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0160 — Context? Context? What is Context?

How can something be “out of context?” Or, how can something said (or written) be taken “out of context?” More particularly, is all scripture always “in context,” or can scripture be taken “out of context” too, i.e., does it sometimes NOT say what it SEEMS to say?

One of my sons has been writing a series of articles on this very thing. I don’t know how many more examples he has before he considers himself finished, but he’s written several already and they are really good. (“I can do all things through Christ,” “I know the plans I have for you,” and others) So I’d like to share them with you here.



Introduction – “Out Of Context

Have you ever come in on the middle of a conversation? After listening for a little while, did you realize that it was a conversation you should have heard from the beginning to really understand what was going on? It can be frustrating to those who have already been listening from the beginning for you to plead, “Wait, start over from the beginning.” Of course, this can often be an embarrassing request, as necessary as it is. Imagine walking into a class in the middle of a history lecture about World War II, you would miss entire portions of the motives and incentives of each country to go to war or the events that spurred the USA to get involved; all of these things are as important as everything that happens in the middle. In fact, they give a framework for understanding what is going on. Imagine that you walk into an important board-room meeting at work and missed the first 45 minutes that explain the complex situation surrounding a decision that needs to be made. Before you cast your vote, wouldn’t you want to know what the situation is? When people neglect due diligence in such matters, things get taken completely out of context. I was watching The Stephen Colbert Report (a political comedy show) in which the host used short excerpts from news articles about Paul Ryan’s GOP convention speech stating that it was, “misleading”, “breathtakingly dishonest”, and was a “world record for the greatest number of blatant lies.” And used pieces of those words and phrases to say it was “Breathtaking.” And that he would be the “greatest at leading the world.” “In a word, he ‘shone’.” It’s easy to take things out of context to back up our own biases. Have you ever seen this done with scripture? You can take scriptures out of context to say things that would be outright false if you don’t take the context into careful consideration. I’ve seen this done with many different topics, seldom with malicious intent, but typically this is done without considering important perspectives that might change how you view particular passages. Hopefully there will be more on this in weeks to come.

Grace and Peace~




Out of Context 1: “Work Out Your Own Salvation…

 “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling…” As promised, I want to bring before our attention a few scriptures in the weeks to come that tend to get taken out of context and thus misused. If a verse I present happens to be one of your favorites and you struggle greatly because I happen to disagree with your interpretation, know that is not my intent. And secondly, do please talk to me that we may each have a better understanding. Regardless, it’s important we recognize that the whole of scripture is a story, and it is easy to take things out of context which seemingly disagree with the heart of the gospel. Up to bat first, from one of my favorite books, Philippians 2:12 (quoted above). This verse is often misunderstood. People read this and take it to mean that they are responsible themselves for doing things which will EARN their salvation from God on the principle of the well-known saying, “God helps those who help themselves” (which, of course, is not from the Bible). That sentiment is completely out of line with what Paul says anywhere else. Read the next verse: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.” It is GOD’S work from beginning to end. What Paul is telling this group of Christians living in Philippi is that they need to seriously figure out what this whole “being saved” business looks like IN PRACTICE. The phrase “your own salvation” isn’t a contrast between any work of ours and the work of God; rather, Paul is telling them to be seriously diligent in determining the kind of lifestyle they ought to live in view of God’s gracious gift, ESPECIALLY now that they no longer have their mentor and teacher living among them. And he tells them to do this WITHOUT GRUMBLING or COMPLAINING (vs 14), unlike the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness. This is not about earning salvation with fear, it’s about being serious about what a saved individual’s life ought to look like in his respective time and place; working OUT our salvation, not FOR it.

