“And now Israel, listen carefully to these laws and regulations that I am about to teach you. Obey them so that you may live, so you may enter and occupy the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you from the Lord your God. Just obey them.” (Deuteronomy 4:1-2) NLT
“So Moses told the people, ‘You must obey all the commands of the Lord your God, following his instructions in every detail. Stay on the path that the Lord your God has commanded you to follow. Then you will live long and prosperous lives in the land you are about to enter and occupy.” (Deuteronomy 5:32-33)
These words were written by Moses to express the importance of not altering the instructions God had given them. He had finally given them the law to help them know right from wrong. Moses connected the dots between their obedience and the quality of their lives. The two are related. A paraphrase might be, “Don’t twist these instructions to your benefit. Don’t ignore the parts you don’t want to hear. Live out every word, and prosper.” These words could also apply to us today as we try to figure out how to use this gift called the Bible.
If you are a first time Bible reader, you might want to be aware of a subtle pitfall that ensnares many of us. Have you ever sent an email that you thought was perfectly fine only to find out the reader did not take it well? What if the reader focused on one sentence of your message and ignored the rest? He might completely misunderstand what you were trying to communicate. A similar dynamic exists with the Bible. The Bible authors did not expect their writings to be broken up into verses that would later be asked to stand alone. It’s very easy to read a sentence in isolation and assume a meaning that was not intended by the author. We wouldn’t want a sentence found in something we wrote to be used that way. Every sentence has some context found in the text around it, in the purpose of the book in which it is found, in the culture at that time, etc. It’s important to understand what the author meant so you can apply the lessons learned correctly. What was the author trying to communicate?
There are many who teach that the context of a passage is not important because the meaning found in the scripture changes as we change. In other words, whatever it means to you today is what it means. And, it means different things to different people on different days. The Holy Spirit gives you the interpretation you need for that day. This is an interesting concept, but there are issues with this approach. First, it allows interpretation of scripture to be easily influenced by our mindset, our circumstances, our desires, etc. Also, as a rule the biblical authors either had spoken to eye-witnesses or were eye-witnesses themselves to the things they were writing about. It seems arrogant to ignore contextual information they have provided as if we know better than they do. As we seek to understand scripture, the Holy Spirit of course plays a critical role. But, is it wise to walk into a final exam simply trusting the Holy Spirit to give you the right answers without studying your notes the week before? Those of us who are procrastinators may have given this a try, so maybe they can share how it went. It seems clear that we should use all of the information at our disposal to be as accurate as possible and then trust the Holy Spirit to fill in the gaps.
Misunderstanding scripture can certainly impact your life. If you completely ignore the passage context, you can pretty easily find verses that make you feel good about most bad decisions you might want to make. But there are always consequences. We end up making decisions believing we are being directed by God, only to discover that our venture did not end well at all. We might be tempted to be disappointed with God for not coming through, when the plan wasn’t really God’s in the first place. Trying to stand on a promise that doesn’t exist does not cause God to rush to our aid. God wants us to know him, to know what truth is, and stand on truth. God’s true promises are like an oasis. When we create mirages for ourselves, we only walk away disappointed.