Texts and Contexts

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Many years ago, when one of our kids came into the world, we received a framed verse of Scripture to hang in the baby’s room.
It read, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children…”  (Psalm 14:2)
I thought that was lovely.  I also thought it was strange that I had never really noticed that verse before.  One night I picked up my Bible and decided to give Psalm 14 a closer look.  Here’s what I found:
“The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.  All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:2-3).  Suddenly I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about that beautifully framed bit of calligraphy. 
Followers of Jesus, for a long time, have succumbed to an unfortunate habit. 
We cut and paste Old and New Testament texts as if Scripture is a Microsoft Word document that we can shape according to our tastes and needs – extracting words from their original contexts and presenting them as if we now have the right to say, “Here’s what the Bible says.”
I once heard a preacher declare that the Holy Spirit had foreseen modern urban traffic congestion through the voice of one of the Old Testament prophets: “The chariots storm through the streets, rushing back and forth through the squares.  They look like flaming torches; they dart about like lightning” (Nahum 2:4). 
It would seem wiser, however, to honor the fact that that very same prophet makes it clear he is actually describing columns of Babylonian chariots invading Nineveh six centuries before Christ. 
Let’s be honest: You can “prove” virtually anything if you collect a few Bible words here and mingle them with a few other verses over there.  There are celebrated “prooftexts” for reincarnation, astrology, extraterrestrial visitors, and telepathy.  Entire ministries are founded on the notion that God wants you to be rich, and that he is obligated to give you whatever you want if you discover the right way to frame your requests. 
Do you remember the one about the guy who was desperately seeking God’s guidance? He decided to open the Bible at random. His finger came down on this verse in Matthew: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” Hoping for a somewhat more encouraging message, he tried again. This time his finger came down in Luke: “Go and do likewise.”

A text without a context is a pretext.
That’s one of the bedrock principles of Bible interpretation. What it means is that we must never stake our lives on our understanding of a few words. There’s no such thing as a stand-alone verse of Scripture.  We must always look carefully at the ever-widening concentric circles of context.   

For instance, words and phrases make sense only when we look at the sentences in which they appear.  The meaning of sentences is dependent on paragraphs, paragraphs become clear in the context of chapters, and chapters are comprehensible only in the light of the entirety of a biblical book.  
But there’s an even wider context to consider.  How does a particular text jibe with the Bible’s basic storyline – the narrative that weaves its way through all 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation?   
Anglican bishop and biblical scholar N.T. Wright suggests that we look at Scripture as a play in five acts (even while he admits that others might suggest that there are a different number of acts). 
Wright’s five acts are Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, and Church. 
Creation is described in Genesis 1-3, while Fall takes place in Genesis 4-11.  Israel begins in Genesis 12 and goes all the way to the end of the Old Testament.  Jesus is comprised of the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Church begins with the book of Acts and continues to the end of the Bible.
So now we must ask ourselves: Where are we in the play? 
Wright believes that we are still in the fifth act.  The Church part of the play has been in continuous progress for 20 centuries.  While this may qualify as an interesting observation, does it actually make any difference over the next 24 hours?     
It makes a world of difference if we’re struggling with how to respond to parts of the play from previous acts.  Should we, like God’s people during the time of ancient Israel, give up shrimp cocktails?  Should we consider ourselves unclean if we touch a dead body, or choose not to work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday?  What should we do with Jesus’ command to his disciples not to share the Good News with Gentiles? 
Those are definitely parts of the play.  But they are not our parts.  We’re not called to “say those lines,” so speak, during our few moments on the stage.
And that can make a huge difference when we’re trying to figure out how to understand the Bible and live lives that are pleasing to God in the 21st century.
Not to mention the fact we’ll be miles ahead the next time someone gifts us with some beautifully framed calligraphy.