Part 2 – Prescribed or Described?
When I was in my next to last semester of Seminary I found myself in a bit of a pickle. Coming to the end of my graduate school program I was taking two classes that were very similar in topic and in textbooks. At first this came in handy as I was able to use the material from one class and carry it over into the other. The problem I ran into was that the work was often hard to keep separate and I had to be careful not to submit one class’ work in place of the other one.
The problem capitulated when I submitted what I felt was a very good 12 page book analysis only to see my grade appear around a week later as a 0/F. There was a tidy little note in the comments section from my professor stating, “This is a very good paper. However, it was not on a book for this course.” I had made the dreaded mistake of submitting the wrong paper for the wrong class. What’s more, the grade I received dropped my class grade down an entire letter grade. I was pretty bummed but decided to write the paper on the actual book for the class and emailed it to my professor anyway to see what help, if any, it might bring.
After receiving my message (and the replacement paper on the correct book that I spent the entire day writing) I received a surprising message in return. He told me that he had seen this happen before with other students and that he appreciated the hard work I did in the first paper as well as the second. His final line simply said, “This is an example of what grace looks like.” And when I looked at my grades again my 0/F was replaced with a 100/A. He accepted my replacement paper and felt I did more than an acceptable job.
What this story taught me (besides how to make sure I did the right work for the right classes) was that proper context was the key to understanding. I needed to read the proper directions so that I did my work the right way the first time. Much like the example above, the idea of context is essential when reading any text. Remember the two examples we looked at last time; misreading the newspaper gave me the wrong forecast for a hurricane and misreading the love letter from another person made me believe it was intended for me when it never was. Taking those two texts out of context made me make drastically wrong conclusions.
This is even more important when we study and teach from the Bible. Of all the texts that have ever been written, for the Christian, this text is the most important because (if we believe what the text itself claims) it contains the very words of God. To misread it could lead to dramatically wrong conclusions and can mislead many people who trust the teacher/preacher with their eternal perspectives. This is a very heavy weight to consider. James, the brother of Jesus, taught that:
 Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1 NLT)
It is essential that teachers/preachers should be able to rightly interpret the Bible in its proper context so that we are not led astray and that we do not lead others astray as well. This practice has caused many a preacher to cause other Christians to stumble, to try and please the hearer rather than teach the truth of the Scriptures, or to even seek fame & fortune over the applause of God. We must be able to study the Bible rather than read it so that, “ Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth.” (Ephesians 4:14 NLT)
Last week we prescribed reading the Bible in context looking at these five areas:
- Author(who wrote it and why did they feel the need to write it?)
- Audience(who was it written to and why did they need to receive it?)
- Atmosphere(what was the historical and cultural setting it was written in?)
- Accuracy(how does what I am reading align with other parts of the Bible?)
- Application(what can I learn from the passage to apply to my own life?)
Since that particular entry was running long I did not take the time to give you a proper example of how this would look in practice. I figured now was as good a time as any, right? So, let’s pretend you are studying the Bible during your morning devotional time and you come across Jeremiah chapter 29. You get excited because you know you are coming up to a familiar passage that has been on t-shirts, stickers, and many inspirational pictures. It says:
 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11 NLT)
This has been a favorite of yours over the years and it has often been a passage that has given you hope in times of trouble. It has been something you have had on office plaques, heard many preachers preach, and even something you have said to loved ones when they are going through turbulent situations in life. In short, this verse is a foundation for hope in God’s goodness when life fails to show you that God is present in your struggles.
Here is the problem with that verse, as well as a few others we will look at: it is a description rather than a prescription. A description tells you about something that has happened, whereas a prescription tells you something that you should do. Think of it this way; imagine you go to the doctor and he tells you that you have developed a sinus infection in your body. Because of that sinus infection, he prescribes you an antibiotic to take that will cure your illness. The sinus infection was the description of what happened and the antibiotic is the prescription of what you should do to get well again.
Many times, because people read the Bible without a sound approach (aka a hermeneutic) they take a description of something that happens in a passage of Scripture and turn it into a prescription of something they should do in their lives. This way of reading the Bible not only takes the passage out of context but it gives the reader a chance to twist the Bible to fit their preconceived notions rather than twisting their beliefs to fit the Bible. Taking passages out of context not only makes them say something they were never intended to say but it also is a very dangerous path than can lead people away from the faith (or at least cause them to stumble in their beliefs).
