This is the third and final post about the Bible verses that were most popular among readers of YouVersion and Bible Gateway in 2014. (See here for background data and surprises 1-3, and here for surprises 4-7.)
Hopefully this little series reminds us that even the most familiar Bible verses contain surprises worth pondering. Woe to the Bible reader who has become so accustomed to Holy Writ that he navigates its pages on autopilot, with eyes closed! Blessed is the reader who never loses the joy of puckered-brow pondering: “Now I wonder what that might really mean?”
I’ll summarize the first seven surprises and continue:
- Bible reading is growing fastest in unlikely places.
- “World” in Romans 12:2 might better be translated “age.”
- “Finally” in Philippians 4:8 doesn’t necessarily indicate Paul plans to quit soon.
- Despite Philippians 4:6, not all “anxiety” is wrong.
- Some who are claiming Jeremiah 29:11 are actually destined to experience Jeremiah 18:11.
- The “you” in Matthew 6:33 is plural.
- The Gospel writer John uses bad grammar in John 3:16.
Now, on to the final three surprises:
- Philippians 4:13 is Paul’s testimony about his contentment, not God’s promise about my ambition. This surprise is well-known to any of you who are good Bible readers, but it is worth repeating since I still commonly hear this verse misused. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” says Paul. And so says a hopeful football team before a game–or perhaps both teams before the same game! (At least hockey teams, being rather scarce in the Bible Belt, are less likely to abuse Scripture in such ways.) The context of Paul’s statements should save us from any such foolishly ambitious über-confidence and also from such self-centered appropriations of Scripture.
According to the surrounding verses, “all things” refers to “any and every circumstance,” –“whatever situation” Paul finds himself in. These circumstances include, according to Paul, both living in abundance with plenty to eat and also living humbly–being hungry and needy (Phil. 4:12). “I can do,” according to the context, means “I am able to be content.” Paul said nearly the same thing a few verses earlier: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil. 4:11). Now he repeats the same idea: “I can do all things.” I don’t really need your gifts, Philippian believers, Paul says, for I know how to be content without them–the Lord gives me strength to always be content! It is also worth considering why Paul frequently suffered hunger and need. Again, context reminds us: Paul suffered need because he was engaged in dangerous frontier evangelism (Phil. 4:15-16).
So perhaps football teams, if they really wish to quote this verse, should do so only if they consciously and honestly view the football field as an evangelism field–and only if their principle desire is to display Christ’s abundant power to make them content in him–whether they win or they lose. And maybe, like Paul, they should only say it after the game, after their actions have demonstrated that their testimony is indeed true!
- “For good” in Romans 8:28 might not mean what you first think it does–nor what you “second think” it does, either. “All things work together for good,” Paul writes (or perhaps “in all things God works for the good,” see the NIV). Many people just wrap this verse around themselves like a cozy blanket, without ever really defining what “good” might mean. That’s up to God, they might think. Some define it in very materialistic or at least temporal ways–the things that happen to me are kind of like a Christian karma that God magically turns to my benefit, making me or those around me happier/better persons. They are content to read this verse in a translation such as the VOICE and stop mid-sentence: “We are confident that God is able to orchestrate everything to work toward something good and beautiful.” Ah, something “good and beautiful.” Lovely! I can cozy up to that!
Those who give the verse a second look know better. First, this promise is only for “those who love God… who are called according to his purpose.” No matter what we conclude about the doctrines of election and predestination, one thing is clear: Everything won’t work out for good for everyone–just for those who are devoted to God. Second, the following verse defines “good” for us: “to be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Rom. 8:29). What is the image of God’s Son? When I read this phrase, words and images appear: holy, righteous, cross, suffering, discipline. And I am partly right! I am encouraged when I hear people say we should never quote verse 28 without also quoting verse 29. But I think we should press on to verse 30.
