Thursday, May 13, 2021

Untwisting God’s Words

Tertius once told me about something that happened to him many years ago, when he was a young Christian. He had started to study the Bible with a friend who had a particular mainline church denominational background.

One day he received an angry letter from his friend’s priest, who was upset about the idea that two lay people were attempting to read and understand the word of God without his “professional” help.

“No prophecy of scripture is of any private interpretation,” declared the priest, quoting part of 2 Peter 1:20. From this, he expected Tertius to see that it was just wrong for a person not approved and trained by church authorities to dare to read and understand for himself.

In point of fact, the priest had that verse dead wrong. It actually means the opposite of what he was using it for. If you look at the passage around it, you see that it actually means, “Read the scripture for yourself; but when you do, listen to what it says, not what you personally (or privately) want to make it mean. The prophets said what the prophets meant; so listen to them, and not your own ideas.”

The priest had actually invented a “private” interpretation by paying insufficient attention to the surrounding words. He was also paying more attention to his church’s dogma than to the explicit word of scripture. And because of that, he was twisting the meaning and actually discouraging people from reading and seeking out the mind of God.

He may have quoted a verse, but whose side was he really on?

Surveying the Context

Just a couple of days ago, I was talking to Tom about understanding the Bible. He was saying how important he thinks it is for us to consider context. His example was the Sermon on the Mount. It matters a great deal that the Lord was speaking to particular people, at a particular time. When we forget that, we create needless controversies and confusions over what Christ was saying.

Somebody once said to me, “A text without context is a pretext.” That’s cute, but it’s got a point. There are few verses one can understand from scripture when all you have is the one verse. There are a few. But for most verses, a lot is illuminated when we consider when, why and to whom the speaker of this or that quotation was speaking.

An Illustration

Think it can’t matter much? Consider the following example. Let’s say I have a friend named Bill. One day, Bill says the following:

“Women are not the equals of men. Anybody who fails to admit this is being an idiot.”

What do you think of Bill?

Hold on, though: Before you make up your mind, let me give you more context:

Bill is a member of the International Olympic Committee governing board. He told me about a conversation he had with another board member. The man said, “Women are gaining equality in every area of life now. It’s old-fashioned and bigoted to have special women’s divisions in international sports. From now on, we should just have everyone compete head-to-head.”

“That’s crazy,” Bill responded. “The fastest women’s time ever in the 100 meters is 10.49 seconds. The slowest man in the last Olympics came in at 10.06 seconds. And the weightlifting record for men is 477 kilograms, but only 348 for the very strongest woman. If we do what you say, there will be NO women in sports.”

“Don’t be so sexist,” the man shot back. “Women’s sports are a dated idea. It’s time the Olympics got past that. If women want to compete, let them step up and compete with men.”

It was in that context that Bill said, “Women are not the equals of men. Anybody who fails to admit this is being an idiot.”

Or let’s suppose that was not the context. Let me give you another:

Bill is the administrator in an adoption agency. He is discussing with a co-worker what makes a couple most suitable as adoptive parents.

His co-worker says, “Gay couples should be regarded as equal with heterosexual applicants. So long as there’s two people in play, what does it matter what gender they are?”

Bill responded, “Children come in two genders: and children who do not have a parent of their own gender — to say nothing of the opposite gender to which they must learn to relate — are at a developmental disadvantage. Every child is better off with both a mother and a father.”

“Rubbish,” said his colleague. “Kids don’t need a mother, so long as someone ‘mothers’ them; and a man can be every bit as good at ‘mothering’ as a woman can.”

Bill shook his head; and in that context, he said, “Women are not the equals of men. Anybody who fails to admit this is being an idiot.”

So now, was Bill being a “sexist”? Or was he defending women? Or was he contending for the best interests of orphans? The context in which Bill’s words were actually said makes a huge difference.

Keeping Things in Their Place

So now, let’s take that out to our thinking about the Bible.

