Tactics and Tools

A Warning about Bible Verses

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/01/2022

Let me offer you a warning that will vastly improve your ability to understand Scripture—if you heed it. It’s an insight for every person who has ever asked, “How does this verse apply to my life?” Here it is: There are no verses in the Bible. Nope. Not one. At least, not in the original, and that’s the Bible that matters.

Let’s start with a definition. A “verse” is a passage of Scripture distinguished from other passages of Scripture by a numerical address (e.g., John 3:16, famously). Those numbers, though, were not in the original. They were inserted sixteen centuries later in 1551 by French printer Robert Stephanus.

There’s good news and bad news about verse numbers. The good news is, they make it easier to find stuff. The bad news is, they make it easier to get stuff wrong. I have two pieces of advice to help you avoid that pitfall.

First, beware the numbers. Verse numbers tempt readers to take a section of Scripture as a collection of discrete statements having meaning and application in isolation from the larger context (“How does this verse apply to my life?”).

Take a verse like “The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent” (Ex. 14:14). It wasn’t meant by Moses to be a stand-alone promise, though many Christians have used it that way. Sure, the Exodus narrative has plenty of relevance for New Testament believers, but this individual verse has no application to any Christian, only to trapped Hebrews with their backs up against the Red Sea. It’s not our promise.

In fact, standing on their own, most “verses” have no application to anyone’s life, Christian or Hebrew. None. Why, then, are they in the Bible? Because much of the time, the precise point of a passage cannot be found in a single verse, but in the role that verse plays in relationship to the verses above and below it.

Remember, the verse, as such, doesn’t exist. Rather, the sentence exists as part of a passage that might apply to your circumstances. It makes no sense, though, to isolate a line from its context and ask, “How can I stick this sentence into my life?”

Here’s why. God did not give us 66 books of short, pithy statements to be applied piecemeal to our situation (with a few exceptions—e.g., much of Proverbs). Most of Scripture is narrative—story. Most of the rest—the New Testament epistles, for example—is argument (making a case) or instruction (teaching us how to live). Each of these—narrative, argument, instruction—trades on a flow of thought in the passage made more clear by reading the smaller parts in light of the larger part.

The flow of a chapter helps us understand a paragraph’s role in the larger narrative. Paragraphs help us understand what a sentence means. Sentences help us understand individual word meanings. The account taken as a whole, then, has instructive value, not necessarily a verse in the account standing on its own. That’s why, at STR, we follow the rule “Never read a Bible verse.” Instead, always read a paragraph, at least, before drawing conclusions about a single verse’s meaning.

So first, beware the numbers. Second, beware the headings. The same warning about verses applies to captions added by Bible editors (and to chapter breaks, too, by the way). Headings can be helpful, but they can also be harmful when a caption severs the link between two sections of a passage that are critical to understanding the flow of thought.

For example, when Jesus’ teaching on the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:30–37­) is isolated from the verses above the heading, Jesus’ main point is completely lost. The parable of the Samaritan is not a morality tale, but an indictment of self-justification (note verse 29). The caption severs vital verses from the narrative, significantly altering the meaning.

So, beware. A really good idea five centuries ago can have a bad consequence today when it sabotages your efforts to understand Scripture properly. I suggest you ignore the artificial divisions (verses, headings, chapters) and focus on the larger narrative, argument, or instruction.

Start big, then get small. Look at the larger flow of thought, then zoom in on the particulars. It will save you a mountain of confusion—if you heed it.