Somewhere Greg Koukl is smiling . . .

Never read a Bible verse is one of the simplest and most important Bible study lessons you’ll ever get.  Always read what surrounds the text to ensure you understand the context of it.  I expanded on that theme in a class I taught to high school students a couple months ago.  One challenge with that age group they are hard to read.  They sit there politely, but often it is hard to tell if they are really engaged.

But I got some nice news today: One of the students loved the lesson and shared it with her mom.  Her mom got a lot out of it and shared it with someone at Care Net Pregnancy Center, who may use it there.  So the benefits of this lesson spread out quickly and effectively without me knowing about it until today.  Sometimes you just have to trust the process.  Sow the seed generously and let God make it grow where He likes.

I also picked up a new thought on the importance of reading in context.  I had already noted in the lesson below how often Jeremiah 29:11 is misused.  But in talking to the Care Net volunteer today I realized another problem with it that I added:

Also, deep down people know that is a false promise.  Try telling that to someone who has seen nothing but misery in the lives of those around her.  How can she believe in a God like that?

If you haven’t checked out the web site, blog or Podcast of Stand to Reason I highly encourage it.  It is the best organization I know for clear thinking Christianity.

Here is my outline from the class.

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How to read in context: Don’t just read a Bible verse (a great slogan and lesson from Stand to Reason – http://www.str.org).  Always read at least a paragraph, and preferably a section or a chapter.  Looking at what came before and after will help ensure you are getting the right meaning.

A simple and effective way to read the Bible
  • Read it – 1-3 chapters (less for doctrine, more for history)
  • Question it
    • What portion stands out to me?  Why?
    • Is there an example for me to follow?
    • Is there an error for me to avoid?
    • Is there a duty for me to perform?
    • Is there a promise for me to claim?
    • Is there a sin for me to confess?
    • What does it not mean?  (If a difficult passage says the opposite of other more clear teachings, you know what it can’t mean)
    • Plan it – make a plan for how you will use it
    • Pray it – pray scripture back to God
    • Share it – helps others, and helps us to remember it

We should read it in the way the authors intended it, depending on the context and type of writing.

  • When was it written?
  • Who was it written by / to?
  • Type of writing
    • History
    • Metaphor / illustrations / parables
    • Doctrine
    • Poetry
    • Figures of speech – i.e., exaggerations

Important points about reading in context

  • We don’t like to admit we’ve made mistakes, so we hold onto bad interpretations
    • Solution: Swallow your pride, get it right and remember to read in context next time.  For the record, I have misused every verse in this lesson.  Some mistakes are more serious than others.
    • We have all been guilty of reading out of context.  Our choice is to dig in our heels and continue to use it incorrectly or humbly accept and use the correct teaching.  2 Timothy 2:15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
    • God can forgive this error just like He delights to forgive everything else done by those who trust in Jesus.
    • Fear of getting it wrong
      • Reading in context isn’t that hard to do!  Don’t be afraid of misinterpreting – just read surrounding passages and study notes.
      • We have an important point we want to make and we can’t use that verse for it any more
        • Find another passage to prove the point you wanted to make.
        • If you can’t find another verse to support it, maybe your point isn’t valid or particularly important.
        • Once you get it right, don’t be smug about it.  You’ll need to bite your tongue a lot and only correct people inappropriate settings and ways (e.g., Bible studies, one-on-one, etc.).
        • Great news: Even though you may have misunderstood the meaning, it still has a meaning – and it may be better than the one you thought it had!

Sample passages – the part in bold is what is frequently used out of context.  Note how just reading a couple surrounding verses shows the real meaning.

 Even one of the most famous verses ever gets misused.  Not everyone goes to Heaven – only those who trust in Jesus.

John 3:16-18 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

Philippians 4:13 is one of the most commonly misused passages.  It isn’t about achieving great sporting victories or leaping tall buildings.

 Philippians 4:12-13 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

 You only have to go back ½ of one verse to get the context.  Paul has a secret!  A secret about what?  A secret about how to be content in every situation.  It is a great message – actually, much better than the typical application.

And another very commonly misused verse is Jeremiah 29:11.  I see this abused on a regular basis in sermons, on t-shirts, signs, etc.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4, 10-11 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon . . .
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon . . .  This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

 There is actually a great message in Jeremiah 29:11: God makes huge promises and keeps them.  The Israelites had been taken into captivity because of their rebellion and worship of false gods, but God promised to bring them back.  And He did.  But He did not make a generic promise to all people and at all times to prosper them.

