Reading the Bible is fairly easy. Interpreting it, however, can be tough. Commonly, well-known verses even take on lives of their own as they are rehearsed over and over apart from their original context. Most of the time, the implications are harmless. Sometimes, they are destructive.
Here’s a survey of five commonly misunderstood passages in the Bible, from verses used out of context to significant theological issues:
Matthew 7:1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”
Certainly, Christians shouldn’t be judgmental, pointing out the sin of others while never giving our own sin a second thought. But we can’t take this verse to mean that we should never notice, let alone address, sin in the lives of fellow believers.
In fact, Jesus goes on to say, “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). In other words, first address your own sin, but don’t stop there. We haven’t fully obeyed Jesus until we go on to help others with their sin.
Later in the chapter, Jesus says, “by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:20). And Paul tells the Galatians that “If someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently” (Galatians 6:1), which logically assumes that we first recognize the sin in someone’s life.
Believers shouldn’t be judgmental. Matthew 7:1 is clear about that. But part of being a Christian is recognizing and addressing other fellow believers in sin—after, of course, we invite others to help deal with our own.
Matthew 5:44 “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
This verse is well known to Christians, though we rarely apply it. Ask anyone outside the faith if “loving their enemies” is the first thing—or the 10th thing—that comes to mind when they think of Christians, and your question will probably be met with laughter.
Pop onto a Facebook page where Christians are debating politics or sexuality and see if “enemies” are verbally loved. Or when national enemies do bad things, what’s the first response from many American Christians? Revenge or love?
The thought of actually loving our actual enemies seems absurd. So we insert all kinds of footnotes under Jesus’ command; we’ve got to make it a little more palatable. But Jesus’ command doesn’t come with fine print, and He doesn’t give any further qualifications. The command is straight-forward.
In fact, Jesus goes on to talk about wicked people in rather broad terms in the next verse: those who are “evil” and “unrighteous.” When Jesus said enemies, perhaps He meant all enemies.
Romans 13:4 “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
Paul’s words here are a favorite among Christians living in democratic nations, especially for those who support the death penalty and high military spending. Often, these types interpret this verse to sanctify the government’s authority to wage war and violently punish evil.
The verse does say that God works through the government. But the million-dollar questions are: Which government? All governments? Good ones? Bad ones?
As you can imagine, Christians living in Saudi Arabia, North Korea or Zimbabwe tend to read these this verse differently than those living in America.
The point in Romans 13:4 is that God sovereignly works through secular governments—even really bad ones—to carry out His will. Of course, not every government action is the extension of God’s moral will.
The most important thing to note, though, is that a few verses earlier, Paul commands Christians never to “take revenge … but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge’” (Romans 12:19). In other words, the very thing God uses the government to do according to Romans 13:4—to avenge evil as an extension of God’s wrath—is forbidden for Christians to do. The call to Christians in Romans 13 is to submit to government.
Jude 2:1 “God helps those who help themselves.”
This verse is not actually misinterpreted. It’s not misused or under-obeyed. In fact, it has shaped the thinking of many people who grew up in church, and I don’t think Christians have wrongly interpreted it.
But one problem remains: It’s not a verse.
The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible. (And Jude doesn’t have a second chapter.) According to Barna Research, however, 68 percent of born-again believers think this religious saying is in the Scriptures.
What’s particularly troubling is that the phrase is theologically bankrupt. It reflects the values of rugged deistic moralism, and is an offense to the radical Gospel of grace.
The good news is not that God helps those who help themselves, but that God rescues and redeems those who know they can’t help themselves.
Isaiah 55:8 “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”
This verse is both personal and embarrassing. Personal, because I’ve often quoted it. Embarrassing, because I’ve often misinterpreted it—yes, even as a Bible teacher. For most of my life, I’ve quoted this verse to justify God’s freedom to judge the wicked however He wants. God is God and I am not; God can do what He wants to do.
I still believe that is true, but it isn’t what Isaiah is saying.
The context of this verse emphasizes God’s freedom to save the unsavable, forgive the unlovable and redeem wicked people who deserve judgment. Look at the previous verse: “Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and He will have mercy on them, and to our God, for He will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).
Pardoning wicked people is not something that makes sense to us. But it makes sense to God. Our verse comes immediately after: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” This verse neither deals with God’s sending people in hell for all eternity, nor does it speak about God’s right to judge. It highlights, rather, God’s supra-human desire to redeem people who deserve judgment.
Quoting the Bible is easy, but understanding it takes a bit of work. Let us take heed of Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to become a hard-working student of Scripture, who “correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Oh wait. Did I interpret that correctly?