The Bible is Not Your Fortune Cookie

The Question

All Christians should affirm the Bible as God’s living, truthful, and authoritative word. But can God also use it to speak directly to present day situations, even in ways different from its original context?

For instance, a persecuted Christian believed God spoke Matthew 2:13 (“take the child and his mother and escape”) to tell him to flee with his wife and child to avoid impending persecution. He didn’t heed this word, and then, shortly after, the police caught up with him, and sent him to prison (for his faith). Undoubtedly, he understood Matthew 2:13 is about Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, but believed God also simultaneously spoke it concerning a personal situation in his life.

So…is such a concept a valid use of Scripture?

Warnings and Clarifications

First, I 100% understand why people guard against looking for Bible passages to speak to present-day/personal situations. I think they are nervous of people subjectively reading the Bible and/or seeing things that God never said. To illustrate this point, consider the oft-repeated story of a man asking God what he should do, then flipping open his Bible to Matthew 27:5 (“Judas…hanged himself,”). In dismay he thinks, That can’t be right, so he asks again, “What should I do?” this time he flips open Luke 10:37 (“Go and do likewise,”). And we can immediately see the problems:

  1. God never told him to kill himself,
  2. Those Scriptures were ripped out of the context they were intended to be used for,
  3. We are likely to read the Bible according to our subjective whims when we do this, instead of looking for God’s objective interpretation and meaning.

This is a true warning that we should always heed and teach others to do the same.

Thus, when I see people taking Scriptures as personal words to personal situations, I’d stress that doing this is, to me, akin to receiving a present day prophetic word.

In other words, yes, I believe God does speak in such ways today, but we are told to “test” such things (1 Thes. 5:19-21), look for confirmation (1 Cor. 14:29), and vehemently reject any such “words” that contradict the clear interpretations and principles of Scripture.

Further, sometimes it might be helpful to speak of such situations (where a Bible verse seems to relate to a present-day event) as times where the Lord highlights principles in Scripture at a specific time/place for us to apply them. When viewed this way, it’s not so much that we are reading the Bible as meant specifically for our situation, but as recording eternal principles that God highlighted at just the right time for us to apply in our own life. But maybe that’s more a matter of semantics on the issue.

Does the Bible Say Anything about This?

In terms of Scriptures I’d use to justify that God can and does speak such personal words through established Scripture, I’d point to the following:

  • First, in 1 Samuel 21, I see a sort of picture of the essence of what is explained above. Not that this proves it is good to use Scripture this way (see below for that), but it does give an image that sort of helps us picture what I’m talking about. In the story, David is on the run from Saul and seeking provisions. He asks for a weapon (v. 8) and the priest offers “the sword of Goliath” (v. 9). This particular sword had been memorialized in a sense. It was laid up there as a sign of what God had done at the event of David slewing Goliath. Thus, the sword had a very fixed use and was remembered chiefly for that use. However, David says it could be of use to him in a different way now. This does not take away the memory it served in Goliath. In fact, that sword would always chiefly be remembered for being part of the victory of Goliath. In that sense it had a very fixed and honorable use. But, on a specific occasion in 1 Samuel 21, David saw use for it in a different (less “special”, less “fixed”) way. In a similar manner, I see how God can “re-issue” his Scripture (compared to a sword – Heb. 4:12; Eph. 6:17; etc.) to speak to specific events we may face today. So long as we do not remove the “fixed” and “memorialized” meaning of the text, and we continue esteeming that meaning as higher and more authoritative than any new thing God may be speaking in the text, I think we can legitimately use Scripture in this way (again, as subservient to the ultimate interpretation and meaning of the original intent of the Scripture).
  • In Matthew 2:15, we see Hosea 11:1 being applied to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus’ brief journey to Egypt. If you flip to Hosea 11, you’ll see that the reference is clearly to the nation of Israel being delivered from Egypt in the book of Exodus. Now I think part of what is happening is that Jesus came as a fulfillment of, and “new version” of, Israel. But the journey to Egypt clearly has a double meaning. In Hosea it referred to a 1,500 BC journey from Egypt by a nation. But in Matt. 2:15 it refers to a 0 AD journey to/from Egypt by a family. In other words Hosea 11:1 is recast to have an added meaning in light of Jesus (Messianic prophecies often work this way).
  • Hebrews 12:5-6 quotes from Proverbs 3:11-12. But notice Hebrews 12:5 – “have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son”. Of course, Proverbs was written 1,000 years prior, to a completely different audience. But the writer seizes on the word “son” and sees it applying to the people of that day as a personal word of exhortation to them. Of course, this doesn’t invalidate the original context of Proverbs being written for a different audience at a different time. It just helps to show the Scriptures are living and continue speaking to us today.
  • In Isaiah 6:9-10, God tells Isaiah to: “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding…'” The people here referred to were the Jews who lived ~700 BC. But 700 years later, Jesus says, “In them [the people of Galilee in 30AD he is talking to] is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing, but never understanding…'” (Matt. 13:14). Then, 30 years later, while Paul was in Rome, he says, “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people and say, You will be ever hearing but never understanding…'” (Acts 28:25-26). So Paul recognizes the original context was ~700BC, but sees it continually fulfilled even to the place of Rome 700 years after Isaiah wrote. Thus, this same passage is applied to 3 different situations.
  • Further, throughout the book of Revelation you see an intense amount of “fixed” Old Testament Scriptures and images being “recast” to speak of future events.
  • In the gospels, there are multiple examples of Jesus teaching the same (or similar) things at different occasions to different audiences, sometimes with slightly different meaning or emphasis (e.g. compare Matt. 9:13 with 12:7 — in Mt 9:13, Jesus is using Hosea 6:6 to emphasize his forgiving sinners, whereas in Mt 12:7, He uses the same passage to justify Him not obeying their sabbath regulations). If God did it there, I don’t see why He can’t similarly take a fixed Bible passage and “recast” it to our own situations with different emphases. I think He does do this, though it must remain under the authority and discipline of Scripture’s fixed meaning and interpretation (if that distinction makes sense).

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