Keys To Avoiding Biblical Misinterpretation

"Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15)

Since the very beginning, there have always been a lot of very bad interpretations of what God’s Word is saying. Sometimes, different Bible commentators or denominations will read a slightly different meaning into a verse of Scripture, resulting in a distinction that is rather unimportant in the big picture. No Christian doctrine is really altered by these differences, often they are just a reflection of a divergence in background, culture, or experience. Like two persons from separate parts of the world viewing the “Mona Lisa” or the “Sistine Chapel”, they are seeing something minutely different in what they read in God’s Word, perhaps for no other reason than the Spirit of God is saying something through the particular passage unique to their own need.

Other times, however, the variances in interpretation are not so benign. In fact, some interpretations are so atrocious that they can make us wonder if the person giving the interpretation is reading the same Bible that we are! There is usually a reason as to why such a non-traditional, unorthodox viewpoint is being expounded. Often, the person is simply trying to be controversial and make a name for themselves (and maybe make a few bucks from their idea along the way). Other times, a person may genuinely believe what they are saying, sometimes feeling as if they are one of the only people in the history of mankind clever enough to see this new “true” interpretation that has so successfully eluded the detection of a host of other Bible students throughout the ages.

So, how can we really know what the correct interpretation is for any passage of the Bible? Some parts of the Bible, the Book of Revelation for instance, have been interpreted in literally hundreds of different ways. Is it possible at all to know whether or not one interpretation is more valid than another? How can we tell if one viewpoint is closer to what God intended the passage to mean than some other? Fortunately, there are some very good fundamentals to approaching Scriptural interpretation that can help us to proceed with certainty that we are accepting a reasonable explanation for whatever interpretations we are subscribing to. The Theological discipline known as Hermeneutics is actually entirely devoted to promulgating these principles. But even with such principles having been laid out, there are many who totally ignore them and go about “interpreting” Scripture with reckless abandon. Very often, they are violating one or more of the following basic guidelines:

Context, Context, Context

A lot of Bible students are familiar with the old axiom: “A text taken out of context is a pretext.” When you rip a single verse out of the context in the Bible wherein it appears, you usually end up with a mess! There is nothing wrong with quoting a single verse of Scripture to illustrate a point, but we must be certain that the meaning we are applying to it is the meaning that the surrounding text naturally suggests. One notorious example of taking a verse out of context and interpreting it to mean something which it does not is the use of Philippians 4:13 by the “Prosperity” teachers:

“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Phil. 4:13)

A lot of “Prosperity” teachers throw this verse around like it is an indubitable badge of authority given to the Christian in order that he may do whatever he wants to. But if they took the verse in context, they would see that the preceding verse says:

“I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” (Phil. 4:12)

Philippians 4:13, when read in context, means that the Christian is strengthened to endure anything that comes their way, good or bad, by the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, we learn how to handle times when we are “hungry” and times when we are “well fed.” Since the Lord Jesus is sufficient for us, we can overcome any bad situation! But to present this verse in its natural context would contradict the “every day’s a rose garden”, non-stop health and wealth orgy of hedonism that these false teachers promote.

The Bible was originally written as 66 separate books, with each book being one continuous text. In other words, there were no “chapter” and “verse” divisions, but these books flowed like any other book would. Therefore, it is no more prudent to rip a single verse out of Scripture than it would be to take a single sentence from the middle of any other book and make it stand alone. But many poor Biblical interpretations do just that, which brings us to our next guideline:

No Doctrine Should Be Built On A Single Verse

"Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation." (2 Peter 1:20)

Whenever an entire doctrine, especially an unconventional “new” one, is backed up by one or maybe two ambiguous, obscure verses of Scripture, look out! Pseudo-Christian cults are notorious for doing this. Before we can arrive with certainty at a particular interpretation for any verse or passage, we must compare this interpretation with what the rest of the Bible says. Here is an example used by the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”:

“I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” (Psalm 82:6)

