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Doing it by the book

Have you ever seen the previews to a movie, gotten all excited about it, then watched the movie and walked away disappointed because it wasn’t anything like what the previews suggested? Welcome to the club. I suppose the people who put the previews together could tell you they were just doing their job (which is enticing us to want to watch the movie), but just the same, we feel cheated because there’s an implicit understanding that movie previews are supposed to represent what the movie is actually about (that’s why they’re called “previews”).

Ever heard someone use a passage of Scripture out of context? It’s become regrettably fashionable for people to pick a verse or two out of covenant Scriptures intended to be temporary legislation for the nation of Israel and ask why believers today play football or eat barbecue since the Scripture “clearly” forbids it (Leviticus 11:7-8). 

Disciples understandably chafe at this sort of thing yet we are sometimes guilty of ripping the Scripture from its context when it suits our purposes. Some readily quote “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7) as if that’s all prayer is about while ignoring Jesus’ earlier instructions in the model prayer to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (6:10). The asking of 7:7 should be tempered by whether or not it’s consistent with God’s will for our lives. This is the example Jesus followed in His prayer life (26:39, 42, 44).

There is a common thread in bad movie previews and using Scripture out of context—it has to do with the danger of isolating a small part of something without considering its relationship to the whole. It’s why your doctor wants to know your family history—while you are more than just your family’s background; your medical status can be much better understood when looked at in the context of your family.

It’s a big mistake to approach the Scripture as a massive collection of random verses that we pluck out and look at in isolation. The Bible is a collection of books. Each of these books was written to specific people for specific reasons. The best way to understand any verse is to understand it in the context of the book where it is found.  

And while there are people who read the Bible this way (as well as books and classes that encourage this), unfortunately there are also many who tend to do almost the opposite. It’s not entirely their fault—walk into any Christian bookstore and once you get past the trendy trinkets and contemporary music, most of the books will be on some topic broadly related to Christian living. They usually contain a sprinkling of verses with little if any context being discussed. That’s left up to the reader who often has never even thought of approaching the Scripture in a book by book fashion. The end result of all of this is that it's easy to end up more reversed than well versed in Scripture.

And by the way, where are the books that help them to understand the primary meaning of these verses in their context? Well, if the store carries them, they’ll probably be tucked away in the very back. Or as in the case of a bookstore at a Christian university—they’re kept in a separate room all by themselves. You really have to want those books to find them!

No one would think of reading John Grisham or Stephen King by selecting certain passages here and there. Even if we are reading an anthology (which is closer to what the Bible is), we might skip around but we’ll do it story by story—not passage by passage. If you’ve never attempted to read a book of the Bible this might sound intimidating—but it doesn’t have to be. Start with the gospels, and then try the book of Acts. We can’t all be scholars but we can all read and when we approach the Scripture this way you’ll be encouraged by the new level of understanding you’ll attain.

If you never tried reading the Scripture this way, let me challenge you to do it by the book.

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