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Fortune Cookie Christianity

“The Bible was written for us,
but it was not written to us.”

Western culture is not only becoming illiterate, but also Bible illiterate. Rejecting the Word confounds our words. Language is the gift of the Spirit.

Sadly, this Bible illiteracy includes Christians, who can rarely muster an understanding of the text beyond isolated verses. The problem with this particular way of reading the Bible is that God’s Word is not a collection of magic mantras or fortune cookie messages.

The Bible was written for us, but it was not written to us. We are reading somebody else’s mail, so we must interpret it in context before we can accurately apply it to ourselves. First interpretation, then application.

Doug Haley shares an experience of this kind of reading which not only reveals it to be a false comfort, but also reveals the only source of true comfort for the Christian. He writes:

Some years ago, I was undergoing a particular trial related to having been appointed to a parish where the minister was in significant conflict with the elders of the church. Through no fault of my own I was made for a twelve month period the meat in the sandwich so to speak. Late in that difficult year I visited a Christian friend who with well meaning zeal quoted Jeremiah 29:11 to me and told me not to worry, because God knew the plans he had for me. It was well meant and I took it as such, but as a biblical exegete [interpreter] it really rubbed me the wrong way.

Jeremiah 29:11 is a single line from a prophecy given to Israel while they are in the midst of their exile to Babylon. The immediate context of the passage also talks about a time when the 70 years of exile will have been completed, and when God will gather them from the nations to which He has driven them.

Did my friend intend to apply the rest of the passage to me as well by implication? Was he then implying that my time in this conflicted parish was God’s punishment upon me for some disobedience? Or was the point that I still had a period of punishment to run before God would once again restore me?

Elements of the story
cannot be taken from the story
without affecting their meaning.

The prophecy was given to a people in the midst of punishment for their disobedience. It cannot be lifted from its context as if it is some magical spell, where the form of words contains the power to deliver. Rather it is an expression of God’s intention towards a particular people at a particular time. Even if it can be generalised into a principle regarding the way God treats his people, it cannot be picked apart so that the nasty bones of prophecy are gone, leaving only the nice soft juicy bits.

Prior to this experience, I had academically understood the importance of context to meaning, but it is this event which has stuck in my mind ever since as a reminder that all texts, and Scripture perhaps more than any other, are integral texts. The meaning of any given portion of a text is effected by its relationship to its surrounding texts and the particular cultural and historical milieu into which the prophecy was given.

In the case of the Bible this understanding is even more important because of the single unifying purpose that overarches both the Scriptural record and the History it recounts. Because God orders all events, all the events are part of a huge pattern of God’s sovereign working in time. Because of that ordering they all effect each other. Elements of the story cannot be taken from the story without affecting their meaning. That being the case, to remove a text from its context without understanding its relationship to that context is actually to distort the passage, to misunderstand it, and in the case of my well meaning friend, to misapply it.

God knew the plans he had for Israel beyond their punishment for disobedience, He knew the plans He had for Jesus beyond the cross, and He knows his plans for me, but those plans are wrapped up in Jesus, who has born my punishment in my place. Because Jesus stood in the place of God’s wrath for me, my future can never be separate to His, and God’s plans for me will always be a reflection of His plans for Him. Without the context I might think that prophecy was all about my getting rich, or well, or happy. It’s not. It’s about me passing through the purifying fire to be reborn to new life for the sake of the world. God’s plans are good, and He knows them alright, but woe to the man who tries to rewrite them after his own likeness.

May God bless you today with a vision of His better purposes for you.

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