HomeOpinionDooley Noted: Reading the Bible in context

Dooley Noted: Reading the Bible in context

I once saw these familiar words taped above a weight bench in an athletic facility. Their Scriptural address later appeared on the eye black of a famous athlete set to play in a major SEC showdown. Another time I heard the same verse recited right after a friend shared an ambitious dream for his future. Chances are you’ve heard it, too. Maybe the declaration came from a buddy trying to run a sub eight-minute mile for the first time. Or perhaps an optimistic student echoed the same refrain while studying for a big test. Could it be that an eager coworker uttered this statement while anticipating her big promotion? Whoever it is and wherever it surfaces, this ancient message is often used as an announcement to claim success and prosperity for the road ahead.

What expression am I referring to? I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13). Admittedly, I am always grateful when people read the Bible and are bold enough to share it with others. Ironically, though, I fear that we often communicate the opposite of what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote these words 2000 years ago. His point was NOT that we can do ANYTHING we want with God’s help. To the contrary, the inference of these words is that we can endure everything that the Lord calls us to endure for His name’s sake, whether it be good or bad. This verse of Scripture is a lesson on the power of contentment in our lives when we DO NOT get our way. The message is not about extraordinary feats, but about enduring faith instead.

We need to look no further than the surrounding context of the proclamation to appreciate the correct implication. In the preceding verse Paul contrasts two extremes of living that equally require contentment (Phil. 4:12). He says (I’m paraphrasing),

  • I can live with little or great prosperity.
  • I know how to handle a bountiful table or an empty cupboard.
  • I can accept having plenty or suffering because of my need.

Now, feel the powerful force of the inspired phrase that we love to quote again: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Did you catch it? Christ will strengthen you to be content during seasons of difficulty or great blessing. Our trials will not do us in as long as our Savior gives us power to endure. Our blessings will not make us haughty as long as Jesus conditions us to be grateful. In both instances, the strength of Christ helps navigate whatever we face. His presence is the key to facing all circumstances victoriously, whether we would choose them or not (Phil. 4:11).

My point here is less about the correct interpretation of a single verse, though, and more about the importance of the reading the Bible in its proper context to avoid erroneous conclusions. Every student of Scripture faces the temptation of cherry-picking verses or phrases from holy writ in order to affirm what we already believe rather than allowing the text to shape how we see the world. Remember, every text of Scripture has meaning communicated and defined by its original authors that we are not free to alter. Do the hard work of following sound hermeneutical guidelines (rules of interpretation) in order to avoid mistakes.

Careful exegesis (understanding and explanation) requires that we identify the genre of every Bible passage and follow the principles for understanding its contents. For instance, we read poetry much differently than historical books. Consider the difference between reading an instructional manual and a love letter for a modern example. Next, we should understand the historical world behind every text. Before reading any Scripture, take time to ask who it was written to and what the immediate application was. Though the implications for the modern church may differ slightly from what first century believers understood, the scope of application is always tied to the Bible’s unchanging meaning.

Understand that not every promise given to Israel applies to believers today. Likewise, because Jesus fulfilled the Law (Matt. 5:17-18), along with the distinction between Israel and the church, many of the previous restrictions codified in the Old Testament Law are no longer binding. Tragically, many often attempt to undermine the Bible’s clear ethical imperatives by ripping Israel’s civil rules out of context in order to imply that Christians simply ignore them now. So, if you enjoy shellfish or bacon and have cotton in your clothes, you have no right to quote any moral command people don’t like! Shallow arguments like these reveal more about the Bible’s critics than Scripture itself, but they also remind us that historical and redemptive context matters.

Finally, look carefully at the entire chapter that surrounds your chosen verse before settling on its meaning. Consider the arguments of the Bible book in which it appears. Ask if what you’re reading is under the Old Mosaic Covenant or the New Grace Covenant. Consider whether your understanding contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture elsewhere. These are, without question, difficult concepts to master, but doing so protects us from using the Bible to make arguments that God never made.

Dr Adam B. Dooley is pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson, TN, and author of Hope When Life Unravels. Contact him at adooley@ebcjackson.org. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBDooley.

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