Though the Bible is inerrant, our interpretation of it is not. Being in a position of spiritual influence is an intense place to stand. Our words shape the theology of others. Though all of us carry that responsibility differently, the weight of seeking to translate the message and the meaning of the story of God requires a sober assessment of what we’re actually teaching.
The truth is, I could find a section of Scripture and use it out of context to imply just about anything I wanted. I can make the Bible seem to support modern polygamy, slavery, hatred, homophobia, violence against women and even crusades against people of other faiths. This is not a hypothetical conversation. The Bible has become a tool for many to push selfish agendas that don’t represent the heart of God.
But not all of us are using Scripture to start a war. Some of us have just gotten lazy with doing the work required to instruct and edify the people around us. Whether you’ve had formal training on scriptural interpretations or not, we are all susceptible to misrepresenting a passage of Scripture.
The ultimate hope is we would filter the individual commandments, verses and stories in the context of the Grand Narrative. It would help us to look at Scripture like a puzzle to be put together. To completely understand how all the pieces properly fit, we need a clear understanding of what the picture looks like on the box. Without looking at the overall picture, it’s impossible to know what to do with all the individual pieces. When we don’t hold a clear view of the bigger picture, the danger is that in our frustration, we would not try to put the pieces together, but would instead keep them separate. When the pieces (i.e., verses) remain separate from all the others, they lack the purpose they were created for—to be joined together with the other pieces, to create the image the Creator had in mind when the puzzle was first made.
Here are a few commonly misinterpreted verses that need a closer look:
In Matthew 18:20 Jesus says, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (TNIV). I hear people use this regularly to back up the need for multiple people to come together and pray. It’s also used during prayers when we let God know we have the right amount of people for Him to be among us.
This always seems humorous to me as I know these people wouldn’t deny that God would hear their prayer if they were on a deserted island without the luxury of one or two more people. The real context of this passage has nothing to do with how many people need to be around for God to show up. A simple reading of the previous verses reveals this verse is specifically in reference to handling relational conflict.
In John 8:32 Jesus says, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Most people believe this verse is referencing truth—as in not telling a lie. But the appropriate understanding of this passage is that Jesus is the Truth, and to believe in Him will set you free from the sin He mentions later in the chapter. Though I believe Jesus is all for honesty, this verse has nothing to do with not telling a lie.
Philippians 3:13 says, “… But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” This is commonly used to tell people to forget the negative experiences they’ve had and move on toward the future. Though Paul had plenty to be ashamed of in his past, he wasn’t speaking to that here, but was referring to his past achievements which he didn’t want to rest on.
Revelation 3:20 says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.” This is a very personal verse for many people and can be found on countless tracts, but the context of the verse is not about an individual converting to Christ. The larger context of the verse shows Jesus’ message of knocking is written to a collective church in need of renewal. Jesus coming to eat with us in our individual lives may be a beautiful image, but that’s not the message this verse intends to communicate.
It’s not uncommon for worship leaders to quote Jesus’ statement in John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” So the message for the worship leader is this: If we “lift up” Jesus and ascribe glory to Him, the power of Christ is released to transform the hearts of those listening, and they are drawn to Him; but that’s not what Jesus is talking about. If we continue on to verse 33, we’d see the actual context of the verse. “‘And I, if I be exalted before the people, will draw all men to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:32-33). We see now, being “lifted up” clearly means to be crucified.
And just because we’re on a roll now, I also love quotes people use as scripture that are nowhere to be found in the Bible. For example, the oft-quoted “verse”: God helps those who help themselves. The actual saying comes to us from Benjamin Franklin—though I’m sure he’d be flattered to know his sayings are being confused with scripture.
The Bible is a love story collected together as a series of books, poems, histories and tragedies. Even if you aren’t guilty of misinterpreting these verses, see to use your spiritual influence to support a stronger understanding of biblical context in those around you.
This article originally appeared in Neue Quarterly.