Monday, May 16, 2022

Anonymous Asks (197)

“How do I know which of God’s promises are for me?”

Our question today recognizes something my father more than once pointed out to his children: that the old Sunday School song is wrong. “Every promise in the book” is not mine. Some of them belong to other people. When we try to apply them to our own experience, we do so without legitimate biblical authority, and may find ourselves disappointed when our expectations are not met.

That may seem a little unsettling to a new Christian seeking comfort in his Bible, but it is an important lesson to learn. And truly, distinguishing a promise for me from a promise for someone else is easier than it might initially appear once we establish some guiding principles.

The most important governing principle for claiming a promise is context.

Local Context

Sometimes we can determine who a promise belongs to from the verses immediately before and after it. I call this local context. So when we come to a famous promise like “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”, the responsible reader backs up a little and looks around at the rest of the passage in which we find it. Who is the promise for? A quick read shows us it was made to individuals who loved Jesus Christ but were stuck in an undiscerning, ineffective, fruitless church on the brink of judgment. To those who loved him and heard his voice, the risen Christ says, “Let me in.” The prospect of fellowship with God is open even in the worst of circumstances to those who will receive him. The local context tells us this.

That’s a wonderful promise, and of course it does not mean that lone Christians in decrepit congregations are the only people with whom the Lord Jesus is interested in having fellowship. It just means that the proof of that is to be found elsewhere in scripture. But can we claim such a promise today if we too love the Lord and hear his voice, and if our circumstances are similar to Christians in Laodicea? I certainly think we may.

Another famous example: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Once again, the promise needs to be understood in context. What is Paul talking about in Philippians 4? Well, it turns out he is writing about learning the lesson of being content in every possible situation, whether in poverty or riches, hunger or times of plenty. The promise he feels comfortable asserting is that Christ will supply the mental and emotional needs of his servants as they serve him, equipping them to deal with the most difficult situation.

But the contentment Paul describes is specifically for those who are putting the kingdom of God first. The ability to “do all things” is not some blanket assurance that God will bless everything every Christian decides to get involved in. It is not a promise to help believers win track meets, spelling bees or the Superbowl, though it is often used that way.

Christians on losing Superbowl teams may find themselves a little disappointed if they don’t learn to respect local context.

Broader Context

Local context is comparatively easy. Learning to be aware of the broader context in which some promises fall takes a little Christian maturity and increasing familiarity with the Bible as a whole, but in the meantime there are usually others we may ask when we have questions about which verses truly apply to us. Here is another, more difficult example: “None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days.”

What are we to think of that? If we were to apply it to Christians, we would start to think we are cursed. Many Christian women I know have had at least one miscarriage, and some have had several. As for barrenness, Christian couples often adopt because they are unable to have children of their own. If this promise were really intended for believing women in the present era, we have to concede that there must be some unexplained reason why they are not experiencing the blessings God promised ... and the most logical conclusion is probably not that they are all evil pretenders!

The answer is found in the broader context of our quote from Exodus 23. This promise is part of the Law of Moses, a package of rules given to God’s earthly people Israel to govern their conduct in the Promised Land several thousand years ago. It is a promise applicable only to a specific nation and a specific time in history, and on top of that, this particular promise is conditional, in that it only applied if Israel would continue to “serve the Lord your God”.

The broader context would tell you this, which is why it is important to learn to read whole passages and books rather than simply Googling a verse on a particular subject, a practice which will often lead to wholly inappropriate conclusions.

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