Those who give the passage a third look know there is still more! Verse 30 outlines God’s plan for those whom he “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” And what is the end goal of this plan? Glorification! “Those whom he justified he also glorified.” This should not surprise us a bit. God’s Son–the one who is “bringing many sons to glory”–is right now “crowned with glory and honor” (Heb. 2:9-10)! Suffering for the Christian is never the end goal. It is always the means to an end. As Paul wrote earlier in the same chapter, “we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17). For those who love God, God plans that they will experience the ultimate “good”: sharing in Christ’s eternal glory at the resurrection!
Verse 28 without verse 29 can lead to humanistic definitions of good. But stopping at verse 29 can lead to ascetic or Gnostic definitions of good that sometimes, frankly, don’t sound very good at all. “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
- God is with us! (Psalm 23:4) There are many potentially surprising things I could explain about this verse, such as how the word translated “shadow of death” doesn’t actually mean that the psalmist is literally dying, or how this verse transitions the psalm from talking about God to talking to him. But the biggest surprise is the one that makes all the difference, the one that makes this verse so popular, and rightly so: “You are with me.” Why in the world would God choose to be with us humans? I don’t know. And not only with us in green pastures and beside still waters; he is with his sheep even in “the valley of deep darkness” (ESV footnote; or “a dark ravine,” see Waltke1).
I am reminded of another Psalm passage which was a favorite of my maternal grandfather:
“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.” (Ps. 91:14-16)
Before God rescues us–or perhaps as he rescues us–he is first with us. This is the way of our mysterious God.
Jesus, of course, is the ultimate demonstration of this truth. He is the true Good Shepherd (John 10) who has promised to be with his disciples always, to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). But Jesus is also Immanuel–“God with us” in the flesh (Matt. 1:23). He, too, walked the valley of deep darkness. We see this in the Psalms, too. The NT reads many psalms as messianic, with both the sufferings and the glories of the psalmists finding their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Psalm 16 is one of these messianic psalms, according to Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. (Read Acts 2:24-32 for a valuable lesson in biblical interpretation!) Listen to Jesus speaking through this psalm:
I bless the LORD who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I have set the LORD always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. (Ps. 16:7-8)
Just as David in Psalm 23 feared no evil while walking through “the valley of deep darkness” because he could say “You are with me,” so Jesus was comforted “in the night” because he could say “The LORD… is at my right hand.” Our Good Shepherd is a good shepherd in part because he was first a sheep.
Back to Psalm 23, by way of a detour. Scholars of Hebrew poetry notice that the book of Psalms is highly ordered, with psalms grouped according to authorship and themes. Some scholars note that Psalms 15-24 seem to form one such group, with these psalms arranged in a chiastic pattern. Thus Psalm 15 asks “Who has access to the temple?” while Psalm 24 asks “Who may ascend the holy hill?” Similarly, Psalms 16 and 23 are both confessions of trust in Yahweh, Psalms 17 and 22 are both pleas for deliverance from foes, Psalms 18 and 20-21 are both praises with royal themes, and Psalm 19 is the hinge of this unit, praising Yahweh in his creation and his Law.2
Notice how Psalm 16 and Psalm 23–the two Psalms I just compared above–are matching Psalms. This leads me to a suggestion. If the apostle Peter read Psalm 16 as expressing the voice of Christ, might we also read Psalm 23 in this way? Might we see Christ not only in “the LORD” (the shepherd) but also in the voice of David (the sheep)?
If you want to ponder this interpretive possibility further, read this ground-breaking essay by Douglas J. Green: “The LORD is Christ’s Shepherd”: Psalm 23 as Messianic Prophecy. Although Green’s essay generated some controversy for hermeneutical reasons (see here and here for rather unsatisfactory public explanation of this controversy), I think his interpretation is worth pondering and anything but novel theologically. As Hebrews says, “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb. 2:17). Or, in the language of Psalm 23: “He had to be made like the sheep in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful Good Shepherd.” Truly, “You are with me.” May we never stop being surprised!
And that ends my thoughts on some of the most popular verses in 2014. What surprises you most about these verses? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or forward this post to a Bible-reading friend if you wish. May God bless us with alert eyes and fresh insights into the Scriptures in 2015!