You aren’t going to find anything else in the entire Bible that would even remotely suggest that man is a “god”, but this single verse (and the Lord Jesus’ quotation of it in John 10:34) are used to support the Mormon doctrine that man has the capacity to become divine. Although there are abundant verses that demonstrate that this is in no way true (e.g., Deut. 4:35;1 Sam. 2:2; 2 Sam. 7:22; Is. 44:6-8, 45:5, 21), and although the word translated as “gods” is also translated as “judges” elsewhere (e.g., Ex. 21:6, 22:8 — which is the obvious meaning here in Psalm 82: that these are “judges”, men of authority and power), these two single verses are used to prop up a heresy that has no real Biblical support. By keeping in mind the principle that the whole of Scripture must be in agreement with any doctrine drawn from a single passage, errors such as this could easily be avoided. But the reason that such a bizarre interpretation is drawn from passages like this has a lot to do with our next guideline:

Read The Meaning Out Of The Passage, Not Into It

Solid Biblical interpretation starts with practicing exegesis (reading the meaning “out” of the text), not eisegesis (reading a meaning “into” the text). The reason that the Mormons teach that Psalm 82 teaches that man is a god and the reason that the Prosperity teachers teach that Philippians 4 tells us that we can have and do whatever we want is not because that is the most straightforward interpretation of the text, but because they have already arrived at those doctrines beforehand.

A good crime scene investigator will objectively evaluate all the evidence that they find in order to determine the truth of what has happened. A poor or biased investigator will attempt to interpret the evidence to fit their own preconceived notions. Often, they will ignore, alter, or suppress any evidence that is contrary to what they have already decided to believe. So it is with many who misinterpret the Bible. They attempt to “cherry-pick” verses, ripping them from their context and then twisting them in order for them to fit their own predetermined Theologies. They don’t approach the Bible with the idea of letting it speak God’s Words to them, but rather they approach the Bible and attempt to make it say what they have alreadydecided. We must let the Bible change our beliefs to fit what it says, not change what it says to fit our beliefs.

Consider The Setting

The Bible was not written by 21st Century, English speaking Americans. In order to accurately understand the Bible, we must take into consideration the original setting in which it was written. For those of us living in the United States, we must realize that we are standing more than 2,000 years removed and half a world away from where the Word of God was first written down. To say that the culture is different is an extreme understatement! A lot of skeptics like to bring up issues such as slavery in order to accuse God of doing evil (“why didn’t He condemn slavery in the Bible?”, they ask), and a lot of Christian men like to take the few verses where the Apostle Paul said that “women ought to be silent” and extrapolate them to be universally applicable. I don’t want to take the time in this article to expound on either of these two topics, but suffice it to say that the people living in Biblical times were definitely living in another cultural setting and they did things a little differently than we do today. A good Bible Handbook or volume such as Freeman’s Manners And Customs Of The Bible can help us to bridge the cultural gap and better understand the Word of God.

Consider The Original Audience

There are applications for us from every part of the Bible, but we must realize that not everything in the Bible is written to us. If the passage is addressed to another group, then we should understand that much of it will not directly relate to us. Many promises are made in the Old Testament, for instance, that are specific to the ancient nation of Israel and are not transferable to the Christian living in the age of the Church. Before we claim any portion of Scripture for ourselves, we better make sure it is addressed to us!

Consider The Original Language

As we mentioned, the Bible was not originally written in English (no, the King James Version was not the original version of the Bible 🙂 ). Luckily, we don’t all have to be Greek and Hebrew scholars in order to understand what the original text was literally saying. There are very good literal translations of the Bible and Interlinear Bibles which put the English and the original text side-by-side. Additionally, we have concordances that provide a great deal of linguistic insight into all the words that appear in Scripture. Most serious students of the Bible are aware of these resources and use at least some of them often. Amazingly, many errors in interpretation are made because the original meaning of the word being translated was not considered before a doctrine was concluded (the example above concerning Psalm 82, for instance: the word translated “gods” was the Hebrew Elohim, which can mean “gods”, but can also mean “judges”, “mighty ones”, or even “rulers”).

