How to Take a Verse Out of Context

2013-06-21 08.11.31Sometimes you just need the perfect verse.

Unfortunately, such verses are often difficult to find. You dig and dig and dig to have that special sentence pop out at you from the pages, but to no avail. Then suddenly you see it, the verse your should has been longing for. It’s like God is sending a tweet directly to you. It’s exactly what you were looking for. Just the sight of the black letters on the page is enough to make the strings of your heart play a heavenly lullaby.

Elated, you take your newfound revelation and proclaim it to those closest to you. Do you see? Can you feel it? The baby-skin-soft love of God has come and started a ballroom dance in my soul through this verse. Come and dance with us too! 

Your friend looks incredulously at the passage and shakes their head. “It doesn’t mean what you think it does. It’s about circumcision, not a promise that you will find a husband in eight days.”

Crestfallen, you drag your feet back home like Charlie Brown. You were dead certain about the interpretation. How could you be so wrong when you were so sure?

Your buzzkill friend says it’s because you took the verse out of context. They explain:

The Bible, just like any other message communicated, needs to be understood within its specific context. Each sentence is a part of a paragraph. Each paragraph is a part of a book. Each book is a part of the whole. They cannot be separated.

The Bible is not a collection of codes to be deciphered or a string of individual philosophical statements conveniently in large print. First and foremost, it is a story—the truest of stories. When you are trying to understand a specific aspect of a story, you cannot lose sight of the whole. The revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father (spoiler alert) carries no weight if you don’t know everything that had taken place previously.

It is a fact of language that anything communicated must be understood within its context. The word “love” means something different if it’s next to the word “ice cream” instead of “wife.” This is how humans communicate, and conflict usually occurs if context is not respected and understood. We don’t want people taking statements from our contracts, love letters, or instructions out of context. If I’m on a plane, I sure hope my pilot has taken every single dot of his flight manual within context. God’s Word deserves the same treatment.

But if none of that really matters to you, here are a few easy ways to continue taking verses out of context:

1. Ignore the verses surrounding your passage.

A good rule of thumb to find the context of a verse is to read the twenty verses that came before and the twenty verses that come after. “Jesus wept” (11:35), could be about your recent break-up if you don’t ready the Lazarus stuff.

2. Ignore what book of the Bible you are actually reading.

A book’s genre and overall themes really affect a verse’s meaning. Poetry is understood differently than a history book, which is understood differently than a personal letter.

3. Ignore the fact that the Bible comes from a different culture and was not originally written in English.

Americans do just about everything different compared to someone from the first century Middle East. Something that would make absolute sense in our minds would sound like lunacy in theirs.

4. Ignore the Bible as a whole.

Because the Bible is one big story, there’s an overall theme, message, and hero. If your interpretation somehow ends up elevating you and not Jesus, then it’s probably out of context.

5. Ignore all the scholars who came before you in the past two thousand years.

Color me impressed if you find a truth that none of the billions of Christians, all equally filled with the Holy Spirit, for thousands of years could think of. There are plenty of cults who have paved that road.

6. Ignore the more obvious contextual interpretation for one that aligns with your feelings.

If all else fails and you don’t like what the context says, you can always make up a new meaning for the verse.

I mean, you never know. Does that verse have to be about circumcision?