Most people are familiar with John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It’s the go-to verse for budding evangelists, the bottom rim of In–N-Out cups, and Tim Tebow’s face. But not every verse can be plucked from the Bible to stand well (and be properly understood) on its own.
In a five-part series, philosopher-theologian Kenneth Samples, physicist and long-time student of the Scripture Dave Rogstad, and Theology Mom Krista Bontrager take a look at a “Top 10 (or so) Misunderstood Bible Verses.”
Part 1 begins with general principles to keep in mind when interpreting Scripture:
Understand the author’s intent. “Meaning is grounded in the author’s intent.” So before asking what the verse means to us, consider first what the verse meant to the person who wrote it and the person(s) to whom it was written (or spoken). Consider the historical and cultural context.
Consider the literary genre. Just like we wouldn’t read a comic book in the same way we would an academic paper, it’s important to read Bible books and verse according to their genre.
Think about the overall context. Take a look at the surrounding verses or paragraphs. Pulling an excerpt may not be sufficient to understanding a verse’s significance.
Reflect on the universal and personal application. Only after we have a firm understanding of the author’s intent, literary genre, and overall context can we begin to reflect on the universal and personal application.
With these principles in mind, Samples, Rogstad, and Bontrager dive into the list of misunderstood verses. Here, I offer a synopsis of the podcast series and, hopefully, some food for thought.
Thou shalt not kill Exodus 20:13 (KJV)
Other translations read “You shall not murder.” The distinction, as Samples explains, is that killing is to take the life of a human being whereas murder is the intentional taking of a life without just cause, particularly out of malicious motive.
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14
There are two common misunderstandings of this verse. First, that it’s a guarantee of prosperity. Second, that it applies to the reader’s land (for example, those in the US cite this verse for the National Day of Prayer). Yet the context indicates that the Lord is talking about Israel. The team suggests that if there is a general principle, it’s about God’s people. “It has nothing to do with our nation as a whole,” Bontrager explains, “because we [do not live] in a theocracy.”
“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.” Jeremiah 29:11
This is a powerful verse, no doubt, that’s often used at Christian graduation ceremonies. But “it has to be understood within a broad biblical context,” Bontrager says. It’s a promise to Israel that they will be able to return to the land, the team explains. It’s not a guarantee that modern Christians won’t suffer.
I said, “You are ‘gods’; you are all sons of the Most High. Psalm 82:6
Some might take this verse to mean there are other gods. Compare this verse to what Jesus says in John 10:34–36 and it becomes clear this isn’t the case. The team explains that “gods” is instead referring to those who receive the law.
My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity. Proverbs 3:1–2
It’s generally true that following God’s commands will lead to a longer, more peaceful, and therefore more prosperous life. This verse is not a guarantee of such blessings.
Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
This verse might serve as motivation for parents to teach their children “the way they should go” (a good thing). But, again, it’s not a guarantee. The team stresses that it’s important to differentiate between a promise (guarantee) and a proverb (general principle).
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. Matthew 7:1
Can a person do as they please without being judged by other Christians? No. Elsewhere in the Bible Paul judges false teachers. Yet it doesn’t mean we judge self-righteously or hypocritically, but in a consistently biblical manner. Plus, the verses that follow clarify that judgment begins with one’s self.
And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. Mark 16:17–18
Many scholars believe the Gospel of Mark originally ended at verse 8. With this in mind, the team takes the position that there’s no foundation to believe in those practices because they’re not in the original. They add, however, that this verse doesn’t mean every Christian will do these things, but there certainly was that kind of activity in the early church—casting out of demons, speaking in other languages, handling of snakes (e.g., Paul on the Island of Malta). Not that anyone should seek to engage in these activities, but they did occur.
As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. 1 John 2:27a
People often cite this verse as support for their decision to not attend church. But the team explains that this verse is about the issue of the anti-Christ. John is warning the church to make sure their doctrine and their belief about Jesus is correct so as not to be fooled by some “new” (distorted) teaching. According to Bontrager, “To say ‘I just need the Holy Spirit’ is a gross misinterpretation of the text.”
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with this person, and they with me. Revelation 3:20
This message of repentance and restoration is directed to the seven churches of Asia Minor. To cite it for evangelistic purposes is using “good doctrine from the wrong passage.”
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isa 9:6
The verse seems to anticipate the coming of Christ. So why would the Son be called Father? Rogstad suggests this verse indicates Christ’s origins are from eternity. Jesus refers to this verse in John 14:9: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Before plucking out a verse—be it for evangelism, a Bible study, or face paint for the big game—these basic principles will go a long way toward helping readers go from “passive reading to active learning.”