First, there’s something you need to know about our chapter and verse divisions, as we find them in our Bibles today. They are artificial. That’s right: they are not actually in the original text. The numbering was a system worked out much later than the initial writing, in the 13th to 15th centuries, to make it easier for readers to find particular sections of thought. But they are no part of the original inspired work. In fact, there are plenty of cases in which chapter and verse divisions are utterly unhelpful, and actually break up the meaning of the text (see John 13-14 and Ephesians 1-2, for example).

What this means is that if somebody memorizes only a verse or even a chapter, and that’s all he or she knows, it may well be the case that he or she has only part of the truth … that is, unless he or she is also conscious of the context around that verse. And that makes is possible for a person to quote a verse word-for-word, and yet still use it inaccurately. (You’ll hear this done often if you ever open your door to the door-knocking cultists who wander our neighborhoods on the weekend.)

Memorization and recitation are great. But without context, they can go wrong quite easily. As Christians, we must be conscious of our duty not to try to use scripture to sponsor some idea we have, or some idea somebody else has told us, but rather to submit ourselves to its internal logic, in order to discern the mind and intentions of God. As Dr. David Gooding has concisely put it, “When one is reading Scripture, the most important consideration is thought-flow” (emphasis his). To “flow” along with the “thought” pattern God has laid down for us is what we are trying to do. And that means reading sentences, phrases and paragraphs in their context, not ripping them out of their place and trying to make them say something they do not.

I’m not putting down memorization. I’m not saying it’s bad to quote verses. I’m saying it’s not enough to do that if one has no sense of the context into which the verses have been set by God. We want to know and quote scripture HIS way, not our own.

Fair enough?

Types of Context

Now on we go.

There are different kinds of context, for example:

Structural Context — every phrase is in a verse. Every verse is in a paragraph. Every paragraph is in a chapter. Every chapter is in a book. Every book is in the Bible. To understand properly, we need to ask not just what does this phrase say, but what does its verse, paragraph, chapter, book and the rest of scripture say about this subject. When we know that, we have the whole picture.

Narrative Context — Everything said in scripture is said first to a particular audience, in a particular place and time, in a particular situation and for a particular purpose. To understand the whole story, one has to be aware of those pieces as well.

Theological Context — The mind of God is coherent, and his revelation is consistent. When we interpret a verse, we must not go against the flow of the whole pattern of thought God has laid out in scripture. So if we find a single verse or idea that seems radically unlike the rest of the teaching of scripture on the matter, the chances are awfully good we’ve misread something. God does not contradict himself, and we need to keep that in mind as we read.

Context Made Easy

All this may sound like too much to think about. But it’s easy if we keep three simple things in mind:

  • Firstly, as I have said already, we’re looking for the mind of God, not proof for our own ideas.
  • Secondly, we need to be reading the whole Bible on a regular basis, not just grabbing bits. That means having a daily reading habit. If we do that, a sense of context will come to us very naturally.
  • Thirdly, we need to ask ourselves this very basic and helpful question: “How would the listeners at the time at which this passage was first written or spoken have understood what’s being said?” If we start with that question, it will help us to limit our own interpretation of the verse to the reasonable and the intended.

This third thing does not mean that we are cut off from thinking about any scripture applications that go beyond their historical situation. Far from it. But it means that when we make an application it will be one that is actually warranted by the text, not just pulled out of our heads or imagined from our own situation. And to bow to the wisdom of the text as God has given it to us is our basic purpose.

In Short

The basic idea is very simple: if you want to know what someone means, read everything he or she said. Put all the statements in their place. Respect what the speaker meant. Don’t jump quickly to applying what the person said to new situations, unless you have good reason to believe that’s what was actually meant.

And behind all this is an attitude. It’s an attitude of respect. God’s word is more important than mine. His thoughts are better than mine. What he intends is what matters; what I want to think is far less important. Once we make the shift to that way of thinking, we’re really reading the Bible in faith. And faith is the basis of getting any wisdom at all.


Getting meaning out of what we are reading can sometimes feel like untwisting a complicated knot. But it’s really not that hard, if we understand context. Pretty quickly, our confidence and accuracy will increase, if only we remember that the scriptures are not matters of our private interpretations, but rather a communication of the mind of God.

By keeping each verse untwisted and in its place, we find that the Lord will straighten us out, and lead us into ours.

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