Examples of Improper Interpretation
One of the foundational aspects of Christian growth is to study the Bible. Fundamental to following Christ is understanding and obeying His commandments. As you traverse this path, you are going to need to read His Word to grasp what His commandments are in the first place! Knowing how to properly interpret and comprehend the Bible is foundational to Christian growth. When we conclude, I will seek to provide some thoughts assisting you in understanding how to interpret Scripture. This short blog post alone cannot give a comprehensive overview of the subject, but prayerfully it will give some stability to lay a foundation through two principles that must be in place. Without correct interpretation, we can be led astray, and so let’s begin by providing some constructive critiques of two false interpretations to help us grow in spotting errors.
Recently, there was a clip that surfaced on social media of an individual at the senate committee of state affairs quoting 2 Peter 1:10 in support for election integrity.1 I wholeheartedly support making certain that elections are kept secure and that voter fraud does not play a factor in them. However, while 2 Peter 1:10 talks about confirming “our calling and election” it has nothing to do with securing ballots whatsoever. It is a little lengthy, but here is the verse in context:
3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. -2 Peter 1:3-10
This text has nothing whatsoever to do with the integrity of a nation’s election. It is focusing on making sure that you have obtained salvation and you possess the certainty of assurance. Improper biblical interpretation is driving this individual’s incorrect usage of the text and leading them to grossly misapply its content.
How about another example? Here is a well-known verse that is frequently misquoted:
But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” -1 Corinthians 2:9
Have you ever heard this verse used in reference to the splendor of heaven? Most likely, you have not only heard that this verse applied to the future eternal state, but have probably heard it more times than you can count. However, what does the context of the passage reveal:
6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”— 10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. -1 Corinthians 2:6-10
I am certain we cannot fathom the eternal state of glory where we, as Christians, will dwell with God forever. However, that fact has nothing to do with this particular text. The context has to do with the spectacular wisdom of God that is being discussed in this text and revealed to us by His Spirit. Lest you think I am off my rocker on this one, here is Dr. John MacArthur:
“These words from Isaiah 64:4, often incorrectly thought to refer to the wonders of heaven, refer rather to the wisdom God has prepared for believers.”2
So, yet again, we have stumbled upon another misinterpretation. Bottom line: how then do we seek to be followers who interpret the Bible faithfully, not twist Scripture, and comprehend the true and specific meaning of the text?
Look at The Context . . . Look Again . . . Then One More Time
One of the biggest keys for biblical interpretation is understanding context, so we will examine that issue as our first principle. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that you accidentally stumble across a letter written 50-years ago. You read this:
Dear Friend, I cannot wait to meet you at the park on Saturday.
Which park? What is the name of the friend? What is the purpose of the letter and meeting? You read on:
The weather here in Kansas has been spectacular, I am sure good ole Fort Larned will be beautiful with the majestic orange tone of the trees. This will be the class’s 25-year reunion and I sure am glad the two of us met to plan the location last year for Southeast in Wichita.
Now, you can deduce a lot from these small details in the letter. The fact that the trees are orange means it is almost certainly Fall. 25-year reunion of what? Well, a quick internet search will show you there is a Southeast High School in Wichita, Kansas. You can also learn from Google that Fort Larned is a historical site located just outside of Wichita. That fact means the individual was likely around 43-years old when they wrote this letter since normally people graduate high school somewhere around 18, and then you can add 25-years to that number. The letter continues:
Bill I sure was honored to tie for valid victorian with you in our younger days, though you barely beat me out in the tiebreaker. All of my family never thought a Jones would beat us, but I can’t say I was surprised! The opportunity to give our speeches again at the reunion will be quite enjoyable. What do you think we should bring up in our closing thoughts? Wishing you all of the best!
Here you see the writer’s name is John Smith, the purpose of the letter is to ascertain Bill’s thoughts regarding the closing speech, and Bill Jones is the recipient of the letter. The context illuminated all of the questions you had after reading the first sentence and provided many more details. It also gave you the reason the letter was being penned in the first place, which helps you interpret its contents. Shouldn’t we take a detailed approach to combing every sentence like this with our Bibles? Seeking to understand each verse as it relates to the message of the book as a whole. Trying to figure out who the author is writing to and why they are writing in the first place. Comprehending the historical context will also be valuable for filling in all kinds of details. For example, Paul tells us why he wrote 2 Timothy:
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God -2 Timothy 1:9
The Apostle wants to encourage Timothy not to back down from the biblical truth and to suffer well for the sake of the Gospel. Next time you read 2 Timothy, think about how everything in the epistle relates back to this theme and works as a cohesive unit. Context is key, and it is central to determining the meaning of biblical passages!
Survey The Biblical Passages
The second principle for biblical interpretation I will give you in this article is to compile biblical passages when studying specific doctrines. Let me explain how this process works. Suppose you want to understand how Christians should relate to the government. If you only focus on the passages that say submit, don’t you think you are going to have an incomplete view of civil disobedience? Turn that the other way around. Suppose you only focus on the texts dealing with when to disobey the government, now you will not have a thoroughly developed understanding either. The best method analyzes all of these passages in their proper context in order to develop a thoroughly biblical viewpoint. Dive in and examine Romans 13 and Acts 5 so you can see submission, the purpose of government, the institution of government, and disobedience to government. Investigate other texts like Acts 16 and 1 Peter 2, just to name a couple. This truth goes for any doctrine or subject you are looking to understand biblically. Compile all of the texts that discuss this subject explicitly or implicitly and then seek to understand the consistent teaching of the entire Word of God.
I pray that this post has been provided some thought for this process by presenting a couple of errors when interpreting Scripture as well as getting two helpful tools. It may seem simplistic to talk about understanding context and gathering all verses on a subject, but as an individual involved in ministry, I see these two traits being neglected time and time again. May we all seek to be thorough in our biblical interpretation so we may rightly understand the Word of God and live it out for the glory of our great Lord!
2 See the MacArthur Study Bible on this verse.