There is quite a humorous interchange between Sherlock Homes and his cohort, Dr. Watson, from the story, A Scandal in Bohemia. Holmes begins by saying to Dr. Watson, "You see but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room."
Dr. Watson responds, "Frequently."
Holmes asks, "How often?"
Watson says, "Well, some hundreds of times?"
Holmes then seriously asks Watson, "Then how many are there?"
Watson exclaims, "How many? I don't know."
Holmes then rebukes Dr. Watson saying, "Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed."
This failure to see and observe gets several Christians in trouble when it comes to Biblical interpretation. How often I have heard well-meaning Christians quote verse after verse yet fail to see the important context from which the verse is taken. Scripture cannot be approached piecemeal; accurate interpretation requires the studious Christian not only to see and understand what a particular verse says, but also to see how it functions in its broader context.
The temptation to lift verses from context is seen clearly in the way popular Christian culture uses Scripture with paltry regard to its original intent. Many greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, and devotional calendars are inscribed with the words of Genesis 31:49: "May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent one from another." In context, this is Laban's perpetual threat to do harm to Jacob if he should ever return to Laban's territory, not a farewell blessing. Many brides have beamed as they recite to their new husbands Ruth's great promise in Ruth 1:16-17. However, these words were originally spoken by a woman to her mother-in-law. Recently I read in the temperance arguments aflame in the Southern Baptist Convention the use of Numbers 15:7-10 as carte blanche approval of alcohol use. God received a wine offering as a "soothing aroma" but this passage does not give the Christian liberty to use alcohol freely or even temperately.
A favorite and oft-misquoted verse is Matthew 18:20; "For where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there in the midst of them." This verse has become a proof-text for prayer services, dinner meetings, and to a lesser degree, house churches. It sounds noble to claim this promise when there is a less than usual turn out for prayer meeting but does this Scripture speak to other such gatherings and even impromptu ones? In context it does not. Matthew 18:20 is Christ's promise to the church that faithfully exercises church discipline that His presence is guaranteed in confrontational meetings with errant believers. It is not a Scriptural warrant for any other kind of meeting.
Some verses mean what they say and say what they mean even when extracted from their original context. In everything give thanks; not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven; all have sinned. However, the majority of verses are completely dependent upon their context. Otherwise, how could you determine that in Galatians 5:15 that the Apostle Paul is not warning against childhood mischief or rabid dogs set to attack in Philippians 3:2? One of my personal favorites is the nursery placard of 1 Corinthians 15:51: "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed."
Dr. David Black rightly compares the Bible to a large puzzle. Individually, the pieces are an accidental junk pile, without cogency or coherence. However, when the pieces are assembled, the larger picture comes into view. An isolated piece cannot make sense when removed from its proper place. Each piece fits into the others that surround it and seeing this whole pattern will protect the observant Christian from doing damage to the parts that make up the whole.
When the Bible was written, it was written by a particular man, during a particular time, to a particular audience. Scripture is never meant to be understood apart from this historical context and it was never meant to mean something that it never meant. The writer of each individual book of the Bible had a purpose, a uniform sequence of ideas, and a holy unction from Almighty God. Therefore, meaning must be derived from the passage and not attributed to it.
If we allow our imaginations to determine the meaning of any given passage, then our imaginations become the authority. Every time we read about water, it could be pressed to mean something about baptism. Each time we read about a leper, we might immediately identify him with the lost sinner. Every paralytic that needs to be healed must be lowered through a roof. I have purposefully used hyperbole so that the argument would be borderline ridiculous, but this is exactly what feminist and gay theologies do. (For instance, see Galatians 3:28. It is often used as Scriptural justification for their sordid positions.) Scripture can be contorted to mean just about anything if the context is ignored. God grant us the discernment to notice the inconsistencies.
Besides, is it not hypocritical to assume that the meaning I give a passage of Scripture has more relevance than what God intended it to mean?