Context (Matthew 4:5-6)

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A good general does not immediately resort to full-on war. War is costly. You  always have at least a possibility that you will loose, and at the very least it will cost much in time and the lives of your soldiers. In fact, it is so costly that even if you believe you can win, you must try every tactic you can to avoid war first. So when tactic fails, you try new one, until the only tactic left is full out conflict.   

The devil’s first tactic defeated, he changes his approach. He is trying to indict God incarnate, so he can lay claim to all that God has. He no fool. Ever the consummate persecutor, he notes that Jesus used the Word of God to defend Himself. So the tempter now uses the Word of God as a weapon; “Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” 

The devil did not take Jesus to Jerusalem and the top of the temple without forethought. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It is a city that Jesus loves, for it – and the temple He now stands upon – are the centre of Jewish identity. The highest point of the temple is a location that would evoke deep emotion – both love for Israel, and perhaps a very human concern of the danger of falling. While Jesus wrestles with those emotions, the devil throws a Scriptural text at Him. 

Psalm 91 rightly says, “If you make the Most High your dwelling— even the Lord, who is my refuge— then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” What Satan said in quoting the Father is actually textually accurate. That makes this temptation materially different than the last. This is not just an appeal to Jesus’ great physical need. The evil one mixes truth with elements of both emotional and mental confusion. Not only will Jesus need to remember the Word, He will need to discern between interpretations of the Word, and do so while emotion clouds His thinking.

Fortunately, Jesus’ preparation over the previous 40 days has been thorough. He remembers the text and the context. He perceives that Satan has applied Psalm 91 to personal protection from one’s own foolish behavior – but that is not what the Psalm is actually about. It is about God’s protection of His own during seasons of corporate judgment. It is a song of the Father’s love and care for His children during His own war against the wicked. What Satan is doing is suggesting that Jesus accept a complete distortion of the Word as accurate merely because the textual quote was accurate. Worse, he suggests that Jesus do that because He is the Son of God. As though Sonship provides the right to lift the Father’s Word out of context for one’s own purposes! What a damnable thought. 

 The Scripture even warns us against using God’s Word out of context. 2Tim 2:15 says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”  Rightly handling it means considering its full meaning in application, lest we dishonour God by mishandling it! 

When we come to tightly reasoned passages of Scripture, the most appropriate Bible study method is to trace the writer’s line of argument. That is, we must study carefully to follow his train of thought. This approach will guard us from taking a verse out of context, and interpreting it as if it stood alone.

Lawrence O. Richards

APPLICATION: Intentionality

We are always needing to prepare for the next spiritual battle we fight. How have you grown in learning to study the Scriptures in the last year?

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