We each have our favorite Bible verses, which we quote, which may even help us get through dark times. But, sometimes, the way we use a verse can cause us see God or events in ways that the original writer of that verse never meant.
1. Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you.’”
This has become a motivational verse for many in the most short-term of ways. Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed? No worries: God has a “plan” for your day. Money’s tight? Don’t worry, God will “prosper” you.
Read Jeremiah chapter 29. Verse 11 has nothing to do with having a bad day or financial success. In 597 BC, the Babylonians defeated the southern kingdom of Israel and exiled its people. They had lost all their earthly belongings.
It’s then, from Jerusalem, that Jeremiah wrote to the exiles and told them to get on with their lives: “Build houses and live in them. Cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children” (Jeremiah 29:5-6). Jeremiah was saying that they were going to be exiles for a long time. But God promised that wouldn’t be forever; in 70 years, they could return home. That was God’s “plan” to “prosper” them.
That hope and future was something that most of the original exiles wouldn’t see. That future was for their children and grandchildren. In other words, Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t God’s guarantee of personal fulfillment. It points to God being faithful in delivering His people—in His way and time.
The Apostle Paul wasn’t saying that getting cancer or getting fired from your job is for your own good. Perhaps, this translation brings out the nuance of that verse a bit better: “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him.” In other words, whatever happens in your life, whether good or bad, God will work through those events for your eternal good.
The book of Romans shows that Jesus came to save both Jews and Gentiles from sin and death. But it’s not just humanity whom Jesus came to save. “Creation itself will be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children” (Romans 8:21). All things working together for the good of those who love God is when you—as a created being, and creation itself—will finally be set free!
That will happen on the Last Day, when Jesus returns. It’s then that “he [God the Father] who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11). That’s what Paul meant by all things working together for the good of those who love God. He was pointing us to our final redemption in Christ, when even our created bodies will be made anew in Christ Jesus!
3. Luke 11:9: “Ask and it will be given to you.”
It’s tempting to treat this verse of Scripture as God’s promise to give you whatever you ask of Him. But what if you asked God to do something sinful for you? You’re angry at someone and ask God to murder him. Will God do that for you? After all, Scripture says, “Ask and it will be given to you”!
So, what did Jesus mean when He said those words? Luke 11:9 is part of a larger conversation where Jesus had earlier told His disciples what to ask for and how to ask for it—in the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4). Jesus told them to pray for their daily needs (daily bread), the coming of His kingdom, and for the forgiveness of sin. It’s then that Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you.”
What, then, are you to ask that “it will be given to you”? Jesus tells you in the Lord’s Prayer. But it’s even more than that. Before Jesus gave His disciples the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s Gospel, He said, “Whenever you pray, say.” So, the Lord’s Prayer isn’t just an example of what the content of your prayers should be; it’s even the words that Jesus gives you to say: “Whenever you pray, say.” And, of course, it will be given to you—all in God’s way and time.
4. Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Some have turned this verse, “I can do all things,” to mean that they can score a touchdown or win a marathon. Really? Even though Paul used athletic imagery, running a race and boxing, as metaphors of the Christian life, that’s not what he meant. Paul had just shared: “I have experienced times of need and times of plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every circumstance, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).
Paul didn’t mean (Note the context: Paul is in prison!) that “I can achieve anything”; it was that he could endure anything. In Christ, he could, because Christ would deliver him from it all in the end.
A verse’s setting and context give you the circumstances to understand the words of a verse in a better way. When we take words from one setting and understand them in another, it often leads to misunderstanding a verse.
5. Nahum 1:7: “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.”
Okay, this one is not as well known. But I bring it up because it helps prove a point. If you were to hear this verse, what you wouldn’t hear is the verse that follows: “He [God] will completely destroy Nineveh with an overwhelming flood” (Nahum 1:8).
This verse helps show how we take verses from the Bible and only use the part we like, often changing them into something other than what original writer had intended. We read, quote, and may only know those portions of Scripture in those tiny, artificial snippets. And when that happens, often without realizing it, we change a verse’s meaning into something that God had not inspired that verse to communicate.
What do all these verses have in common? Each one is short enough to become a Bible “sound bite.” And those “sound bites” can lead us down an erroneous path—if we don’t know, or care to know, the larger context. And then, before you know it, God’s plan for you to prosper is about some short-term want, not God being faithful to deliver you in His way and time. “I can do all things” turns into personal achievements, not the hope that upheld Paul in a dark and dour prison cell, which is the same hope that we are to have, as well.
Jesus says the Scriptures testify of Him. (John 5:39; and yes, you can read that entire chapter to see if I’m yanking Jesus’ words out of context.) When you read the Bible to find Jesus, knowing the larger context and setting, it’s then that you find God’s faithfulness for you in Christ Jesus. And that’s more important than anything else. Amen.