This may come as a complete surprise to you, but many people, maybe even most people, use the Bible out of context. I know, you’re shocked but when you pick yourself up off the floor I will elaborate. Let’s take a look at a couple of often misused scripture verses as examples.
Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
It seems like every time I’m in a church service, Sunday school class, or prayer meeting where attendance isn’t so great that I hear this verse mentioned. There’s a new worship song proclaiming that God is present when 2 or 3 are gathered together and it’s probably going to be a big hit, but this doesn’t change the fact that it’s a misuse of scripture.
Do we believe God won’t be present if only one person shows up to prayer meeting? No, we believe God to be omnipresent and with us at all times. This passage, in context, is about when a brother or sister in Christ sins against us and how we should respond. Let’s read the passage in context.
Matthew 18:15-19 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
All this is to say that if someone ever actually quoted this passage to you “in context” then you would probably be confronted about a sin you’ve committed against them shortly after. Also, you might be excommunicated soon. Lucky you.
Another passage that gets overly misquoted is Jeremiah 29:11. We send this passage in birthday cards, quote it at graduations, put it on bookmarks, read it in wedding ceremonies, and hang it in our homes as a daily affirmation. We know this verse, even if we don’t know the context.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
—Jeremiah 29.11 NLT
This passage is good news, it is an affirmation, and it does make you feel good. This passage is also not for you, not directly anyway.
In context we can see that this was written to the Hebrew people who were in exile. God’s people, the ones who had survived Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest that is, had been deported from Jerusalem after it was destroyed. These people who had been dragged off to Iraq were not only homeless, they were people without a country. They had also been unfaithful to God and as a result made some bad choices that landed them in this unfortunate place of exile.
Chapter 29 of Jeremiah is a letter from the prophet to these homeless folks. Jeremiah is telling them to get comfy in exile because in spite of what some false prophets had been telling them, they were going to be homeless for a good long while. Knowing this, the prophet tells them to keep living their lives. They are instructed to live in exile like they are not in exile. They are to keep on living their lives, building houses, having babies, planting gardens, and seeking the welfare of the city where they have been planted. These homeless people are being told to make a home where they are and not to just wait around for what will someday happen. Let’s look at a broader section of Jeremiah 29 to see it in context.
Here is what the letter says to them:
Jeremiah 29 New International Version (NIV)
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreamsyou encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
15 You may say, “The Lord has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,” 16 but this is what the Lord says about the king who sits on David’s throne and all the people who remain in this city, your fellow citizens who did not go with you into exile— 17 yes, this is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. 18 I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth, a curse and an object of horror, of scorn and reproach, among all the nations where I drive them. 19 For they have not listened to my words,” declares the Lord, “words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either,” declares the Lord.
So here’s my take on this passage, in context. God’s people have been unfaithful, have listened to false prophets, and have not lived faithfully. Now, they have been exiled and are being told that God’s plan for them is not changed. They still have a hope and a future but because of their disobedience, most of them will not live to see it fulfilled. It’s going to be 70 years of exile before things are set right, because they have been disobedient and made a mess of things.
Now let me ask you, is this still a passage that you want to quote at a graduation? Imagine what that graduation speech would be like.
“As you graduates go into the future you should know that bright days are ahead…but not for you. 70 years from now, when you are dead or at least too old too enjoy it, God’s plans not to harm you and give you a future are going to come to pass. You won’t own a home or have much of anything to call yours but keep on living your lives. You’ll be on someone else’s land, growing someone else’s crops, living on someone else’s terms, paying taxes without representation or a voice, but keep on doing it anyway. Make the most of your life as a homeless person. Someday, 70 years from now roughly, your grandkids will have a chance at something of their own. Two or three of you might want to get together and agree on this.”
All this is to say, context is everything. There are ways to make passages like these relevant to your life today, but it’s important to read these passages as they were intended to be read. God’s plan for your hopeful future has already come to pass. As Christians we see this plan fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is our hope, he is the future promise fulfilled. Believer’s in Christ see Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise that has already been fulfilled in Jesus. It’s not a scripture about the future, it’s about what has already taken place.
In conclusion, all I’m trying to say is, read the Bible on it’s terms and not on yours. It will be a much richer experience. It may not possess the good news you think it does, it might be even better.