What the Super Bowl (ad) taught us about the Bible
You probably saw it, too. Some clever person searched the Bible and discovered that “eagles” show up in the Bible 30 times, and “patriot” doesn’t appear at all, therefore, God was an Eagles fan, and thus he would ensure they won. SMH… But that’s not the real problem.
Setting aside that silly logic, there was something far more disconcerting that occurred during the big game that sheds some important light on God’s written word. I’m referring to one particular ad that used a quote from Jesus. Which sounds great. Sort of. It was from Matthew 23, where Jesus says that the greatest among you will be your servant. (Matthew 23:11-12)
The quote from Jesus was actually part of a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, titled, “The Drum Major Instinct.” In that speech he was calling to task those who want you to believe that greatness consists of buying their product and using their brands. He was questioning the legitimacy of companies that use marketing tactics to entice people to borrow money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need in order to impress people so they can feel a sense of greatness. (You can check out the full speech here.)
The problem is that this speech by Dr. King was used in the Super Bowl commercial to convince viewers to buy a certain brand of truck. The problem is not with using marketing to promote your product. The problem is not that trucks are a bad thing. (Hey, I drive one myself.) The problem is that the producers of this ad intentionally borrowed PART of Dr. King’s speech while avoiding the part that actually condemned the very thing they were attempting to do! In other words, they used his words (and Jesus’ words for that matter) to say something that he never intended to say!
This is referred to as “taking words out of context.” The context of Dr. King’s words was an indictment against some of the more crass forms of marketing. This is why the internet blew up at this attempt to play off of Dr. King’s legacy by using his voice to sell trucks.
The same thing happens with the Bible. We’re tempted to take the words of the writers of the Bible out of context in order to make them say what we want them to say. Preachers are sometimes the biggest perpetrators of this offense. Then their congregations learn to do the same.
Here’s an example. In the 6th century BC the nation of Israel had been defeated in battle, their nation was under military occupation, and many of the survivors had been forcibly relocated to another country. The prophet Jeremiah wrote to those exiles to provide instruction from God. His message went something like this:
- You’re gonna be there for a long time, so get used to it.
- Settle in for the long haul by establishing this as your new reality. If you do, everyone wins.
- Don’t listen to the people who tell you that I’m gonna fix it right away. They’re lying.
- When I’m good and ready (like in 70 years) I’ll take action.
- Woe to those who don’t listen to my words.
This is the CONTEXT of a verse that gets thrown around like a good-luck charm. The verse goes like this:
I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Sounds good, right? Except the context is they were facing 70 YEARS of captivity and slavery! God had plans alright, but not what they wanted. He wanted to give them a future filled with hope but most of them wouldn’t live long enough to see it. And to those who were opposing God’s current plan he said this:
I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth, a curse and an object of horror, of scorn and reproach, among all the nations where I drive them. For they have not listened to my words,” declares the Lord, “words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either. (Jeremiah 29:17-19)
Does this mean God doesn’t have a good plan for your life? No, that’s not what it means. But the context of Jeremiah 29:11 doesn’t permit us to use it as an encouragement that God will only permit good things into our lives. Because those words were spoken to people who were living in decades of bad things that God permitted in their lives.
“But Pastor Mark, how are we supposed to know how to understand a given verse from the Bible?” Great question. The short answer: understand the context. Take a few minutes to read the verses and paragraphs surrounding the verse. It will help you understand and live out God’s instructions for a flourishing life.
And you may discover along that way that you’ve been lied to. By marketers, preachers, and more.
Now I’ve got to go clean my truck. 🙂
Posted on February 8, 2018, in Uncategorized and tagged advertising, Bible, context, football, hermeneutics, interpretation, MLK, Super Bowl. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
Isn’t this exactly one of the strategies of the rabbinic tradition of Jesus’ day, in which he himself engaged?
Jason, great question. I’m only partially up to speed on first century rabbinic traditions, but yes, it was quite common to quote passages from the Torah. If your question is, “Did Jesus and/or the rabbis of his day take those quotes out of context?” then I’m not so sure they did. Certainly I would say that Jesus knew well the context and meaning. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding your question, or you might have a specific example in mind. So let me know. Thanks!
I make this observation from: 1) my own reading of the Bible, in which I’m sometimes surprised at the way an Old Testament passage is being quoted; 2) I vaguely recall hearing in at least one sermon (don’t remember who’s) that quoting scripture out of context to make one’s point was a hallmark of the 1st century rabbinic tradition; 3) more recently I heard a lecture in a lecture series speaking on the rabbinic interpretations of the nature and role of evil in the world, which also mentioned this idea of rabbis taking scripture out of context to support an argument they were trying to make.
If you’d like some examples, there is Matthew 2:17-18 quoting the 31st chapter of Jeremiah. Matthew claims this is prophecy being fulfilled when Herod has Jewish boys 2 and under murdered, but in context the scripture is talking about the exile of the Hebrews who will one day return to their land rather than children being murdered.
An example from Jesus could be Matthew 10:35-36 and Luke 12:52-53 where he says “For I have come to ‘set man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.'” This comes from Micah 7:6, which in context is talking about how the world is messed up and full of evil people, but Israel just needs to wait for God’s salvation. In the scripture, the messiah is not causing the strife between people. The strife is there already and is a reason the world needs salvation. Why would Jesus quote this scripture in this way?
Jason, thanks for the follow up. There are as you pointed out numerous cases where Jesus (or NT writers) use OT passages in ways that seem unusual to us. As a general observation I would say that those usages are not counter to the context, but perhaps additional or developmental. E.g. Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31 doesn’t change the meaning of Jeremiah, it adds another layer of fulfillment. Likewise Jesus use of Micah 7 doesn’t fundamentally change Micah’s prophecy about the wickedness of this world, but simply brings it into his current reality. I.e. he was precipitating the evil that was to preceed the Messianic hopes. A blog comment section is probably a poor vehicle to conduct this conversation, so if you’d like further info, details, resources, etc., just shoot me an email, or track me down on a Sunday morning. And thanks again for raising excellent questions. 🙂