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.

Would You Have Gone To The Manger?

"When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." (Matthew 2:3)

Anyone who has ever seen a Christmas pageant, or read the Book of Luke, or maybe even just seen “Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special”, with the memorable recitation of  Luke 2:8-14 by the character Linus, is familiar with the angelic announcement of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. “Glory to God in the highest!”, the angel proclaims.

But to whose ears did this monumental announcement come? A handful of shepherds who were tending their flocks in the countryside around Bethlehem. God could have commissioned His angel to carry this Message to the courts of the mightiest kings and rulers in all the Earth, even to the court of Augustus Caesar himself. But He did not. Instead, He sent the news to those who would welcome it, to those whose hearts were ready to receive their Savior.

Some time after Jesus was born, the wise men from the East entered Jerusalem. They followed the customary practice and, being that they were searching for a King, went straight to the local palace. They did not inquire of the local shepherds, they did not search the stables and feeding troughs of the city. For it was the King of the Jews Who had been born, would not the local king in Jerusalem have known where He was? Wouldn’t he have welcomed the birth of the Messiah?

“When Herod heard these things he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3)

Does it not seem that the verse should read, “When Herod heard these things he was delighted?” How is it that anyone, upon hearing news that the long-awaited Savior of mankind has been born, would be troubled by this? But he was. Not only that, all of Jerusalem was troubled with him (which makes it implausible that there were only three magi who had arrived in Jerusalem. The whole city was in a commotion, suggesting that there were most likely anywhere from several dozen to a couple of hundred “wise men” riding into town). The shepherds rejoiced and praised God when they had visited the Lord Jesus (Luke 2:20), they went with haste to see what the angel had told them of (Luke 2:16). But Herod first became concerned, then irritated, then angry over the whole matter. The wise men who came seeking the Child rejoiced with exceeding joy upon seeing the guiding star again (Matthew 2:10), while Herod interrogated the priests and scribes about the place where the Messiah was to be born (Matthew 2:4). The wise men worshiped Him when they found Him (2:11), but Herod sought to have the Baby killed (2:16).

What remarkably different reactions to the news of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ we see between the wise men and Herod, and between the shepherds around Bethlehem and the citizenry of Jerusalem. How is it that the very same news, the exact same proclamation of the Savior’s birth, could elicit two completely opposite responses? The birth of Jesus should have been heralded by the entire world, His coming should have been proclaimed with great joy from the mightiest palaces to the lowliest hovels throughout the entire land. Herod’s ruse was that he, too, desired to worship the newborn King (Matthew 2:8), but that should have been exactly what he did. Even Caesar should have come to see the Lord at His birth, but instead he busied himself making sure that all the peoples of his empire were accounted for. While he occupied himself with assuring that no resident of Rome would slip through the cracks and fail to pay what was deemed their share of taxes, the One Who could have given him eternal life was born within his borders, and he did not even notice.

Herod’s problem was that he saw himself as the “king of the Jews.” A wicked man, hungry for power, he had no interest in sharing his kingdom with anyone, even if it was God in the flesh. Without a doubt, Caesar would have responded in kind at the notion that there was One Whose Kingdom would overshadow his own. We may not have earthly kingdoms of our own over which we rule, but each one of us also sits upon a throne before we learn of Jesus Christ. That throne is the throne of our own lives, the throne of doing things our own way, the throne of seeking after our own interests. Herod would have had to concede that he was not the one in ultimate control of his own kingdom had he bowed his knee to Jesus, something he was entirely unwilling to do. For many people, the thought of abdicating their own throne to make room for Jesus is just as troubling.

