When it comes to reading, studying, and interpreting the Scriptures, one thing my Christian college taught me well was the importance of context.
As a high school senior turned college freshman, I was serious about my relationship with Jesus, but majorly confused when it came to living out every command the Bible proclaims. All around me, I heard voices of rules to follow, activities to partake in, and life verses to quote and live by daily.
As I grew and developed into a more mature Christian, I was startled by the number of people around me that would quote a verse during my suffering and strike it onto every situation without understanding its connection or background.
“For I know the plans I have for you” was slapped on like a bandaid (Jeremiah 29:11).
“God will give you your heart’s desires” rooted pride in unseen places (Psalm 37:4).
“I can do all things through Christ” bred self-contentment and personal satisfaction (Philippians 4:13).
And while their words probably came from a sincere place of integrity, kindness, and hope, using Scripture severed from its placement is not biblical, holy, or helpful.
What are some of these misunderstood, misplaced, and misused commands? Unfortunately, some of the Bible’s best and most loved words of God are those that face the repercussions of displacement. As followers of The Way, The Truth, and The Life, it’s crucial that we place these verses back in context and live with the understanding that true knowledge and wisdom will come only through the Lord’s willingness to reveal such beauties to us by His guidance of discernment.
1. Jeremiah 29:11
Out of Context: As a friend gave me in college, Jeremiah 29:11 is often quoted when young teens or adults make significant life transitions. Combatting fear with Scripture, on the surface, it doesn’t seem harmful to note that the Lord has good plans for you wherever you go. Whether you go to the Dollar Store to buy a graduation greeting card or talk to a well-versed Christian, we quote this verse a lot.
In isolation, the verse proclaims that God has good plans for you, including riches, peace, and prosperity. While God does have good plans for you, the wealth, peace, and means that He brings are not evaluated or understood by earthly measures but heavenly ones.
In Context: It is not God’s will for you to be rich, happy, and living the American Dream, but to live a life worthy of the calling He’s placed on each of our lives. God may call you to periods of suffering, loss, and hardship just as much if not more than the periods of carefree, wealthy, and free living. However, He does promise to always be with you through the storms and find a future and hope that reside in Him alone.
Addressing the Hebrews exiled in Babylon, Jeremiah 29:11 was a promise God gave to His people during a testing time. According to Greek and Hebrew roots, “I know the plans” defines “yada” and “hashav” as God making a new plan for His people. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you” likewise expresses “shalom” and not “ra,” meaning that these new plans bring peace and not evil.
Application: God does know the plans that He has for you; after all, He’s the Creator of the Universe who formed you and understood every step before you’d ever take it. But when it comes to our future, it’s His plans full of peace and spiritual salvation that take precedence in our hearts. Jeremiah 29:11 is not a selfish declaration that the Lord will fulfill your goals with wealth, riches, and fame, but a confirmation that His will for your life will take priority over all.
2. Philippians 4:13
Out of Context: One of the worst ways that I’ve ever heard this verse used was to defend the righteousness of impure actions and motives. Declaring that on their strength, all things were possible because the Lord would be with them, I shuddered at the heart behind the proposition.
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
In Context: Paul is writing an appeal, encouragement, and prayer to those in Philippi that in his experience, even though he’s had to endure many trials, the Lord sustained him through each of them. While Paul likely wrote Philippians during his Roman imprisonment in AD 61 or 62, he did not write his message from the crisis but from support and hope.
Though he faced persecution, pain, and imprisonment, Paul knew what it was like to live with everything he needed or nothing at all. He genuinely knew what it meant to depend on the Lord for food, travel, and life itself because facing plenty and hunger, abundance or need, he sought the price of the cross above all else.
Application: Today, Philippians 4:13 can encourage us to press into the Lord for providence no matter what situation we are facing, but it should not be used as a means to state that we can do all things we want under the sun. While many things are permissible, remember that not everything is beneficial, and when it comes to serving the Lord, it’s not about “I can,” but “Him who strengthens me”.
The supernatural strength to face joys and hardships comes from He who sits upon the throne and has nothing to do with our power. This Scripture should incline our hearts to say “I can do all things” because of Him and not us. Philippians 4:13 is not a phrase to throw around before Ohio State faces Michigan in the playoffs or a plead for a test you didn’t study for, but a serious, loving command that reminds us it was never about “I” but “Him.”
3. Matthew 7:1
Out of Context: In the society we live in, people disagree over minor inconsistencies and then pull out this Scripture to note that they can do whatever they want when they desire, and no one should judge them. But shouting “Only God can judge me” is not holy, nor should it be used as a cop-out excuse to justify a misconstrued biblical theology.
“Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1)
In Context: In Matthew 7, Matthew writes a summary statement asking people to refrain from judging others around them without grave error or cause. Here, Biblical insights from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount deals with a call for righteousness over the Pharisees’ intellectual decisions.
