The Bible may just be the most misquoted book in history, which begs the question, “Can it be interpreted accurately?”
Principles of Biblical Interpretation
Are we able to understand Scripture? The Bible says that we can (2 Timothy 2:15). But accurate interpretation mandates that we take advantage of some basic principles:
- Read the Bible literally unless there is a clear symbolic intent.
- Review the cultural and historical background of a particular book or verse.
- Determine word definitions and intents in the Hebrew and Greek native language.
- Finally, read the full context beyond the portion of the Bible you’re examining and look for supporting cross-reference verses.
A good study Bible and even a simple Google search will help you with the above concepts.
Let’s use these ideas to right some commonly misperceived verses.
Some popular misconstrued quotes
God said don’t judge me!
Matthew 7:1 – is such a prevalent verse; “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.”
Many misinterpret this as a command never to judge anyone! This thought goes nicely with our woke culture; you don’t want to offend a snowflake or violate their safe space. Besides, I thought we got rid of absolute truths, so how can someone even judge?
However, if we read this verse in its full context, what Jesus condemns is hypocritical judging. Jesus, in verse 5, encourages judging when He states, “…first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Additionally, many of the remaining verses in chapter 7 include judging statements: “…beware of the false prophets..,” “…you will know them by their fruits,” and “I will declare to them, I never knew you.” We cannot beware or know without judging. And indeed, Christ couldn’t declare without considering.
1 Corinthians 5:12-13 sheds some additional light on this subject. Paul states, “…what have I to do with judging outsiders [non-believers]? Are you not to judge those who are within the church [which assumes an affirmative response]? But those who are outside, God will judge. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”
Christians are not tasked with pointing out the vices of non-believers. This doesn’t mean we can’t discern sin, but our objective is to share the gospel’s good news and pray for their redemption.
Conversely, we are to guard the purity of the church, which does involve judging, and which several cross-reference verses support:
- Matthew 18:15-17 details a sequential process for addressing fellow believers who are entangled in serious sin.
- Galatians 6:1-2 instructs believers to restore fellow believers who have been caught in sin and to bear one another’s burdens.
- 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 instructs believers to judge so they can determine not to associate with any so-called brother if he is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler.
Understanding history and culture provides another clue. The Pharisees were famous for seeing others’ sins while being blind to their faults. The word “Pharisee” can be synonymous with “hypocrite.”
God is on my team!
Philippians 4:13 states, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
As common as John 3:16 is among the stadium’s spectators, Philippians 4:13 is equally popular with the stadium’s athletes.
Many believe this verse means that Christ is my energy source for success and achievement.
Joel Osteen illustrated this misconception in Today’s Word, on January 21, 2013; “all things are possible to those who believe. That’s right! It is possible to see your dreams fulfilled. It is possible to overcome that obstacle…all you have to know is that if God said you can…you can!…open yourself up to possibilities…by simply declaring this verse, “I can do all things through Christ….”
When you study the context of this verse, however, it is not about success and personal achievement; it’s about contentment, contentment in any circumstance, and happiness via the sustaining power of God.
From a historical perspective, Philippians was written while Paul was in prison, and upon receiving a financial gift from the Philippians, he authored this epistle to express his gratitude.
In Philippians 4:10, Paul thanks the Philippians “…I rejoiced…that now, at last, you have revived thinking about me.” Verse 11 continues, “I learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.” He elaborates on this contentment in verse 12 “I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in abundance….”
Paul concludes in Philippians 4:13 with, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” The Greek word for “strengthen” means to “put power in.” Paul states that God’s power can sustain believers no matter their current circumstances.
It’s not uncommon to read into a verse and end up reading it out of context. Paul is not a walk-on for the quarterback position on the Prison football team; he expresses his appreciation and contentment, even in dire circumstances, because of the power of God.
It helps to understand the meaning of “strengthen,” but the real keys to understanding this verse are simply to read and understand it in its literal flow and context and recognize what historically was going on when Paul wrote Philippians.
3 More Misinterpreted Verses
Here are some verses that are mischaracterized and what they mean.
Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
- This verse is often taken out of context to suggest that God has a specific plan for every individual’s life, which is always one of prosperity and success. However, the full context of the passage indicates that God’s plan for Israel was one of discipline and correction. Therefore Christians should not assume that God’s plan for their lives will always be easy or comfortable.
Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
- This verse suggests that everything in a Christian’s life is inherently good since God works all things together for good. However, the true meaning of the verse is that God uses even the bad things in a Christian’s life for their ultimate good and spiritual growth, not that everything that happens is intrinsically good.
Proverbs 22:6 – “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
- This verse is often taken out of context to suggest that if parents raise their children correctly, they will always be righteous and obedient. However, the full context of the book of Proverbs indicates that this is a general principle, not an absolute promise and that children are ultimately responsible for their own choices and actions.
It’s troubling to observe how frequently we treat God’s word in such a cavalier manner. Unfortunately, the mischaracterizations are the fault of both non-believers and believers.
No doubt, many politicians will “appeal to a higher authority” to leverage their position with any verse that fits the occasion.
Equally offensive (if not more so), these same verses are printed on coffee mugs and depicted on magnetic refrigerator stickers, to be sold in every Christian bookstore in America. I’m pretty sure neither is acceptable.
I should expand on the biblical support that states we can understand God’s word. 2 Timothy 2:15 preaches that we are to “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a worker who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” The ability to “accurately handle” the truth conveys that we can understand and correctly interpret the Bible.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln asked if “God was on his side?” Instead of glibly misquoting some Bible verse in support of the war effort, he responded as follows:
“Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”