The Careful Handling of the Word
Some years ago a friend received a prayer letter about a “Miracle Healing Revival.” An enclosed Miracle Prayer Request Sheet included the following instructions: “Take the prayer sheet I have sent you and write your name on it, and as you do, lay hands on it. We must have your prayer requests back from you so we can touch them and pray over them for ‘if any two agree touching anything, it shall be done.’”
By misunderstanding the King James Version, the well-meaning Christian who wrote this letter hit a new low in biblical interpretation. The word “touching”—so crucial to his viewpoint—does not even occur in the Greek text, as the NIV translation makes clear: “If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:19).
Though perhaps extreme, this example illustrates the unusual ways the Bible is sometimes interpreted and applied. One of my seminary professors, Howard Hendricks, once said, “Many applicational elephants dangle from interpretive threads!”
To properly interpret and apply God’s Word, we must be aware of what I call the “seven deadly sins” of Bible study.
When I was a child, our pastor often closed services with the following benediction: “May the Lord watch between me and thee, while we are absent one from another.” I assumed that he was asking God to protect us until the following Sunday, and I’m sure that was his intent. Only years later did I discover he had taken the verse completely out of context. The “benediction” isn’t as nice as it sounds. We find it in Genesis 31:49, after Jacob and Laban had settled an argument by making a covenant. Because Laban mistrusted Jacob, he asked the Lord to keep an eye on his son-in-law to make sure he didn’t mistreat Laban’s daughters. Taken in context the verse is sort of a pious threat! To avoid proof texting—taking a verse out of context—we need to realize that Bible study requires more than looking up a string of isolated verses. We would never think of reading a novel that way—one sentence from chapter 1, another from chapter 5, and a third from chapter 12. It would result in nonsense, and we would miss the plot entirely! The Bible was written as literary units such as books, letters, and poems, intended to be read from beginning to end.
Being Too Literal
Several years ago a cult expert was giving a lecture on Mormonism. A few Mormons chose to attend, and halfway through the meeting one of them stood and argued that God the Father has a physical body. He cited passages that refer to God’s “right arm,” “hand,” and “eyes.” The speaker had the person read aloud Psalm 17:8, “Hide me in the shadow of your wings,” and asked whether that meant God also has feathers and wings. “But that’s simply a figure of speech,” the man protested. “Exactly!” the speaker replied.
To avoid a wooden literalism we must realize that the biblical authors communicated through metaphors, similes, and symbols, and through a variety of literary genres, such as history, proverbs, parables, letters, poems, and prophecy. We must identify the type of literature an author used in order to interpret his meaning correctly. If we assume that an author is speaking literally when he is speaking metaphorically, we end up with nonsense.
Ignoring the Bible’s Background
Most Bible readers are familiar with Christ’s famous words to the church in Laodicea: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth (Rev. 3:15–16). Yet because many Christians ignore the historical and cultural background of this passage, they misunderstand Christ’s meaning.
We usually assume that “hot” means we are spiritually alive or “on fire” for the Lord, while “cold” means we are spiritually dead or hostile. In other words we think Jesus would prefer that we be either for Him or against Him rather than being neutral. But such an interpretation of “cold” and “hot” completely ignores the background of the passage and is therefore misleading.
The city of Colossae near Laodicea was known for its cold, refreshing waters. The city of Hierapolis to the north was famous for its hot springs. Laodicea had a six-mile-long aqueduct that brought both hot and cold water to the city, but by the time the waters arrived from Colossae and Hierapolis, they were lukewarm. See how background information affects how we interpret this passage? Jesus would never want anyone to be spiritually dead or hostile, and He certainly would not prefer this condition to lukewarm Christianity—even though He detests the latter. In this passage both “cold” and “hot” are beneficial, like a glass of ice water or a steaming hot bath. So if you are either “hot” or “cold,” Jesus is pleased. Just don’t be lukewarm!
Relying on Faulty Translations
I believe in the full inspiration and authority of the Bible, and I do believe God’s Word is never faulty or flawed. But sometimes a word or phrase in the Bible has been translated in such a way that it obscures rather than clarifies the meaning the writer intended. The example above about “touching” illustrates how a faulty translation can get us into trouble.
Another case in point involves the popular passage on guidance, Proverbs 3:5–6: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (KJV). About this passage Dr. Bruce Waltke writes, “All of us have had the shock of discovering that a favorite verse in the King James Version was inaccurate…. I recall the astonishment of a committee member assigned to translate the book of Proverbs for the New International Version when he discovered that Proverbs 3:5[–6] had nothing to say about guidance. He had taken as his life text: ‘In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.’ But when confronted with the linguistic data, he had to admit reluctantly that the verse more properly read ‘and He will make your paths smooth.’”
