Mrs. Morris drilled us in the multiplication tables, morning after morning, one hour per day, right after spelling. I hated it but I have never forgotten them either, at least not up through the tens. For me, it seems, rote is often the most effective form of instruction.
And so I remember, too, how my college and seminary professors were incessant in one particular insistence: “there are texts, and there are contexts.” It is a lesson I teach my own students in turn. Why? A Bible verse, or episode, ripped from its context may seem to teach one thing when, in returned to its nest, it presents a different meaning altogether.
Remember that time the disciples were in the boat? Matthew tells us that they are far from shore. A squall erupts. The boat is getting swamped. They are terrified. Then Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. “Do not be afraid,” he says. “It is I.” Simon Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, let me come to you.” Most sermons I have ever read or heard dealing with this story use Peter’s leaving the boat as an example of unsustained faith: he started out well but lost it. “Give me a church full of damp Christians!” I heard one preacher say. Uh, no.
“If it is you…”? If? Jesus has just given them a word of command and comfort: “Do not be afraid. It is I.” Peter, in effect, says, “Prove it. Prove it by a miracle. Prove who you are and prove it by me.” There is no faith there at all. In fact, in the greater context of Matthew, Peter sounds very much like the Tempter in chapter four: “If you are the Son of God, prove it: command these stones to be made bread.” Context reinterprets our thinking.
Likewise Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” A guy I know keeps a poster with that verse in his garage, just above his free weights. It helps him, he says, when he is trying to push himself to lift more or do more reps. It is a strong verse, he says, and taken out of context he is exactly right. No surprise then when Christians remind themselves one way or the other that they are to be strong, victorious, “overcomers.”
Indeed there are many “strong” images in the Bible. Christian schools love to take them as nicknames: Lions, Eagles, Crusaders, even (though that is not properly biblical). But remember the greater context! For every strong image there are other images: “dove” and “lamb” come to mind. Does any school take those for athletic inspiration? “Go Lambs! Go Doves!”
Even that “victorious” image on my friend’s poster, in context, is as much about weakness as strength, as much about losing as winning. Paul is writing from prison, after all, and says just one verse before, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want, I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Winning or losing, in strength or weakness, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health—I can do all those things in the context of Christ’s strength.