Christianity 201

August 15, 2014

The Danger of Over-Contextualization

As I get older, I keep hearing that broadly-applied Bible verses are not the universal promises we believe them to be, but have specific contexts. “…Plans to give you a future and a hope…” appears on plaques and coffee mugs and if it doesn’t fit on a bookmark, creators of ‘inspirational giftware’ simply inscribe “Jeremiah 29:11” the verse now being part of our collective consciousness like John 3:16 and Psalm 23:1.

The problem with this approach is that now the pendulum swings to the other extreme, we distance ourselves from ‘Bible promise’ verses lest they set us up for false hope. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick;” right?

In some cases this is just unnecessary caution. Maybe the Ephesian husbands needed to be told to love their wives (5:25) more than other people the Apostle Paul wrote to, but I cannot simply dismiss that with a, ‘Well that verse is for the Ephesians and doesn’t really apply to me.’

I say all this in the light of recent re-reading Romans 15:4

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

Eugene Peterson translates this:

Even if it was written in Scripture long ago, you can be sure it’s written for us. God wants the combination of his steady, constant calling and warm, personal counsel in Scripture to come to characterize us, keeping us alert for whatever he will do next.

At the blog reVer(sing) Verses:

In every time and era, there will probably be a select group of people who are against old teachings, considering them outdated and conservative. In the early church days, there were a lot of commotion about the conversion of Gentiles into the faith, and accommodating both Jews- with their numerous customs – and Gentiles – with their alien habits and beliefs, into the Church – especially in the church of Rome. Even till today, there are plenty of people who cannot accept some of the laws of the Old Testament, and claim it as out-dated and entirely redundant in this faith. Non-believers perhaps think that we are crazy for following the words of such an ancient book. We cannot assume that when Paul says ‘everything’, he refers to books and laws outside of the Bible – that would be too far and too unfair an assumption to make. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come [1 Cor 10:11].

…[continue reading a breakdown of the rest of the verse; click here]…

The blog Logos Walk touches on four keywords in the verse:

  • “Instruction”. What a child receives from parents to guide them into maturity along the right path.
  • “Perseverance”. Sticking with it regardless of the temporary circumstances, in order to attain an ultimate, worthwhile goal.
  • “Encouragement”. Support provided to sustain one’s will to continue persevering in the instruction they know will lead to the worthwhile goal not yet obtained.
  • “Hope”. The yet unattained worthwhile goal that is so real in it’s coming true that it is considered to be “future fact”.

A few years ago, Clay Gentry wrote about the context of the verse itself. That context is interesting because it bears on the issue of Old Testament law versus New Testament liberty, and the issue of the stronger brother deferring to the spiritual sensibility of the weaker brother.  Then he makes a conclusion which ties everything together so well:

There are two points of application that we should make from our examination of the context of Romans 15:4.

The first is, make sure you understand the context of a passage and the way the speaker/author used it before make applications and teachings from your chosen passage. While you may teach the truth, it’s always best to keep passage(s) in context so as to not go beyond what the speak/author intended. Remember, if it’s true there’s a passage that teaches it.

The second is, read the Old Testament. While the names, places, and events may seem foreign to us, there is a great wealth of knowledge and insight to be gained from the Old Testament. In keeping with the theme of dealing with weaker brethren you might read about how Joseph dealt with his brothers, or Moses dealt with the Children of Israel, or Nehemiah dealt with the people of Jerusalem when the walls were rebuilt. In reading these stories you’ll learn strategies for being patient and be comforted in that you too can deal with your weaker brethren. While we may not be justified by the Old Testament today Paul tells us we shouldn’t ignore it.

I hope that this has helped you see the richer meaning of God’s word. Keep on reading, keep on studying, and keep on praying for wisdom and understanding…

…[Go deeper with this study; read the whole article by clicking here]…


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