Why You Should Read Verses in Their Context

This month, I’ll be writing about commonly misapplied and misunderstood parts of scripture. Because all 66 books of the Bible are the inspired word of God, we are to take seriously the work of reading, interpreting and applying them. This is not a thing to be lazy with. There are some stories and verses in particular that are frequently misunderstood within church culture. So each week this month, I’ll be re-examining some of them. I won’t be doing any serious scholarship on these passages. Instead, I’ll examine the passage in a way that anyone could using skills gained in high school literature class.

It’s Not About Sports

This first passage is short enough to show up on t-shirts. Lots and lots of t-shirts. Mostly shirts from sports teams. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13. Sure when you read only that verse, it sounds like a great encouragement for your workout or upcoming game. Its about strength after all. But in context, the verse is about something very different.

In his letter to the church at Philippi, during his closing thoughts Paul is thanking the church for helping him financially, grateful that they have “shared in his troubles”. At the same time, he is trying to comfort them about his state of need by telling them that he has learned to be content in whatever situation he is in.

“I know how to  be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

When Paul says he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him, he means he can be joyful in Christ whatever the circumstances of the moment, whether in physical comfort that could dull his soul to the beauty of Christ or in life threatening circumstances that could make him doubt in the goodness of God.

Paul was writing this while imprisoned in Rome where he was awaiting trial to determine whether or not he was executed by the oppressive Roman government. And he was not just surviving. While in prison he was actively engaged in ministry to those who visited him and was encouraging the believers. He was in uncertain and precarious circumstances, and the letter of Philippians overflows with deep joy in Christ. This is the same letter in which Paul says, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.”

Phillipians 4:13 is not about weightlifting or winning the game. It’s about trusting in God and delighting in him whatever our circumstances.

It’s About God

Speaking of trusting God. This next verse has been butchered and plastered onto coffee mugs and inspirational mouse pads for as long as I can remember. “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10. Why do I say butchered?

Well, did you know there’s another two lines to the verse?

“Be still and know that I am God.

I will be exalted in the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth!” Psalm 46:10 (Actually all of the verse.)

Taken in the larger context of the the (rather short) Psalm we see that the author’s command to “be still” comes at the end of a song about the glory and might of God being known among the nations despite widespread disaster and suffering. In verses 8 -9 he calls people to “come, behold the works of the Lord”. The command to be still is a call to trust that God will be made known to the whole world even though it seems impossible.

The Psalmist cared far more about the glory of God than about his own suffering.

Sounds a lot like Paul.

Each of these verses are commonly removed from their context and therefore broadly misunderstood. The Holy Scriptures are not quotes to be cherry picked, but the very word of God written down that we may know him. We a have deep responsibility to interpret the Bible the best we are able to do. In order to do that well, we need to start by treating the text with respect and reading it in it’s full context.

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