Reading the Bible in Context
Most of us have likely encountered questionable teaching within the church. Sometimes, this comes from someone who has lifted a single phrase out of Scripture and built a doctrine around it. Maybe we have even done this ourselves, intentionally or not, as we focus on the part of a verse we like while discarding the rest. But when Scripture is taken from its intended context, false teaching can result.
The prosperity gospel movement and particularly the “seed-faith” message that promises wealth, health, and prosperity in return for planting a financial “seed offering” in someone’s ministry, is credited to Oral Roberts. After Roberts read part of 3 John 2: “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers,” he received a brand new car, which he took as confirmation that the passage meant he would prosper with material wealth. He began teaching the seed faith principle based on that verse, which is embraced by thousands today. (Oral Roberts: An American Life by David E. Harrell Jr., p.66)
But does God really say in 3 John that He wants us to have wealth, health, and material prosperity or that those things will be granted when we invest in someone’s ministry?
Taken in context, we see that this passage is a letter from John to a church elder named Gaius who was growing in the faith and about whom John had heard good things. The word “prosper” here means “to go well with you” and comes from two Greek root words – one means to accomplish, to do, to make, or to finish; the other means to progress, or to go further (as on a journey). It wasn’t a promise of material prosperity, but rather a greeting that essentially said “I hope this letter finds you doing well” and specifically acknowledges that Gaius is prospering spiritually. When you read the entire letter, John praises Gaius for faithfully walking in truth and for the good things he (John) has heard about Gaius. The letter has nothing to do with material prosperity.
Another example of Scripture taken out of context is the use of Psalm 46:10 to support seeking God’s voice in the silence of unbiblical New Age-type meditation. Some proponents of this contemplative approach to prayer go so far as to claim that it is only in silence that we can hear God’s voice. But what does the verse actually say? First, read it in the context of the verses surrounding it:
“Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth! The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah.” (Psalm 46:8-11)
This Psalm was written in praise of God’s protection after Hezekiah prayed to God for help in a battle with the Assyrians and the Lord sent an angel to destroy the enemy (Isaiah 37, 2 Kings 19). It is a testament to God’s faithfulness and power, not a call to seek him in silence. In Hebrew, the words “be still” here mean to let go, quit striving, release. This Psalm is about being at peace as we let go of our worry, fear, and striving for man-made solutions in the midst of trouble as we take refuge in the Lord where we will find rest.
Taken in its proper context, Psalm 46:10 is not about silence or entering into a meditative state at all.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” Keeping God’s word complete and within its proper context, and taking care to not “cut and paste” verses to fit what we want to believe will protect us from false teaching and will affirm God’s truth in our lives.
Do you agree or disagree with this post? How does reading Scripture in context help you grow in your faith?
Suggested reading: Context: How to Understand the Bible by James Nicodem, Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul