TEXTS USED OUT OF CONTEXT
Context has to do with the setting and circumstances in which an event takes place or a statement is made. By ignoring context events can be misinterpreted and statements can be misunderstood. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in today’s world. A man may have made a statement (or be charged with having made a statement), and without knowing the context of his statement, he may be accused of saying and believing something that he neither said nor believes.
In studying the Bible it is important to observe the context of all that it says. Sometimes statements of scripture are lifted from their context and made to teach things that the inspired writer never intended to teach. The statement taken out of context may, indeed, set forth a truth that is taught elsewhere in scripture but not in the text cited. To use a passage out of context is unjustifiable, because as the old hermeneutical saw goes, “A text taken out of context is a pretext.”
Following are a few of many examples that could be given of using a text of scripture out of context.
PSALM 14:1a – “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ ” (This verse is repeated verbatim in Psalm 53:1). The statement is not referring to the atheistic fool, the person who openly and blatantly denies the existence of God. Rather, it has to do with the practical atheist, the person who with his mouth professes faith in God, but who in his heart and by his actions shows that he does not sincerely believe in God. His “faith” in God is only professed with his mouth, but by his life he shows himself to not really believe in God. In his letter to Titus, Paul showed clearly what the Psalmist had in mind. “They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate” (Titus 1:16, KJV). While there are many texts that refute the view of the atheistic fool, Psalm 14:1 is not one of them. Let us understand it in its context. (Next week’s “News & Views” will be devoted entirely to this text).
PROVERBS 23:7 – “For as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” That is the way we often quote the verse and the way we often hear it quoted, but that is not exactly what the verse says. The complete verse says, “For as he (emphasis mine, hf) thinks in his heart, so is he. ‘Eat and drink!’ he says to you, but his heart is not with you.” Who is the “he” spoken of in this verse? The previous verse provides the answer: “Do not eat the bread of a miser (literally, one who has an evil eye), nor desire his delicacies.” The context is speaking of dining with a person who is a miser (or one who has an evil eye) who says one thing (something nice and good—“Eat and drink!”), but he is not sincere and “his heart is not with you.” In this respect, he is like the “fool” of Psalm 14:1. It is not his words but what is in his heart that shows his real character. So, yes, it is true that “as he thinks in his heart, so is he,” but the context of the statement needs to be explained and understood.
MATTHEW 18:20 – “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there I am in the midst of them.” I do not have the slightest doubt but that Christ is with His people when they gather for worship, but this verse is not the proof-text for that. In fact, this verse has nothing to do with the worship assembly and everything to do with two or three unbiased and objective persons being “gathered together” in agreement as to how to handle a conflict between two brethren, one of whom has sinned against the other (verse 15-19). “But if he refuses to hear you, then take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established’ . . . For where two or three are gathered together in My name there I am in the midst of them” (verses 16, 20). If you are looking for a passage on the presence of the Lord in the worship assembly, look elsewhere, but do not use Matthew 18:20 to make that point. That is using the text out of its context.
I CORINTHIANS 2:9 – “But as it is written, ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.’ ” On numerous occasions this verse has been read or quoted at funerals to refer to the exquisite beauty of heaven. While I have not the slightest doubt that man is unable to conceive of the glories of that place God has prepared for the redeemed, in context heaven is not the subject under consideration in I Corinthians 2:9. The verse is an inspired paraphrase of Isaiah 64:4, and is used by the apostle Paul to speak of the full and complete revelation of the gospel scheme of redemption. Before the birth and earthly life of Christ, before the making known of the gospel, and before the founding of the church, men could only look down the stream of time and dream of what God had in mind for their redemption from sin. No one fully comprehended it, not even the angels of heaven. Eye had not seen and ear had not heard! Many passages speak of this anticipated matter (See: I Peter 1:10-12; Ephesians 3:1-13; Colossians 1:24-29; Romans 16:25-27 and a host of other enlightening passages dealing with the gradual unfolding of God’s grand scheme of redemption from the time of its inception in His infinite mind until its complete revelation and fruition in the gospel, the New Testament, and the church). There are many wonderful passages that speak of the glory of heaven, but I Corinthians 2:9 is not one of them! Rather, it is speaking of the glories of the gospel age. Let us respect the text’s context!
II PETER 1:20 – “… knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.” This verse has been used to teach that one must not interpret the scriptures for himself. But the fact is that anything written or spoken has to be interpreted in the sense that it has to be comprehended/understood by the reader or hearer. (You are interpreting these words even as you read them). We interpret—rightly or wrongly—what we hear on the radio and TV, what we read in the newspaper, in a magazine, in a book, and in the Bible. Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch confessed that he did not and that he needed help. (Acts 8:30-31). The Bible is an understandable book (Ephesians 5:17; John 8:31-32; John 17:17). So, II Peter 1:20 is not talking about properly interpreting and correctly understanding and applying the Scriptures; rather, it is speaking of the origin of scripture. The next verse clearly explains the matter: “For no prophecy ever came by the will of man (private interpretation, hf), but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:21). Rather than arising out of the private, personal, subjective interpretations and observations of what was going on in the world around them (the “will of man”), the writers of Scripture were “holy men of God” who “spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” The “private interpretation” of II Peter 1:20 has to do with the origin of scripture, not the way we arrive at the correct understanding of the Scriptures!
Let us not be among those who are “untaught and unstable” and who “twist” the scriptures “to their own destruction” (II Peter 3:16), but let us strive to understand and respect the context of every statement, command, example, and implication set forth in the divinely inspired word of God.
Hugh Fulford, July 9, 2019
- July 10, 17, 24: Nashville Road Church of Christ, Gallatin, TN
- July 14, 28: Adams Avenue Church of Christ, Lebanon, TN