So many of us who read the Bible regularly have our favorite verses. Maybe it’s “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Or, ‘“For I know the plans I have for you,’” declares the LORD, ‘“plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11). Whatever our favorite verse is, our tendency is to focus only on it, and not the verses and chapters around it. Sometimes that can lead to really bad conclusions.
For example, without reading the surrounding context of Philippians 4:13, I might conclude that I can fly through Christ who strengthens me. Or that I can work all day every day, without resting. Or even that I will win the lottery. I mean, Paul says “all things” right? Well, yes he does. But, what does he mean by saying that? Looking at the verses around 4:13 will give us the answer. In verses 11 and 12 we read:
11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
What is Paul saying here? He has learned to be content no matter the situation, whether he has little or much. That is what he is restating using different words in verse 13 when he says “I can do all things through Christian who strengthens me.” The “all things” refers to him being content in all situations. It’s not a confidence that he can fly, or never rest, or do other outlandish, silly, or unbiblical things.
Two verses that I have often thought about or have been quoted to me when I find myself in conflict are James 1:19-20:
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
At first glance, these verses seem like the best advice for people who talk too quickly without listening. And certainly it is not good for a loudmouthed, angry person to dominate a discussion.
But, to whom are we to be quick to hear? On a recent blog post, biblical counselor Ed Welch points out that James is instructing us to be quick to listen to the Word of God. While it’s a good idea to listen to the other person in a tense conversation, that is not what James is talking about. The context in James 1:18 and 1:22-25 does seem to make that clear. Verse 18 states that God brought us forth by “the word of truth” and verse 22 urges us to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
We are to be quick to listen to the Word of God, not allowing ourselves to impose our contrary thoughts on it and/or arguing against its claim on our lives. We should submit ourselves wholeheartedly to God’s will as revealed in His Word. To do otherwise would be to our peril. May God enable His people to joyfully obey.
And may God remind and help us to read our favorite verses in context, so that we can be comforted and encouraged by what those precious words truly mean.