I like to think of the Bible as a large puzzle. In some ways, a Star Wars puzzle featuring all the monumental scenes from the franchise. There’s Obi-Wan confronting Vader, Han shooting first in the Mos Eisley Cantina. I could go on and on, but you get the point.
Separately, each piece of the puzzle possesses a distinct image. When we study one at a time, the picture is usually up for debate. Like children arguing over the shape of a cloud, individual puzzle pieces are subjective.
“This one looks like Chewbacca’s nose.”
“I don’t want to say what this one looks like.”
When viewed as a whole however, the larger image becomes clear. We’re able to objectively decide whether a particular piece is really Chewie’s nose or, something more sinister.
In that sense, when we view biblical verses individually, it’s easy to make the objective, subjective.
“I think this verse is talking about money.”
“This verse has to be about the Hawaiian Punch bubble bath we all get in heaven.”
We risk misinterpreting sections of scripture when we interpret them alone. Instead, we must zoom out to understand the bigger picture at work.
Verses are like water buffaloes. Take them away from the herd and they’re in trouble. Here are four commonly misinterpreted Bible verses that, honestly, need to go back home to the herd.
1. Luke 6:38
[G]ive, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over… (ESV)
If you’ve attended a church service in the last six months, then you’ve probably heard these words quoted during the offering time. The message is fairly straightforward, give and God will give you more.
Yet, when you start to look at the context of verse 38, it quickly becomes clear that this quote by Jesus isn’t about money at all. It’s about judgement and forgiveness. Check out what comes immediately before verse 38.
Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given…
Here is what Jesus is really saying: Judge others and judgement will come back on you. Forgive others and forgiveness will be your new best friend.
2. Proverbs 29:18
Where there is no vision, the people perish (KJV).
This quote is used in everything from leadership books to manuals on creating corporate and congregational goals. Usually, we take Proverbs 29:18 to mean that leaders who lack strong vision will fail. The problem is that most of the time we only quote half of Proverbs 29:18. Here’s the entire verse:
Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he (emphasis mine).
The last section changes everything. “Vision” in verse 18 isn’t used to describe one’s ability to plan for the future or set attainable goals, but the capacity to see spiritually. Being spiritually blinded to God’s voice is what ultimately leads to failure.
3. Jeremiah 29:11
“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” (NIV).
During times of hardship, I’ve held tightly to this verse. God doesn’t want to harm me. Despite the pain, God has my future under control.
While this view might not necessarily be unbiblical, it’s not what is being taught here.
Jeremiah 29:11 was originally written to a group of would-be Hebrew exiles standing under God’s judgement. Notice the words of verse 10:
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.”
Even though the Israelites turned away from God, their punishment–and subsequent exile from their land–would ultimately cause a change of heart. As much as we like to use this verse when we go through a breakup, Jeremiah 29:11 is really teaching us about God’s desire to bring us back to himself. His discipline isn’t out of spite or some deep seated desire to hurt, it’s there to help us experience his love again.
4. 2 Timothy 1:7
[F]or God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind (KJV).
Until a few weeks ago, I took this verse to mean just what most Christians think it means. God doesn’t want us to live in fear. Take on the world! Seize the day! #YOLO
Here’s what the passage says in its proper context (I think the English Standard Version does a great job of this):
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. 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… (6-8)
Paul is speaking to Timothy, an extremely young and inexperienced pastor, encouraging him as he minsters to others. In a sense, Paul is saying, “Keep developing your gift. Don’t be afraid of what might happen to you, instead be loving, bold, and have self-control.”
This verse then, has a much narrower interpretation than we often realize. It’s not what we say to a friend who’s about to go skydiving, it’s a message of encouragement calling us to stay faithful even when we’re tempted to hide our faith.
You might feel somewhat guilty if you’ve misinterpreted these four verses in the past. That makes two of us.
There is something very important you and I can learn from our mistakes. Take time to look at the puzzle picture on the box. Instead of trying to make the Bible mean what we want it to mean, we have to humbly pursue its original intent. We did deep into the whole of God’s Word, not slicing it up to serve our personal appetites. We read verses in their own context and push for greater clarity when we don’t understand.
We take the water buffalo back to the herd.