“This is confirmation: she is the one you have chosen for me! I’m going to marry her! Thank you so much, Lord, for speaking to me so clearly through your Word.”
I journaled those words as a nineteen-year-old college student. I had been dating this girl for a handful of months, and on that particular night, I was earnestly seeking God in prayer as to whether or not she was the woman He would have me marry. After praying to that end, I opened up my Bible to where I had left off in my devotional time the night before. I turned to Genesis 24, the story of Isaac and Rebekah coming together in marriage. There, I read these words:
The thing has come from the Lord . . . take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son . . . (Gen 24:50-51).
It was so clear! God had spoken. This Scripture confirmed that this was the woman God wanted me to marry.
Fast forward six months: she broke up with me. Fast forward three years: I married another woman.
What happened? Did God’s Word mislead me? No. Was I deeply mistaken in my interpretation of the Scripture? Yes.
Granted, this may be quite the extreme example. However, it’s so easy to make a number of crucial mistakes in our everyday reading and interpretation of God’s Word.
Here are four of the most common mistakes:
1. Forgetting that “context is king.”
When interpreting a text, we often begin with the wrong question, namely: “What does this passage mean to me?” When we allow subjectivity to characterize our interpretation, we’re prone to error.
We must remember, in the words of my former Greek professor, that “context is king.” We must be careful not to interpret a verse in isolation, but to interpret it in light of its surrounding context. To help determine the context, we should consider the following questions:
- To what intended audience is the author writing?
- What passages of Scripture come right before and after the text I am studying?
- What is the genre of Scripture? (narrative, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, letter, etc.)
If we fail to answer these questions correctly, we can interpret verses in such a way that goes against the author’s original intent. This is what happened to me the night I thought God told me from Genesis 24 who my wife was going to be. By familiarizing ourselves with the context of Genesis 24, it’s not difficult to see that Moses’ intent in penning that passage was not to solidify my choice of a wife!
A classic example of taking a passage out of context is what we often do with Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” As inspiring as this verse can be on a bookmark, we must consider the context. God’s intent in this text was not to promise each of us that we will be healthy, wealthy, wise, and drive a Cadillac.
In context, this promise was actually given not to an individual but to a group of people—the people of Israel. Though they were in exile in Babylon and had perhaps given up hope, God reminds them that because they are His people, He will ultimately grant them hope and salvation. And yet that hope and salvation didn’t necessarily include a promotion at work or a beach house in Destin.
This is not to say that God’s people in 2019 still can’t receive encouragement from this text. Indeed, if we are in Christ, this verse reminds us of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to His covenant people. If God was faithful to His people in Israel, then we can rest assured that He will remain faithful to us today. However, we shouldn’t take this verse and extend it beyond its actual meaning.
2. Building an entire theology out of one (or two) verses.
For example, consider Acts 2:38: “Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins . . .’” If we simply take this verse in isolation, we could quite easily make a case that the act of baptism is necessary for our salvation.
However, instead of building our theology based upon one verse (whatever the subject matter is), we must look to the entirety of Scripture to see other places that deal with the same subject. For example, if many other verses teach clearly that salvation is through faith in Christ alone, then we are able to discern that the text in Acts 2:38 should not be interpreted so as to suggest that baptism is necessary for salvation. After all, we know that God’s Word does not contradict itself. So we must be careful not to build our doctrinal views on a few “proof-texts,” but on a careful study of “the whole counsel of God.”
3. Failing to pray and depend upon the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
It’s so easy just to open up our Bibles and begin reading. We often enter into our Scripture reading with so many distractions in our hearts and minds. It’s important that we accompany our Scripture reading with prayer and that we ask specifically for the Spirit to help us understand His Word (what is sometimes called “illumination.” No one understands the Word of God better than the Spirit; after all, He’s the One who inspired it (2 Tim 3:16).
4. Forgetting that Scripture is ultimately pointing us to Jesus Christ.
On the road to Emmaus following His resurrection, Jesus encountered two of his disciples and “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Lk 24:27). From Genesis to Revelation, the Scriptures point us to Jesus. Throughout the Bible, there are a number of “difficult” passages and verses that we will fail to perfectly understand. Yet in these moments, we should not grow weary or frustrated. We must not miss the forest for the trees. Make a beeline to Jesus and consider how this particular passage (in its immediate and wider contexts) bears witness to God’s saving work through His Son.
This principle of interpretation is often referred to as the “analogy of faith.”
See 1 Corinthians 2:14–16.
To be sure, simply asking for the Spirit’s help in interpreting Scripture doesn’t guarantee that we will never make a mistake; after all, we still have remaining sin and limited understanding even to hear and discern His leading. It is for this reason that in addition to relying upon the leadership of the Spirit, we should continue to utilize good principles of biblical interpretation.