Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Missing the forest for the trees

My daughter and I were having one of our usual theological discussions last night. During the conversation, she said something to the effect of,

"Sometimes we think the Bible is just a PowerPoint presentation. The verses get turned into bullet points. We're interested in getting the answer to a question, so we cherry-pick the "bullet point" and forget that the verse is part of a chapter that's part of a whole book that's part of God's revelation."

This was good reminder because it's easy to miss the forest for the trees or the leaves for that matter.

If I'm looking for an answer to a question, I could look up all the verses that use a word related to my question. I could then draw a conclusion based on those verses. There's nothing inherently wrong with doing word studies, but my answer may be incorrect because I've pulled "bullet points" out of context.

For example, my pastor preached a sermon recently on Matthew 6:1-18 which covers giving, prayer, and fasting. If I focus solely on verses 16-18 and treat them as a treatise on fasting, I will miss the main point of the passage, which is verse 1 - "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."  There may be a helpful application regarding fasting, but if that's all I've gleaned, I've missed the forest for the trees.

"Greeting card" verses are another example. How many times have you heard "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" cover just about everything but the contentment Paul was referring to? (Phil. 4:10-13) I also recall a chorus that exhorted the singer to "Lift Jesus Higher." One line actually quotes John 12:32, but the subsequent verse refers to the crucifixion, not exalting Christ with our praise. Context makes a difference.

It may seem like nit-picking, but I want to read the Bible carefully. It can certainly answer questions and help me in very practical ways, but it's more than a spiritual search engine. It's God's Word about Himself, and I don't want to miss that.

Related articles:

Never Read a Bible Verse  Greg Koukl
Must I Learn How to Interpret the Bible?  D.A. Carson
Exegetical Fallacies  William Barrick

What Bible study tips or resources have helped you? Do you have a "favorite" out-of-context verse? Please share in the comments.


  1. I used the verse in Philippians while teaching this past Sunday, to remind the students about the importance of the context of suffering in the book of James.

    Another good book for helping to avoid word study pitfalls is D.A. Carson's Exegetical Fallacies.

  2. Your words are so true and unfortunately so many Christians don't realize the importance of context.

  3. Great insight Persis! We have to be careful how we handle the Word of God. There are many ways to make the Bible about what we want to say rather than what God wants us to know. Thank you!

  4. Jeremiah 29:11, for sure. Also, I really dislike some of the shmaltzified quotes on a photo background of a beach or birds or whatever, the kind usually hung in the bathroom above a toilet. I know we're supposed to have scripture all about us, but I'm just not sure that having christian gift shop products is the way to do it.

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    The Carson book is another to add to my list, Kim.

    Ah Jeremiah 29:11. That's one I've taken out of context in a big way. :)

  6. It amazes me how even now after all these years I'm still catching myself taking verses out of context because of sloppy exegetical teaching in my evangelical background. I'm so glad there's been a movement to correct this.

    And, btw, that Lydia is sharp as a tack!