People even throw that verse at non-believers, but that would give them a false sense of security.  God’s message to them is the opposite.  If they don’t repent and believe, his plans for them are horrible!

Also, deep down people know that is a false promise.  Try telling that to someone who has seen nothing but misery in the lives of those around her.  How can she believe in a God like that?

If you want to encourage people, try Matthew 11:28-30 instead (Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”)  That points them to the Jesus.

Both Christians and non-Christians abuse Matthew 7:1.  Jesus isn’t saying to never judge, He is saying not to judge hypocritically.

Matthew 7:1-5 Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

People have used Matthew 5:39 to oppose capital punishment.  But it is hard to turn the other cheek when you are dead, and it is unjust for the government to “turn the other cheek.”  It would mean that we’d never punish anyone for anything.

Matthew 5:39  But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Christians often use Matthew 18:20 reflexively when talking about praying together, but is Jesus not there with you when you are by yourself?

Matthew 18:15–20 (ESV) If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. . . . And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

The part in bold makes people squirm.  Reading the whole passage helps put it in perspective.   I doubt many wives will complain about husbands who love them as Christ loves the church.

Ephesians 5:22–33 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior . . . Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself . . . “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” . . . However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Malachi 3:8 gets misused a lot in stewardship campaigns.  Robbing God?!  That can’t be good.  But it is not a New Testament concept (see 2 Corinthians 9:6-7 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.).

Malachi 3:6–10 “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.

16 thoughts on “Somewhere Greg Koukl is smiling . . .”

  1. Hey, you know I have every PDF download by STR. I can send them to you if you like, I know he allows reproduction for class use and I dont think it would be problematic. Let me know, browse the PDF catalog.

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  2. I suppose I’m a little confused. When I read Jer 29:11, I understand it to mean, “And we know that God works all things together for good to those who love Him”. Now if THAT is true, what do you say to “someone who has seen nothing but misery”, because I would suggest that they would have the same problem with Rom 8:28 (even read in context). On the other hand, if you can answer that dilemma for Rom 8:28, the same answer would apply to Jer 29:11, wouldn’t it?

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    1. Hi Stan – I don’t read Jeremiah 29:11 the way I would Romans 8:28. The first is a specific promise for a specific group of people (the exiled Israelites, not all Israelites). The second is for those called to be Christians. The first isn’t talking about salvation, the second is talking about making us more Christ-like, which can and does involved challenges in this life. You could show evidence for how Romans 8:28 applies to believers, but not for Jer. 29:11 applying to everyone.

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      1. As I said, I suppose I’m a little confused because I’ve NEVER heard anyone suggest that Jer 29:11 applies to everyone, so I’m PERFECTLY right there with you on that point. Still, since I see parallels between God’s called people in exile and God’s elect in the world and since I DO believe that God works all things together for good for His own and since it seems to me that this is the specific promise of Rom 8:28 and the suggested idea of Jer 29:11, I’m still going to have to say that it seems right to me.

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      2. Jer.29:11 is on plaques for sale in every Christian bookstore. It is on mugs, cards, posters, etc. It is one of the most abused scriptures out there. It has absolutely nothing to do with the individual. The context is about the nation of Israel and not individuals. I also did a post about this at: http://watchmansbagpipes.blogspot.com/2010/07/jeremiah-2911-another-abused-scripture.html

        Some of my other “favorite” abused Scripture, which I also address on my blog, are Exodus 20:5; Jer. 10:2-5; Rev 22:18-19; and 2 Chron 7:14

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      3. I ruined my daughter’s t-shirt for her. She got it some church function. I was telling her about how Jeremiah 29:11 is misused then she reminded me of the shirt. Oh, well! Now it is a running joke. Whenever we hear that verse misused she looks over at me.

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    1. I’m curious about the context of the question. I’ve already explained that, AS A MIRROR OF ROM 8:28, I believe that God has the best in mind for His people. I’ve also agreed that it isn’t some blanket promise for all people. So you ask me about verses 17-18 (out of context). So the context of your question eludes me.

      Still, IN CONTEXT, I would pray that if I strayed as Israel did (Jer 29:15, 19), God would exactly do what it took to discipline me, correct me, and bring me to repentance. Are you saying that I shouldn’t, or are you saying that you wouldn’t?

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  3. I’m saying if you won’t accept 17~18 out of context then you shouldn’t accept 11 out of context whether it mirrors something intended for christians or not. Out of context is out of context, find another verse which applies to NT christians for your purposes.

