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Understanding the Bible

– for ordinary Christians

Jacob Ninan

Chapter 7


One of the most important things to consider, apart from all that we have already looked at, is the context in which a verse occurs. Unfortunately, many Christians who have been told about the divine (verbal and plenary) inspiration of the Bible, infallibility and inerrancy, tend to take each sentence in the Bible as standalone truth, irrespective of where it occurs. Let us look at some common mistakes.

Isaiah 53 (NASB)
1 Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
3 He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.
6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.
7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
9 His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
10 But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.

If we take a portion of v.5, “And by His scourging we are healed,” or “with His stripes we are healed” (KJV), and use it as text to prove that physical healing from sickness is a part of the atonement which is to be claimed by every child of God, we go astray. If we read the whole passage it should become clear that the entire focus is on Jesus dying for our sins, and it is spiritual healing that is being addressed here.

Somebody might point out that Matthew says that the miraculous healings that Jesus did were a proof of this promise (Isa.53:4) that “He Himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases” (Matt.8:17). But what Matthew actually says is, “This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet.” If we look at the way Matthew tries in his narrative to show that Jesus is the Messiah that the prophets were speaking about, we can understand that he was only trying to say that Jesus was the One Isaiah was talking about.

If we have a doubt about what this verse could actually mean, what we need to do is to examine the new covenant teachings to see if that concept is taught there. While we do see there accounts of many being healed miraculously, we do not find anything that teaches us that we now have right to expect complete healing for every sickness because Jesus has suffered for us. On the contrary, there is plenty of teaching on how Jesus came to save us from our sins. We can now understand how this misuse of a sentence out of context can cause such a lot of confusion among people.

3 John
1 The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.
2 Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.

To anyone who reads this in a normal way it is clear that this is a letter to an individual called Gaius, and that the second verse is just a form of greetings and good wishes. But for some people, “in all respects you may prosper,” has become a proof text for the ‘prosperity gospel’. They look at this as a promise from God which He has given in His word! Several different misunder-standings are involved in that particular assumption.

Matthew 5:39. “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” If we look at this sentence alone and also remember that this is directly coming from Jesus, it might appear to us as if Jesus is giving us a command to follow. But as a wise guy has pointed out, only a left handed person can normally slap us on our right cheek, and so our need for obeying this will be very rare! But the fact that Jesus did not mean this to be obeyed is clear from the fact that Jesus reacted in a very different way when He was struck by someone (Jn.18:22,23). If we look at the context we will see that this statement occurs along with some other unrealistic ‘commands’ (Matt.5:38-42). If we look at the overall passage and look beyond the words to the implied meaning we can see that Jesus was teaching us the attitude of bearing with injustice when we come across some unreasonably evil people, and not giving us commands to be strictly obeyed.

“Go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Mk.10:21). Jesus said this to a rich young ruler who had a great love for money, and not to everyone in general. We see that the letters to the churches do not tell us all to follow this practice. We can also imagine what would happen at a practical level if every single one of us were to obey that! In the early days of the church some people like Barnabas sold off their properties and laid the money before the apostles, possibly believing that Jesus was going to come back very soon. We also see that this practice was not continued for much longer.

“And after he brought them out, he said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household’ (Acts.16:30,31). This was a question from the jailer in Philippi about the way he could be saved, and the answer was that salvation was through believing in Jesus—for all people, including him and his family members. Can this be a general promise from God that when someone believes in Jesus, his family members were also going to get saved? Certainly the family members now get the opportunity to hear the gospel and see this person’s transformation with their own eyes. But they themselves have to put their faith in Jesus before they can be saved, and there is no promise that one man’s faith can save his family too.

We have already seen the statement from the Bible, “There is no God.” We must have laughed when we also saw that the verse says, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psa.14:1). All such examples illustrate the point that we need to read the Bible intelligently and not take verses from here and there blindly. Sometimes the immediate context (what comes immediately before and after) is sufficient to help us to understand the true meaning of any text. But in some cases we may also need to look at the rest of the book, the context of the book itself, and what the rest of the Bible, especially the new covenant teachings have to say.

When we hear a preacher quoting from the Bible, whatever reputation he may have, we need to take the caution of checking in our Bible what he says, whether it is the full verse and whether it means in the context of the Bible passage what he says. If we want to understand what a particular verse is intended to mean for us, one simple thing we can do is to see what the verses before and after are talking about. This helps us to get to the immediate context of the sentence. We can also look at the bigger passage within a chapter, the chapter itself and its relevance within the book. Another helpful thing is to look at the cross-references for this verse (which are usually given in study Bibles in the centre or side of the page). These references will lead us to know what other parts of the Bible have to say in relation to this verse, and that will help us to get better clarity about God’s teach on the subject. This is a good habit which can save us from a lot of error (Acts.17:11).

Chapter 8 – Understanding the Bible

Would you like to take a short course on the fundamental truths of the Bible? Then click here.

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