The danger of bite-sized Bible quotes
Do you know the Bible verse that says "there is no God"? Wait, let me explain ...
We live in a culture in which everything is increasingly condensed.
- We used to listen to symphonies which lasted hours, but now our music is cut down into 3 minute songs.
- We used to read newspapers for hours each week, but then our news was cut down to blogs, and now even to 140-character tweets.
- We used to watch entire films, but now our entertainment is cut down to thirty-second clips we stream from the internet.
Everything our society is now throwing at us seems to just be a cut-down, edited version of what we used to get. And I think there's a serious problem when we do this with the Bible.
When we fill up our lives with all sorts of meaningful and not-so-meaningful things, there's a big potential that we'll stop reading the Bible as the Bible, and instead as a collection of verses.
More than just verses
Now, don't hear me wrong here. Quoting a bit of the Bible can be very useful in our personal walk with God, in encouraging other Christians, and sharing the gospel with those who don't know. But at the same time, we need to ensure that we are also reading larger chunks of the bible, so we know the whole story of our salvation by God, and so we know where the verses we quote come from, so we don't take them out of context.
Interestingly, none of the Bible was written using numbered verses. When Moses was preaching his sermons that make up the Book of Deuteronomy, he wasn't counting the sentences in his head. When Paul wrote letters to Timothy, he didn't write in all the little numbers. Rather, chapter and verse numbers have been put into our Bibles in order to make it more accessible to us.
So when we read the bible, we need to remember that each book was written to be read as a whole, not simply to have short sentences quoted out of it.
What 'out of context' looks like
If I was to take a couple of verses or bits of verses out of context, they might say something entirely different to the message of the bible. Here's some examples:
- "But you are less than nothing and your works are utterly worthless; whoever chooses you is detestable." (Isaiah 41:24)
- "And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!”" (Mark 15:18)
- "There is no God." (Psalm 14:1b)
Now let's look at each of these out of context verses, and examine them more closely.
"But you are less than nothing and your works are utterly worthless; whoever chooses you is detestable."
If we grab this first verse out by itself, it seems to be telling us that we are nothing, and that for someone to choose us they must be detestable. But hang on, aren't we Christians made to be much more than nothing through the blood of Jesus? And didn't God choose us? Does that mean he's detestable?
But if we look at the verse in context, we find that the verse isn't addressing us at all. It's in the Old Testament, and God is speaking through the prophet Isaiah addressing idols. It's the idols that are nothing and worthless, and whoever chooses the idols are detestable! Looking at this verse in its context changes the meaning a lot.
"And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!”"
Let's take a look at the second one, Mark 15:18. Just seeing it on its own there, it seems to be about a bunch of people praising Jesus, the kind of verse you might quote in a Christmas card or read before a worship song. But if we look at the verse in the context of Mark, chapter 15, it's actually the soldiers at the cross who are doing the calling out, and verse 20 makes it clear that this outcry is not a sudden recognition of Jesus' divine authority, but rather is a sarcastic taunt by soldiers attempting to dishearten him as much as possible.
"There is no God."
And finally we come to Psalm 14:1b. Just looking at that bit of the verse, it seems to indicate the opposite of the whole message of Bible, contradicting the assurance throughout the book that God is real, is a creator and is a personal God who wants to save his people. But it doesn't - in fact, the complete verse actually says "The fool says in his heart, there is no God". It's saying that those who reject the existence of God are fools! Looking at the whole verse shows us that it has a totally different meaning to what we thought it might have.
Be careful about posting random verses
Theologian and writer D.A. Carson says that "A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext." Basically what he's saying is that if we don't look at verses in their context, we have the potential to use them to say whatever we like. Let's read the Bible for what it's really saying to us, not as little quotes reinforcing whatever we want to say.
Next time you're about to quote a verse for a Facebook post, or in a Bible study or at church, stop for a second and ask yourself - do you know who is speaking the verse, who the verse is directly addressing, what the verse is about, and what it really means for us as Christians living in the 21st Century?