You have probably heard the story about the man looking for direction from the Bible using what is called the close your eyes and point method. He holds his closed Bible in his hands, closes his eyes, quickly tumbles his Bible several times, then opens it with eyes still closed and points somewhere on the open page. Then believing this is a verse given him by God he opens his eyes and reads the scripture. Unfortunately the verse says “So Judas … went away and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5)
Taken aback, the man quickly closes his eyes and repeats the process, looking for another scripture. When he opens his eyes this time, to his chagrin, his finger is pointing on this verse. “Go thou and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37b)
One of the practices, often warned about in Christian circles, is taking Scripture out of context. In other words, quoting and/or applying a Scripture passage in a setting that has little or no connection to the original time and circumstance to which it refers.
But consider this. It took just days after Jesus left the planet for His chief apostle to seemingly do just that. While gathered with the 120 in the upper room Peter took the initiative to fill the vacancy among the twelve left by Judas. He quotes two verses out of the Psalms as the proof texts for his actions. “May their place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in their tents.” (Psalm 69:25) And “Let his days be few; let another take his office.” (Psalm 109:8)
At first glance it appears that Peter is taking great liberty here to justify his process. These verses he quotes are single isolated verses taken from two separate unrelated psalms written a thousand years earlier. They were initially penned regarding two separate occasions when the psalmist had to deal with some very severe trials in his life. Tradition claims King David authored Psalm 69 referring to his many enemies although the specific occasion is not known. Psalm 109 another attributed to David, is a prayer for God to judge a case of false accusations.
How do we reconcile the fact that the Canon of Scripture accepts this and many other seemingly permissive uses of Old Testament passages quoted and applied in the New Testament? And since this is the case, how are we to view and practice in our own lives the handling the scriptures in a similar way? It is not uncommon for all believers to lift selected passages from both the Old and New Testament and claim them as guidance and applicable promises for our own lives.
Although to the casual observer Peter’s actions in Acts 1 may appear as him taking Scriptures out of context, in reality he is doing quite the opposite. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit he is applying them to a new “now” context in which life is once again being breathed through the same words. It is a demonstration of how the Holy Spirit, known as the Spirit of Truth, immediately begins to teach the disciples in Christ’s absence, just as He promised. (John 14:28 & 16:13) It is important to note that just days earlier, before His ascension, Jesus had breathed upon the disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22
Jesus’ teaching always links the Spirit with the Word. “The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life.” (John 6:63) Therefore the written Word and the illumination of the Holy Spirit must go hand in hand if the Scriptures are indeed to come alive as a living representation of Jesus who in John’s gospel is referred to as the Word of God.
Here is how this worked in Peter’s setting. Both psalms while referring to and denouncing the enemies of David have messianic implications. David was a type of Christ and ancestor of the promised Messiah. Peter’s use of these Scriptures therefore, in applying them to Judas the enemy and betrayer of Christ, would represent a proper object of the same denunciation. The Holy Spirit enlightened these verses for Peter and he took them and applied them in a new and living way.
So when should someone take Scripture out of context?
1. Take it when the Holy Spirit enlightens it and offers it to you. In such a case it becomes a living active word as a personal directive or promise in your life. (Hebrews 4:12)
And there is one other time when we are permitted, yes even encouraged to “take a Scripture out of context.”
2. Take it when you have the faith to claim it for yourself. I am talking here about faith in Jesus, the Word, whom Peter in his second epistle says has “given us many great and precious promises.” (2 Peter 1:3-4) We know that Peter uniquely understands this and is encouraging us to search for the life of the Holy Spirit to be found in the Scriptures that can be applied to whatever circumstance we find ourselves.
More to come: The most common Scriptures taken out of context.
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