I was part of a prayer group some time ago where I felt compelled to share scriptures on knowing the will of God. I shared Ephesians 5:17 and Colossians 1:9-10. Almost immediately, I was accused of taking the scriptures out of context and admonished that, if I read further into Colossians, I would see that the will of God was a mystery. It wasn’t impossible for me to have taken a scripture out of context and so I did read further into Colossians. I found it was so obvious I had NOT taken the scriptures out of context, and what had indeed been a mystery was now revealed to us (see Colossians 1:25-27), that I longed for an opportunity to confront my accuser. God, in His infinite wisdom, did not allow it and so I chose to hand the criticism over to Him and learn what I could from it.
The context of scripture is of vital importance in both its meanings. Dictionary.com defines “context” these two ways: 1. “the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect” and 2. “the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc.” Both are important and I believe some scriptures cannot be understood outside of the culture and beliefs of the day in which they were written. I agree that it can be dangerous to lift a scripture out of its context and use it to say something it was never intended to say. And yet, I find I take scriptures out of their context all the time. A scripture I find comforting is Hebrews 13:5: “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for He hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (KJV). Other translations say, “Be free from the love of money” (ASV, ESV, Amplified). And so, within its context, this scripture has to do with money, not being obsessed with it, being satisfied with those things I have, and trusting God to provide for my material needs.
I do apply the promise that He will never leave me nor forsake me to my finances. I also apply it to those times when I have a flare, my entire body is in agony, and I can barely move. I apply it to those times when I am lonely. I apply it to those times when my future looks bleak. I apply it when I am tired and depressed. I apply it to situations far and above its original context. If the Writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is quoting Deuteronomy 31 verse 6 or verse 8, then he too has taken it out of its context. The original promise was made to Israel before entering the Promised Land and then to Joshua and yet the Writer had no qualms about applying the promise to the fledgling believers of his day.
I recently started reading a collection of lectures by Andrew Jukes where he traces the mystery of the Kingdom of God through I and II Kings. In his introduction, Andrew Jukes acknowledges that questions may arise as to why he’s applying Old Testament scriptures outside of their proper context and says, “The facts are these, – Christ and His apostles continually refer to various passages from the law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms; but these references, though claimed as applicable either to the Church or Christ, appear, when we turn to them, to be quoted apart from their proper context, and to relate not to Christ, but rather to certain circumstances in the life of some Old Testament saint, or to some portion of the history of the ancient Israel”. Andrew Jukes then shares some examples.
He first compares John 15: 24, 25 where Jesus quotes from Psalm 35:19: “they hated me without cause”; words which come from a Psalm of David, were applied to David himself, and were in reference to men and circumstances of David’s own day. Mr. Jukes also references Acts 1:16-20 where the Apostle Paul says, “Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, who was guide to them that took Jesus. For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and his bishopric let another take.” Paul is quoting from two different Psalms-Psalm 69:25 and 109:8-both of which are Psalms of David and, again, originally applied to David himself and were in reference to people and circumstances of his day.
These are just two of the examples shared by Mr. Jukes: the pages of his introductions are filled with many more. What is his material point? At the end of his introduction, Mr. Jukes says; “Now when we remember that these applications of Scripture are applications made by the Holy Ghost, and that they pervade the entire writings of the New Testament, we shall I think feel that we have unexceptionable witness at least to the fact that the Word contains something beneath and besides its first and historic meaning. In saying this, I by no means deny the first or literal sense both of the histories and prophecies of the Old Testament; I am only contending that this first and historic sense is not the only one, nor indeed the highest one…”
This comforts me. There are so many scriptures that the Holy Spirit has used to comfort me where the original context applied to someone else in a different time. It doesn’t matter. Every scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are ultimately about Jesus and since “in Him all the promises of God are yes” (1 Corinthians 1:20) and I am in Him; any promise made, regardless of original context, is mine.
Context is important, even crucial for understanding, but it is not king. 2 Corinthians 3:5-6 says, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth live”. The proper context of this is comparison of the Mosaic Covenant, or the law, as compared to the New Covenant which is ministered by the Holy Spirit. And yet, this passage has an application here. Keeping scriptures cemented in the time and place in which they were written, declaring that promises made to Ancient Israel was for that people in that time, leads to stagnation. The Spirit enlivens scripture, applies it to our circumstances in this time, and the words become springs of living water within us.
“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” is the direction that comes to us through Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. When another quotes scripture, I check the context to gain understanding and listen for what The Spirit is saying in this moment. When someone accuses me of taking scripture out of context, I offer that accusation up to God and listen for what The Spirit is saying. Then I pray for the accuser that The Spirit will open the eyes of their heart, that they will come to know the freedom that is in Christ Jesus, and that they will see that the letter killeth but The Spirit giveth life.
Scriptures quoted from:
The Holy Bible Old and New Testaments Authorized King James Version, Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2003
Andrew Jukes quotes from:
Jukes, Andrew, The Mystery of the Kingdom, 1884-Based on Public Domain Texts