Is It OK to Use a Verse Out of Context?

It is a very common practice to use a bible verse to express whatever thoughts we have about God. One of the tragedies of the single verse principle is that the context of the passage is often ignored. Well this is important. If you were writing a story about something that happened or a letter, you would cringe if someone sliced an isolated sentence out of the body and made it mean something you never intended. Yet, there is a rampant tendency to do this today and the accompanying danger of establishing shaky foundations of faith. It’s why I’ve been impassioned to engage in ministry that exposes Christians to how the Bible was put together and how it tells God’s complete story from Genesis to Revelation, his personhood, character, work and promises.

A good example of a verse commonly taken out of it’s context would be 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 a hope and a future”. Now if we step back and see the immediate context, we see that Jeremiah is addressing Israel held in Babylonian captivity because of repeated transgressions against the Yahweh. But he is reminding them of his covanental promises. There is something beyond captivity for them and this leads to the overall redemptive work that is accomplished in Christ. Well, I confess that I have often cringed at the repeated use of this verse applied to a present day setting.

But the reality is we have a tendency to focus on contemporary settings and especially settings that have to do with wherever we find ourselves in life. We apply that verse to ourselves because it gives us hope, just as it gave Israel hope. And let’s face it, we need hope. We need to remember that whatever trial, drought or storm we may be facing is not all there is.

One of my classmates and fellow bloggers posted this wonderful piece today about God redeeming lost and broken years…“For I will restore the years the locust have eaten” (Joel 2:25). As I read the post, it reminded me of how much I use that phrase in my prayers with earnest hope of experiencing God’s redemptive hand in my earthly sojourn.  Yes, I am aware that the prophet Joel is addressing a specific situation concerning Israel and restoration according to covenantal promises that have nothing to do with the restoration and redemption that pertain to my own life situation. Yet, the concept of God restoring ravaged years speaks to God’s mercy and heart for his people.

I want to be cognizant of the how each verse corresponds to each paragraph to each book to each author’s theme and how that fits in the overall trajectory of God’s story. There is a danger of basing Christian doctrine on isolated passages disconnected from the whole and distorting something in the process. But, there might also be the danger of making the text so far removed from us that the only thing that matters is context. We should not be Deists, Fatalists or text Nazis, treating the Biblical text like a wrote textbook in which the only purpose is to know about God. But the purpose is to know him, to see his heart for his creation and to understand that his plan eventually involved us, his people who are united in Christ, reconciled to the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit. Yes, understand the context but also see the bigger picture.

For those of us who really care about how the Biblical text is handled with care, I can’t help but see a greater reality. We who were dead and trespasses and sin, by the undeserved merit of a loving Father are reconciled to him through the sacrificial gift of his Son. We will eventually spend eternity with him. But in the meantime, we get troubled with life. We experience defeat. We make mistakes. We long for hope. While God in his infinite wisdom condescended to craft an intricate piece of work that serves as his testimony, will he be so troubled if we happen to use a verse out of context to give us hope and reminders of his goodness as we contend with the tensions of the already but not yet?

So I don’t know. Maybe it’s ok to cite Jeremiah 29:11 with the awareness that it was related to a specific situation but it speaks to a greater hope. Maybe it’s ok to pray for restoration of years the locust have eaten with respect lost and broken years that we longed to see redeemed. That is my heart’s cry. And I think something would be lost if my only concern was to restrict it to the immediate context.

5 thoughts on “Is It OK to Use a Verse Out of Context?

  1. LibertyforCaptives September 14, 2012 / 9:37 pm

    Great thoughts, as usual 🙂 Jesus sometimes quoted out of context, as did Paul. But they were always consistent with the spirit of the text and the heart of God. Our challenge is to avoid wrenching verses into a meaning that fits neither the context or the spirit in which it was written. And it is a challenge we often fail. Thanks for being a good theological sheepdog, Lisa!

  2. Laurie M. September 14, 2012 / 10:02 pm

    I agree. A whole lot would be lost! I feel as you do about context. But, as you say, there is a big picture, and part of that picture is the revelation of the character of God and the way he feels about and behaves toward humanity in general, and His people in particular. What we see in the testimony of Scripture is a God who redeems wasted years, a merciful God. We are expected to apply what we learn of God’s character to our lives today and our current circumstances. In many ways, it is a failure to do this very thing that led Israel (and leads us) into the sins that erupt from unbelief. God expects us to remember who He is and what He has done and to bank on that for our future.

  3. ljrobinson September 15, 2012 / 9:08 am

    Steve, great comment. I think we get so concerned with being textually correct that something gets missed in the process. And a sheepdog? Woof, lol. Albert asked me after class yesterday where I get my material from for writing. I told him whatever comes across my radar and pushes my buttons. So thanks for the push 🙂

  4. xulonjam May 1, 2013 / 7:56 am

    Don’t forget the “out of context” charge largely used as a pretext to ignore what has just been said by stepping it back. If you are required to quote 23,145 verses every time you want to quote one, the result is quite unwieldy.

    It seems to me adult, reasonable conversations allows for shortcuts and the rote salivation “out of context”, besides being applicable far less than used, is a power-play to gain control and is neither reasonable nor adult.

  5. MikeB (@g1antfan) May 1, 2013 / 9:14 am

    I think there is out of context and then there is out of context. In one sense we need to take a passage that we understand within its context and then take it out of that context and apply it rightly to our current situation/context. And then there is grab a sentence or two that sound great and build a theology or sermon around it despite the fact that this passage does not say what you think it says. I think LibertyForCaptives is capturing that idea too.

    My wife & I cringe often when we see Jer 29:11 used – mostly b/c prosper is usually taken to mean God is going to bless everything you do and make everything all work out for you in the “now” sense. You are going to get a great job, etc. That is the ripped out of context in a bad way. But in reality (as you know) that verse better carries the idea that that God wants you to prosper which He defines as you knowing, seeking, and obeying Him. So He may take very drastic measures to make sure you prosper as He defines it.

    Is this easy to do? No. Especially when you have to write a paper and back up everything with Scripture. Which I need to go back and do. 🙂

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