The other day I published a blog post about a Tweet of Isaiah 45:3 and the comments following. It raised a bit of a concern that I wanted to address. As I was writing, I realized that it would be better if I broke my thoughts up into a few different posts. My goal is to encourage all of us to be faithful to Scripture and to make sure that when we quote and use Bible verses we are striving to make sure that we are actually believing the message God intended to communicate to us. Let me assure you, I think it is a very good idea to memorize Scripture, to know verses that we can quickly recall. And I love the idea of a “life verse”, a passage that somewhat defines how you see God’s purpose in you and your sense of calling in the world (mine is Philippians 3:7-11). And I even like putting verses on t-shirts and even coffee mugs. I’ve printed hundreds of different shirts over the years with verses. Nothing wrong with any of this.
But what I do want to encourage in all this is care so that we do not quote a verse and share it believing it is communicating some promise or assurance that is not really the intended meaning of the text. Generally, the big problem with these coffee mug verses is that we often pull them from the context and then interpret them as promises for God to bless our plan and make us into someone great. So what I would like to do in this post is to share a few verses that I believe are often misused in this way, and show just a bit of the context and the more beautiful meaning.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (ESV)
This really is a great verse, and worth our memorization. But I have also heard it quoted by athletes who just caught a winning touchdown, or by people when thinking of their own personal goals and achievement. Often I hear this verse being proclaimed with the idea that we can achieve any goals and pursue dreams knowing that we can do all things because Christ is for us. But the focus of the text is not on accomplishing goals but on contentment and endurance no matter the situation. Paul wrote this letter from prison. He has continually reminded the Philippian church to have joy no matter what the circumstances. So, in this passage Paul is speaking of living with joy whether he is dirt poor and has nothing, or whether he is blessed and has plenty. Whether his plans end up with him accomplishing goals or ending up in prison. The key is contentment. So the all things that Paul can do is to endure with joy and contentment any situation which God puts him in, knowing that Christ is enough.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (ESV)
This is one of the best examples of verses ripped from context and being used to mean something that is quite opposite of God’s intended meaning in the text. Of course, if all we have is the verse it looks like a great promise for a rich and happy life. But the text actually sits in a letter from the prophet Jeremiah to people who are living during the Babylonian exile. This means that they saw their city conquered, king deposed, and they were among the first from Israel ripped from their homes and deported to a far away nation to serve an foreign king. And the key idea in Jeremiah’s letter is to inform them that God has already determined that they are not coming home, it will be 70 years of forced labor. So they should build houses there, grow gardens there, and pray for the peace of Babylon. This is the “plans” that the Lord has for them. It was not the kind of news that these people hoped to hear. And the prospering them from the text is that the Babylonian exile is God’s plan for the nation to lead them to repentance of the sin of idolatry so they could live under the blessing of God in the future. To turn this into some kind of promise that you will have your best life now, and the belief that we will get marshmallows and daisies is just not what the text means. Rather, again, it is the promise that even if our lives are defined by hardship and the judgment of God, He is sovereign and will accomplish His will. Actually, the promise here is not really for individuals at all, it is actually a promise made for the Hebrew community in exile declaring that at the end of 70 years they will be able to come home (a story explained in my previous blog post) and the nation will be restored.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (ESV)
This is another wonderful verse worthy of being a life verse, if we understand the meaning. But often I hear this along with phrases like, “God never gives us more than we can handle,” “It will all work out for good,” and, “Everything has a purpose.” To really understand what the Holy Spirit is communicating in this text we have to understand what Paul means with the word “good.” More than likely, when we think of things working for good, our interpretation is that it will make me happy and help me have meaning. What is the good for which God works all things together for those who are called. That question is actually answered in the following verse, when Paul says, “For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.” In other words, the good thing that God promises is that all circumstances He places in our lives will mold the follower of Jesus into the image of Christ. If Christ has called us, and justified us, we can be sure that He is orchestrating our lives and bringing events to mold us into the image of Jesus. But this normally takes the path of Jesus, which is through hardship and suffering. It is a great promise, just make sure you know what is actually being promised.