Do you pay attention to the pericope??

Most Christians who take their Bible Study at all seriously know that although the modern translations of the Bible have chapter and verse divisions that the original documents did not have them.  Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, added the chapter divisions into the Latin Vulgate around 1227 A.D.  A rabbi by the name of Nathan divided the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) into verses in 1448 A.D.  A little later, in 1551 A.D., Robert Estienne divided the chapters into verses in his copy of the Greek New Testament and the English translation known as the Geneva Bible of 1560 incorporated these verse divisions.  Almost all English translations today use these chapter and verse divisions from 450-800 years ago.

Where would we be without these chapter and verse divisions?  They make it so much easier to find our way around the Scriptures.  We can go right to a verse easily without have to start reading our way through an entire book, or having post-it notes sticking out all over the place.  They make it easier to tell someone else where to look for a verse.  We have been truly blessed by the hard work of those who have gone before us to make the Scripture more accessible in such a wonderful and practical way.

However, because we are so used to these chapter and verse divisions we sometimes get tunnel vision as we read the Scripture because we have a tendency to look at a verse in isolation with no reference to the verses around it – i.e. we ignore its context.  When I was in seminary my professors would often talk about the importance of the pericope that we were studying.  They didn’t say passage or chapter or verse but pericope.  When I first came out of Seminary I would use that term quite regularly but I quickly found out that few folks in the church were familiar with it.  Wikipedia tells us that pericope comes from a Greek word meaning a “cutting-out” and that it is used of a set of verses that forms one coherent unit or thought.

A verse famous for being pulled out of its pericope, or out of its context, is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  Jon Jones, possibly the greatest fighter in mixed martial arts history has it tattooed across his chest.  Tim Tebow was known for having the verse under his eyes when he played college football at Florida.  You can find it printed on a T-shirt or engraved on a bracelet or tebowhang a motivational poster with the verse quoted.  The problem with all these things is that they have often have nothing to do with the original verse.  In the verses immediately preceding verse 13 we find the context as Paul describes the “all things” he refers to in verse 13.  When we ignore the pericope (context) it is easy to jump to a false interpretation.

Consider the context of Philippians 4:  10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

So what does it really mean?  John Sampson puts it this wayWhatever the situation; whatever the circumstance; whether in hardship or in much provision and abundance; whether there is plenty or whether we experience hunger and great need, God’s grace is more than abundant for us in Christ. He will strengthen us to endure whatever it is we have to face. That is true for Paul and it is also true for all who trust in Christ. We can go through any event in life, whether it be a very good or a very hard thing, because the Lord Jesus Christ will strengthen us to do so. That is the meaning of Philippians 4:13.

If you watch closely as you read your Bible you might also discover that sometimes the chapter divisions interrupt the thought or context of a passage, i.e. it divides up a pericope.  Sometimes we need to read some of the previous chapter or the following chapter if we are to accurately understand the context of a particular verse. In my experience we especially must be aware of the need to look at the context or the pericope if we are reading from a daily devotional.  Often these booklets tell us wonderful stories of faith – but sometimes these stories of faith, as inspirational as they might be, have nothing to do with the verse quoted at the beginning or the end.

And that’s just a thought…