[ Author: Laura Rupers ]
Before government land offices were established, many early American settlers were squatters who set up farms on land that they did not own. Later settlers, known as claim jumpers, tried to take the squatters’ land away through intimidation, double-dealing, and outright theft.
Though they have better intentions than the early settlers, some Christians like to “stake their claim” on Bible verses addressed to others. For example:
Jabez cried out . . . “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! . . . ” 1 Chronicles 4:10
For where two or three are gathered . . . Matthew 18:20
For I know the plans I have for you . . .Jeremiah 29:11
(Notice, no one claims verses about God’s chastisement!)
“Go west, young man!” – Marching orders for all
I hear the protests:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. 2 Timothy 3:16
Absolutely, all scripture is profitable. But the apostle Paul also states that scripture has multiple purposes: doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. Would you use these for doctrine?
Build an ark out of gopher wood (Genesis 6)
Present your firstborn son as a burnt offering (Genesis 22)
Pick up a serpent (Exodus 4)
Of course not. However, these verses are profitable because we have much to learn from the faithfulness of Noah, Abraham, and Moses.
Who, indeed, owns the deed?
Paul urges us to rightly divide [Greek: orthotomeo — to cut straight, to handle correctly] the word (2 Tim. 2:15). God did not leave scripture open to multiple interpretations (2 Pet. 1:20-21). Though some passages are poetic or symbolic, the rest of the Bible can and should be interpreted literally; otherwise, scripture becomes a subjective free-for-all.
To best understand a scripture’s meaning, one must determine the context by asking:
- Who wrote the book or is speaking?
- What was the writer’s/speaker’s specific role or calling?
- To whom was he writing/speaking?
- Why was this book/passage written or spoken?
- What was going on in this particular city/geographical area at that time?
- What was going on with the book’s audience before, during, and after the time of writing?
- What had happened historically before the time of this writing?
- For the topic covered, where in the book does the discussion start? (The chapter before, etc.) For a fuller understanding, go back to the beginning of the section.
- Where does the discussion of that topic end? Read all the way to the end.
- What are the Greek/Hebrew/other meanings of the key words?
- Are there any transitional keywords/phrases (for, moreover, but now, wherefore, therefore, yet, etc.)? If so, compare and contrast what comes before and after these keywords.
- What other verses directly relate to this passage and help illuminate the meaning?
- What was required during this time for people to be saved, and to be right with and obedient to God?
Finding related verses is especially important. It’s easy to find proof texts for our beliefs. However, it takes extra dedication to examine those that conflict with our views and to ask, “Why are these passages different? What does this mean for what I believe?”
The more we know about these questions, the more we understand the context. The more we understand the context, the more we can apply the scripture correctly.
Save the Cherry Picking for Ma’s Pies
Let’s examine a verse that some Christians apply to themselves today:
. . . where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matt. 18:20)
Many take this verse to mean that God will grant the requests of two or three Christians praying in agreement. If their prayers go unanswered, however, they are left wondering, “what happened?”
Proof texting — also known as the cherry picking fallacy — is what happened. This is the use of isolated, out-of-context verses to prove a concept. Although some truths may be summarized in one verse, proof texting is not a reliable way to fully or accurately interpret Scripture. It can make the Bible appear to say anything. For example:
We laugh at this absurd example, but many lose faith in God when prayers according to Matthew 18:20 are not answered.
Whoa, Nellie! Let’s find the trail head!
Let’s get the full context of this passage by going back a few verses:
15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: But if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matt. 18:15-20)
Audience? 12 apostles.
Context? Parable of 99 sheep/lost sheep and believers who go astray.
Purpose? To instruct the apostles on the power and authority they would be given regarding church discipline.
Transitional Word? “Moreover” connects the parable to the specific instructions given to the apostles.
Nothing in the context shows Jesus talking to the apostles about healing or other requests. These “trainees” were being taught leadership for their upcoming role in the church. Therefore, we frame these verses within the context of church discipline:
Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Read Christ’s sermons to the masses. Can you find any evidence that He told any of them, “if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them” as He had told the 12 apostles?
In isolating and extracting scripture from its original context, we lose God’s original intent and reduce His Holy Word to a smattering of random, diluted proverbs and stories. Before we spiritual settlers “stake a claim” on a verse or passage, let us first “search the scriptures . . . whether [these] things are so” (Acts 17:11) and “rightly [divide] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).