The Bible is a book which is full of illustrations, not least when it is speaking about itself. For example, it is likened to food, be that milk for the spiritually young or meat for the spiritually mature (1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12-14; 1 Pet. 2:2). This being so, it is inevitable and appropriate that Christians have their favourite verses and passages – or even books – of the Bible. We enjoy some foods more than others and we differ from each other in our tastes. And there is nothing wrong with this.
What is both wrong and dangerous is to stick to our favourite parts of the Bible and ignore others. In the physical realm, an unbalanced diet will lead to all kinds of health problems. Similarly, only reading those passages in God’s Word which especially appeal to us, while ignoring other parts of the Bible which we do not find so congenial, will have the result of making us spiritually malnourished, sickly and out of shape. We must not ‘cherry pick’ Scripture.
Context makes a difference
Let me give you an example of the kind of thing that I mean. Many times I have seen those wonderful words found in Jeremiah 29:11 hung on walls in people’s houses: ‘“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”’ The problem is that it is extraordinarily easy to take it completely out of context.
This was a letter to the exiles in Babylon, exiles who would not return to their homeland for seventy years. In the flow of the whole chapter God is telling his exiled people that they are the fortunate ones. The others who had not been taken into exile at this stage would die of famine, sword or plague. And as the book of Lamentations makes clear, the famine was so severe that people even ate their own children.
Jeremiah 29 is meant to kill any false hopes, fed by false prophets, that the people of God would only be in exile for a very short time. The exiles will be prospered so that they will have descendants who would return to Judah. In other words the promise of return to the land in verse 14 would not be realised by those Jeremiah is addressing, but would only be fulfilled in their descendants. Furthermore, the chapter is addressing the exiles as a representation of the nation as a whole, and verse 11, set in this context, addresses them as such rather than speaking to an individual.
The point I am seeking to make is this: if a Christian only ‘cherry picks’ verses like this from Jeremiah, then that believer is certain to miss the main thrust of the book and thus end up with an unbalanced view of God and of the Christian life.
A complete picture of God
Much of the book of Jeremiah deals with the judgment of the Lord upon his people. Paul tells us in Romans 11 to consider both the goodness and the severity of God. The great danger for us today, especially in the kind of society in which we live, is to become one-eyed Christians who only ever see God’s goodness but never consider his severity. No doubt some Christians of a former generation only considered God’s severity and they ended up with a terribly distorted and twisted view of God. They had a harsh view of the Christian life and were harsh in their dealings with others. Speaking generally, that is hardly our danger today.
It would be a beneficial exercise to count the number of times that John the Baptist, and then Jesus, refer in one way or another to God’s judgment. It may lead you to conclude that your emphasis is quite different from that of the Saviour.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is another example. Most of the first three chapters are taken up with an exposition of God’s wrath and of the reality of divine judgment. As Dick Lucas, former Rector of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, once said:
The gospel is presented in Romans not only as God’s remedy for dealing with our sin: it is much more profound than even that. It is his remedy for dealing with his wrath upon our sin, so that he may be just and the justifier of all who believe upon Jesus. This being so, the propitiatory nature of his death is crucial to the gospel.
Reading through the whole Bible helps us to see how all this fits together. Theologian, Geerhardus Vos, pointed out that the message of Jesus assumed the whole background of the Old Testament. Without the truths about God and human sin that are found in the Old Testament as the necessary background to the message of Jesus, there is the terrible danger of that message getting seriously out of focus. We need to appreciate the truths about God and ourselves found throughout the Old Testament when we read the New Testament.
Fuller revelation in Jesus
In the wonderful prologue to his Gospel, John makes it abundantly clear that greater truth and light about God has come with the New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ than is to be found in the Old Testament. In John 1:16 John tells us that from the fullness of God’s grace we have all received one blessing after (which is better translated ‘instead of’ or ‘in the place of’) another. John explains his meaning in the next verse: ‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’
The Mosaic Law was all about ‘types and shadows’; thus, grace and truth came by Jesus Christ as a blessing in place of another. John doesn’t mean that the law through Moses was not an act of grace, nor untrue. John meant it was incomplete. The coming of Jesus was a fuller revelation of God than anything found in the Mosaic Law. The types and shadows were now superseded by the reality to which they pointed forward. Israel had been God’s vine but Jesus was the ‘true’ vine – that is the real vine. The law and the prophets witnessed or testified to the righteousness of God but it was only revealed with the coming of Jesus (Rom. 3:21).
What the above means is this: we come to know the true God when, under the blessing and power of the Holy Spirit, we are exposed to the entire Word of God, the Bible. But we need to realise the progressive and cumulative nature of what God has revealed of himself in Scripture, culminating in the revelation that came with the entry into the world of God’s Son in human form and the apostolic witness to him. We come to know God in his Word only as we know him in his Son, Jesus Christ.