While the Pharisees were preoccupied with the Law, they missed the Law standing in front of them, asking them to place away trivial affairs, and focus on what matters eternally (a relationship with Jesus!). With these commands, Jesus wanted to get to the heart of an individual. He wanted them to see that making oneself more righteous isn’t only an irrevocable disgrace of grace but a way of living that brings turmoil, heartache, and despair.
Application: Although many who quote this verse don’t understand the context surrounding it, Jesus tells us that if we judge others without taking a close look at ourselves, nothing fruitful will be produced for them or us. When Mathew 7:1 says, “Judge not,” the Scriptures are not proclaiming a free-all for ill-made intentions or sporadic decisions, but a grace with which we must choose to walk in daily.
The Christian call is not to judge others but to show them love, and that starts with dealing with our sins and errors before we go pointing out the specks in others’ hearts that sin differently than we do.
I’ve heard it said, “Don’t judge someone just because they sin differently than you.” While that quote can also be taken out of context, I find it crucial to understand that while Scripture does not prohibit examining others’ lives for helpful rebuke and teaching, that does not give us an excuse to do so with a severed and impure conscience.
While the Great Commission calls us to make disciples and help others wage war against sin, Matthew 7 warns against these actions in self-righteousness or hypocrisy. Correcting someone else comes at the price of being judged ourselves, and though we strive to strengthen one another in our weaknesses, don’t forget that to remove their speck, you have to be willing to pull out your log as well.
4. Ephesians 5:22
Out of Context: Though I am not married, if there is one verse that gets me fired up and defensive about, it’s Ephesians 5:22. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen too many people use and abuse this verse for improper means or simply because I’m a female. Still, this Scripture needs to be adequately defined, especially regarding the concept of submission.
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)
As I prepare for pre-engagement, engagement, and marriage, my boyfriend and I have made it a point to discuss the implications of obedience and what I call “give and take” in marriage. While I do not claim to be an expert, I believe that the number of men who use this verse to get women and wives to do whatever they want when they please is humiliating and abhorring.
In Context: According to Scripture, Ephesians 5 was written by the Apostle Paul during the same time frame as Philippians. Calling us to walk in love, Paul explains how to love ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ and then extends this love to husbands and wives. Calling us to be careful how we walk, I find it highly ironic that so many men tell their wives “you have to do X” because Scripture says, “wives submit to their husbands.” Sadly, this X is often filled with forced sexual pleasures, household duties, or whatever they see fit at the time.
While Scripture does make it clear that a husband and wife hand over their conjugal rights to one another once they are united as one, it is said that they do so out of love. It is not suitable for a husband to pressure or even force his wife to have sex with him, for is that love as Christ would love the Church? Absolutely not.
In the same manner, is it righteous for spouses to withhold sex from each other out of anger or disdain? Highly unlikely. Instead, both parties must work together to express their concerns and find a happy medium where they submit to one another mutually; that’s the love that Christ calls men and women to obey.
Application: The Christian marriage and commitment given to men and women through mutual submission are spiritual. The Christian marriage and responsibility given to men and women through force, coercion, and unequal submission are secular and deathly.
This idea of humility and meekness has nothing to do with a one sex reigning precedent over another, but two parties working together to represent Christ to the world. They work together as a robust military force would.
A loving wife or woman should be willing to show love to her husband, but a loving husband must treat her with the honor, respect, and love that Christ would give her. Our God is love, and love is not forced, coerced, or placed as a weight over someone’s head to get them to do what you want. We express mutual submission in love not because we have to, but because the Lord commands it, and we fear Him above all else. The motive for proper and Godly submission is not the Law but demonstrating a relationship with Christ to the world because we respect what His Law says.
5. Psalm 46:10
Out of Context: While I, too, have been guilty of quoting this verse out of context, I believe that the most problematic use with this verse is that we stop halfway through it.
“Be still and know that I am God,” we rattle off like a prayer (Psalm 46:10). But if we finish the Scripture, the entire verse reads, “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
Resting in the Lord is an excellent and necessary proclamation to live by, but choosing to relax and do nothing else, is problematic and dangerous to the Christian faith.
In Context: In the fullness of our verse, Psalm 46:10 tells us that no matter what we face in life, we can be still and know that God is God. However, resting in this place of contentment is only possible because He will preside over every circumstance life throws our way, and He will be praised.
Application: As a planner who loves spontaneity, I suspect that many of you reading this wish you knew everything about life. When you try to rest in the Lord, anxiety and a fear of the unknown overtake your neophobic soul like they do mine. It’s good to declare that if we choose to rest in the Lord, we can proclaim His goodness, for He is in control. However, what’s not good is to forge that interpretation without looking at the rest of the Scripture.
Resting in the Lord doesn’t mean sitting all day, twiddling your thumbs, and waiting on God to do everything. God created us to work and find fulfillment in that work, but while we do so, He wants us to reside in Him alone for our strength, nourishment, and fill-up.
As God’s people, His will comes to fruition, but as we live, we are called to live in obedience to Him.
The Sermon on the Mount