Grace and Peace~



Out of Context 2:  “Where Two or Three Are Gathered…”

Have you ever been to a wedding or to a prayer meeting or some sort of gathering when someone recited Jesus’ words, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:20)? But is God present when 4 or more are gathered? Certainly, He is! Does this verse mean that God is NOT present with one isolated individual? Of course, not! One of our basic beliefs about God is that He is omnipresent (present, everywhere). Remember David’s words in Psalm 139? “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. IF I rise on the wings of dawn, if I settle by the sea, even there your hand will guide me…” And, of course, we learn in the New Testament that the Holy Spirit (fully God, Himself, just like Jesus) dwells WITHIN those who are immersed into the name of Jesus. Matthew 18:20 is one verse that often gets taken out of context, and usually it’s not of too much consequence, but it is important for us to recognize why Jesus said that. He wasn’t talking about prayer. Nor was he talking about worship or potlucks or any particular function of gathering. In this passage, Jesus is talking about addressing sin, and he tells us to do it in steps. Step 1: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault, JUST between the two of you.”(18:15) Such matters should first be kept very privately. If he/she doesn’t listen, go to Step 2: “Take one or two others along.” (18:16) ONLY when step 1 AND 2 don’t work, we go to Step 3: “Tell it to the church, and if he refuses to listen, treat him as you would a pagan…” Here then, is the widest circle of accountability, and our opportunity to show love and grace at a brother or sister’s repentance (see Luke 15), if in fact they do. 18:20 shows that God honors decisions that are made about such matters when we go about them in the way He instructs. May you recognize the power of the presence of God within and around you, wherever you are!

Grace and Peace~


Out of Context 3:  “I know the plans I have in mind for you…” 

I can’t think of many verses that are misused more often than this very popular Old Testament passage. Most of you know it by heart. I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come to me and pray to me, I will listen to you.” (Jeremiah 29:11-12 CEB)

Many people read this verse and memorize it because of this beautiful promise from God, but take it in a very individual way, as if God is somehow endorsing the American Dream of prosperity, peace, health, and maybe even riches. To suggest that this verse is a promise from God to you to that one day you will have your dream job, go to the college you’ve always dreamed of, retire early and buy a Ferrari (or ANY car for that matter), is to hold God captive to something he never said. The word is you PLURAL; he was talking to an entire nation. In fact, it would be more appropriate to read it as “y’all”, seeing as “you” can mean singular or plural. Read the preceding verse: “The Lord proclaims, when Babylon’s seventy years are up, I will come and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.” (verse 10)  Read verse 14 also: “I will be present for you, declares the Lord, and I will end your captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the Lord.” (vs 14)

Jeremiah was God’s prophet chosen to bring his judgment before the entire nation, proclaiming that because they turned from God, gave themselves to foreign idols and did not keep their purity, God would send them into a 70 year righteous, fatherly sort of “time-out.” In fact, only a REMNANT of the people alive at the time they heard God’s promise through Jeremiah would still even be alive to see that promise fulfilled! Nevertheless, God would once again purify His people, and rather than abandon His children forever, show them His mercy and goodness.

Yes, God wants the best for you. But is your definition of “what’s best” and your timetable exactly what God has in mind? God-made-flesh said, “whoever would LOSE his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25). Perhaps if you would demand God’s material blessings on you, and use this verse to substantiate that, maybe you should be willing to go through 70 years of slavery first? Even still, slaves of GOD, those who would seek after Him, will receive the crown of life.



Out of Context 4: “In the Name of Jesus”


Are you a fan of medieval movies? There are several that I like. You know how in those movies a knight, or sheriff or some type of official will make a demand preceded by the phrase “IN THE NAME OF THE KING!” This phrase meant that whatever rule was being enforced by that person held the same authority as if the King himself were to make the demand. Another way of putting that phrase would be “In the INTEREST of the King.” If I ruled some small island and a representative of mine were to say, “In the name of King Bradley,” (hmm, has a nice ring to it) “I demand that Blue Bell ice cream be eaten after every single meal!” well, that would mean that my authority is behind that law, and also that the law would somehow benefit my kingdom.

After our prayers, we make a habit of saying, “in The Name of Jesus, Amen.” Do you know why we say this? Here’s one reason, John 14:13-14 says “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”

Does this mean that we are obligated to SAY “in the name of Jesus?” Certainly, there is power in the name of our Lord. Consider the other contexts in which the name of Jesus was used: Jesus said to welcome children in His Name, and in doing so we welcome Jesus, Himself (Matt 18:5). We are to assemble for church judicial action “in His name” (18:20). Miracles were done and cups of water were given in His Name (Mark 9:39, 41). The Holy Spirit is sent in His Name (John 14:26). Is there a problem with saying “In Jesus’ Name” at the end of a prayer? No, in fact I encourage it. However, if I ask to get rich, or to get a good grade on a test, or for other selfish things, am I asking that for my own sake or for the sake of Jesus in the sole interest of expanding His Kingdom?