Consider Other Interpretations

Finally, a very good rule of thumb for avoiding misinterpretation is humility. Despite what many cult leaders and quasi-Christian groups would have us believe, it is not likely that anyone is going to come on the scene with an accurate “new” revelation from God. Yes, people will preach the Word of God in fresh and contemporary ways, but the basic Message has remained unchanged for 2,000 years, and will continue to be. Hebrews 1:1-2 makes it clear that the age of prophets is over; Jesus Christ is God’s final Revelation to mankind.  What He has intended to say has been said. Therefore, any new, unconventional, or unorthodox doctrine or teaching should raise immediate suspicion. It is mind-boggling how many sects have arisen in the past 150 years that all teach that God allowed the Body of Christ to live in darkness for nearly two millenia and now they have the monopoly on truth.

If a doctrine is worth believing, chances are there have been a lot of Theologians, Preachers, and Bible teachers who have already taught it in times past. There are, of course, some very few exceptions. Some of the specific details of the Book of Revelation are only relevant to a single generation, and God has decided to conceal them until the time for that generation to live is at hand. But as far as there being a “new” way to receive Salvation, or a “new” way to approach God, or a “new” way to receive God’s Grace,well, there is nothing new under the sun.

By adhering to these simple guidelines, many of the misinterpretations being promoted today could be easily refuted. Before we accept or advance any doctrine, we should consider them in light of these principles.

Five Characteristics Of A Servant Of God

Today, I would like to talk about 5 characteristics that every servant of God should have, based on the Apostle Paul’s introduction to the Book of Romans. These characteristics were present in the life and ministry of Paul and are good indicators of any Christian’s spiritual health. They can be found in Romans 1:8-12.

A Thankful Servant

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.” (Romans 1:8)

Verses 1-7 of Romans 1 serve as the typical formal “greeting and salutations” that open up most of Paul’s letters. They serve as an introduction of Paul, the writer; the church at Rome, the addressee; and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the book’s subject. Verse 7 concludes these lines of introduction with a benediction to the Roman believers to whom this book is addressed.

So, Verse 8 would be the actual first sentence of the body of the letter itself. After reading the entirety of Romans, we see that Paul certainly had a great deal of extremely crucial doctrines to expound on in this letter and, judging by the fact that he begins shortly hereafter to present and define the Gospel in earnest (beginning with Verse 18), he is not given to wasting a lot of time with excessive pleasantries. But what is the first thing that he does?

“First, I thank my God…”

A devoted servant of the Lord will be sure to take the time to thank God, regardless of their own sense of urgency for the task at hand. Before he asks another thing from God or presents anything else to his readers, Paul ensures that he gives thanks to the Provider of all things. The frequent giving of thanks in the life of a believer is an often repeated, highly important practice in all of Paul’s teachings (e.g., Phil. 4:6, Col. 3:15, 1 Tim. 2:1). In fact, he will tell the Church in Thessalonica that the giving of thanks to God is the will of our Lord Jesus Christ for the Christian (1 Thess. 5:18). And he will shortly tell the Church in Rome that unthankfulness is a step in the path that leads a man away from God and is a hallmark of a heart in rebellion against the Lord (Rom. 1:21).

A Prayerful Servant

“For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers;” (Rom. 1:9)

How many inner, spiritual struggles; how many conflicts within our own souls; how many crises of faith and moments of doubt could be resolved if we were to admit that we do not always pray as we should? We know that we ought to pray and pray often, but other matters crowd into our lives, competing for our attention — and they slowly suffocate our spiritual health.  It seems so obvious, so utterly intuitive that our deepest trials, our toughest battles could be swiftly overcome; not by standing firmly on our feet, but by falling to our knees in prayer! Yet we do not. If he was anything, Paul was a man of prayer. Would that all Christians were so given to a robust prayer life that we were all described as men and women of prayer. I can think of no more urgent goal for any believer than this.