This Christmas, many people will “celebrate” the birth of Jesus Christ by spending money on loved ones, eating huge dinners, or attending Christmas parties. They will be busying themselves with enlarging their own kingdoms and sitting steadfast on their own thrones. They will tell others, “Merry Christmas”, but will give no thought at all to the One Who was born in the manger, the One Whose birth the angel announced on that night long ago. Oh, they might sing a song or two about Him, or give away a few greeting cards with a nativity scene on it, but their gesture will be as hollow as Herod’s: Let me sing this Christmas carol, that I may worship Him, too. And all the while they are greatly troubled by the notion that there is a rightful Ruler Who wishes to reign in their own heart.

We must all ask ourselves if we are like the shepherds and the magi, or if we are like Herod and the people of Jerusalem. Do we welcome the news of His coming, or are we troubled by it? Would we have gone to the manger to see the newborn King, or would we have simply gone about our daily lives, as if He had not come? When the announcement that the Lord Jesus Christ has come and that He is the rightful King and Ruler of our hearts falls upon our own ears, we must decide if we will make room for Him to reign on the throne, or if we are more interested in clinging to our own place there.

Living In Thanksgiving Everyday

As we take time to pause and celebrate, giving thanks for all of the blessings that we have been given, join me and take a moment to reflect on the words of the 100th Psalm and consider four things to thank the Lord for on this Thanksgiving Day:

As we take time to pause and celebrate, giving thanks for all of the blessings that we have been given, join me and take a moment to reflect on the words of the 100th Psalm and consider four things to thank the Lord for on this Thanksgiving Day:

Thank Him For Who He Is, Not Just What He Has Done

“Know ye that the LORD he is God” (Psalm 100:3a)

All too often we tend to give thanks to God only for the things that He has given to us and not for Who He is. God’s presence in our lives is not the sum of the blessings He brings to us. That the One Who sits upon the Throne of Heaven and reigns over the Universe itself would want to sit upon the thrones of our own hearts and rule over our lives is a wondrous thing, indeed. What is man that Thou art mindful of him? asks the Psalmist (Psalm 8:4), for it is no small thing that the Lord of glory would even be interested in condescending to know us and to give us life in Him. But He does. He is God, He is the One in control of all things. Let us thank Him that He is God.

Thank Him For Giving Us Life, Not Just Making Our Lives Better

“It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves;” (Psalm 100:3b)

The Psalmist writes again that “Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). The Apostle Paul declared: “For in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Let us recognize this Thanksgiving not only the recent blessings that God has brought into our lives, but the fact that He is the very One Who has given us life in the first place.

Thank Him For Who He Has Made Us, Not Just Who We Hope To One Day Be

“We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” (Psalm 100:3c)

We have a Shepherd Who loves us and takes care of us. The Shepherd has chosen us to be His sheep and to live in His pasture. So often we pray for God to make us something else, to help us become someone better. Yet there is truly no higher attainment that we can strive for, nor is there any place of greater safety than to live as a sheep among His flock. We are His sheep because He has made us so. Let us thank Him for that.

Thank Him For What He Will Do For Us Tomorrow, Not Just For What He Has Done For Us Yesterday And Today

“For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.” (Psalm 100:5)

While the Lord has instructed us not to be anxious over the things of tomorrow (Matthew 6:34), He has never forbidden us to be thankful for His provision that has not yet come. It is never to early to thank God for the things that He will do in the future. In verse 3 of Psalm 100 we saw that God has made us (yesterday), that He is God and we are His people (today). Verse 5 shows us that His mercy is everlasting and endures to all generations (tomorrow). Let us thank Him that He has taken care of us yesterday, even since before we were born; He is taking care of us today; and He will take care of us tomorrow. God has been faithful, He is faithful today, and He will continue to be so for all those who will live after us until the Day of His return.

Living In Thanksgiving Everyday

May you and those whom God has put into your life have a truly blessed and happy Thanksgiving Day. May we keep these things to be thankful for from the 100th Psalm in our hearts and not just mention them briefly in a prayer offered before we eat a meal this Thursday. Let us live in thanksgiving to God each and everyday – not merely giving thanks in the words we say, but by acknowledging Him in all of our ways.

“Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.” (Psalm 100:4)