Though the Bible in its original form is inerrant, our
interpretation of it is not. Being in a position of trying to
understand God’s word is an intense place to stand. How we think about
the Bible affects how we think about it applying to our lives.
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 reading. And
especially how we apply it to our lives.
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 interpret and
apply Scripture. Whether you’ve had formal training on scriptural
interpretations or not, we are all susceptible to misrepresenting a
passage of the Bible.
The ultimate hope is that 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
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. Each of us has been guilty, at some
point, of misinterpreting it. But the power of Scripture lies in its
ability to communicate that love story to all of us, even if we mess it
up from time to time. And that love story has the power to change lives.
Josh Lujan Loveless is the senior editor of Neue.