Is it ever okay to use a single verse of Scripture out of its context?
Quoting Scripture out of context can lead to misunderstanding or error. However, this is not always the case. Using only a single verse of Scripture, of course, takes it out of its context. However, that does not always mean the verse is being misused or will be misunderstood. Some single verses communicate a stand-alone truth, whereas others must be quoted along with the broader passage to be properly understood. In order to determine if it is appropriate to use a Scripture verse out of context or not, you must, rather ironically, look at the context. By looking at the context of a single verse, you can ascertain if the verse communicates what is intended in the passage on its own.
John 3:16 is a verse that frequently gets quoted on its own, even though Jesus said it within the context of a conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus was teaching Nicodemus about being born again and about God's plan for salvation. When we look at the surrounding context of their conversation in John 3, we see that taking John 3:16 alone out of this passage does not change its meaning. Therefore, it is appropriate to take this verse out of the surrounding context because its meaning remains constant.
Taking a verse out of context generally gets dicey when the motivation is to manipulate the Scripture to say what we want it to say. For instance, in Luke 12:19, Jesus says the words, "relax, eat, drink, be merry." When taken out of context, people could try to make it seem like this is Jesus' view on how to live life. This phrase, however, falls within the Parable of the Rich Fool. Jesus is telling the story and in this particular quote, He is talking as the Rich Fool in the story—this is a man who ends up being judged by God for living out his lavish self-seeking lifestyle without regard for others. The parable ends with an exhortation that we should be "rich toward God" (Luke 12:21). In this situation, plucking that phrase out of context would be inappropriate because the implied meaning of the phrase on its own is totally different from its true meaning within the passage and story it contains.
Going beyond the immediate context of a verse, we can seek out what else the Bible has to say about the topic at hand. For instance, if we seek out additional information on how Jesus instructs us to live our lives, we will see that it is quite the opposite of "relax, eat, drink, be merry." Just a few chapters earlier in Luke, Jesus—speaking as Himself—gave specific instructions for godly living: "And he said to all, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it'" (Luke 9:23–24).
Paul gives Timothy this exhortation in 2 Timothy 2:15: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." As believers in Jesus, we should also be seeking the Lord for wisdom (James 1:5) and desiring to know how to rightly handle, or interpret, the study of God's Word.
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