Keeping Scripture in Context

Let’s say you find yourself discussing a Bible verse with a friend, and suddenly he says, “You’re taking that verse out of context!” You didn’t think you were taking it out of context, but how do you know?

The “out of context” claim is often used to stop arguments, but many times with no basis. Yet many times Bible texts are taken out of context and made to mean things which their authors never intended them to mean.

How do you respond to your friend?
How do you make sure that you are not taking Scripture out of context?
And what is context anyway?

context (con·text)
– noun

  1. the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect: You have misinterpreted my remark because you took it out of context.
  2. the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc.

Keeping a portion of Scripture in context is nothing more than making sure we fully understand the portion we are interested in, as well as, what comes before and after it.

Peter gives us a clear warning on taking scripture out of context.

2 Peter 3:16
He [Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

What I take from Peter’s admonition is when we come across portions of the Bible that we don’t understand, we shouldn’t try to impose our modern-day understanding on top of it, which could possibly distort its meaning. Instead we should seek to understand the context in which the Scripture was written by asking knowledgeable and spiritually mature ministers, family and friends. We can also use tools like Bible commentators, Bible study guides, and Greek and Hebrew language tools, all of which can be found online at places like Blue Letter Bible and BibleGateway.

Types of Context: (taken from Energion – Understanding Context)

  • Syntactic Context
    This is simply the linguistic structure of the verse, and how various elements of it fit together. It means you need to get various clauses and phrases attached to the right element of the sentence.
  • Literary Context
    Where does this element fit in the broader structure of the passage I’m reading. In part, this involves understanding what type of literature you are reading.
  • Historical Context
    When in history was this passage written? What were the circumstances? What elements of the history contribute to the nature of the material written.
  • Cultural Context
    This overlaps with historical context, but goes beyond it. How did the people who wrote and/or heard the piece of literature you are studying understand the world, and written texts? What concepts were available in their world?
  • Canonical Context
    Where does this passage fit in the overall canon of scripture. For those who are reading the Bible as part of the literature of their faith, this is particularly important. There are reasons why these texts were chosen and put together into the larger book we call the Bible. How does your passage fit into this broader picture?
  • Spiritual Context
    Where does this passage fit in spirituality generally?
  • Experiential Context
    What is the nature of the religious or spiritual experience of the people who wrote and read or heard the passage you are studying?

Examples of “out of context” and misused scriptures:

Example 1:
“God has a prosperous plan and future for me.”

Key Scripture:
Jeremiah 29:11
1 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

10 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. 11 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. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

While many people claim this blessing for themselves saying it was written by God to Jeremiah, it was actually a God inspired word written by Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon.

Yes, God does have a plan and purpose for each person (there are several passages that proclaim this fact), but this passage would be taken out of context in order to apply that meaning to us today.

Example 2:
Are we suppose to forget past negative experiences or past achievements?

Key Scripture:
Philippians 3:13-14
1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.

2 Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

This passage is typically used to tell believers that they shouldn’t get hung up on negative events that happened in their past. Instead, they should press onward to attain the goal that God has for them.

However, kept within context, Paul is teaching believers that we should forget about any positive accomplishment that we made through our own strength and effort. We are to count them as loss, as rubbish, that we may “take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

Example 3:
“We need to be hot on fire for God; God doesn’t want us cold.”

Key Scripture:
Revelation 3:16
14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

Many preachers use this passage to proclaim that we need to be “hot on fire” for God implying (or directly stating) that God doesn’t want us to be cold, or that being cold is bad.

Yet this passage is actually referencing the historic medicinal uses of hot and cold water from fresh springs. Both hot and cold water was good and useful. However, lukewarm water was useless for medical purposes and God was telling the Laodicean church that they couldn’t be used by Him because they were neither hot OR cold.

Example 4:
“We need to be strategic in our planning, getting God’s vision for our church.”

Key Scripture:
Proverbs 29:18a
17 Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul.
18 Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
19 A servant will not be corrected by words: for though he understand he will not answer.

We all know that we need God-given direction and vision for our lives, because that’s what this passage says, right?

Kept within context, we can see that the author was referring to a “vision” of practical discipline for children and servants. Do we still need God’s vision for our lives, YES! But we can’t use this passage to proclaim it.

Example 5:
“If you don’t get your healing it’s because you didn’t have enough faith for the healing.”

Key Scripture:
Matthew 13:58
53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. 54 Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. 55 “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him.
But Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.”

58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

When believers and non-believers alike seek God for a healing and they do not receive it in the manner they were expecting, this passage is often used to explain why. It is said that they didn’t have enough faith for the healing.

But when this account is read in full, to which kind of faith was the author referring? Faith in Jesus! The people in Jesus’ home town couldn’t believe that the little boy who grew up in their town, whose brothers and sisters and mother were all with them, was the savior of the world. Verse 57 says “they took offense at him.” So because they could not believe that Jesus was who He said He was, they couldn’t receive anything (including physical healing) from God; not because they didn’t have enough faith for a healing or miracle.

Example 6:
“Every Christian has a separate race to run.”

