I don’t remember too many college homework assignments, at least not ones that I enjoyed. But one assignment in particular has really stuck with me. (And I feel slightly awful that I don’t remember the name of the professor as clearly as the assignment.)
It was my second year of college, and the assignment was to analyze the lyrics of well-known worship songs. We had to assess which bible verses the songs were based on and then study the verse in context to see if the song accurately interpreted it. I was surprised by how many worship songs I grew up listening to that maintained good theology, just not necessarily from the verses they quoted.
As clear as scripture is, we don’t always get it right. I know I’ve misinterpreted bible verses and passages plenty of times. I even have a record of this in my bible study journals as a teenager. They are really pretty embarrassing!
I’ve heard it said that God will speak through his word and that it can mean something different for everyone. But that’s actually not an accurate way to understand scripture. The intended meaning for bible verses doesn’t change depending on the reader. The truth of God’s word doesn’t change over time. It is constant.
And that’s part of the beauty of the bible. Its truths are timeless and applicable to people of different generations and cultures.
As we read the word of God, it’s important we are aware of our own interpretation. This can be hard sometimes, because we come to the text with our presuppositions or even familiar misunderstandings.
The word of God does speak into our individual lives in a very real way, but it’s not so individualized that the same verse can mean ten different things to ten different people. We must strive to interpret scripture accurately. This doesn’t mean we will always get it right, but it helps us steer clear of common errors.
From the outset, I want to tell you that if you read one of the bible verses below and have been getting it wrong, don’t freak out. If you are part of a bible-believing Church, chances are that you aren’t a heretic. Getting one bible verse wrong doesn’t revoke your “orthodoxy” card.
As my seminary Greek professor was fond of saying, “Don’t worry. A good systematic theology will protect you from your bad interpretation of any one passage.”
With that in mind, here are three commonly misunderstood bible verses and how to better understand them.
1. ‘Where Two or Three Are Gathered’
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20)
Misinterpretation: The common understanding of this verse is that whenever believers gather together, God is with them. This interpretation has some issues, because it suggests God is only present when two or three are gathered and not when a believer is alone.
This verse is often quoted prior to a prayer, usually as a way to reassure or give confidence to the group gathered together that God is with them.
Correct Interpretation: The problem is that we’re missing the textual context. We took one sentence from an entire discourse and removed it from its context. The full context is Jesus’ instructions about how to handle sin within the body of believers.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matthew 18:15-20)
What this verse is really talking about is church discipline.
This is a scary topic that we don’t often know how to deal with properly. But as people who are seeking to follow Jesus in community, we have been given the authority to exercise it. Whatever we bind or loose in these situations has not only earthly authority, but spiritual authority. That sounds like too much for us to take on. But worry not, wherever there’s a group of us who are Spirit-led and in agreement on the course of action, Jesus is with us.
2. ‘God Will Never Give You More Than You Can Handle’
Misinterpretation: This is actually a misquote of 1 Corinthians 10:13. So the main problem here is reading the text carefully.
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Correct Interpretation: When accurately quoted, 1 Corinthians 10:13 does not promise that God won’t give us more than we can handle. God most certainly will give us more than we can handle. Almost every story in the bible is about someone who was given more than they could handle by God.
What this verse is saying is that you don’t have to sin whenever you’re tempted. Sure, you’re never going to be perfectly sinless on this side of eternity. But at any given moment, you have the power to resist it. God will always provide a way of escape. You don’t have to give in at that moment. This is the power God is promising to give you.
3. ‘I Will Heal Their Land’
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)
Misinterpretation: The most common misunderstanding of this verse comes in relation to a supposed promise God has made to America. It is often used as a call for Americans to pray and turn from their wicked ways, so that God will heal their land. Now, of course it’s a good thing for any person in any part of the world to humble themselves, pray, and turn from their wicked ways. But the promise given in this verse is often widely misunderstood.
Correct Interpretation: The most violent offense made against this verse is in the universal application of a specific promise made to a specific people. While all of the bible was written for us, not everything (or anything) in the bible was written to us.
The original audience of this verse was the nation of Israel at the dedication of the Temple.
God had an unconditional covenant with his people that they would always be his people. But he did also have a conditional covenant with them. So long as they worshiped him and him alone, they would prosper in the land. But if they turned to idols, he would send famine and pestilence. However, if they turned from their idols and back to him again, he would relent the disaster and heal their land.
As Gentile believers living in America or any other part of the world, we have no such contractual relationship with God. God has no contract with America. We are not mentioned in the bible at all. This isn’t to say Americans aren’t important, but the bible just wasn’t written to Americans, even though it was written for Americans.
The modern day application is that when we turn from our sin and toward God, he does bring about healing in our lives. He brings about healing in our relationships. And he can even bring healing in our communities and transform our nations. But that tends to happen in an organic relational sense, rather than through edicts of cursing and blessing.
We have no prophet who is sent to interpret the blessing and the curse. So we have the general principle of healing in our lives through turning toward God. But this particular verse is not a particular promise to us.
Bible Verses and Passages Have Fixed Meanings. It’s Our Job to Discover Those Meanings, Not Create Them.
When it comes to understanding scripture, we can’t just read a verse of the day and gain insights on what that verse is about. It’s critical that our understanding of scripture is formed by the verses surrounding it, the original audience (who the book was written to), and the historical and cultural context. Depending on the section of scripture, you might need to utilize outside resources to help you understand some of this information.
The way we understand scripture shouldn’t be based on our personal life season, emotions, or biases. We have to do our best to step outside of ourselves and allow the bible to inform us, rather than us informing the bible.
Don’t be afraid to use other resources or to read the passage again and again. The word of God is powerful and able to transform our lives, if we view it in that way, rather than a book to support the beliefs we already have.
MORE RESOURCES TO CHECK OUT
If you found this article helpful, consider checking out some of these resource below.
“Playing With Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul” by Walt Russell
“Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible” by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien
“Introduction to Biblical Interpretation Workbook: Study Questions, Practical Exercises, and Lab Reports” by William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr.