A Bit of A Rant About Bible Verses

I like the Bible, I really do. But I have to confess that I am becoming more and more allergic to Bible verses on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.

Before you report me to the heresy police, let me explain. To make life easy for us, the Bible is divided up into chapters and verses. This means that when we need to refer to a passage of Scripture we can use a reference such as Philippians 2:5-11, rather than pointing people to that bit in Paul that talks about Jesus being willing to be humble and dying.

Let’s face it, without the chapter and verse notation, most of us would never find passages in Leviticus.

The problem is that having divided the Bible up for ease of reference, we all too easily start quoting verses in isolation, as if they had a life of their own outside of the context of Scripture. The most obvious case of this is the way that John 3:16 is used, generally without any reference to what Jesus was actually saying to Nicodemus. I picked up on one particularly egregious example of this tendency in the early days of this blog.

The thing is, the Bible was written as a connected narrative, not a series of disjointed sayings that can be quoted at random. Even passages which do seem to stand on their own, such as some of the proverbs, make more sense when read in the whole context of the book they are found in. Often two proverbs will balance each other out, providing nuance. Simply quoting an isolated proverb will often not do justice to the teaching of the whole book.

Another problem is that it is all to easy to pick a verse or passage that says what you want to hear, rather than telling some of the harder, more challenging truths of Scripture.

Let’s take an example:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

This verse is often quoted to indicate that although an individual or group of people might be going through a tough time, everything will work out all right in the end. The problem is, this passage wasn’t written to that particular individual or group, it was written for an entirely different bunch of people altogether and there is nothing about this passage which says that it can be applied generally.  What’s more, this is only a partial quote. The preceding verse indicates that the nation of Judah will be in exile for 70 years before God’s plans come into effect. Almost everyone to whom this encouraging passage was originally addressed would be dead long before the encouragement came true.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quote the preceding verse as an encouragement!

“When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place.” Jeremiah 29:10

It’s not that I don’t believe I fully believe that God has good plans for us and that he will work them out. He does, but often we will not see them come to fruition this side of eternity.

When we take passages out of context we tend to take the nice, warm and friendly verses and not the ones about denying ourselves, taking up our cross, sharing in Christ’s sufferings and that sort of thing. But a rounded approach to Christianity cannot ignore the tough stuff.

If we only look at the bits of Scripture that make us feel good; how can we look our brothers and sisters in Iraq, Pakistan and other trouble spots in the eye?

I found this piece in a recent Daily Telegraph to be very challenging:

The Gospel is hard, and it contains within it, not the fear but the absolute certainty, that persecution and misunderstanding will always follow in its wake. It is based on the idea of dying in order to live; of losing life in order to find it; of taking up the cross, that instrument of torture, and finding therein not merely life but glory.

If we just pick the passages we like from Scripture we risk missing this vital truth about the nature of our faith.

/rant off

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4 replies on “A Bit of A Rant About Bible Verses”

Eddie Hi,

As usual your writings are incredibly thought provoking.
I absolutely agree with what you say above, … with a few caveats and riders. No! That doesn’t mean I really disagree.
1. What you say, which I don’t think you mean, is that I cannot share a verse with anybody, or inscribe 1 Corinthians 15:58 or Philippians 1:6 on somebodies birthday card without giving them a deep study on the context of when and where it was written.
2. What do you do with all the sensationally out of context Old Testament quotes in the New Testament. Verses like, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” Are you saying that it is wrong to use verses like that unless we are as infallibly inspired as the NT writers? What is your take on verses out of context in the scriptures?
3. I suppose, like I think you do, that “flirting” with God and the Bible grates against me.
4. And just as a by the way; John 3:16? Was it Jesus speaking or was it John’s “voice over?” I have noted that some Red Letter editions stop the Red Ink in John 3 at different places. What’s your take?

Hope you don’t mind the questions. Amanda wants to know what I have written here, so I might copy and paste it somewhere else.

P.S: Hoping your future direction is falling into place. Is there life after Wycliffe?

Hi Keith,

Glad you found it thought provoking and thanks for your comments. Just a few quick responses.

1. I agree with you; I think there are times and places to use verses of Scripture out of context; the ones you quote are excellent examples for sticking in birthday cards. My aim was to raise the issue in the blog post, not cover every possible eventuality.
2. I’d argue that God is allowed to quote Scripture out of context as much as he likes; he inspired it. So when Jesus used an incomplete quote from Isaiah during a sermon in Luke 4, he was justified in doing so (though it almost got him stoned). However, that doesn’t give me the liberty to miss out the bits of Scripture I don’t like when I preach (much though I’d like to, sometimes).
4. The question of who first came up with John 3:16 is one I thought I’d blogged on before, but I can’t find it. It’s something I return to regularly when talking about Bible translation. The Greek text didn’t have quote marks to indicate who was speaking when and in John 3 it is very difficult to know when Jesus is talking and when John is giving an editorial voice over. As you have noted, different translations have made different choices, but no one can be absolutely certain which is the right one. When we translated this passage into Kouya, we had Jesus speaking at verse 16, though I can’t remember the details of why we made that choice.

Life after Wycliffe? I reckon I’ll still be involved in Bible translation in one way or another for a long time to come, but the details aren’t clear at the moment.

My favourite is when people quote an isolated verse from Ecclesiastes… It makes me want to quote other verses – eg life is meaningless (1:2), there is a time to kill (3:3), and there is nothing beyond the grave (3:22)!

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