I love to read inspirational biblical quotes, but I was wondering are they sometimes taken out of context. Is it okay to pull a partial scripture out and think it will apply to our daily lives? For example the verse from Jeremiah 29:11 ” For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to make you prosper and not harm you. plans to give you hope and a future.” At the beginning of the chapter it clearly states this was meant for a certain group at a certain time. A lot of the rest of the chapter would not be applicable it seems because it is directed to a particular situation. Is the idea that it is description of a part of God reason to use it as a hope scripture? There are many verses about the nature of God and daily guidance that seem clearly to be directed to us today. I was just wondering your thoughts.
Thank you for your time and the great website.
I agree with where you are going with this question, but believe it is possible to take too far. Anyone who uses the Bible to teach or preach ought to take the context into account. That is clear. It is dishonest and therefore unethical and sinful to take anyone’s words out of context in order to put words in their mouth that they would not have said. This applies particularly to the Bible. It is not a secret that we can use the Bible to say anything we want to say. A Christian ought to use the Bible to say what God is saying.
With that said, let me give some practical advice on how to apply this in teaching and preaching. Let me describe a few scenarios:
1. Teaching a passage in its context and explaining that context to the hearer.
2. Teaching a passage in its context, but not explicitly explaining the context to the hearer.
3. Teaching a passage out of its context but not making it say something it does not say.
4. Teaching a passage out of its context and having it say something that the passage simply does not say.
Clearly, no responsible Christian should ever do what is described in category #4. I believe that the typical use of Jeremiah 29:11 falls into category #3. I do not think that this is wrong or sinful, but it is almost always better to be in category #1 or #2. The context of Jeremiah 29:11 is that Jerusalem has been surrounded by the troops of Nebuchadnezzar. Things are not going well, nor will they go better any time soon. In fact, soon after Jeremiah gave these words from God to his people, Jerusalem was captured, the temple was destroyed, and most of the hearers were either killed or carried off into captivity. Probably the Jews did not feel that God was blessing them when these things happened! When God told Israel that he had plans to prosper them and not to harm them, it was seventy years before God gave the blessing. God told them that the blessing would wait for 70 years. in Jeremiah 29:10. It was not until 538 BC that God defeated Nebuchadnezzar, using Cyrus the Persian to free his people. It ws not until 516 BC–70 years after the events of Jeremiah 29, that the temple was rebuilt. If we are teaching Jeremiah 29:11 to make the point that God will bless us when we seek him, if we want to be in category 1 or 2, then we ought to make people aware that this blessing may not be apparent for a very long time. God may choose to discipline us and to let us suffer, even if we return to him.
Having said that, I do not think that it is wrong to use Jeremiah 29:11 to teach that God wants to bless his people and that he will bless his people if they seek him with all their hearts. I do not believe that this is an abuse of the scripture. The fact that what God said in Jeremiah 29:11 was not, in context, said to Christians does not mean that the passage can be applied in this way. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 10:11, Paus says of the things which happened in Israel in the desert, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” Note that I am taking this verse somewhat out of context, because Paul is speaking of what happened during the Exodus and the Wilderness Wandering. However, the principle is that we can apply Old Testament events to our Christian life, and that God actually intends it to be used that way. So, I believe it is possible to overreact to the use of scriptures “out of context.” While it is certainly better to give the hearer the context behind Jeremiah 29:11, I do not believe it is abuse of the scripture to apply it as a principle to the Christian life. It is true that “we can use the Bible to way anything we want to say,” but the common use of this passage is not abuse of the scripture
Let me give my favorite example of a common misuse of a scripture which falls into category #4. One of the more abused passages is Proverbs 29:18. “For lack of vision, my people perish.” I have heard this used dozens of times to teach that we as a church need to have “vision” for what God can do in our lives. I agree that we need to have vision, and that the leaders of the church ought to help us to find a vision, but this is NOT what is being taught in Proverbs 29:18. The full passage says, “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law.” The passage is talking about a lack of the Word of God. When people are not hearing “revelation” from God, then they cast off restraint. What God is teaching here is that the people of God need to hear the Word of God. It has nothing with people having “vision” for their lives. To use Proverbs 29:18 to teach the need for vision is to abuse the passage. Now, fortunately it is true that God wants his people to have vision. I am sure there are passages which teach this, but Proverbs 29:18 definitely does NOT teach this.
To summarize, I agree with you that all those who teach the scriptures ought to commit themselves to not taking passages out of context. There are different levels of using the context, but the real “sin” is for us to use passages of scripture to teach things which they do not teach.