What does this passage mean to you?

It’s arguably the most asked question by well-meaning leaders of Sunday schools, small group Bible studies, and other places where folk gather to learn God’s Word. It’s also one of the worst questions you can ask. Why? Because it makes our opinions the context of the passage. The problem is that the passage under study already has a context. You don’t give it one. It has one. The task of the Bible student is to know the context of the passage in order to interpret the passage. This is critical to understand because it’s the difference believing what God says and believing what you want it to say.

Take the oft-quoted passage Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse has become the default Bible verse for Christian (and non-Christian) athletes around the nation. You see the Scripture reference written on wristbands, eyeblack, and even tattooed on various body parts. To hear testimonies about what Phil. 4:13 means is to come away with the prevalent idea that the player, through Jesus, can overcome any odds keeping him or her from victory on the field. Through Jesus you can throw more touchdown passes, hit more home runs, and sink more baskets leading you to triumph over your opponents. (This can be rather complicated when opposing teams are claiming the same verse but I digress). However, we can’t blame athletes who’ve taken this verse and given it a ‘You can do anything you want to do” Jesus-steroid context, I see it quoted by regular joe’s trying to score the big business deal, make an A on the final exam, or for just about anything they want to have divine success in.

The trouble however is, based on the “Supersize Me” meaning many give to the text, Philippians 4:13 isn’t true. In other words, you can’t do all things in Jesus. For example,

  • You can’t win the 100 meter-dash in the Olympics with a broken leg no matter how much you have faith in Jesus.
  • You can’t get perfect scores on your college finals and not study no matter how much faith you have in Jesus.
  • You can’t leap over tall buildings in a single bound no matter how much you have faith in Jesus.

Why not Yancey? Doesn’t Phil. 4:13 say that Jesus strengthens me to do anything I want? Nope. Not at all. In fact, “all” is a good place to start. What is the “all things” that Paul says he can do in Jesus? Here’s a clue: look at the context of the passage. Not the one we give it, the one it already has. It’s pretty easy. Just read the two verses before v. 13:

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.

Do you see what “all things” Paul is talking about? He tells us in verses 11-12. The “all things” is, through Jesus’ empowerment, learning to be content in whatever situation Paul finds himself. This isn’t some verse we can claim for divine approval of our personal goals be it on the ball field or in the boardroom. On the contrary, this verse is better applied in context when we lose the big game, miss out on the big account, or endure some other hardship which tempts us to find our ultimate contentment in something or someone outside of Jesus. In that biblical context, Phil. 4:13 is absolutely true! ! I can [be content in any circumstance] through Christ who strengthens me. Context matters!

That’s why if your “all things” is having success in anything you fancy, then I hate to break it to you, but you can’t do all things through Christ who strengthens you. But if it’s finding contentment in any and every situation, then you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Context matters!

So next time someone asks you what you think this or that verse means, tell him it really doesn’t matter what you think. You don’t give Scripture its context, it already has one. To miss this important point is to risk reading and applying the Bible incorrectly. Someone once said that a text without a context is a pretext. Good students of the Bible seek to discover a passage’s context so they can know what God says instead of falsely mirroring what we would like for him to say.

 

A week or so ago I wrote a couple of posts on how you can keep the unchurched in mind in your preaching and from the parking lot to the pew. The aim was to give practical, strategic ways churches and those who lead them can better reach those far from God. I was glad to write it. Frankly, I have no reservations opining about ways leaders can think strategically about being more effective in making disciples. I sure need and want to hear from other leaders on the same. That’s why I don’t have any problems looking to other leaders to learn about how to do what I do better. It’s also why, for example, when I spoke at my church planting network’s regional conference on being strategic with the unchurched, I quoted and referenced leaders outside my immediate tribe without giving it a second thought. This means that some of the men and women I’ve learned from are those with whom I have healthy disagreements concerning their theological and philosophical approaches to church.

