Context is Everything

Photo Credit: gwire

Let’s eat, Grandma. vs. Let’s eat Grandma. I often think of this little example when I hear certain phrases, or even Bible verses cherry picked from here and there. In the case of Grandma, a simple comma is the only thing separating a wonderful meal with her from… you get the rest.

Here’s a familiar one for you. It is perhaps the most well known verse in the world; known by Christians and non-Christians alike; John 3:16.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 New International Version (NIV)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that verse at all. It sums up everything we need to know about God’s love for us and what Jesus accomplished on the cross… or does it?

Out For a Walk

There are times in life when you look at something, something you’ve looked at hundreds if not thousands of times before and see a new thing. While casually strolling through town the other day, we walked past a few doctors’ offices. Each and every one of those offices had the familiar symbol recognized around the world; the medical logo. There are two variants of this logo, one snake wrapped around a staff, and two snakes wrapped around a staff. I’m sure you’ve seen either one or both at some point in your life.

What struck me as new, as silly as it now seems, is the snake. Why a snake? I’m not sure what I used to think that squiggly line was, a snake it was not. So right there in that moment, it’s as if a lightbulb went off; John 3:16. But wait, what does the most recognized verse have to do with snakes? It’s all about the context.

The Bigger Picture

Just like how a simple comma drastically changes our dining experience with Grandma, listening to a conversation and only hearing five percent of it can hinder our understanding of the entire discussion. John 3:16 is listening in to a discussion Jesus was having with Nicodemus, one of the ruling elite in the Pharisee world. It’s looking at 1 out of 18 distinct sentences spoken by Jesus. Back up just two verses and you’ll discover the snake reference. What Jesus was referring to is found in the book of Numbers, chapter 21 to be specific.

Back in the day, the people of God rebelled and God sent venomous snakes to punish them. They cried out to Moses for help and God gave him instructions for a cure. Craft a snake out of bronze, put it up on a pole, and tell the people that anyone who goes and looks at it will be healed.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:14-16 New International Version (NIV)

Back to that medical logo with the snake(s). My lightbulb moment wasn’t just the recognition of something previously unnoticed, it was of the relationship between a patient and their physician. When you’re sick, the mere existence of a doctor doesn’t heal you. Even if you lived next door to the best hospital in the world, there’s something that must take place. You need to make the trip to go see the doctor, and if you don’t have the strength to walk, you still need to call him or her to make a house call. Otherwise, you remain sick and the one who heals never gets to see you.

Response Required

This is me just thinking out loud, but what if when we use John 3:16 in isolation, without any further context, it can almost come across as “Jesus paid the price for me, no further action required”? Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, and the Israelites had to get up, sick and filled with poisonous venom, and go walk to where it was posted, we, have to get up, filled with poisonous sin, and go lock eyes with Jesus. Remaining where we are isn’t going to cut it. There is a response being required of us.

Do we lose something valuable when we pluck a verse from here and there, as great as they are by themselves? I love John 3:16, but you know what I love more? Reading about the entire interaction between two men, one named Jesus and the other Nicodemus. I imagine the scene like a movie, just like when I read a good novel. I imagine the facial expressions, the body language, and the onlookers listening in Jesus unpack heavenly parables.

About That Walk

I don’t think I would’ve experienced that lightbulb moment if I didn’t love a good story. Years ago, when I read John 3:14, I just had to find out about what Jesus was referring to. Flipping around throughout the Old Testament caused me to become familiar with the context, and learning the backstory was as interesting as learning any other great backstory. The Bible is actually filled with tons of interwoven stories; it’s the world’s best adventure book and love story all rolled into one.

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