Let me show you what I mean; I have seen people who have clung to this verse as a source of comfort become let down when God did not bring them the ‘hope and future’ that they were looking for. Family members with illnesses never recover and die, tragedy strikes and healthy people become disabled, and those with bright futures die young and never experience the fullness of life. All of these situations are real life and happen every day. Yet, if God wants all of his followers to have a hope and a future, what about these examples? Did they not have as much faith as someone who gets to live to 100 years old and experience all that life has to offer? Were they not as pious or as devoted? Were they not just as loved by God as those who suffer and die or experience hardship and pain for their entire lives?
This is the struggle behind the misinterpretation of the Jeremiah 29:11 passage; it was never intended to say that God will give every one of his followers a hope and a future. To say so would undermine what we see in life every day as well as the truth about the trials and tribulations Jesus said his followers would face. God never has promised health, wealth, and prosperity to his followers. In fact, Jesus said his followers should expect persecution for being known as his disciple. Every one of the Apostles was killed for their faith except for John and church history teaches us that the only reason he was not killed was that the Roman Empire tried to boil him in oil but he would not burn. So instead, they put him on a prison island until he died of old age.
Over the next three centuries Christians would be martyred by the thousands on a regular basis by the Roman Empire because of their faith in Christ. They would be slaughtered in the Coliseum, imprisoned by local rulers, executed by governing officials, and even dipped in tar and set on fire to light the roadways at night. Yet, because of their devotion to Christ, Christianity spread like wildfire throughout Rome and eventually would become the national religion of Rome. These most devoted followers of Christ did not receive a hope and a future; instead, they experienced pain, suffering, and death for their faith.
The passage in Jeremiah 29 was never meant to be a security blanket for the Christian faith. Let’s put our 5 A’s into practice to see what it was really meant to say. The ‘author’ of the book of Jeremiah was a prophet whom God would use to let Israel know of the impending judgment God was bringing to Israel for their disobedience. The ‘audience’ was the Jewish people whom God was going to judge for their failure to be wholly devoted to God by allowing them to be conquered and led into slavery by another nation.
The ‘atmosphere’ the text was written in was during the years 627 BC to 582 BC when the Babylonians conquered Judah. The ‘accuracy’ of the text lines up with what other contemporary prophets wrote concerning judgment for Israel’s disobedience and the ‘application’ of this text would show that God desires wholehearted devotion to him. The purpose of the text is not to give a promise to Christians 2,500 years later of a prosperous life but rather a promise that, eventually, God would bring Israel out of slavery and back to their homeland.
When this passage is read in proper context (check out the surrounding verses to make sure what I’m telling you is the truth) the reader can clearly see that this was never meant to be a prescription of how to live life in 2016 AD but rather that God was giving a promise to Israel that he would give them a hope and future to come back to their homes after their slavery to Babylon in 582 BC. When the passage is taken as a prescription rather than a description it can be twisted out of context and forced into a mold of a false promise that God never intended to make to his followers.
Why does this even matter? Because the validity of the Bible to others as well as its proper application in the life a Believer can mean the difference between eternal life and eternal death depending on the way it appears to others. If we fail to properly read, study, and apply the Bible we can force God to say things he never intended and can cause a stumbling block to be placed in front of those who cannot stand up to this kind of disappointment.
While there a numerous other passages we could tackle with this same principle, my challenge to you is to study the Bible and begin to ask yourself, “Is this passage I am studying a description of an event or a prescription that I need to do in my own life?” When we do this we allow the Bible to sit in its proper place rather than make it into something the author never intended for it to be. It also protects the reader from misconstruing the passage and creating future disappointment.
It is my hope and prayer that you will apply this valuable strategy to your study tools and that it frees you from the bondage of false teachings. Well meaning or not, false teachers are out there and we must learn to study the Bible for all that it is worth so that we will not be swayed by their sweet words. It also will help us to grow in spiritual maturity as we learn to read the Bible and apply it properly to our lives.