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Verse collector or book inspector?

We’ve all received texts that were meant for someone else. Probably the first clue was that what was said didn’t make sense. That’s because the message was given in the context of the sender’s relationship with the intended receiver—not their relationship with us. So it’s likely that what we understood best about the message is that it wasn’t intended for us.

Now think about this as it relates to the Bible. Whether they’re a child or an adult, everyone starts off at the same place in understanding the Bible—we start as verse collectors. Just like a baby begins to eat with soft, mushy food, we start to understand God’s word one verse at a time. There’s nothing wrong with this but we don’t want to remain there. Just as the infant moves on to a more expansive diet, so we’re to grow in our spiritual food (Hebrews 5:11-14).

That’s good because one of the shortcomings of verse collecting has to do with context. Some verses function fairly well in a stand-alone capacity. John 3:16 is a good example. Others like Acts 16:31-32, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household,” don’t do as well. We’ve all heard this passage used to teach people to accept Christ into your heart but that’s not what Paul is saying. A closer look at the context reveals that what Paul means by believing is hearing the word (v. 32), repenting (v. 33) and being baptized (v. 33). It’s only after the jailer has done these things that he is said to be “filled with joy because he had come to believe in God” (v. 34). Whether it’s understanding a text message of the word of God, context makes a difference!

That’s why growing from a verse collector to a book inspector is so important. The Bible is after all, a collection of books—not a collection of verses. (The books were not originally written in verse form—that division didn’t occur until the middle of the sixteenth century). Although the books of the Bible possess an overall unity that binds them together, they are nonetheless self-contained in the sense that they are written to a specific group of people, for a specific purpose and in a specific manner. Understanding these things is a big part of what puts a verse into its context and allows us to understand in a much fuller, deeper sense than when it is isolated from its original context.

For example, John’s gospel is fashioned around signs that Jesus performed (John 20:30-31). These signs were miracles with a meaning. Jesus feeds the multitudes bread and fish and tells them that He is the Bread of Life (6). He heals the blind man and teaches that He is the Light of the World (8-9). He raises Lazarus from the dead and teaches that He is the Resurrection and the Life (11).  In John 3, He references the Old Testament story of the snake being put up on the pole so that those who had been bitten could look to it and live (Numbers 21). Then He explains to Nicodemus how this historical event prefigured the sign of Him being lifted up on the cross so “that everyone that believes may have eternal life” (v. 15). Out of this comes the verse the world is so familiar with—that the cross will take place because of God’s love not just for His covenant people like Nicodemus, but for the world.

There’s much more to John 3 but you get the idea of why it’s important to be a book inspector.

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