Understanding the author’s message is one of the fundamental skills needed to know how to read the Word accurately. Greg gives some simple steps to understand Bible promises.
When I was a new believer in the 70s, part of the standard “gear” for Jesus Movement Christians was a dog-eared paperback copy of The Jesus Person Pocket Promise Book.
It seemed like a sensational idea at the time, collect God’s promises, and then cash them in as needed. Now, nearly 40 years later—though the promises of God are no less “precious and magnificent” (2 Peter 1:4)—I think twice when people claim them.
Promises are frequently abused, in many cases by people who should know better. A promise not carefully tethered to the details of the text becomes an empty exercise of relativistic wishful thinking.
Knowledge—“an accurately informed mind”—is the first characteristic of a good ambassador. Ambassadors need to get the content of the message right before they can accurately pass it on to others. Since everything we offer on God’s behalf consists of promises of some sort, mistakes here really matter.
A biblical promise is a binding pledge from God to do—or not do—something specific. If the promise is made to you, you have a right to expect God to keep His word. If you are not the rightful owner, though, you may not lay claim to it. It is pointless to expropriate promises made to another, and can lead to disappointment and discouragement.
But how do you know if you are the fortunate beneficiary? You find out by looking closely at the details of the promise itself and applying two simple principles.
The correct meaning of any biblical passage is the meaning the author had in mind when he wrote it. A promise is only a promise when it is used as its maker intended. We discover that intention by paying attention to the specifics—the words, the conditions, the recipient, the timing, the historical setting—the details that make up the context of the promise.
The process can be organized into steps by asking (and answering) four questions: Who?, What?, Why?, and When?*
Who?—Identify the particular person or people the promise is made to. The promise may be for a specific individual, for a group, or for anyone. Ask, Am I that person? If the promise is to a group (e.g. Jews, Christians) ask, Am I part of the group?
What?—Zero in on the particulars of the promise. Specify what the promise actually commits to. Ask, What will happen (or not happen) when the promise is fulfilled?
Why?—Why will the promise be fulfilled, that is, what must happen first? Note the conditions or requirements the promise hinges on, often signaled by an if/then clause. Ask, Do I meet the requirements?
When?—This is the promise time. The promise may be for a particular time (“...at this time next year...”) or for an unspecified time. Ask the question, What is the time of the promise, if any?
Be sure to get your answers by looking carefully at the words of the promise itself in light of the larger context of the passage. Keep in mind you may have to read an entire chapter or more to gather enough information to answer your questions.
Now, a short homework assignment. Here is a list of popular promises. Grab a sheet of paper and apply the four questions to each one and see what you come up with. This will be fun or painful, depending on how you’ve read these promises in the past.
John 8:32 (note 8:31–36); Romans 8:28 (note 29–30); Jeremiah 29:11 (the context begins at the beginning of the chapter); 2 Chronicles 7:14 (the full context starts in chapter 6. Make note of the details of Solomon’s prayer in 6:17–27 in light of God’s response in chapter 7.)
We can only legitimately claim a biblical promise if it is rightfully ours. If the promise is for us, and we have satisfied the conditions, and the promise is for our time, then we can count on God to keep His word.
If not, then we must leave the promise to its rightful owner and profit from the text by learning what we can from God’s faithful dealings with them.
*I am indebted to my brother, David Koukl, for this useful exercise.