“What’s the next line?”  At my local pub’s weekly trivia night, this is one of the questions that often arises during the evening.  The quizmaster starts playing a song and then stops it abruptly, with teams required to write down the next line.  Perhaps you’ve attended a school or club trivia night where this question has been posed.  And almost inevitably, several teams will inadvertently begin singing the next line before realising they’re giving the answer away.  Note that this never happens at pub trivia with the more seasoned players, but in the relaxed (and possibly inebriated) casual trivia night environment it is quite humorous to witness.

Perhaps you’ve watched game shows that include this element.  Don’t Forget the Lyrics was a US TV show in the early 2000s that adopted this format, with the contestant required to sing the next line when the music stopped.  A Canadian show The Next Line in the 90s did the same with movie clips. 

Why am I talking about what’s the next line?  When we read a book, or a newspaper article, or watch a TV interview, context is all important.  We need to be careful and cast a critical and sceptical eye when these are reduced to short quotes or sound bytes that we see on the TV news.  Perhaps that quote or byte fits a particular narrative and misrepresents the original context.  The 1990s Australian ABC TV show Frontline exploited this concept mercilessly and brilliantly in the “current affairs” genre.  Despite the naïve best efforts of the hapless anchor Mike Moore to try to convey the stories and issues on face value, he was easily manipulated by his executive producers to keep reinforcing the same prejudices and stereotypes: all young people are dole bludgers, all Aboriginals are drunks, all Muslims are terrorists, etc.  (Let’s see if someone lifts that sentence out of context…)

So when it comes to the Bible, those of us who profess faith (and those who don’t) need to be careful regarding the context of a verse or passage.  You may have heard the story about the person who seeks guidance from God by randomly opening the Bible and putting his finger on a passage.  The first verse he hit was from Matthew 27:5 – “Then he (Judas) went and hanged himself”.  He tried again, and this time came up with part of Luke 10:37 – “Go and do likewise”.  On his third attempt, he turned to John 13:27 – “What you are about to do, do quickly” (see this story at https://faithalone.org/magazine/y1993/93jan1.html).  This is not to say that God can’t use this random-flick method, but hopefully you get the point.

Let’s have a look at some what’s-the-next-line examples.  We’ll start with the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV).  This verse encapsulates the gospel message.  What’s the next line?  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (v17, NIV).  For those of us tempted to take a holier-than-thou, Pharisee-type attitude toward “sinners” (even though all of us are), this verse serves as a warning against such thinking, and reminds us of God’s intent, and his love for humanity.

Next we’ll look at Romans 1:18-32.  The title “God’s wrath against mankind” is an apt description, chronicling a steady degradation of human society despite a clear and ongoing awareness of God amongst humankind.  Verses 29-31 are stinging: “(People) have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity…full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice…gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant…ruthless.”  Even though this was written in the 1st century, as humanity in many ways we don’t seem to have progressed very far in the 21st century.  I’m sure you can think of real-life examples.  How about society’s fascination with gossip and slander in reality TV shows and magazines?  Verse 32 summarises “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” 

Critical stuff.  But what’s the next line?  Romans 2:1 says “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgement do the same things.“( NIV)

Ouch.  Yes, the same things as those listed in v 29-31.  Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:1 to “…not judge, or you too will be judged” should ring in our ears.  Are we any better?  Be reminded that Paul says further on in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and also that all (v24) “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” 

How about another (in)famous passage: Ephesians 5:22.  “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”  It continues (v23-24), “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church…now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”  One night I was in bed reading my Bible and my wife said “Read to me honey”: it just so happened it was this passage…

Calling the above verses “politically incorrect” is somewhat of an understatement these days.  Back in 2017 the ABC in Australia released a controversial finding claiming that evangelical Christians perpetrated higher levels of domestic violence than any other group.  According to the report, it was passages like those above that were used by husbands to justify their behaviour.  But an important caveat was that this was only true of evangelical Christian men who attended church sporadically or not at all.  Conversely, evangelical Christian men who attended regularly were the least likely to engage in domestic violence (e.g., see https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/december-web-only/evangelicals-domestic-violence-christian-men-domestic-abuse.html)

And that makes sense.  Those who attend church more frequently presumably know their Bibles better too.  Indeed, what’s the next line? Ephesians 5:25 says “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, to make her holy…” (read verses 26-27 too).  How did Jesus love the church and give himself up for her? By dying on the cross!  On whom is the greater call: the wife to submit to her husband, or the husband to sacrifice himself for his wife, even to death?  Yet even this is bounded by the question of what’s the previous line?  And that is verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  So the following verses that discuss the marriage relationship must be read in the context of this submission to each other, and indeed to God (James 4:7).  (Also, chapters and verses are just constructs that have been added for our benefit: the original Greek text in the New Testament had no references, not even punctuation).

What do real estate agents say are the three most important factors in buying or selling a property? Location, location, location.  Can we say that the three most important factors in Biblical study are context, context, context?  The Bible is a collection of 66 books, written by multiple authors in various original languages over thousands of years, covering history, poetry, songs and other literary forms.  But it is replete with common themes, with the central figure being Jesus and the central story being God’s saving love for his creation through Jesus’ sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection.  If you need assistance with how it all fits together, many Bibles have cross-referencing to similar passages to assist in obtaining context, and commentaries are widely available. 

Let’s be careful how we use the Bible, and how we study it.  John warns us in Revelation 22:18-19 not to add to or subtract from any of its God-given word (or Word, i.e., Jesus being the Word of God in John 1:1).  And when reading it, let’s consider the context, perhaps starting with that next line.