To pray “in The Name of Jesus” means to pray for things that are consistent with who Christ is, what He taught, and all He stands for. May you LIVE in The Name of Jesus!

Grace and Peace~


Out of Context 5: “All things work together for good…”


If God is good, why do bad things happen? To be sure, many Christians don’t know how to handle their faith when tragic things occur or how to explain to others why such things happen. In fact, in light of the experience of most of our lives, verses like Romans 8:28 often tend to just confuse us: “And we know that for all those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.”

When we read “all things work together for good,” what does that mean? Does it mean that regardless of what, everything is going to be fine? When we’re told she doesn’t have much longer to live because of the disease, do we believe all things work together for good? When your employer says they do not intend to pay you any longer, do you believe all things work together for good? When your spouse of 16 years says they no longer want to be married to you, do all things still work together for good? Romans 8:28 is hard to believe in these times.

Let’s look at what Paul is actually saying in context. First of all, “all things work together for good” for who? For those who love God and are called according to His purpose! This is a promise for Christians, not for every individual on the planet. The more pressing issue, however, is what “for good” means. What is “good”? How do you define it? Financial security? Health? Happiness? Good grades? If God’s definition of “good” were those things, it would seem that Romans 8:28 is a lie, seeing as so much of life is still full of tragedy. So what’s the ultimate good Paul is talking about? Read the next verse: “For those he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His son.” We need to let go of our modern, “1st World” definition of what is “good”, and adopt a theological definition. “Good” = Christ-likeness. God’s own Son wasn’t spared pain and tragedy, but God planned something incredible from it.

Regardless of what happens in your life, God is at work. “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion (Philippians 1:6). The “good work” is God molding us to be more like the Son through suffering and death (Phil 3:10) and ultimately be transformed in both body and spirit.

Grace and Peace~



Out of Context 6: “Firstborn of All Creation”


About a year and a half ago, when we lived off North Main street, I got a knock on my door (…on my day off, the nerve, right!?) A very polite, older lady greeted me with a gentle handshake and asked if she could share a scripture with me. Why would I refuse? She opened her Bible to Colossians 1:15 and, making sure I could see the text myself, read, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” As soon as she said the said the reference, I knew immediately where she was going on what she was about to say. After reading the verse, she proclaimed that since Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation”, that he was the first created being by God, and hence, not God Himself.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, she was a representative of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but that is not the only group that has subscribed to that heresy over the years. Paul had to battle the Gnostic heresy in many of his writings. The Gnostics believe that created/material things are inherently bad, and that the goal of man would be to escape everything that is material, despite the fact that God called ALL of His creation “good”.  Regardless, Gnostics taught that Jesus only APPEARED to be human, but was in fact more of a spirit or angel, which certainly goes against the New Testament, teaching us that Jesus was both fully God AND fully human (John 1:14, 18).

 The Jehovah’s Witnesses suggest that Jesus was actually the archangel Michael, possibly the first created angel, and not God Himself. However, let’s examine the passage: First of all, “firstborn” did not always denote a chronological meaning. David was proclaimed to be God’s firstborn (Psalm 89:27) yet we know he was the youngest of his family. Israel was proclaimed to be God’s “firstborn,” (Exodus 4:22) even though many generations came before Abraham and Jacob (Israel). Let’s examine further that this very verse says, “He is THE image”- not “created in the image of” as we are, but the actual image of the invisible God (Hebrews 1:3- “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being”). Now read the next 2 verses. Basically: By Him (Jesus) everything was created, seen or not seen. Everything was created through and for Him, and He is BEFORE ALL THINGS.” The Watchtower’s (JW’s) bible reads “all [other] things were created” multiple times, to suggest Jesus was created; “other” is simply not in the Greek text. John 1:3 says “without Him, nothing was made that has been made.”

Jesus was human. Jesus was God. Jesus IS God.

