Tag Archives: jeremiah 29:11

Reading the Bible in Context

One of my all-time favorite lessons to teach, now in video form.  I just narrated over the PowerPoint slides I use.

God tells us to read his word carefully: 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.

This lesson is very important, but it is also simple to follow. You don’t need a PhD in theology or to be fluent in the original languages to understand most Bible passages. Yet so many passages are misunderstood because people don’t read the verses that come before or after them. This lesson teaches simple ways to read the Bible in context, some commonly misunderstood passages, barriers to reading in context and how to overcome them, and more.

Reading the Bible in Context from Eternity Matters on Vimeo.

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The first lesson in studying the Bible: Read it in context

This is a handout from a lesson I once used with some high school kids at church.  I thought I’d share it here.

The purpose was to give an overview of how to read the Bible, then focus on reading it in context.  I addressed barriers to reading in context then gave examples of commonly misused verses.  Finally, we picked a chapter at random and show how well these techniques work.

——

A simple and effective way to read the Bible – from James MacDonald’s “Walk in the Word” Podcasts*.

  • Read it – 1-3 chapters (less for doctrine, more for history)
  • Question it
    • What 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?
  • 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

How to read in context: Don’t just read a Bible verse (a great slogan and lesson from Stand to Reason). 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.

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

  • 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

Barriers to 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.
  • We have all been guilty of reading out of context. Some mistakes are more serious than others. Our choice is to dig in our heels and continue to use it incorrectly or humbly accept and use the correct teaching. As 2 Timothy 2:15 says, “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.“

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.

—–

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!

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 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.

*Sadly, MacDonald’s doctrine and presentation have slipped a lot over the years, but this was from when his teachings were sound.

A commonly misinterpreted verse: Jeremiah 29:11

Alternate title: For I know the plans for you, declares the Lord, plans to punish you for your disobedience by keeping you in captivity for 70 years, not 2.

 

jeremiah 29

Captain Buzzkill is back, ready to irritate some people by highlighting a popular but commonly misunderstood Bible verse!  But we can’t ignore 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.  Getting Bible verses wrong isn’t a felony, but if we love God and our neighbors we’ll want to be careful with his word and humbly change our views once we realize we’ve been mistaken.

Here’s the verse:

Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

I used to misinterpret it. I can’t remember the last time I heard it used correctly. It is one of the top 10 searched verses on biblestudytools.com and often seen on blogs, Facebook, t-shirts, mugs, etc. as a blanket promise that God has great worldly things planned for you (jobs, health, etc.) or as a general message of consolation.  But even if part of the message is technically true (yes, God does know the plans He has for you), is that what the specific passage really means?

It is a fantastic verse in its context, but people rarely use it the correct way.  Reading just a little more of chapter 29 makes a big difference:

Jeremiah 29:1 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

For starters, verse 11 is part of a letter written to some specific people in rather unusual circumstances.

Jeremiah 29:4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon . . .

Jeremiah 29:10–11 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

That specific promise isn’t for all people at all times, or even all believers.  The more you read of chapter 29 – and chapters 28 and 30, for that matter — the more obvious the real meaning becomes.  If you are an Israelite living in Babylonian captivity over 2,500 years ago, then that promise is all for you.  Otherwise, you should consider the context.

Consider the opening of chapter 28:

Hananiah the False Prophet

1 In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the LORD, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, 2 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3 Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon.

Or why not quote Jeremiah 28:11 instead of 29:11?

11 And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, “Thus says the LORD: Even so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.” But Jeremiah the prophet went his way.

So a false prophet predicted they would be back in 2 years and the real prophet says it will be 70 years.  Verse 29:11 could have easily said, “I know the plans for you, declares the Lord, plans to keep you in captivity for 70 years, not 2.”  How do people turn 29:11 into a blanket promise of goodness?  Only by reading it out of its context.  

And how would the commonly used theme be reconciled with passages like John 16:33, where Jesus promises tribulation rather than prosperity?  (“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”)

And as commenter Bridget noted, how do you reconcile the popular view of that passage with the Holocaust, the persecution of Christians in the early church and beyond, or even a glance at the newspaper?

But don’t be disappointed!  There is actually a great message in Jeremiah 29:11: God is merciful and loves to forgive.  God makes huge promises and keeps them. He controls the future.  He knew exactly what would happen 70 years later.  The Israelites were 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.  That message is foreign to the text.

