, Peter, John) and so in many cases, when we struggle, we can see whether the same subject has been spoken of elsewhere for further clarity.
This is harder to identify at times, but some cases will be easier than others. Imagine if you went to a conference on the topic of Marriage, some seminars could be about Child-rearing, some about Divorce and others about how to resolve disputes, but all are ‘anchored’ to the principal subject of Marriage. Passages in the bible are rarely so easy to pin down and systematic theologians spend their whole lives wrestling with whether or not certain passages are relevant to particular doctrines. On a more general level though, subjects like marriage, murder, war, and the importance of scripture reappear many times over throughout the Word. This means that while we may not have other works from the same author on a certain subject to look to, (see authorship), we do have other passages inspired by the Holy Spirit to help illuminate difficult passages for us. An example of this is when Jesus said what is often seen as the final word on what Marriage is and what it isn’t:
“Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees approached him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that he who created them in the beginning made them male and female, and he also said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Matthew 19:2–6 CSB
Like the last point, this can be hard to decipher at times, especially when multiple narrative forms are taking place simultaneously, but once again there are some easy ones to look out for. God has used many of the same, or similar, trials and trails to guide and train his people through.
- Creation and Re-creations
- Temples built; temples torn down
- Exile and Exodus
- Provision and Famine
Often the prophets will refer to previous times in which these have been experienced and also various feasts and celebrations are utilised to remind the people of God of previous experiences to look back to. Like an Ebenezer, standing in our way, calling us to remember, when you come across a passage which seems to be saying something similar to another portion of scripture – for instance, Esther and Daniel who both have dealings with a foreign ruler who has power over their lives – don’t forget to take a moment and AT LEAST dwell upon your memories of those other texts. Better still, maybe you could listen to an audio version of the bible as you do other things throughout that day and see all the ways in which the Lord has woven those themes into the Word before.
The Long Haul
I mentioned before that I believe that there is an absolute best way to include this in your bible reading, you may even have picked up an inkling of it in those final easier steps.
Read the Bible.
Read the Bible.
That is it, do it once, do it twice, then do it over and over and over again.
There is no substitute when it comes to learning to compare passages of scripture than the long haul! The longer you have been reading the more you will see and the more you will learn because these texts, these beautiful, wonderful, living texts will live within your heart and mind, therefore, you will be all the more ready and able to see when one passage is referring to or alluding to another, you’ll know the authors and their quirks better, you’ll have studied anchors and narratives and you’ll see them pop up everywhere.
Please don’t let this be a discouragement if you’re just getting started but let it be a stirring word of encouragement. There are many things you can spend your life doing, most of them are fruitless and will bring you little joy.
Spend your life doing this, I promise it will not fail to bring wonder and amazement to your life and awaken your heart to new heights of love. If the fire you hope will one day be in your breast is currently just an ember, waste no time my brothers and sisters in gathering the first shreds of kindling to feed it, you may not be ready for wood and coal and oil, but you already have everything you’ll ever need in your hands. Pick it up, open the pages, and set your heart aflame.
The Planner and the Planes of … ah, well … I ran out of time basically
I’m a huge planner, spreadsheets and notebooks are my jam and I love to know what I’m doing ahead of time. My long-term plan is to have these artciles written four/five weeks out to alleviate my workload. In fact, I was going to get some of that done this week while the better half and I were away. Somehow though, every time I sat down to write distraction arose; therefore, this article was left until the last hours of Sunday night (although thankfully all according to a previously written out plan, huzzah!)
I say this because some of you know I’m aiming to publish on Sundays and so may have been confused as to why it hadn’t turned up, although it is still Sunday technically given that midnight hasn’t hit yet… that’s how that works right?
Also, as I haven’t quite managed to get everything finished, an important side-note I had planned to get written to end this week’s article has yet to be penned and so I plan to get that out to you mid-week. Be on the look out for “Sidenote: The Artist vs the Artful Dodger” at some point Wednesday/Thursday.
As always, please do like this article, it really helps, and if you found it helpful please leave a comment and share on social media.
Grace and Peace,
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