Grace and Peace~


Out of Context 7: No More Than You Can Handle?


Last week I brought to our attention the fact that many people’s lives can become very difficult, exhausting, grating, demanding, etc. This makes us feel weak, abused, anxious and worrisome, frustrated, sad, etc. In an attempt to bring some relief into the situation, people often offer this phrase: “God will not give you more than you can handle.” Tell that to the apostle Paul, who experienced beatings, hunger, slander, sleepless nights, imprisonment, being stoned, etc. Sometimes he experienced all of the above in a very short period of time! In fact, at one particular point he wished he were dead, being “burdened beyond our strength… despairing of life itself”! (2 Corinthians 1:8)

Sorry, the cliché phrase that “God will not give us more than we can handle” is just plain wrong. He WILL often give us more than we can handle. Why? Read the next verse. 2 Corinthians 1:9- “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But this happened so that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” Jesus said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” in John 15:5. People mean well when they say that phrase, but where does it come from? I think it’s a common distortion of 1 Corinthians 10:13- “God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so you can endure it.” This promise is not that we would never feel physically, emotionally, or even psychologically burdened beyond what we can bear. Rather, it has very little to do with your health, your wealth, or your own competency; God will ALWAYS provide a way out of TEMPTATION, but not necessarily out of persecution, hardship, hunger, etc. Of course, seasons of plenty are from God, but followers of Jesus Christ aren’t promised health and wealth in this life. Praise God when you have it, and praise God when you don’t. And of course, when you are pressured to sin, remember that God always provides a way NOT to sin; “he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18)


Out of Context 8: If My people…


I have a typically positive response to the “Prayer – America’s Only Hope” graphic. I do believe it is important to pray for our country. However, I also believe it is important to pray for EVERY country (as uncomfortable as it might make us to pray for China or North Korea or Afghanistan). My only problem with the picture above (and there are HUNDREDS of similar posters and bumper stickers), is the scripture reference it invokes.

I recognize this might be a sensitive topic and verse to bring up during post-election season, but perhaps that is exactly what makes it relevant. In this next installment of verses taken out of context, remind yourself once again that to interpret Scripture well, we must consider both literary and historical context. Most of the landscape we are confronted with in Scripture has to do with ancient civilizations, where language, lifestyle, government, and values were all very different from time to time and according to geographical location. A great deal of Old Testament scriptures can be abused when we don’t take this into account.

With that said, let’s take a look at 2 Chronicles 7:14- the “I will hear their land” passage. Is this verse true? Yes. Does God require humility? Repentance? Prayer? Of course! On the surface it seems to be a great verse to use for believers who expect blessings to fall on their country (“output”) given the correct actions on their part (“input”).

Let’s look at context. King Solomon has assumed the throne; he has been in the middle of building the great temple, an incredible offering to God. In the dedication of the temple, he delivers a powerful speech to Israel, in a way, dedicating Israel to God. He prays that God would forgive them if they ever rebel, be merciful in judgment, and bless them in several other ways. It is a beautiful prayer that you can read in 2 Chronicles chapter 6. God hears his prayer and consumes the sacrifices in a magnificent, affirming way. Then God appears to Solomon some time later and says this: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut out the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sins and heal their land.”- 2 Chron 7:12-14 ESV.

Consider a few things here: First of all, the Lord is talking directly to Solomon, the King of God’s people, Israel. The “place” God is referring to is the temple itself, the “house of sacrifice.” This particular promise that the Lord gave was to that king, for that people, at that time, and in that place. It wasn’t meant to be a general promise for all nations, for no other NATION could/can claim to be “God’s people.” Furthermore, God promised a healing of physical land, meaning we can’t hijack the verse and use it as a promise of spiritual revival for America or wherever Christians reside; that would misuse the verse. STILL, it would be an act of DISOBEDIENCE for us not to pray for our leaders (1st Timothy 2:1-4). He is pleased when we pray, for ourselves, for others, the Church, our leaders, and yes, our country.

But our foremost concern as followers of Christ is not for our earthly citizenship, but our HEAVENLY one. No “greatest” nation in history lasted forever, but the Kingdom of GOD will!


Grace and Peace~


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