I’m starting a new series here on the blog called Contextual Healing. What we’ll be doing is taking a look at a few passages of Scripture that people routinely take out of context and bend to mean all sorts of things they were never supposed to mean. I read a recent article on Relevant’s web site called “Stop Taking Jeremiah 29:11 Out of Context” which I know a lot of people passed around these interwebs when it was posted. It got the wheels turning and seeing as how I love me some proper Biblical application, I figured this would be a fun series to write, a fun one to read, and gives me a chance to dust off my Logos library.
Now, this is not to disparage anyone or to put anyone down. It’s simply taking a look at some passages we take for granted and seeing if we’ve really been using them properly. I know I’ve always been blown away and energized when I’ve realized I’ve treated a passage improperly. I sincerely hope that your reaction is the same.
One thing that most people don’t consider when they’re reading their Bible is that the verses and chapter numbers were never intended to be a part of the book. When Luke sat down to write his Gospel and the book of Acts, he didn’t go through and break it into chapters and number different verses. He wrote two letters and they looked like, well, letters. The chapters and verses were added much later by scholars to make it easier to find things in the Bible. After all, it is much easier to find John 3:16 than “it’s right when he’s talking to that Nicodemus guy, third paragraph down.”
Chapters and verses were perhaps the best and worst thing to ever happen to the Bible in this regard. On one hand, it makes it extremely easy to find things that you’re looking for and to direct others to specific passages. On the other, it gives this false impression that somehow these individual sentences and pericopes1 are made to stand alone.
A word only has meaning in a sentence, which only has meaning in a paragraph, which only has meaning in a pericope, which only has meaning in a book. Thus, taking any one sentence or verse and removing it from its surrounding context is a surefire way to find yourself making some application errors.
One final thing before we get started. I will be operating under the guideline laid down by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their book How to Read the Bible for All its Worth2:
A text cannot mean what it never meant.
The original meaning and intent of a passage is paramount. If we’re to treat the Bible responsibly, we must look first to what the text meant to those who read it originally and then ask the Dippoldian3 question, “So what?” These processes are called exegesis and hermeneutics. They’re fancy words that mean looking for what the text meant and then discovering what it means for us now.
That brings us to our first case study. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 is an interesting one because not only do people take it out of context, they completely disregard the sentence as it is written in the translation they’re using.
abstain from every form of evil.
–1 Thess 5:22 (NRSV)
That’s probably not ringing any bells for anyone, so let’s go to the translation everyone quotes it in while they misapply it.
Abstain from all appearance of evil.
–1 Thess 5:22 (AV)
That probably looks more familiar. Can’t recall how many times I’ve had someone quote this verse to me with the assertion that if something looks like sin, then it automatically is sin. Without even consulting the context surrounding this verse, that belief becomes extremely problematic, quickly. You see Jesus did, well, a lot of things that looked like sin. This is why he’s called a drunkard and a glutton by his enemies.
”the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”
–Luke 7:32 (NRSV)
If doing something that looks like sin is in and of itself sin, we have a BIG problem on our hands. How can Jesus be the spotless lamb of God if he’s sinned by appearing to sin?
Let’s take a look at the context of the verse. Starting in verse 12, Paul starts wrapping up the letter with his final goodbyes and instructions. Here’s verses 12–22, the paragraph our verse in question appears in:
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
Let’s hone in on that last sentence, because this is the key:
Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
Paul is talking to this church about prophecies, of which there seem to be many. He warns them not to “despise” them. He’s essentially telling them not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Don’t just shut down prophecy in your church because some people have been abusing it. Anyone who’s spent time in a very charismatic church knows how easily and often this is done. Someone gets up and starts giving a “word from the Lord” and it quickly becomes apparent that they are just talking to talk. Likely, something like that is going on here.
Paul tells them not to stop everyone from prophesying, but to test everything. If it’s good, “hold fast”. This is a Greek word katechete which means to hold on to a belief or to continue to believe. So Paul is saying, hey if it’s a good prophecy, i.e., one from the Lord that is edifying to the believers gathered there, then hang on to that, believe that.
He then gives instructions on what to do to those that don’t pass this test. He says to “abstain from every form of evil.” The word for “abstain” here is apechesthe. It means to get away from or to be a great distance from. This is why the HCSB and the NLT translate it “stay away” rather than “abstain”. It precisely means to put distance between you and the object.
So, we have this back and forth here. Don’t accept everything blindly, but don’t toss everything away either. There’s good and evil, know the difference and discern accordingly. Hold on to the good prophecies, get away from the bad ones. Like the Heisman Trophy.
The football is the good prophecies, the stiff arm is for the bad ones.
So, you take the good, you shun the bad, you test them both and then you have the facts of life. …Or at least this passage.
Chunks of paragraphs that contain a common thread. For example, if you go to John 3 in the NIV, you should see the heading “Jesus Teaches Nicodemus”. This is the title the publishers of the NIV have given to this pericope. There will be some disagreement from translation to translation on where these lines should be drawn, but remember they’re not a part of the text. They’re just there, like chapters and verses, to give some organization. ↩
Dr. David Dippold was a professor of mine at Valley Forge Christian College. He asserted that you should always ask the passage you’ve just read that question. It’s an extremely helpful method. He’s also a tremendous teacher and person. It is impossible to not love Dippold. ↩