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To be More Than Just Christian Memes, Bible Verses Need Their Context.

Tuesday 2nd April 2019

Jeremiah 29:11 “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.” 

Jeremiah 29:11 is the second most searched for verse on Bible Gateway , after John 3:16. It’s printed on a coffee mug in my house. And it’s adorned countless greeting cards, ornaments, and framed prints available in Christian bookstores. It’s an encouraging promise—but is it even about me at all?

The Bible as desk-calendar quotes:

We’ll come back to that question in a minute, because this is one famous example of a common, yet unhelpful way of reading the Bible: as source material for desk calendar quotes. Scott McKnight (The Blue Parakeet, p.45) lists it as one of five shortcuts we often take, dividing the Bible into “morsels of blessings and promises.” This is where we take one verse out of its context and set it to work to inspire us, or reassure us, or produce some other kind of warm fuzzy feeling.
Perhaps we can trace the blame for this back to a guy called Stephanus, in the year 1551. He was sick of having to say, “you know that bit in Galatians where Paul says…” and instead added verse numbers every sentence or so. It’s handy for referencing, of course. But it also encouraged us to see the Bible as a set of isolated sayings, where each verse started a new line, and so, a new independent thought.
The whole Bible got broken up and treated like Proverbs—a collection of wisdom, rather than a story. So rather than memorising stories or longer passages, people started to memorise these isolated verses, stripped of their context. And in the process, they made it all about me.
Now what verses do you choose for special photo-framing treatment? Not usually the ones about judgement and warning—unless you’re planning on placard-waving outside abortion clinics or the Mardi Gras parade. No, they tend to choose all of the blessings and promises and feel-good verses. What’s more, no longer blessings and promises in a context, but blessings and promises that were seen for everyone, all the time—and in particular, for me. Just like Jeremiah 29:11.

Jeremiah 29:11 in context

Jeremiah 29:11 “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.”
Now this is all very reassuring and positive, isn’t it? It gives us hope and confidence. I mean: who doesn’t want prosperity and security! The problem is, it’s not written to you. Or to me. It’s not a general promise for all who hear it, like, say, John 3:16 – “that whosoever believes in me will not perish.”
It’s a specific word to a specific people in a specific situation. It’s a promise to one particular generation of the people of Israel—those who’ve been exiled to Babylon, and face the possibility of being wiped out.
What’s more, it’s embedded within a more sobering message that tells Israel to settle down and make the most of it, because God won’t be bringing them back out of exile for another seventy years.
To pick that out and say “that verse is for me”—or even, “that verse can be for me, too, not just exiled Israel”—is to ignore several things. It ignores not just the original context, but also the clear message given by Jesus for his followers not to expect prosperity in this age; and indeed, to expect to be harmed (see e.g. Mark 8:34; John 16:2 ).
It also ignores the very real experience of the many Christians who’ve been imprisoned or martyred over the centuries. Why would it apply to us, but not them?
Now don’t get me wrong. That verse—indeed, that whole passage in Jeremiah does apply to us. It applies to us because it’s part of the big story that we’re now a part of. It’s part of the history of the covenant-keeping God who cares for his people, to which we can belong because of the death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah that now enables those who were far away to be brought near ( Eph 2:11-22 ).
However, the promise that they would materially “prosper” and not be physically harmed was for a specific time in Israel's history. Even Israel couldn't apply that to themselves at all subsequent points in their history.
Where the Jeremiah promise finds its completion is in the age to come, where all God's people will indeed find rest and freedom from harm. It’s in that sense that it makes a great motivational poster quote! (And what I think about as I drink from my coffee mug.)

A return to “whole foods” 

But, you might say, what’s the harm in taking these verses out of context if they inspire us? If they make us feel better, and remember to trust in God? What’s wrong with that?
The problem comes when bad stuff happens. When I “claim” a specific promise that wasn’t meant for me.
What happens if I don’t prosper, or if I do get harmed?
Do I get disillusioned, and start to give up on God?
Or do I go into denial, and try to justify why God hasn’t yet come good on that promise?
(I’ve heard one preacher say: “maybe God’s on his way, but he’s just been held up helping someone else, just like Jesus was side-tracked on his way to healing Jairus’s daughter.”) Either way, we can get disappointed with God.
More generally, it’s like feeding on sugar; on milk, rather than solid food. Sure, it might taste good at the times, but if that’s all you eat, you’re going to end up with Type II Spiritual Diabetes.
And, like its physical counterpart, I think it’s an epidemic among our generation.
The antidote is also similar: a return to “whole foods” when we read the Bible. We do the hard work of understanding each part of Scripture in its context—on the page, in its historical and cultural setting, and in its place in the big story of God and his world. That takes time and practice, as well as a little guidance in what we call “hermeneutics”: the principles of interpreting and applying the Bible.
Scott McKnight, The Blue Parakeet is a great start, along with Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to read the Bible for all its worth .
But be warned: they are dangerous books. A couple of decades ago, God used one of them to spark a desire to do this full time, and I ended up in Bible college. Maybe I’ll see you sometime in our Principles and Practice of Hermeneutics unit at Morling !

Written by Tim MacBride

Tim has been at Morling since 2008 and is the Dean of the Bible & Theology faculty, lecturing in New Testament and Preaching. His research interest is in rhetoric - both in the New Testament texts and in contemporary preaching. Prior to teaching at Morling, Tim was the Associate Pastor at Narwee Baptist Church for 8 years.

Tim MacBride's Blog