Misusing Scripture: Common Mistakes (Part 1)

Have you every been misunderstood before? It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Someone heard part of what you were saying, jumped to a sudden conclusion, and that was the end of that. How do you feel when someone takes you out of context? It’s completely natural to feel frustrated, even betrayed, when someone either inadvertently—or deliberately—takes you out of context. At the very least, it shows that they were too distracted to catch the entirety of what you were saying. Indeed, one of the simplest ways to show someone respect is to listen carefully to them, understand what they’re staying, and then go from there.

The same goes for Scripture. One of the simplest ways to honor Scripture and honor the God of Scripture is to do the hard work of making sure we’re using His Word correctly. Scripture matters because God matters.When we miss the Author’s point, we, in fact, inadvertently dishonor the Author.  

In this and next week’s articles, we’ll explore common mistakes we make in interpreting Scripture. 

1. Overlooking Context. 

I think we’d all agree that most mistakes in Bible interpretation come down to overlooking the context. The classic example of this is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ.” On its own, this verse could mean that, as Christians, we face no limitations whatsoever; we can throw a football 100 yards. We could makes millions. We can hit home runs. But is that what Paul meant when he wrote it? A quick survey of the immediate context tells us what he meant. We’ll explore Philippians 4:13 in a future article. 

2. Ignoring the Genre.

Before today is over, you’ll read quite a few things: a news article, a blog, the food labels in Walmart, some text messages from your spouse. You’ll listen to the lyrics of a song or two on the radio. You might take in a podcast or two during your commute into work. And chances are, you’ll automatically interpret the meaning of each without giving it too much thought. You know the difference between a food label and a sappy song. One uses language that’s meant to be taken literally (the food label) and the other more figuratively (the sappy song lyrics). 

In Scripture, just as in daily life, we encounter numerous literary genres, such as poetry, prose, prophecy, historical narrative, parables, and law. We interpret these each on their own terms. Just as it would be a mistake to interpret the words of a Shakespearean sonnet in the same manner as we would interpret the instructions for assembling a bookshelf, it would also be a mistake to interpret the book of I Chronicles (historical narrative) like the Chronicles of Narnia (fantasy/allegory-ish), or treat a proverb like a promise, or a prophecy like a poem. 

3. Forgetting the unity of Scripture. 

Since there is a Single Divine Author standing behind all the human authors of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), we can interpret Scripture by Scripture, knowing that it is a single tapestry of truth. There are many threads, but but a single fabric. So that means there can be no contradictions between authors, passages, or books of the Bible. All of Scripture is inspired, true, and non-contradictory. Apparent contradictions in the text of Scripture are just that—apparent, not actual. 

To spin it a slightly different direction, we could legitimately say that Scripture itself interprets Scripture. As Dr. Stelzer would say in almost every sermon, “The Bible is the best commentary on itself” (PCC people--you know what I'm talking about).  

4. Losing sight of the Big Picture. 

By the “big picture,” I mean the larger storyline of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. Since the Old Testament anticipates, predicts, and even pictures the coming of Jesus, the coming of Jesus means that many of the promises and pictures of the Old Testament have been fulfilled by Him (Matthew 5:17-20) and have thus fulfilled their purpose. The book of Hebrews makes it abundantly clear, for example, that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament's sacrificial system. 

Add to that the fact that the Old Testament primarily deals with God’s people, Israel, an actual ethnic nation, living in a physical piece of real estate. Since we’re not Israel living in the land waiting for the Messiah to come, it would be a mistake to assume that any and every Old Testament text applies to me in exactly the same way as it applied to the original audience. It might be problematic to take II Chronicles 7:14 as a promise for the United States in 2020, or regard Jeremiah 29:11 as a personal promise to high school graduates. We'll deal with both verses in future posts. 


So why does this all matter? Because God matters, His Word matters. As worshippers of God, we have the great responsibility of treating His Word with respect lest we be guilty of taking God out of context. In our next article, we’ll consider the final mistakes of Bible interpretation. 


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