26 July 2013

Are You a Stripper?

Context matters.

One of the biggest mistakes the Church has fallen into is approaching the Bible verse by verse, stripping them of context. Jesus didn't tweet the Gospels a phrase or sentence at a time. He told stories, he had conversations, he painted vast panoramas on verbal canvases. He was God; if he wanted to communicate in one liners he would have. He mostly left that to others such as Groucho, Bob Hope, Jack Benny.

For example, a friend recently asked about Matthew 5/37: "But let your `Yes' be `Yes,' and your `No,' `No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one." (NKJV). he wanted to know what it meant.

I understand; I learned to do this and did it for years. But eventually I rediscovered how much more sense the Bible makes when we read verses in context. In this case looking at just a few verses before helps immensely. Let's read Matthew 3/33-37 in two translations for even more depth:

"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.' But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply `Yes' or `No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." (NIV)

"And don't say anything you don't mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, `I'll pray for you,' and never doing it, or saying, `God be with you,' and not meaning it. You don't make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say `yes' and `no.' When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong." (The Message)

Now the meaning is more obvious. "Speak the truth. If you need an oath to back up your agreement or disagreement, something is wrong... and no one can trust what you say without an oath. Just be real." Studying verse 37 alone does not provide the whole picture, but it does lend itself quite well to legalism, the trap into which so many Pharisees had fallen in Jesus' day. God is always about relationship more than rules. Look at verses in relationship to the verses nearby. No verse is an island.


Various Jewish and Christian scholars added chapters and paragraph divisions for multiple reasons, but verses did not appear in the New testament until the 1500s. While useful as reference points they should otherwise be ignored. Once you can ignore them (The Message really drove this home for me and was just what I needed to move back to a holistic reading) you begin to see things you would otherwise miss.

Even Jesus, quoting brief verses to Satan, clearly had a broader context, or he would never have associated those passages with the topics at hand.

1 Do yourself a huge favor. Read the stories 2 in the Bible as stories, 3 not as a chopped up group of 4 sentences and fragments.

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