Using the text as a pretext: Even the best sometimes do it

Sit in a preaching class in any seminary or divinity school in the land and eventually you’ll hear a professor stress the importance of context. “Context is king,” someone will say.

The “context” of a Scripture means the setting for that text. This would answer the questions: What was the occasion of the event? Who was speaking?  Who was listening?  How did they interpret the meaning?

It’s about integrity in scripture interpretation and there is no more serious subject for a servant of Christ, a minister of the Gospel.

A text without the context is a pretext. That’s another of those cliches preachers toss around to one another. It’s pretty much the case. But as with most rules, there are exceptions…

Taking a scripture out of context

To “take a Scripture out of context” usually means making a verse say something that was not intended. The most famous example is placing Matthew 27:5 (“Judas went out and hanged himself”) alongside Luke 10:37 (“Go thou and do likewise”).

But it may also refer to simply removing a verse from its setting and applying its lesson t modern situations not intended in the context, although not contrary to it.

Warren Wiersbe, in Preaching and Teaching With Imagination says, “Sermonic pretexts are heard even in famous pulpits.” That is, even the best preachers have occasionally “taken a text and departed therefrom.”

George W. Truett, pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church the first half of the 20th Century, delivered a message he called “Life’s Middle Time,” based on a few words in Psalm 91:6, “the plague that destroys at midday.”

Scotland’s James S. Stewart took a reference to four anchors in Acts 27:29 and brought a sermon on “four anchors” that sustain God’s people in storms: hope, duty, prayer, and the cross of Jesus.

At Harvard, Willard L. Sperry preached on “Larger Ideas of God,” basing his message on Isaiah 28:20, “The bed is too short to stretch out on, the blanket too narrow to wrap around you.”

Frank Boreham centered his sermon “William Knibb’s Text” on Jeremiah 3:4, “My father, thou art the guide of my youth.” Wiersbe says Boreham described how God had directed the missionary’s endeavors, while the text itself deals with Israel’s marriage to Jehovah and her unfaithfulness to Him.

Even Britain’s illustrious Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, broke the context rule. Wiersbe says Spurgeon occasionally “ignored the context and ‘spiritualized’ his text.” On one occasion he preached from Judges 16:20-21 and held Samson up as an example of the “consecrated man.”

Wiersbe puts the cap on the subject (for the moment at least) with this good analysis: Early in our ministry, perhaps all of us go through an adolescent phase during which we try to display our abilities by preaching from obscure texts or about obscure truths from familiar texts, things that nobody has ever heard before or cares to hear again.

The more we mature in ministry, the more we desire to preach the great truths of the Bible and permit the texts to speak for themselves.

Dr. Wiersbe would seem to be calling me an adolescent. Since I am past the proverbial four score in years, I’ll take that as a compliment.

Of course, I might be taking that out of context.

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