When we quote something without examining the context in which it was uttered, we run the risk of misunderstanding the full intent of the original speaker.
Here are a few examples of what I mean:
- We often hear “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” quoted. It is even inscribed on the façade of the University of Texas at Austin Main Building Tower as a tribute to the pursuit of knowledge. However, this is only part of Jesus’s statement quoted in John 8:32, which is a conditional statement. (John 8:31, 32) It reads in full:
Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;
And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
The truth about Jesus, who said he is the truth (John 14:6), is what will set us free.
- Then there is this:
“I can do all thing through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) We often take this to mean God will empower us to accomplish anything we set out to do. However, when we examine the context in which Paul said this, it takes on a very different meaning (Philippians 4:11-13):
“Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.
I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
In this context, the meaning is more like “I can endure all thing through Christ who strengths me.
Remember Jesus has told us “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
Paul considered the suffering and loss he endured to be nothing compared to what he gained as a disciple of Christ. He desired “that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed unto his death.” (Philippians 3:8-10)
In other words, suffering is to be expected, but valued as it can bring us closer to Christ. In that context, we can do all things needed to endure because of Christ’s help.
3. And how about:
We like to receive this promise for ourselves:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Examining the immediate context we see that this was spoken to those Israelites who were in captivity in Babylon. And it continued,
“Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:12-14)
The promise was contingent on the Israelites seeking God with their whole hearts. And that meant obeying the commandments that he gave them. Apparently they did for a time, for as had been prophesied in Scripture, the Jewish people were allowed to return to Jerusalem after 70 years of exile. That prophecy was fulfilled in 537 B.C., and the Jews were allowed by King Cyrus of Persia to return to Israel and begin rebuilding the city and temple. The return under the direction of Ezra led to a revival among the Jewish people and the rebuilding of the temple.
But unfortunately this did not last. For as God had reminded them many years before,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:6-8)
And they began to substitute their own rules and regulations in place of what God’s intentions were with his commandments. God continued to send prophets to warn them of the consequences of their rebellion for a time. But after the prophecy of Malachi around 420 B.C. God was silent for more than 400 years until the arrival of John the Baptist to herald the coming of God’s only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to live among us in the flesh, demonstrating how God intends for us to live on this earth and inviting all to join him in the everlasting kingdom of God. He corrected many of the misconceptions people had of the scriptures, saying “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” And he chastised the religious leaders for their self-righteous attitude, saying.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23)
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matthew 23:25)
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13)
“And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” (Luke 11:46)
“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:6-8)
And Jesus lamented over their stubborn refusal to take to heart what he was saying and change their understanding of God’s intentions for them,
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
And, as a result, he prophesied that because of their rejection of God’s plans for them their corrupt religious system and the magnificent temple they had built would all be destroyed. That destruction was completed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
The lesson here should be pretty obvious for us today. When we neglect the fact that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and his ways than our ways, and stubbornly insist of doing things our way instead of following God’s directions, we lose out on his intentions for us and reap the whirlwind. That is to say we can only claim God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11 for ourselves when we are obedient to his leading.
There are doubtless many other examples of scripture promises we tend to claim without examining the context in which they were given. But these examples should suffice to make it clear that we do so at our own peril. Yes, context is extremely important.