Category Archives: How to Study the Bible

The Importance of Context

Jeremiah 29:11
Jeremiah 29:11

I almost titled this post, “There is a Verse for That!”, because almost any point we want to make we can find a verse that will support that point, if . . . and this is a big if, the passage is taken out of context. Want to show that God always wants to heal you . . . there is a verse for that. Want to show that God wants you to be rich . . . there is a verse for that. Want to show that God wants you to never face trials . . . there is a verse for that. You get the idea. By taking small passages, and presenting them out of context, you can prove almost anything. It is a favorite technique of Christian T-shirt vendors, and a mainstay of facebook theology.

In order to illustrate this point, lets look at perhaps the most misused scripture in all the Bible. This would be Jeremiah 29:11

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. (New King James Version, NKJV)

Wow, what an encouraging verse. God wants all believers always to have nothing but peace and hope and a bright future.

Now the next trick that is used is to look at all the different Bible translations, and pick the most optimistic of all the different translations. In the case of Jeremiah 29:11 we can even wring out a better promise if we use the NIV, which reads:

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.

BAM! We now have a Biblical basis for the prosperity Gospel. Don’t you see . . . God wants to prosper us and make us rich!

Now lets pause and break it down and study it more carefully in context. You can start the process by reading the entire chapter of Jeremiah 29. What we find is that God’s chosen people, the Jews had for a very long time been living in rebellion to God. God had sent many prophets to warn and correct them, but they had all been ignored. As their disobedience grew worse and worse, God finally decided to pour out his judgment on the nation of Israel. He did this by sending the Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem. Many died horrible deaths during the siege, and then afterwards, most of them were slaughtered by the Babylonian army. A small remnant was sent into slavery to Babylon. He promised through the prophets that they would be in captivity 70 years. Now, after all this judgment on His people, He gave them a word of encouragement. If they would seek Him with all their hearts, He would return to them.

So, the conclusion from the chapter is NOT that God will always give all His people peace and hope and a bright future under all circumstances. The message is that He holds His people accountable, and does reach the point that He disciplines them, and that discipline can be quiet painful.

So a really important point is that we should never conclude anything from a verse without first reading the whole chapter. A second point is that the next step is to consider the topic of the chapter, and then read the entire Bible to see how God deals in the broader sense with the topic at hand. In this case, on the topic of God correcting His chosen children, we can see throughout the Old Testament and New Testament that He calls His children to Obedience, Righteousness, and Holiness. That  He will Rebuke, Chastise and Punish those He loves for their refinement and purification. Even more broadly we learn that God, in His Sovereignty will allow trials and persecution to come to those He loves simply so His strength and His Glory can be shown through the Believers trial.

I am not trying to paint a mean picture of God. I am just trying to show that the attributes of God, and how He deals with His children is much more complex than He is always concerned that our circumstances are pleasant. If we believe that, then we are not equipped to properly interpret hard times that will come into all of our lives.