A Submitted Servant

“Making request, if by any means now at length I might have a prosperous journey BY THE WILL OF GOD to come unto you.” (Rom. 1:10 emphasis added)

James wrote in his epistle that everything we do is done by the gracious allowance of God Almighty. Whether we do this thing or that, even whether or not our life on Earth continues another moment, everything that we have is because of the providence of God and is according to His will (James 4:13-15). Paul wrote the letter to the Romans while he was in the city of Corinth. He wanted to visit the Church in Rome personally, but he recognized that his life was in the hands of God, to do with according to His will and desire. Paul knew that his life was directed and upheld by God’s power, not by his own will and strength. The servant of God must recognize that he has been crucified with Christ and that the life he leads now is not his own, but belongs to his Lord Who lives through Him (Gal. 2:20). It was Paul’s desire for a “prosperous journey” that would bring him to Rome, and he asked the Lord for as much. But he knew that God may very well have something else in mind for him, and it was God’s will that he wished to see come to fruition — even above his own.

A Giving Servant

“For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established;” (Rom. 1:11)

A devoted servant of God will have the desire to serve His people. Without a question, we are God’s servants, not man’s, but the biggest way that we serve God is by serving others who belong to Him. God did not call any of us to shut out everyone from our lives and live in isolation. Nor did God call us to seek to be served, but rather to serve others. So many Christians go to church and call it the “Sunday service”, but whose service is it? Who is serving and who is being served? For many, the thought is that the pastor is serving the congregation, but God has called His people to serve Him and serve each other. God doesn’t want “benchwarmers” filling the pews, He wants people with the heart of a servant.

Most churches I have visited will point out to newcomers the advantages of joining their congregation by telling them about all of the things they offer to them. My first question is: Can I be used here? Is there an opportunity for me to serve in this church? If not, I want to go somewhere else! If it is not in the service of others, then how can we really serve a God Who is in need of nothing? Before He ascended back to the Father, Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him. “Do you love Me?“, He asked three times (John 21:15-17). When Peter said he did, what was our Lord’s response? Do this for Me, do that for Me, bring Me this, give Me that? No. “Feed My sheep.” Take care of the needs of My people. A servant of God is by definition a servant of God’s people.

A Humble Servant

“That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.” (Rom. 1:12)

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the ungiving and selfish believer is the seemingly “selfless” servant who appears to do nothing but serve other believers and give to them. While having a great zeal to do the work of the Lord and serve His people is very commendable (and all too rare!) , we must be sure that we do not develop an overinflated sense of self-importance. No matter how far along we get in our walk with the Lord, there is never a time when there are not things we need from other believers. Never. God has intentionally designed it this way. We do not all have the same function in the Body of Christ and we all need each other.

It amazes me that Paul can tell the new converts in Rome that he is looking forward to them comforting him, but he does. Paul, the writer of most of the New Testament; Paul, the man to whom the Lord Jesus Personally appeared and taught the Gospel to; Paul, the founder of several of the very first churches in the world, spreading the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. Yes, even Paul recognized that he could be comforted and blessed by even relative newcomers to the Faith; he recognized that he still benefited from the gifts which the Spirit of God gave to other Christians. Although he realized that it was necessary for him to write to and eventually visit the Church in Rome in order to firmly establish them in the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel, he was also aware that he himself was not beyond being blessed with the Spiritual gifts that God had given them.

5 Characteristics Of A Devoted Servant

There are obviously a whole lot of other characteristics that we would attribute to a profitable servant of God, but we clearly see these 5 displayed in the Apostle Paul through what he says in this passage of Romans. They are 5 characteristics that ought to mark every servant of God.

Anything But God

Yesterday, I watched the film “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” which is a documentary about the occupational persecution and ostracizing that exists in Academia toward college professors who dare to challenge the Darwinian model of  Biology, or even so much as suggest that “Intelligent Design” might be a valid  scientific hypothesis worth consideration. The movie does not really delve into the arguments for or against either side of the “debate”, but rather serves as an expose of the fate of those who fail to “toe the party line.” The purpose of the film is to uncover the suppression that exists in institutes of higher learning against those who are so presumptuous as to question the “conventional wisdom” of Darwinism and all of its unanswered problems, suggesting that the truth might be found elsewhere.

