Although I haven’t added a Dive In entry for awhile, I always reserve the right to throw one on the table when the urge hits. If you haven’t read the Dive In series, take a look here.
One of the handiest tools we have in our Bibles is the chapter-verse divisions laid out by Stephen Langton in the 13th century. One of the biggest hurdles to understanding our Bibles is the chapter-verse divisions laid out by Stephen Langton in the 13th century.
What frequently happens in modern-day Bible studies is a microscope approach to the text, where the point is “proved” by referencing a single verse or perhaps a short passage. But that approach, although simple and easy to approach, generally misses the nuances of the context.
And the system can lead to prooftexting, which happens when a verse is used as proof for a doctrinal belief. Pulling verses out of context can be misleading and may well ignore other passages that might modify or even change the conclusion.
Our churches love topical Bible studies today (and they can be very practical and easy to apply). The danger with topical studies is prooftexting, using stand-alone verses to make points.
Here are a couple of examples:
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
We often use this verse to comfort those who are suffering, weary in their difficult time. If you read chapter 40 and 41, you will see that the context is dealing with idolatry. The people of Israel were choosing to trust golden statues and wooden icons over God. So this verse, although a comforting verse, has more to do with choosing God rather choosing other methods of hope or comfort.
Context doesn’t reverse the meaning of Isaian 40:31 but does change the focus somewhat. It’s not about rushing to God in times of trouble, but choosing God over other gods in times of trouble.
Peter said to her, "How could you agree to test
the Spirit of the Lord?" Acts 5:9
This is the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the couple who tried to polish their spiritual resume by donating money from a land sale to the church, even while they were lining their pockets with the portion they secretly withheld.
This verse seems to be about testing the Spirit of God, but the larger context adds nuances. The spark for Ananias and Sapphira came at the end of Acts 4, where Joseph (also known as Barnabas) sold some land and gave the money to the church. Many in the church at that time were sharing everything they had and many freely gave money to the church to be used to help the poor.
We could surmise, then, that Ananias and Sapphira concocted this grand scheme out of greed while hoping to impress other believers, perhaps nudged by competitive zeal. In that context, the verse we looked at refers more to the sin of seeking people’s favor over God’s heart. Other believers were donating money because ownership meant nothing to them. Ananaias and Sapphire were clinging to their own goods while trying to impress others with their spirituality.
In our examples, the larger context didn’t reverse the meaning but enriched and sharpened it.
There’s nothing wrong with singling out a verse to help make a point, but you’ll find that reading the larger context will almost always enrichen the conclusions – and may sometimes reshape them.
God’s Word is beautiful. Ignore the chapter-verse divisions and read it as the authors intended. You’ll uncover veins of gold throughout.