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      1. It wasn’t for “God’s chosen people” it was for the Jews in exile, not even for all the Jews. So it wasn’t even for all of God’s chosen people even back then.

        So yes, it is out of context even though it makes you feel like God is protecting you.

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      2. God’s people in the context of the passage is the nation of Israel. Therefore, it cannot be applied to Christians, who did not exist at the time of the passage. As I noted in my article, it was a response of God to a specific prayer based on a specific covenant.

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      3. Let me see if I understand you (all) correctly. I see Jer. 29:11 as a parallel promise from God to His people that I see in Rom 8:28. You (all) don’t. Therefore, there IS no reason to believe that God promises to His own people that He has to prosper and not to harm us. To take it as such is to take it out of context. Christians today have no such expectation. Have I got that right?

        I would ask, then, the further question. What about ALL THE REST? For instance, Joseph told his brothers that they intended it for evil, but God intended it for good. I conclude that the evil intended by men is superseded by the good intended by God. But, since that was something that Joseph said to his brothers, I’m taking it out of context and must not conclude that. One of the most obvious is the Great Commission (and I’ve actually heard this argument — almost). Since it was spoken to HIS APOSTLES, it was a commission for HIS APOSTLES. To take it beyond that is to take it out of context. (Thus, the argument goes, baptisms must be performed by God’s apostles — pastors — since the command was to apostles.) How is this not the same argument?

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      4. You are totally missing the point. Jer. 29:11 can be used with other passages to demonstrate the character of God. We can not look at Jer. 29:11 as applying to the believer or any individual; it has a context specifically to the Nation Israel. I don’t think the Bible shows that God has a specific plan for everyone other than to let them live their lives; as noted in my article,
        I don’t think the Scripture says that God has a specific plan for each individual, other than allowing them to do what they want. And certainly we can’t say that God’s plan is for everyone to avoid evil when we have so many Christians martyred around the world. The only “future” and “hope” all Christians can look forward to is our eventual eternal life with the Lord. But while on earth, I’d say too many people have no hope of any future beyond the day’s survival.

        While Jer. 29:11 is specifically about Israel, Rom. 8:28 is a general statement to ALL who love God. We can take many passages as examples of God’s character overall, as to how He keeps His promises, etc. But when a passage has a particular context, we can’t pull it out and say it applies to us.

        Even the issue about Joseph, we can’t assume every time there is evil directed at us that God intended it for good; He instead says he will work it for the good (which may be just our salvation and eventual reward in Heaven, unlike Joseph’s more immediate good). Again, this passage shows God’s character but we cannot apply it to ever situation.

        As for the Great Commission, read it carefully beginning at vs 20: “and teaching them to obey EVERYTHING I have commanded you.” Therefore, we must obey the same thing – go and make disciples, baptize them, and teach THEM to obey everything.

        There are numerous promises and commands in the BIble which have only one specific context. And while they help us to understand God’s character, we cannot take them as commands and promises to us personally.

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  4. On Jer. 29:11, I think the chapter makes the text clear: This is a promise to the Israelites in exile. It isn’t a metaphor for Heaven. Jesus didn’t promise to prosper us in this life. God did promise to prosper those Israelites.

    I would also ask why the promises for those who stayed in Israel don’t apply to us: 15 You may say, “The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,” 16 but this is what the LORD says about the king who sits on David’s throne and all the people who remain in this city, your fellow citizens who did not go with you into exile— 17 yes, this is what the LORD Almighty says: “I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. 18 I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth, a curse[c] and an object of horror, of scorn and reproach, among all the nations where I drive them. 19 For they have not listened to my words,” declares the LORD, “words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either,” declares the LORD.

    But does saying that Jer. 29:11 doesn’t apply to Christians in the sense of those specific promises mean that believe that God has no intention of giving us a hope and a future? Not at all. He gives us hope now, joy now and Heaven later. But the Jer. 29 passage isn’t about Heaven but about a literal return to Israel.

    Just because that text was specifically for returning exiles doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have a hope and a future for us. We just have to go to other verses. Romans 8:28 is for all Christians, but it isn’t promising prosperity, either. It just promises that everything – good or bad – will make us more like Christ.

    Re. Joseph – it isn’t taking it out of context to say that God makes all things ultimately work for good. That is an example of a larger truth about God and his sovereignty. God’s sovereignty could include prospering us all – believers and non-believers – but He doesn’t.

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