Some people share that verse with non-believers as if it applies to them, but that gives a false sense of security. God’s real message to them is the opposite. If they don’t repent and believe, what are his plans for them?  They will spend eternity in Hell.  It is hard to imagine a bigger difference than a blanket promise to prosper you versus a promise to send your unrepentant self to Hell.

But does that mean that we don’t have words of encouragement for people?  Not at all!  There are 31,172 verses left in the Bible, with plenty of words of compassion.  If you want to encourage people, try Matthew 11:28-30 instead:Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. That points them to Jesus, and it applies to believers and unbelievers.

Or you can encourage and comfort believers with the correct application of Philippians 4:13 (another commonly misinterpreted verse) by reminding them that they can be content in any situation if they do everything through Christ.

So should you be a Bible-nanny and whale on people who misuse this or other verses?  Should you interrupt the sermon if your pastor reflexively uses that passage?  Of course not.  But I encourage you to be careful when reading any passage and gently point out the correct meaning wherever you can.  (“Why yes, God does know the future and He does make and keep great promises, just like He did to the Israelites in Babylonian captivity.”)

And you should read or listen to the Bible daily so that you regularly cover all of it.  You’ll be surprised how often you look at popular verses differently when you see them in their proper context.

As often happens, the real meaning of the verse is better than what we wanted it to mean.  So feel free to use the verse, but explain it properly.  It isn’t some lame consolation prize to teach that God knows and controls the future, and that He makes and keeps enormous promises — such as his promise to adopt you, forgive all your sins and eternally bless you if you repent and trust in Jesus.

Always read more than just one verse!  In fact, my rule of thumb is that if I don’t know the general context of a verse then I shouldn’t be quoting it.

Also see Reading the Bible in Context for a very important lesson and more examples.

The top Bible verses are also the most misused

Pastor Timothy made a good point about the Top 5 Bible Verses of 2011 as listed by BibleGateway.com: None mention sin.

That isn’t too surprising to me, but here’s what bothered me more: Items 1, 3 and often 5 from the list below are also the most misinterpreted verses.  I have never — and I mean that literally — heard Jeremiah 29:11 used properly in church.  I can’t recall hearing Philippians 4:13 referenced properly either.  Even pastors and very committed Christians reflexively quote those improperly.

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 prosper all people at all times.

People even throw that verse at non-believers, but that gives them a false sense of security or a bad reason to reject Christianity (deep down everyone knows Jeremiah 29:11 doesn’t apply to everyone in the manner it is used). God’s real message to them is the opposite. If they don’t repent and believe, his plans for them are horrible!

Here’s a post analyzing where people go wrong on Philippians 4:13.  It is simple as going back one verse to see what Paul’s proclamation about doing all things through Christ really means.  It isn’t about being able to accomplish anything, it is about being able to be content regardless of the situation.  The real meaning is even better than the wrong interpretation, but it doesn’t feed our worldly desire to accomplish whatever we want.

Please read the Bible in context so you’ll be part of the solution and not part of the problem.  It is the simplest and most effective way to properly understand what God meant.

BibleGateway.com, which has the Bible on line with multiple translations, has compiled a list of the Top 5 Bible verses that were searched on their site for 2011. The list is not that surprising when you look at it. Here it is: In descending order of popularity, here are the top five Bible passages of 2011: 1. JEREMIAH 29:11 “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.” (NIV) 2. JOHN 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (KJV) 3. PHILIPPIANS 4:13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (ESV) 4. PROVERBS 3:5-6 Trust in the LORD with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence. Know him in all your paths, and he will keep your ways straight. (CEB) 5. ROMANS 8:28 We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose. (HCSB)

Reading the Bible in Context

This is a handout from a lesson I’ll be using with the high school kids at church.  I thought I’d share it here.  Tips welcomed!

The purpose is to give an overview of how to read the Bible, then focus on reading it in context.  I’ll address barriers to reading in context then give examples of commonly misused verses.  Finally, we’ll pick a chapter at random and show how well these techniques work.

——

A simple and effective way to read the Bible – from James MacDonald’s “Walk in the Word” Podcasts

  • Read it – 1-3 chapters (less for doctrine, more for history)
  • Question it
    • What 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?
  • 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

How to read in context: Don’t just read a Bible verse (a great slogan and lesson from Stand to Reason). 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.

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

  • 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

Barriers to 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.
  • We have all been guilty of reading out of context. Some mistakes are more serious than others. Our choice is to dig in our heels and continue to use it incorrectly or humbly accept and use the correct teaching. As 2 Timothy 2:15 says, “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.“

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.

—–

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!

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 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.