In every translation translators have made unwise decisions about how to render the original text. As a result, we need to be sure that our interpretation of a specific passage is based on an accurate translation of that passage. The idea of “smooth” or “straight” has nothing to do with guidance, but rather means that the Lord will remove the obstacles from our path and enable us to achieve His desired goals. Although some Bible translations are better than others, none is perfect. Therefore it is helpful to read a passage in a variety of translations. By paying close attention to the differences in words, grammar, and sentence structure, we’ll gain a better understanding of the author’s meaning.
Reading into Scripture
Perhaps you have heard the mocking verse, “Wonderful things in the Bible I see: things that are put there by you and by me.” Sometimes we read our own ideas into Scripture rather than those the author intended.
In his book Decision Making and the Will of God, Gary Friesen notes that some health-and-wealth-gospel Christians have used 3 John 2 tosupport the notion that God wants every Christianto be financially prosperous and physically healthy.The passage says, “Beloved, I wish above all thingsthat thou mayest prosper and be in health, evenas thy soul prospereth” (KJV). Yet New Testamentscholar Gordon Fee notes that this verse is simply“the standard form of greeting in a personal letterin antiquity.” Therefore, “to extend John’s wish forGaius to refer to financial and material prosperity forall Christians of all times is totally foreign to the text.”
How can we ensure that we understand what the author meant to say? By practicing the principles described in points one through four above—all of which relate to discovering the author’s intent:
1. Read the author’s statements in their broader context rather than in isolation.
2. Be sensitive to the type of language and literature the author is using.
3. Be aware of the historical and cultural background from which the author is writing.
4. Make sure the interpretation is based on what the author actually wrote rather than on what he seems to have written in a poor translation.
Each of these principles serves as a safeguard against making the Bible say what we want it to say rather than what the author—and ultimately the Lord Himself—wants to communicate to us.
Thinking We Can Do It All
Martin Luther had a passion to translate the Bible into the language of the common people. He thought any farmhand armed with Scripture was better than all the popes or councils or creeds in Europe. In fact the Reformation reaffirmed the truth that we don’t have to rely on “experts” to understand God’s Word. Yet we would be foolish to ignore the wealth of resources God has provided for us. We have more Bible study tools available to us today than at any time in history.
Every Christian’s library should include at least the following: a good study Bible and two or three modern translations, a one- or two-volume Bible commentary, a one-volume Bible dictionary, and a Bible atlas. Additionally many excellent Bible study guides are available both for personal devotions and for small-group study. (See the sidebar for specific suggestions about what to include in your library.)
Because Bible study is a spiritual as well as a mental exercise, we should also follow Paul’s advice to his young disciple, Timothy: “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (2 Tim. 2:7). Notice the two halves of this verse. First, Paul exhorts Timothy to think about what he has said. Studying the Bible requires reflection using all of the resources God has given us for understanding His Word. Second, Paul tells Timothy it is God who grants understanding. He must reveal those areas of our lives that need transformation.
Because the Lord is the only one who can make us see clearly, we dare not study the Bible without seeking His help.
Failing to Apply What We Learn
When I was a young Christian, a well-known pastor thought that getting “Bible doctrine” into our brains was the most important aspect of the Christian life. He lectured on the hidden meanings of original languages, expounded on the finer points of systematic theology, and his students wrote down every word. Unfortunately all of that “doctrine” often went from his brain to the congregation’s notebooks and then onto their shelves to collect dust. Please understand me: I think it is vitally important to study the Bible and to understand it. But God didn’t provide His Word to fill our brains, but rather to transform us. The goal of instruction is love. When we make Bible study merely an academic exercise, we abort the life-changing impact it should have on our family, our relationships, our career, our ministry, and our involvement in the community.
That’s why James warns us, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22).
We can diligently avoid the first six “deadly sins” of Bible study and still have mere head knowledge rather than heart knowledge of God’s Word. Biblical teaching must filter into our lives for true growth to occur. We must ask ourselves, “Am I merely filling my mind or am I truly applying what I learn?” The honest answer to that question can have an enormous impact on both our Bible study and our walk with the Lord.
Jack Kuhatschek (ThM, 1977) is executive vice president and publisher, Baker Publishing Group, and the author of Applying the Bible and The Superman Syndrome (both from Zondervan). He has also written more than a dozen Bible study guides. This article is adapted from one that appeared in New Man magazine. Reprinted with permission.