Unfortunately for some, looking to leaders who don’t share your theological distinctives or church philosophy is anathema. I’ve been places where if you quote [a non-tribe leader's name] or say you like [said leader's] approach to dealing with a specific issue you run the risk of being regarded as some kind of sellout, pragmatist who’s a heartbeat away from purchasing a laser light show and circus clowns for your Sunday morning “event.” You definitely are in need of a strong rebuke…or better yet, a gossip session: “Did you hear who [leader in your tribe] has been influenced by? What’s he thinking? We started our tribe because we don’t want to be like those guys!” The sad result is that isolationism and insularity become shibboleths for who the real faithful are. Do they quote our guys, go to our conferences, read our books? Another unfortunate product is the fostering of an either/or mentality which tragically pits good things against each other, forcing a tribe’s faithful to embrace one at the loss of the other. For example, one person’s tribe is either into theology or leadership but it can’t be into both. Embrace theology and you’re regarded as too doctrinaire for your own good. Embrace leadership and risk being branded as guy who puts ends over means. It’s crazy, pick any tribe and often you’ll get subjected to all kinds of false dichotomies (attractional church vs. incarnational church, Sunday school vs. missional communities, etc.) forcing you to pick the “right” side.

Whenever I see this either/or mentality I want to scream, “Whatever happened to discernment?” Wise leaders at some point (usually those who’ve been around for awhile) recover the ability to go beyond their own circles and discern the good, true, and beautiful in the thoughts, activities, and wisdom of the broader Church. That doesn’t make them de facto sellouts or pragmatists. It doesn’t guarantee they’ve drunk the kool-aid or turned to the dark side. It could be that, while they love their tribe, they also recognize God has blessed the larger Church with leaders they can learn from…and still disagree with on issues. It could be that they’re simply being discerning leaders who want the truth no matter what church organization, umbrella ministry, or publishing company is behind the content. Frankly, it’s amazing to me that many of my own tribe feel a great sense of discernment (and offer great, articulate defenses) about the things they see, hear, wear, say, and drink, but mention this-or-that non-tribal leader/speaker/author’s thoughts on the church and it’s like we forgot how to chew the meat and spit out the bones.

Beware, thinking in these kinds of all-or-nothing extremes not only shows short-sightedness and immaturity but will hamstring your leading the church. Count on it. Being a good leader demands being a good discerner. It would do you well to ask yourself if you’ve judged a fellow leader simply based on him or her referencing someone you didn’t like even though what they said was actually true, good, and beautiful. If so, repentance is the next step to take. Then I’d challenge you to recover the lost art of discernment via learning from those outside your circle. You may find great, timely, God-glorifying wisdom for those you cherish most from those you may disagree with most.

I am blessed to work with a gifted team of theologian-writer-musicians at Clear Creek Community Church who share the same passion to see music for the church by the church. It seems to me we may be entering a wonderful season of worship music produced by the local church. Not content to leave it to Nashville or the “Christian Music Industry” to provide songs for God’s people to sing, I’ve seen scores of churches I’m personally acquainted with who have created songs for use within corporate worship. This weekend, my church will add to that growing catalog with their latest EP Our Song is Grace. These songs were written to coincide with and be shaped by our new message series in Exodus.

I know every local church often has a specific style or styles of music they like to use in corporate worship, and that Our Song is Grace may not be a fit for your congregation style-wise. However, if you want to give the album a quick listen, click the link to the CCCC Arts Team website. In addition to track samples, you will find:

  • Our Song is Grace Chord charts (free)
  • Our Song is Grace Pro Presenter files (free)
  • Our Song is Grace background slides (free)
  • All Things New LP (2013) which includes the popular song “All Praise to Jesus Christ” (along with chord charts, presentation files, etc.)
  • If you want to purchase the new album, Our Song is Grace, from iTunes, click here.

As I mentioned, there are many churches who seek to bless other congregations with wonderful resources concerning worship music, this is simply one way CCCC has chosen to be involved.

A sample of other churches who make music for the church by the church: