I love reading the Bible. It is my…paradigmatic mirror in which I find meaning and purpose, a violent calmness and a peaceful unrest all rolled into one I like to gorge on it and feast on it. I like to curl up on the couch and read expansive chunks of the law, the gospel, the psalms, the proverbs. But then I see one liners painted on placards and bumper stickers, and I react. These skinny verses, taken out of their rich and complex context, just sit there on shirts and coffee mugs, naked and rude. Even as I love them and relate to their message, I have an immediate aversion to their aesthetic.
It’s like walking down the street when all of a sudden you see a baby on the side of the road. Naked, bloody, screaming- its umbilical cord and placenta still attached and yet covered in grime and asphalt burns. Its a jarring sight. Its a rattling, disharmonious experience. It doesn’t make sense. The baby doesn’t belong in that context, but rather its natural place is with its exhausted mother, curled up tight, mouth to breast, warm and blanketed, basking in the glow of warm lights and damp hair. That’s the setting where it belongs. That’s the context which makes sense and in which a rightness and a fluidity of thought flows out of.
Its the same way with Bible verses. They belong side by side with the rest of God’s words. The intent, power, and purpose of John 3:16 lives and rests in the same breath and in the same spittle as Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. A lone Bible verse, laid out and exposed without the safety and comfort of its context, is alone, naked, and prone to fall prey to the wolves of misunderstanding, eisegesis, and abuse. Yes the verse is good and I love it, but its a fragment of an idea that deserves to be supported and buttressed by the rest of its literary environment.
For example, John 3:16 without John 3:17 seems to balance itself in the wrong place. John 3:17 says “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This verse gives me greater clarity into how to read the one that comes before it. It tells me that if Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, then neither should we. The use of the word “might” in the final clause “that the world through him might be saved, tells me that the domain of Christian witness is not salvation [which is God's work] but service, selfless love and sacrifice. John 3:16 standing alone and without the theology of care offered in John 3:17 makes it harder to interpret. [Note: Bible verses that front salvation over Christian service, instead of being important interfaces between Christian homes and the watching world, seem like sneaky little raids- quick and insulated targets into the culture with no sense that a worldview of care lay behind them.]
Or how about verse 18, where we learn that those who do not believe in him are the perishing that are condemned already, or verse 19, which tells us that they love the dark and will not come to the light, and thus need someone [the Lord] to bring them? Or that in verse 5, that the nature of what it means to “believe” in John 3:16 must necessarily involve being born of water and the spirit- that it is its very essence?
I think there is something holy and important about keeping things together as much as possible- of treating the Word of God in such a way that everything we do with it is geared towards offering the clearest, fullest, faithful, and thoughtful explanation and exposition of it. They have a rich and intricate context that, at least to me, seems to cringe at the thought of being plastered naked on whatever product or place is convenient. Seeing it cloudy and murky, purposefully placed in a situation which robs it of clarity and lucidity is not something that appeals to me. It does not help me understand or relate to it better. It does satisfy my soul.
I’ll take cooing and wrapped in its mothers arms, over naked and squalling in the streets any day.