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Magical Bible Teaching
Perhaps this is something you’ve experienced before: someone takes a single verse or handful of verses, and then, magically, they seem to pull more meaning out from the verse than you thought was previously possible. It’s like a magician with a seemingly never-ending handkerchief. You would’ve never expected that there was so much hiding just under the surface.
However, the reason you’re surprised at all the meaning they are able to pull out from that single verse or that single word might be because it’s not actually there. At least not all of it. Everything they say might actually be true, it might even be biblical, but that doesn’t mean that that is what the verse is saying.
What might be happening is that they are taking pre-existing ideas, good or bad, biblical or not, and making them seem to come out of the verse like a magician. They might couch their pre-existing ideas in the language or structure of the verse, but that does not mean that the meaning they are expounding is actually coming from the text. It’s an exegetical sleight of hand.
A Faulty View of the Text
Too often we view each verse of the scriptures like a locked treasure chest. And not unlike Mary Poppins’ handbag, if we could just get it open, then there is no limit to the amount of meaning that we might find within. The critical question becomes: how do you know the meaning you see in that verse is really there? How do you know that you are not just importing your own pre-existing ideas into the text? At what point do we cross over from discovering the meaning in the text and just making stuff up?
Of course, it deserves saying that this faulty view of the scriptures is right to see that the scriptures are immensely valuable and deep. We do well to pay attention to every single word in them, because every word is inspired by God. However, just because every word is inspired, does not mean that every word has infinite meaning. There are limits to legitimate interpretation.
Furthermore, we are right to read the scriptures more closely and carefully than texts we produce today. Producing and publishing text now is incredibly easy and cheap. It’s no problem at all to type, print, and mass-produce text. We live in a time when we often own more books than we could ever reasonably read, whereas through much of history, any literacy was exceedingly rare. Thus, in the ancient world when you went to write a text, you paid the utmost attention to everything you wrote, down to the word, because writing and publishing a text was a big deal.
For example, because of the costs of materials and professional scribes, it is estimated that it would have cost Paul about $2,100 to have a letter the length of 1 Corinthians produced. Even an exceptionally short letter, like Philemon, would have cost about $100.1 In Philemon Paul would have spent $100 to send a message that we today would just hastily type up in an email and hit send without reading over. With those kinds of costs, you can bet that he chose his words carefully.
We must avoid both reading too much into a text as well as reading a text too flippantly.
The More Context the Better
I think the problem is often that we want to jump straight into reading the scriptures deeply, because after all, isn’t that the fun part? Don’t we want to go deep into the text of scripture and find the treasure there? The issue is that we can’t read the scriptures deeply until we have read them widely. In other words, it is hard to go deep into what a particular verse is saying unless we have read the entire chapter. Furthermore, it becomes difficult to understand a given chapter unless we’ve read the whole book. Even then, it can be difficult to understand a particular book unless we have read other books by that same author. Sometimes we even have difficulty understanding one author until we have read other authors in the scriptures.
Now, I’m not at all saying that it is impossible to understand any particular verse without having first read the entire Bible. However, I am saying that the more context we have, the better equipped we are to understand the text in front of us. If you give me a single verse, I can tell you a little bit about what it is saying. Give me the chapter and I can be a lot more specific. Let me read the entire book and I can say more about how what is being said balances, complements, or is in tension with other things.
For example, 1 John 3:6 says, “Everyone who remains in him [Jesus] does not sin. Everyone who sins has neither seen him nor known him.”2 Yet, toward the beginning of the letter, John writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, such that he forgives us [our] sins and cleanses us from every unrighteous deed” (1:8-9). If you take either of these verses by themselves (particularly the one from chapter 3) then you will miss the fullness of what John is communicating. There is a tension between what really ought to be the case (no sin) and the reality among us (lots of sin). True believers cannot sin because sin is a result of unbelief. Yet, every single one of us sins. No matter how much our lives have changed for the better, we can never say that we have no sin. Thus, we respond by confessing our sin and receiving the cleansing power of God, such that our sins are now no longer with us; they’ve been forgiven.
Think Paragraphs and Books, not Verses
Needles to say, verse and chapter numbers were not part of the original text. They are simply helpful signposts that make it easy to find and refer to particular sections in the scriptures. They tell us nothing about how the text ought to be divided. In fact, sometimes they’re very unhelpful in that regard.
So, we cannot read individual verses of the scriptures as if they were stand-alone units. You would never open up your favorite book or novel, read a single sentence in the middle of a chapter and then sit there and ponder it. Rather, you start at the beginning and you finish at the end. You read each sentence one after the other, not piecemeal. Why? Because that’s how writing works. The same is true for the books of the scriptures. We love to talk about John 3:16, but rarely all of chapter 3, what Jesus is doing in talking to Nicodemus. Even more rarely do we talk about John as a whole, John’s various themes and structure of presenting Jesus’ life and work, what he was all about.
Ultimately, when we read the individual pieces of scripture with the rest of scripture in mind, we remember Christ, because the whole Bible ultimately points to him. It points us to the life and forgiveness that we have in him because we have been made a part of God’s people. It’s too easy to make the Bible all about ourselves when we pick particular verses. It’s about our destiny, our obedience, our individual struggles. Reading the Bible holistically forces us to read everything in relation to Christ and his work. And that’s what the gospel is all about.
1 David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, and E. Randolph Richards, Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters and Theology, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2007): 78.
2 My translation. Most translations render this: “keep on sinning” or “make a practice of sinning” (cf. ESV). While there is some justification for doing something like this based on how Greek uses the present tense, it is a fairly creative translation that tries to smooth out the difficulty too much, in my opinion.