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Check the Context

by Tim O'Hearn

It has long been a point of pride with the churches of Christ that we are a people of "the Book;" that we give book, chapter, and verse for everything we believe. It is not unusual for preachers and teachers in the church to be quick to point out when someone else takes a verse out of context to prove a point. For instance, in discussing instrumental music we talk of the contexts of the Old Testament and New Testament. In discussing baptism we say that "calling on the name of the Lord" in Acts 22:16 can not be separated from "arise and be immersed." In talking to Sabbatarians we point out that "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Ex 20:8) was given specifically to the Jews, and was not required before the Law of Moses, nor by any who is not under the Law of Moses.

We are quick to point out the inconsistencies and misapplications of scripture in others. We are not so quick to do so among ourselves. While there are probably several possible examples, I will look at only four. I must also say that not everyone in the church, or even every preacher, uses these passages improperly. However, a significant portion of those I have heard do.

Colossians 2:16-17

"Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ." As I was growing up this was one of the main texts used by those who say that we should not celebrate Christmas or Easter as religious holidays. The argument is based on the doctrine stated by David Lipscomb:

Since the old covenant was nailed to the cross of Christ, and was thus made invalid, its written decrees, he tells them, are not binding on the saints, and they were not to be judged for neglecting them. (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, J. W. Shepherd editor, Gospel Advocate Company, 1939, p. 282)

The argument goes further, though, to say that not only are those holy days not binding on Christians, but that any such holidays are forbidden. Thus, a Christian must not observe the Sabbath or Passover, or Christmas, or any other religious holiday.

That is not what the passage says. He is, as Brother Lipscomb said, telling them that as non-Jewish converts they are not bound by such holy days. Nobody should criticize them for not observing them. But his statement also says nobody should criticize them for observing them. Some Jewish Christians were still observing these days, just as Paul appears to have continued observing Passover (1 Cor 5:7-8; Acts 18:21). He is also telling the non-Jewish Christians not to look down on Jewish brothers for observing the holy days.

These holy days, Paul says, are shadows of the substance, which is Christ. Don't let mere shadows get in the way of your obeying Christ, whichever side of the issue you may be on.

I will agree there is probably no reason to celebrate Christmas, and that we celebrate Christ's death weekly. They don't even fall under Paul's characterization as shadows of Christ. But we can not use this passage to condemn those who would observe those holidays.

Hebrews 10:25

"Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching." How often I have heard people saying this means that you must not miss the assembly of the saints whenever the doors open, whether Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, or any other time the elders set aside for the church to assemble. Some members would almost consider it a sin to miss an assembly for work, anything short of hospitalization, or even a Bible study with a non-Christian. They may even point out that the author's next phrase is "for if we sin willfully."

The problem is that the context is not about assembling together. The preceding verses give the reason we are not to forsake assembling together. It is that we may "hold fast the profession of faith" and "provoke one another to love and good works." That is what is being considered. The "sin willfully" phrase, then, is not about assembling, but about what we do outside the assembly.

That is not to say the assembly is unimportant. The author is saying it is very important. The assembly is for encouragement and guidance. The writer here doesn't even include worship as one of the reasons for our assembling. It is in gathering together with others of like faith that we strengthen our own faith. As temptations and persecutions come then fellowship with other Christians will make it easier to keep the faith.

This was written at a time when some Christians gathered daily, following the Jewish example. The writer doesn't say they have to meet every day. He just says don't "forsake" assembling together. Don't consider it unimportant and quit altogether. Don't do as some today do, and think that you can just hold a family worship by yourselves. It would probably even count out some of the "churches on the internet," which leaves out some of the fellowship component. It doesn't say that missing some assemblies is a sin; just that it leaves us more vulnerable to sin.

1 John 1:7

"But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin." I don't know how many times I have heard people teach, based on this verse, that we have fellowship with other Christians if we are walking in the God's light. That can be inferred indirectly, but only indirectly. The verse only says that we have fellowship with God if we walk in the light.

The phrase in question is "one with another." Is this talking about one Christian with another? Not in the context of the passage or the book. The preceding verse says that we can not walk in darkness and have fellowship with God. So the "he" and "his" in this passage are the same person, God. If we walk in darkness we have no fellowship with God, but if we walk in the light God and we have fellowship one with another.

The purpose of the letter was "that you sin not." (1 Jn 2:1) What is under consideration is our relationship with God. If we sin, we are separated from God. If God doesn't hold sin against us, we are in fellowship with him.

Undoubtedly, if we are in fellowship with God then we are in fellowship with anyone else who is in fellowship with God. But that is incidental to John's discussion, whereas some would incorrectly make it the focus of the verse or the letter.

Romans 3:23

"For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." This may be among the most abused passages in all of scripture. Listen to almost any preacher, visit almost any Christian web site, and you will find someone using this passage to prove that every individual has sinned. Yet the context shows that this verse is not talking about individuals.

If you want to prove that each individual person who is capable of being held liable for sin has sinned, go to 1 John 1:8-10:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

But if you want to prove that the Jews have no advantage over the Gentiles, or vice versa, then you can go to Romans 3. In most of the first chapter of Romans, Paul is proving that Gentiles are guilty of sin, even without the Law of Moses. Romans 2:1-3:18 is Paul's argument that the Jews are guilty of sin because they could not keep the Law of Moses. The remainder of chapter 3, including verse 23, is Paul's conclusion. The topic sentence of this paragraph includes the verse in question, but even that phrase should start in verse 22 and end in verse 24, so that it reads:

For there is no difference [between Jew and Gentile]: For all [both Jew and Gentile] have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

It is certainly taught by the scriptures that each individual who is capable of knowing what sin is bears the guilt of sin. It is just not taught by Romans 3:23.

 

Some might say that I am being Jesuitical, that I am splitting hairs. Perhaps I am. On the whole, how we interpret these passages will not determine our eternal destination. However, Jesus said, "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye." (Matt 7:5) We should not accuse others, when we do the same thing as they. Further, the care or lack of care with which we handle some scriptures may be reflective of the care with which we handle all. If we are sloppy in handling the "less important" scriptures, how can we be sure that we are not the same with the ones that directly affect our salvation?