by Johnathan Arnold
You have probably played it before: it’s called The Bible Lottery. It goes something like this: Discouraged? Bored? Feeling dry spiritually? Open your Bible to a random page, skim to a random verse, and see if God speaks to you. You consciously hope it’s not a verse like Judges 4:21, where Jael drives a tent peg through a guy’s head. You subconsciously hope it’s something really generic like Philippians 4:13. (It does say that we can do “all things,” after all.) The unfortunate, underlying assumption is this: if “all Scripture" is profitable, whatever text I turn to must be about me.
Even if we do not play The Bible Lottery, we are often guilty of mishandling God’s Word for similar reasons: we hear a Bible verse that on the surface appears to speak to our immediate needs, then spread that meaning without ever investigating its context. If we really like the meaning that we read into a text (meaning B), we will likely go the rest of our lives without ever discovering the amazing richness of God’s meaning (meaning A), which is far better than any meaning that we could read into it. Consider this example:
Eye Hath Not Seen, Nor Ear Heard (1 Corinthians 2:9)
“But as it is written, eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Few verses are used more synonymously with heaven. Pastors trying to sermonize their people on the grandeur of heaven often have this one in mind: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard…” When saved loved ones passed away, the peace and splendor of heaven is a comforting thought; and so, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard…” Let’s ask ourselves a few questions:
Someone might ask, “But what could be better than this meaning?” The answer is the same for every misunderstood Bible passage: the meaning God intended.
The broader context starts 23 verses earlier. In 1 Corinthians 1:17-31, Paul shows that God has rejected the wisdom of the world. God has ordained that through the preaching of a simple gospel message, people will be saved! The wise men, scholars, and debaters of this world think that this is nonsense. All of their acquired wisdom screams: “Foolishness!” You may be familiar with this idea: Paul describes it as the “foolishness of preaching.”
Then, in verses 2:1-5, Paul continues the thought: in his preaching, Paul did not use human wisdom to convince people of the gospel so “that [their] faith should not [rest] in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”
This brings us to verses 6-16, the immediate context of the verse in question. It is wonderfully rich and certainly the best thing you will read in this article:
6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”--
Verse 9 does not refer to the future hope of heaven, but a present hope of spiritual wisdom! God has given us the Holy Spirit so that we can understand the deep things of God: the things that human wisdom cannot grasp. When God the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we have a direct link to the inner thoughts of God. Nothing could be more wonderful! We have access to the magnificent spiritual truths that cannot be discovered by human eyes, ears, or minds through empirical evidence, philosophy, and discovery.
Context is key. Simply studying the context reveals a much different and richer meaning than we could ever read into 1 Corinthians 1:9. Hard work and an honest studying of Scripture pays off! Consider another example:
Where Two or Three Are Gathered (Matthew 18:20)
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)
Four people show up to your Wednesday prayer meeting. Don’t worry: “Where two or three are gathered…” Not only do we have two or three, we have four! Service starts and people are still chit-chatting, but you are the pastor and want to rally people to worship: “God is already here. The Bible reminds us that where two or three are gathered…” Let’s ask ourselves a few questions:
Studying context reveals a much different and richer meaning than we could ever read into any one passage.
The immediate context of verse 20 is verses 15-20. Jesus begins by saying that “if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.” In other words: Step 1: Try to resolve problems privately. But, “if he will not hear thee,” go to Step 2: “take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” In Step 3, things get really serious: “if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church.” Step 4 is excommunication for the sake of the body, with the expectation of repentance and restoration.
Verses 18-19 are easily misunderstood but are key to understanding the verse that follows. Essentially, Jesus says that a church acting according to the clear principles of God’s word has the right to declare that someone is sinning. If this was not true, it would be impossible to administer church discipline; everyone would say, “only God can judge me!” (Never mind that is a scary thought.)
This leads us to verse 20. Before reading it, remind yourself once again of the phrases that precede it in verse 16-19:
Verse 20 then reads, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Jesus essentially says: “church discipline is challenging and painful…” — perhaps that is why we almost never do it — “…but don’t worry! I am there with you so that you can act on my authority. All authority on earth is given to me and I extend that authority to two or three of you who are in agreement about a situation that is plaguing the church.” Of course, this authority can be abused and has been historically by the Catholic Church; nevertheless, it is Biblical and must not be disregarded.
We cannot invent a meaning more rich or necessary than the one God intended for us to discover.
Again, context is key. Studying the context helps us to form an accurate understanding of meaning A in Matthew 18:20. Let’s be honest with Scripture. God will be well-pleased and we will be well-edified. We cannot invent a meaning more rich or necessary than the one God intended for us to discover.
I Can Do All Things (Philippians 4:13)
A third verse that is commonly misused was alluded to previously: Philippians 4:13. Try tackling this one on your own:
Let us all “Study to shew [ourselves] approved unto God, [workers] that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
P. S. “Studying” to show yourself approved unto God has nothing to do with studying for school, whatever your teachers might have told you.
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