Perhaps you have heard the story of the young man who was desperate to hear from God. So he prayed a quick prayer of guidance and opened his Bible at random. Looking down at the page, the words he read were: “And he (Judas) went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). He shuddered, slammed the Bible shut, and quickly dismissed any connection to himself. Then he said another, more earnest, prayer; tightly shut his eyes; opened his Bible again; and read: “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). “No!” he thought to himself, briefly doubting this guidance methodology. Giving it one more try, he prayed even more earnestly, took a deep breath, and paused as if to give divinity greater access to his trembling fingers. Once again he opened the sacred book and glanced down to see the words: “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:27). I never did find out what happened to him.
However humorous or tragic you may find this story; this method is fairly common. You may have used it yourself. Your life may have taken a significant turn based on this method. But is it a legitimate form of Bible reading? My guess is that most who would claim such a thing as a legitimate experience would not prescribe it as the normal every day way to read the Bible. Instead they regard it as a special moment in which God led them this way.
Whatever you think of this, it seems to me that many people approach the Bible in exactly this way without realizing it. Not the random part, but in the way we extract verses and apply them to our lives. Do we not read the Bible, hoping that God might speak to us from it? That’s reasonable. It is his written Word after all. But how does he speak to us from his Word? We happen to be going through a particularly difficult time, when that day’s reading includes the words: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2). Tears roll down our cheeks as if God had stepped into our room and personally spoken to us that everything will be okay. But those words were not spoken to us in the 21st century. They were given to the ancient Kingdom of Judah hundreds of years before Yeshua came about a time when the nation would be under Babylonian oppression. Is applying these words to our personal current problems really that different from the young man who randomly read, “You go, and do likewise”?
It doesn’t take much of a reading of Scripture to see that it wasn’t written directly to you and me. The bulk of Hebrew Scripture was written to ancient Israel and the New Testament to various audiences in the first century. Whatever the audience, the vast majority of what was written was not in the form of timeless sayings, but within particular contexts (there are a few exceptions, such as the Book of Proverbs). Yet this doesn’t stop us from treating the words of Scripture as if they were written directly to us today.
One of the times I was personally given a Bible verse by someone ended up being very instructive with regard to this subject. I was at a conference many years ago in Vancouver. During the lunch break on the last day, a few people were praying for me. It went longer than I would have liked and it got pretty intense (they meant well). It was getting near the time for the afternoon session to begin, when a woman I didn’t know was trying to take her seat in our row. Soon after, she spoke up, saying: “Pardon me, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I believe the Lord has something for you” (meaning me). It was Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Since then I have learned that many people have been given this verse, and I can understand why. If you’re going to take a verse out of context to encourage some struggling soul, it’s hard to find a better one. What can be better than to know that God’s plans for me are good and not bad? But in that moment, when I heard those words, the thought dropped in my mind: There is more to this than just the verse. So I made a mental note to look up the passage when I got the chance.
Around five that afternoon, when I was home trying to get some rest before supper and the conference’s final session, I remembered to look up the passage. It turns out it is Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon. Much of his book is pretty negative as it addresses the terrible consequences of the people of Judah’s rebellion against God near the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. The twenty-ninth chapter is one of the few positives in all of Jeremiah. Here the exiles are encouraged by God through the prophet to get on with their lives in a foreign land, because their situation is only temporary. The Jewish nation will be able to return to their homeland in seventy years. There is even a hint of a future greater restoration apart from the return from Babylon. As I read the chapter, I realized for the very first time, that God’s plans and purposes for my people, the people of Israel, were still in effect. Until then, I thought of Paul’s reference to the Gospel as being “to the Jew first” (Romans 1:16) as simply historical (the Gospel was presented to the Jews first and then after to the Gentiles). With the inclusion of non-Jews as part of God’s family, Israel, I thought, retained no special role in God’s plan. But in that moment, I realized I was wrong. As Paul writes elsewhere in Romans: “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). God’s promises to my people were yet to be fulfilled.
I don’t know what the woman who gave me the verse was thinking, but receiving Jeremiah 29:11 that day forever changed my life. Not only did it change my understanding of God’s relationship to our people, I also learned that I could personally count on God’s goodness, because of his ongoing commitment to us. My understanding of the context enabled me to not only grasp what God was saying through Jeremiah at the time, but it helped me to know God better and properly understand the implications of these words to myself in my own day.
Maybe Jeremiah 29:11 has been given to you too. For years it has been a source of encouragement as it convinced you that God has good plans for you. I am not saying he doesn’t. He does. Not because Jeremiah 29:11 was written directly to you, but because the faithfulness of God as expressed to Israel in Jeremiah’s day is the same faithfulness of God that has been extended to you because of your relationship to him through Yeshua.
The genius of Biblical narrative is that God’s truth is given to us within concrete examples. We don’t simply read about God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and so on as abstract concepts. Rather, we read about him and his attributes in practical terms. So instead of just reading “God has good plans for his people” as a universal timeless saying, we encounter these and other such words in the context of God’s goodness toward Israel, the activities of Yeshua and his early followers, and in letters to real communities of believers in actual places and situations. We see a people failing miserably at times (that’s Old and New Testament, by the way!), yet unable to divest themselves of God’s love and goodness. We can observe instances such as God’s encouraging of the exiles and derive encouragement for ourselves when we are in the most difficult situations. For if God’s plans were good for the Jewish exiles in Babylon, how much better plans must he have for those who have experienced his forgiveness and acceptance in Yeshua! Therefore, it isn’t illegitimate for you to claim Jeremiah 29:11 or other verses for your own. It’s that we need to understand how the power of these verses get from their original contexts to you and me.
Let’s return to my opening story about the young man’s attempt to hear from God by randomly opening the Bible. Can God ever use such a method? Of course he can, and I believe he has. But he does so in the same way that he might use anything else to get your attention about something. That doesn’t imply that this is the appropriate way to read and study Scripture. In fact, I suggest the more we learn the Bible within its context, the more, not less, God will speak to us through his Word. If reading it out of context has made a difference in your life, how much more difference will it make when you understand what God is really saying through it!