Key Scripture:
Hebrews 12:1
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Some ministers use this passage to teach that every Christian has a separate race to run. While it is true that God has a special plan for each believer, this passage tells us that every believer is running the same race along side of his fellow believer (“let us run…” and “let us fix our eyes…”). It is a race in which the collective members of the Body of Christ run together keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus.

Example 7:
“I can claim the best for me: financial success, prosperous life, material blessings, etc.”

Key Scripture:
Philippians 4:13
10 But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity.
11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.
12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.
13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
14 Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction.

So what is the “all things” that Paul says he can do in verse 13? He says that he has learned how to live through any circumstance—wealthy or poor, well fed or starving—and still keep his faith in the Lord. This Scripture is a description of how Paul lived out the Christian faith, not a prescription for us on how to do/be/get something from God.

Example 8:
“I can reap a great financial harvest by sowing financial seeds.”

Key Scripture:
Galatians 6:7c
1 Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, 5 for each one should carry his own load.
6 Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

The phrase “a man reaps what he sows” is often used as a teaching for reaping financial blessings, and is also sometimes used to point out the “biblical version” of karma.

However, there is not a single reference to finances in the passage. In stead, the sowing and reaping is in regards to our sinful nature or to the Spirit. Also note, according to verse 9, that the time of the sowing and reaping is all within a single person’s lifetime, therefore eliminating any references to karma which is part of the belief in reincarnation which extends over multiple lifetimes.

Example 9:
“What I say will be done because God will give me the desires of my heart.”

Key Scriptures:
Matthew 21:21-22
18 Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
21 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

Psalm 37:4b and 5b
1 Do not fret because of evil men
or be envious of those who do wrong;
2 for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.
3 Trust in the LORD and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
4 Delight yourself in the LORD
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him and he will do this:
6 He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.
7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when men succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Many charismatic groups use these passages together as Scriptural basis for “name it and claim it” faith.

Although the passage in Matthew is a lesson on faith, Jesus primarily used the example of the fig tree as an illustration of Jerusalem which only had the appearance of spiritual life (green leaves) but lacked any real spiritual fruit (figs). In regards to using our faith, Jesus further clarifies this teaching in Matthew with his other teaching in John 15, specifically verse 7 which says, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you,” and verse 16 which says, “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.”

The Scripture in Psalm is a stand-a-lone passage not directly related to the passage in Matthew, and when read in context, tells us the conditions for having the desires of our hearts met: “delight yourself in the Lord” and “commit your way to the Lord” and “trust in Him.”

Example 10:
“All we have to do is lift up the name of Jesus and He will draw the lost to Himself.”

Key Scripture:
John 12:32
32 But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this statement that ministers make, the problem is that Jesus wasn’t referring to preaching but to the manner of His death, as verse 33 states.

Example 11:
“The Devil comes only to steal, kill, and destroy.”

Key Scripture:
John 10:10
1 “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them.

7 Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12  The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

Who is doing the stealing, killing, destroying? The Devil? Well, actually, the passage says it’s the “thief.” So who then is the thief? According to verse 8, it’s anybody who comes in a manner like Jesus preaching a false message, aka, false teachers. If the devil is referenced within this passage it could possibly be as the “wolf” who “attacks the flock and scatters it.”

Example 12:
“Touch not the Lord’s anointed.” A phrase often quoted with the understanding that laypersons within a church have no right to question the behavior, conduct, or decisions of ministers.

Key Scriptures:
1 Chronicles 16:22a
19 When they were but few in number,
few indeed, and strangers in it,
20 they wandered from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another.
21 He allowed no man to oppress them;
for their sake he rebuked kings:
22 “Do not touch my anointed ones;
do my prophets no harm.”
23 Sing to the LORD, all the earth;
proclaim his salvation day after day.

This passage is a psalm of thanks that David dedicated to a few of the Levite priests after they moved the Ark to one of David’s tents, and after the priests ministered to the Lord. Verse 22 in David’s psalm is a statement by God to the people of the world regarding His chosen people, Israel, and to His prophets.

1 Samuel 24:6
1 After Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines, he was told, “David is in the Desert of En Gedi.” 2 So Saul took three thousand chosen men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats.

3 He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave. 4 The men said, “This is the day the LORD spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’ ” Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe.

5 Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. 6 He said to his men, “The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the LORD’s anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the LORD.” 7 With these words David rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul. And Saul left the cave and went his way.

1 Samuel 24 (and also chapter 26) does not teach that it is wrong to question the behavior, conduct, or decisions of people who profess to be ministers yet act contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures. Instead, they show that it is wrong to physically harm or have the intent to harm somebody anointed of the Lord

Example 13:
This is the banner verse of the Universalist Church, which believes that everyone will go to heaven and that there is no hell.

Key Scripture:
1 Peter 3:18
13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

This passage, although packed with the truth of what Jesus did for us, is not a statement declaring that everyone will go to heaven and that there is no hell. In fact, within context it is a statement meant to encourage believers when they suffer for doing good in the name of Jesus.


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