What is revealed in this movie, for me at least, is something that many theists have suspected for quite some time: Darwinism is in and of itself a “religion.” Dictionary.com gives the following definition for the term “religion”:

“a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhumanagency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conductof human affairs.” (1)

Darwinism ceases to be science and becomes religion when its ideas are extrapolated to interpret the origins of life. As is pointed out in “Expelled”, Darwin did not simply write a book defining what he had observed scientifically, which may have illuminated the mechanism of intra-special changes, he wrote a book called the “ORIGIN of the Species.” He went beyond the realm of the observable and entered into the realm of pure speculation. Such practice is certainly acceptable for scientific inquiry, such would even define “hypothesis” or “theory.” But when the unproven hypothesis or speculation is elevated to the level of that which is deemed conclusively proven, when the “theory” is canonized as “unquestionable truth”, when an establishment is set in place which governs the behavior of individuals or, as the definition puts it: “a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs”, when devotion and ritual observance accompanies the dispersion of the theory to the uninitiated (such as is the case in institutions where Darwinism is rigidly taught; one professor in the film describes his own indoctrination into Evolutionary theory to the intended exclusion of all other religious belief), this fulfills the parameters of a religion.

What is interesting to note is the utterly absurd suggestions that zealous Darwinists will make in order to explain the impetus that brought about life on Earth. Some of these ideas are explored a little in “Expelled.” The irony cannot be lost on the objective viewer as the same individuals who are calling traditional belief in God “ignorant”, “stupid”, “foolish”, etc. in the interviews, are later speaking with great sincerity over the possibility that life began on Earth from protein-rich seeds planted here in time immemorial by alien life forms (the theory of “Panspermia”). Fortunately for the professors making the suggestion, Ben Stein (the movie’s host) did not ask the obvious “begged” question of how in turn the alien life forms originated. Another scholar described with equal conviction the notion that proteins on the primitive Earth “hitch-hiked” on the backs of crystals in order to come together and form the building block amino acids of which all life is composed. As long as your theory precludes the concept of an intelligent, loving God, it seems all ideas are fair game, regardless of how ridiculous.

Finally, one of the most intriguing segments of the entire movie for me was the interview toward the end between Ben Stein and famed atheist Prof. Richard Dawkins. Author of the bestseller, “The God Delusion”, Dawkins goes beyond defending Darwinism from attacks by theists to making his own attacks against theism and organized religion as a whole. Prof. Dawkins read his own words of vitriol from his book concerning the God of the Bible with great panache during the interview, his smug, self-congatulatory arrogance thinly veiled. But as Stein pressed him as to exactly how sure he was that God does not exist, as Stein repeated his question again and again to clarify Dawkin’s complete atheism — forcing Dawkins to reiterate in his own words his absolute certainty that there is zero possibility for God’s existence– his discomfort and hesitation became quite obvious as his formerly confident articulation was reduced to a stammering befuddlement.

We should make no mistake, nor should there exist any pretense otherwise, that Darwinism is a religion. Its precepts are accepted on faith, in spite of abundant contradictory evidence, and dissension against it is met with hostile retribution. When its implications are carried out to their logical end, the value of life, especially human life, is reduced to the point of utter meaninglessness and the individual’s merits are measured in their ability to contribute to society as a whole. Consequently, the evils of abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, and genocide are seen as nothing more than mankind’s assistance of the natural, Evolutionary process. It is no wonder that Darwinism’s proponents feel threatened by the notion of a Personal, loving God to whom all men are morally accountable. Therefore, their agenda is to completely eradicate any reminder of God’s existence as they attempt to redefine reality by embracing anything else. Anything, that is, but God.

**(1) http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/religion