Is it ever possible, when we look at verses of the Bible, to overemphasize the context?
I stumbled on this question recently when I posted this on facebook:
Much to my surprise, a friend of ours very kindly took the time to tell me that I was completely misusing 1 Corinthians 2:9 – that it wasn’t about heaven at all. Well, it’s true that in context, heaven is not the main idea in view, but does that mean I misused the verse? Maybe so. But on the other hand, I found myself asking: Is it possible to improperly limit a verse’s range of meaning by the context?
Let me say up front that I have no formal training in exegesis, no knowledge of Biblical languages worth speaking of and no particular qualifications for speaking on this issue. So this post is just an ordinary Christian thinking out loud about exegesis and scripture use.
I also want to emphasize that between ignoring context and giving too much weight to context (if there is such a thing), by far the worse error is the first one. For instance, to quote James 2:24 by itself, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” and set it in opposition to Ephesians 2:8-9 or Romans 3:28 is absolutely wrong. James 2:24 needs to be understood in light of James 2:14-23, where James explains that the “faith alone” he’s talking about is an empty talk faith which is dead and therefore is actually no faith at all.
So ignoring the context is the root of many heresies, but what about my question? Is there a place for giving a verse meaning outside of its context?
Well, first of all, New Testament authors do use Old Testament verses outside their original context. For instance, Matthew relates how when Herod sought to destroy Jesus as child, Joseph took him to Egypt and later returned. Then he writes, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son,'” (2:15). The prophet he’s quoting is Hosea who writes, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son,” (11:1). I can’t see anything in Hosea to indicate that this is a Messianic prophecy or any kind of prophecy at all, but Matthew has no problem using it that way. Apparently the words, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” can have more meaning than the meaning they carry in the context of Hosea 11.
Another verse worth looking at is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse is applied and misapplied to a wide variety of situations, but if we look at the context of verses 11-13, we can see that the only thing Paul has in view is his ability to be content whether he has much or little. If we limit the meaning of verse 13 to no more than what Paul uses it for in Philippians 4, then it does not speak to any subject other than contentment. But how can we make the words “all things” mean “be content”? Wouldn’t it be better to say that Philippians 4:13 is exactly as broad as it sounds, and that what Paul is saying is that since he is capable of doing anything by Christ’s strength, then his ludicrous claim to be able to be content in any circumstance is actually true. And surely no one would deny that there is nothing at all that is too difficult for us if God strengthens us to do it. When people misapply this verse, it’s not a failure to see that it speaks to nothing other than contentment. Rather they presume on Christ’s strength, forgetting that it is only available to us to accomplish his will, not for us to use however we want.
So what about 1 Corinthians 2:9? Here’s the passage:
6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”— 10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
So verse 9 by itself may sound like it’s talking about how awesome heaven will be, but we see the passage is about the superiority of God’s revelation over human wisdom. The things that no eye has seen and so forth, are said in verse 10 to have been revealed to us already. The things spoken of are not the glories of paradise, but the truths of the gospel. That is unquestionably what is meant by verse 9 in context. But is that the same thing as to say that the words of verse 9 cannot be referred to as a description of anything other than the truths of the gospel in view in verse 10? I don’t think anybody would say that everything described by this phrase has been revealed already: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Isn’t it clear that the things that are said to be revealed in verse 10 are merely a portion of those things described in verse 9? Just like in Philippians 4:13, Paul takes a statement that can have a broad range of application and employs it in one specific context. But looking beyond Paul’s specific concerns in 1 Corinthians 2, is it really inappropriate to see that the language of 1 Corinthians 2:9 can be used as both a true and edifying description of the future home of all the saints? Would we be wrong to hear echoes of Matthew 25:34 and John 14:2-3 in the phrase “what God has prepared for those who love him”? (my ESV Study Bible lists the first one as a cross reference). I would have a hard time being quick to say that it is certainly wrong to think of heaven in conjunction with 1 Corinthians 2:9.
I think it’s a small paradox of language that somehow the meaning of specific words in a passage is dependent on their context, and yet the context is made up of the meanings of specific words. It feels a little chicken-and-eggish to me, and although we do it every day with great accuracy, I’m not entirely sure how. It seems to me that individual verses do have meaning of their own that can stand independently from the passage in which they’re found. I would be happy, however, to be completely refuted which would be better than to be found to be “wise in my own sight.”
“I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.” -Matthew 11:25