For Better or Verse

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148,g Deuteronomy 31:7-13, 31:24-32:4, Romans 10:1-13, Matthew 24:15-31


What’s the number of your favorite New Testament verse? Only 500 years ago, that would have been a nonsense question. Before the 16th century, the New Testament was not divided into verses in any generally accepted manner. Before the 13th century, it wasn’t even divided into standard chapters! Today, we can scarcely imagine taking part in a Bible study without being able to flip to the proper chapters and verses on demand.

But do verses help or hinder our relationship with the text?

A devotional that depends on scheduled readings might seem like an odd place to bring up the dangers of versification, but today’s Epistle reading is a good example of the importance of context. Paul’s letter to the Romans is a rich and complex document. Each section builds upon the content of the previous sections. Today’s text continues Paul’s exploration of the continued role of the Jewish people in God’s plan for salvation. Out of context, it could be presented as an outright condemnation. As part of a larger document, it helps build an argument that God is the God of all people, whether Jewish or Gentile.

Beyond the immediate context of Romans itself, it helps to know Paul wrote this letter as Jews were returning to Rome after being expelled for five years by the Emperor Claudius. The church they returned to was increasingly Gentile in character. Part of Paul’s reason for the letter was to relieve tensions between clashing sects of Christianity.

Understanding the Bible involves more than memorizing verses and pulling out proof-texts. While verse identification is a helpful reference tool, it should not limit our study or – worse yet – reduce the Bible to a collection of favorite, context-free quotes. Reading the full text and exploring the historical context will provide a much deeper experience. Even lectionary readings might be enriched by looking back and reading ahead!

The New Testament was composed over decades by many authors, none of whom wrote their work in verses. When we try to read the text as they wrote it, our appreciation and comprehension can only grow.

Comfort: The Bible is greater than the sum of its verses!

Challenge: Before the end of the month, research the historical context of one of the New Testament books, and notice how it affects your understanding of the text.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, we thank you for the living words of scripture. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have a favorite Bible verse?

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