Greg Koukl often passes along a cheeky little tip related to reading and understanding the Bible. “If there was one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one single skill I could impart, one useful tip I could leave that would serve you well the rest of your life, what would it be? What is the single most important practical skill I’ve ever learned as a Christian? Here it is: Never read a Bible verse.” Hang on! Is he one of those people who has lost confidence in the scriptures and now looks to other sources of authority to guide him? Of course not. Here’s how he continues: “That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph at least.”
Now you see his point. If we want to properly understand any given verse of the Bible, we need to set it within its wider context. After all, words spoken to a single prophet in ancient Israel have a very different context than words spoken to an entire congregation in New Testament Rome. These different contexts mean the very same words could have very different meanings. The most immediate context for a verse is a paragraph, so Koukl recommends reading at least that much. He goes on to describe how he puts this principle into play in his own ministry. “When I’m on the radio, I use this simple rule to help me answer the majority of Bible questions I’m asked, even when I’m totally unfamiliar with the verse. It’s an amazingly effective technique you can use, too. I read the paragraph, not just the verse. I take stock of the relevant material above and below. Since the context frames the verse and gives it specific meaning, I let it tell me what’s going on.”
The obvious point is that meaning depends upon context. By reading a single verse you may nail the meaning and application, but it’s far more likely you will miss it. To confidently understand the meaning of any part of the Bible and to confidently apply it to your life, you need to set it in its context. Hence, never read a Bible verse!
What is true of reading the Bible is true of every other way we communicate. Koukl points out that a basic rule of communication is that “meaning always flows from the top down, from the larger units to the smaller units, not the other way around.” If you want to properly understand the meaning of any small unit of communication, you need to set it within its larger unit of communication.
And I think this is something we need to think about in this digital world. As we surf around the web and as we scroll through social media, we are exposed to far more excerpts of communication than whole units. On any given day we may hear any number of two-minute clips from 50-minute sermons, read any number of 50-word quotes from 200-page books, view any number of brief videos excerpted from much longer conference sessions. Sometimes these excerpts make the speaker look very good, and sometimes they make him look very bad. Sometimes they make the writer appear like a staunch defender of the faith, and other times they make her look like a godless heretic. Some of these excerpts are created and spread out of love and sometimes out of malice. But what’s invariably missing is context—the context of the larger unit of the communication and even the context of the person’s wider life and ministry.
The Westminster Larger Catechism does an unparalleled job of describing what we are called to in the ninth commandment and it speaks well to this matter. It asks, “What are the duties required in the ninth commandment?” And it answers, “The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; … a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers; … studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.” The Catechism also explains what the ninth commandment forbids, and it includes “unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion…” The point it makes is crystal clear: We need to look beyond excerpted words and we need to labor to understand meaning. Especially if we are to pass on an excerpt that makes the speaker look bad, that makes him appear as if he’s compromising, that makes her look like she is waffling, we need to carefully, diligently look from the smaller unit to the larger unit. Because, as we’ve seen, meaning flows from the top down, not the other way around.
Koukl says “the most important practical lesson I’ve ever learned… and the single most important thing I could ever teach you” is that you should never read a Bible verse. In the same vein, allow me to suggest that you also never listen to a sermon clip, never watch a YouTube excerpt, and never read a quote. Not unless you are willing to do the work of properly, diligently, and honestly understanding its context.