Let me begin by saying that I absolutely love the Bible. I have read it, pondered it, and preached it for almost 40 years. It is still as fresh and alive to me today as it was in the beginning.
While I have no problems with the Bible itself, I do have some issues with its formatting. I have to wonder if the chapters and verses are sometimes more of a hindrance than a help.
Not the Way It Was Written
Most of us know the Bible was not originally written with chapters and verses. The books were written by people who wrote them in the same format as any other book. The letters were written just like we would write an email or a blog post today. The focus was entirely on the content and sought to convey a message from the King to His people.
So when did the whole chapter and verse stuff come in? The first division of the Bible into chapters took place in the thirteenth century. The first time the entire Bible was published with both chapters and verses was in 1555. You can go here for an insightful article on the subject.
The reason the chapters and verses were inserted is obvious. It was done for the sake of convenience. It has certainly made it easier to reference the content. Can you imagine how difficult it would be without chapters or verses to find something you were looking for?
What is important to be remembered is that the chapter and verse divisions are a human invention, and were inserted according to the discretion and opinion of the printer. There is nothing to indicate they are divinely inspired like the rest of the text.
While the chapters and verses are a definite aid in Bible study, there are some brutal divisions of the text. Let me show you a couple of examples.
14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
17 Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
18 and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.”
7 Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. 2 Corinthians 6:14 – 7:1
This division is one of the worst. It is clear that the first verse of 2 Corinthians 7 goes with the last 5 verses of chapter 6. It is equally clear that 7:1 has nothing to do with the material that follows. Why the division? I have no idea. But think for a moment, if you were only reading a chapter a day, don’t you think this could make for a little bit of confusion?
Let’s look at another example.
31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
11 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:31 – 11:1
Here is another unfortunate division. When these verses are read in their setting, it is obvious the apostle Paul is exhorting his readers to follow him as he follows Christ in the way he relates to both Jews and Gentiles for their salvation. The rest of chapter 11 deals with other issues in the Corinthian church. Even a casual reading of chapter 11 shows that verse 1 doesn’t fit in with anything else in the chapter.
I could show you other examples, even where some verse divisions occur mid-sentence! The unfortunate divisions of the text are not the biggest problems created by chapters and verses, however.
One of the greatest problem created by the chapters and verses, in my humble opinion, is out of context thinking and what Dr. Len Sweet calls verse-itis. Verse-itis results when we pull together verses from all over the Bible and string them together to form our beliefs about God and His works. These verses are generally lifted out of their original setting and used as a support for our theological positions. While there is nothing particularly wrong with this per se (the New Testaments writers did it with the Old Testament), one has to be careful to ensure that the verse we are using actually teach what we’re teaching. There has been an immense amount of confusion brought to the church by verses being taken out of their context and used to promote things that are out of harmony with the rest of biblical revelation.
This has also resulted in us becoming a people of Scriptures rather than a people of the Scripture. What I mean is that we have all kinds of verses that we can cite about all kinds of things, yet we have no idea regarding setting those verses were taken from. For example, most people with some sort of background in the Bible are familiar with Romans 3:23 as a verse teaching that all have sinned. But are you familiar with what it shows us when we read it in harmony with the rest of Romans 3? Many people will refer to Romans 8:28 when something bad happens to show that God will cause all things to work for good. Do you know why God will cause all things to work together for good? If you read verse 28 in line with what comes before and after it you will. It’s powerful!
By far the worst problem verse-itis has caused is that it has almost completely disconnected us from the overall story of the Bible. We have become so focused on our doctrines and theology (both of which are important) that we have by and large lost sight of the grand drama that began in Genesis and whose completion is seen in the Revelation. We are part of a story that makes The Lord of the Rings look rather paltry by comparison. Knowing the story is a critical component to living out our Christian faith on a larger basis. It provides a greater context for all things missional. The overall story is what causes the particulars to fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and make sense. To lose sight of the big picture is to lose out big time.
What Can We Do?
What can we do to get over our verse-itis? The first answer is obvious: read the Book! Sit down and read one of Paul or Peter’s letters all the way through from start to finish. Look for the overall tone of what you are reading. Remember, these letters were written to a particular audience to deal with some very specific issues. Try reading all three chapters of the Sermon on the Mount together. And keep in mind that Jesus wasn’t speaking in chapters and verses. His message was to show His listeners what life under the new management of God’s government looked like. A very unique picture emerges when His sermon is read all together.
It’s hard, however, to ignore the chapters and verses while reading. Some versions of the Bible have formatted the content in paragraph form with the verses in-line as opposed to being stacked on top of one another. This has been somewhat helpful. Something even better, however, was recently developed by Crossway. They have developed an edition of The English Standard Version called the ESV Reader’s Bible. Now the Bible can be read as an unbroken narrative. They have, however, placed chapter references in the headers so you have some idea of where you are reading. I think it will be a great tool in helping recapture the true sense of the biblical text.
It’s Worth the Effort
It’s worth the effort to start reading the Bible differently than we have in the past. In fact, I believe it is essential. We have to get in touch with the grand scheme of things. We have to provide this generation with a different story for them to live in. They don’t want us speaking in chapters and verses. Sharing with them a life-altering story will be key to their living in the Reign.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.