Most mornings, I fix myself a cup of hot tea with a packet of Truvia. It used to be that the Truvia packets had only the ingredients on their reverse side. Now, there are motivational sayings. Like these:
I enjoy seeing which message I get each morning. It’s like a fortune cookie, but with boiling hot water.
Fortune cookie verses
Sometimes, Bible passages are treated this way. A verse is pulled from a passage, tied with a pretty picture, and slapped on a poster (or these days, a meme). There are plenty of positive passages one might pull, such as: Rejoice evermore. Fear not. I can do all things.
Often, however, passages are taken out of their context to say something the writer was not intending to say or to give a partial truth – the part that makes us feel good. Verses are compressed to become fortune cookie promises.
A few years ago, one of the teenagers in our church gave her testimony for Youth Sunday. Esther Helm played on a girls’ basketball team. Her testimony illustrates the wise way to interpret scripture in its full context. Here is an excerpt:
“We can learn a lot about contentment from Paul. He had a hard life, to say the least, but when he wrote to the Philippians thanking them for their concern for him, he emphasized, ‘I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.’ He was thanking them for their concern, but he was also clarifying that his strength and determination did not come from their material support. He followed with, ‘I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.’ And in verse 13, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’
“Now, I like to play basketball, and one of my favorite things to do is read what other players write on their shoes. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but some kids like to put short messages on the outside or heel of their shoes. The most popular choice I’ve seen is –believe it or not–Philippians 4:13. I think they probably assume the verse means they can beat any opponent with God’s strength, but I believe that IN CONTEXT the verse would most nearly mean, ‘I can handle being beat by any opponent, no matter how complete and humiliating, with God’s strength.’ Paul wasn’t claiming divine strength to accomplish huge feats of courage; he was talking about the mundane times, when he was hungry and homeless. His statement, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ was about being CONTENT IN ALL SITUATIONS, because it really is God’s strength and faithfulness which enable us to look past our circumstances and trust Him.” (her emphasis)
Esther gave her testimony nearly three years ago. To me, obviously, it was memorable. Now, I can’t hear that passage without concluding it as she taught us, “Through Christ, I can do all things – even lose.” It was a truth that rang loudly in my soul.
Go broader, go deeper, go higher
We as Bible study leaders must not be satisfied with the one verse/one message simplistic homilies that are too often demonstrated in books, sermons, or memes. We must not be satisfied to offer one-off, trite responses to a sincere question or to a bereaved family member in a funeral receiving line.
Instead, let us point out how this passage is tied with the verses before and after, with the chapters before and after, within the full gospel of Jesus Christ. How does this passage relate to the story of God (who is love) coming to the world to demonstrate that love – and then being betrayed and crucified? How does it relate to a God who will not allow sin, separation, and death to win? How does it relate to the God who lives within us as the temple of God? How does it extend the invitation to partner with God in the divine reconciliation project?
The gospel is too big to fit into a crunchy cookie.