I suppose my reflections on taking a passage of scripture out of context flows from a few recent issues on my mind. First, the recent book I reviewed, Chazown, cited Revelation 3 blatantly out of context. Sadly, this is a common occurrence—I heard the same exact sermon preached my freshman year at Toccoa Falls College. Second, I have recently graduated from North Greenville University where several famous speakers came and preached in chapel. Two in particular have huge mega-churches and one a growing evangelistic ministry that is quite predominant in the Carolinas. Yet those three men all had one thing in common: they preached sermons that ripped passages out of context. Nevertheless, students responded positively and all would (mostly) agree that they were the more interesting chapels. Third, one of the major leaders of NAMB came and spoke at North Greenville for missions week my senior year. Every single text he preached from violated the principles of hermeneutics we used. Again, however, students were drawn in and many made commitments to missions. Fourth, I have heard the keyword fallacy of “dunimos being explosive like dynamite, so Paul is saying the Gospel has the power and force of dynamite” used at least three or four times in the past six months. Each time, I see people in the congregation nodding their head and each time I realize that the fallacy is connecting with the people.
In the past, when I saw violations like the ones listed above I stated, “I know it is a violation of hermeneutics, and I certainly want to avoid doing that, but God can and does use our mistakes to advance the Gospel. Therefore, while I am saddened that that happened, I rejoice in the results.” This week, I feel like I have been pushed over the edge. I was teaching the nature of the word of God to my students in Sunday school last week and a few verses in particular stood out—Jeremiah 23:26-29:
“How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies and, prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”
A few things to notice here:
1) God is setting up a distinguishing mark between false prophets and real prophets: those who declare his word faithfully.
2) The mark of faithfulness is set up in terms of negation—those who are NOT faithful are ones who prophesy lies, and the deceit of their own heart.
3) These prophets have absolutely nothing in common with the real prophets of God who proclaim God’s word faithfully.
4) God’s words alone are like fire and like a hammer.
5) If you go on to read verses 29ff., you see God chastising the prophets who claim to be speaking in his name but are, in fact, leading people astray by their lies and recklessness.
6) These prophets were neither sent nor charged and as a result, do not profit the people at all (v. 32).
7) So in actuality, these prophets who were claiming to speak in the name of the Lord were attracting large crowds and yet not profiting the people at all.
Resisting the urge to make direct comparisons to what I see routinely happen in the pulpit, I will start by saying where I do not think direct connections can be made.
1) Preachers who preach out of context are not indicted in this text. Preachers and prophets, while sharing similar roles, are dissimilar enough (and some may argue prophets as in the OT do not even exist). Therefore, a direct correspondence cannot be made.
2) These were prophets who were claiming to have a word from the Lord, but were blatantly lying. I am quite sure most of the preachers I saw were not lying nor under a curse of God.
3) These prophets were not called. I believe that many preachers I see who take the Bible out of context are called.
4) The nature of Jeremiah’s charge against the prophets does not rest on taking a passage out of context. Rather, these prophets had no word to begin with. They were fakes and liars. Therefore, the thrust of Jeremiah’s charge is not on taking a passage out of context for there were no words from God to take out of context.
However, that said, I do see some interesting points of contact:
1) These prophets were quite convinced they were doing the right thing and probably hearing from the Lord. However, they were terribly, terribly mistaken. I fear that many in the pulpit today think they are doing the right thing but are not, in fact, hearing from the Lord.
2) The response of the crowd is no indication that your message is being Spirit led or is making an impact that is desirable. In other words, a passage taken out of context that causes a great stir, does not necessarily profit the congregation itself; rather, it may be for other reasons that there was a response.
3) Notice that it is only when God’s word is spoken faithfully that it acts like a fire and a hammer. This would seem to indicate that faithfulness to what God actually said is essential.
4) It is possible (and highly likely) that you will lead people astray, like the false prophets, by unfaithfully proclaiming God’s word. Just because you open the Bible does not mean that the words that follow will be faithful to what God actually meant.
I have seen many pastors open their Bibles, read a few verses, and then proceed for the next thirty minutes to rant and rave about various issues that could (I suppose) be loosely linked to their text. They claim they are being Biblical. It strikes me as not really preaching the word of God. It seems too similar to what the prophets were doing—proclaiming their thoughts. I have heard preachers who preach a sermon straight from the text but do not really bring out points that pertain TO the text. People hail them as being biblical. All they are really doing is eisegesis.
This raises the simple question: when does the word of God stop being the word of God?