Handling the Word Accurately
Paul wrote, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (II Tim 2:15). As a believer, our goal is to accurately handle (observe, interpret, and apply) the Word of God. However, there are many pit falls in Bible interpretation. Here are a few:
Taking a Verse Out of Context
One of the easiest mistakes in Bible study is taking a verse out of context. Many Christians use II Chron 7:14 for our government today, “My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” This is not a promise for us today, but for the nation Israel at a specific time in history. We must be careful to not take a single verse and use it for our own benefit without understanding its context.
Being Too Literal
If you read in the book of Psalms, one might argue that God the Father has a physical body. Numerous passages refer to God's "arm” (89:10,13,21; 98:1), “hand (44:3; 89:13; 98:1)," and "eyes" (5:5; 11:4; 17:2). Maybe God is a big bird? Psalm 17:8 tells us, "Hide me in the shadow of your wings.” God is not a man or a big bird; those are simply figures of speech. To avoid 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 Background
Christ’s admonition to the church in Laodicea was “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will 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, while "cold" means we are spiritually dead. The interpretation would be that 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. 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. The background information has an affect on 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
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. Here is how a faulty translation can get one into trouble. A man received a prayer letter about a “Healing Revival” that was coming to his city. In the letter was a prayer request sheet with the following instructions: Take the prayer sheet that is enclosed and write your name on it. As you do, lay hands on it. We must have your prayer request back so that we can touch them and pray over them for “if 2 of you agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt 18:19). By misunderstanding the King James Version, the well-meaning Christian’s prayer letter could cause many people false hope. The word “touching,” which is so crucial to the letter writer’s viewpoint, does not even occur in the Greek text. The NASB translation makes it clear; “If two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.” This example illustrates the unusual ways the Bible is sometime interpreted and applied. We need to be sure that our interpretation of a specific passage is based on an accurate translation of that passage. Although some Bible translations are better than others, none are perfect. Therefore, it is helpful to read a passage in a variety of translations, and pay close attention to the differences in words, grammar, and sentence structure.
Reading into Scripture
Sometimes we read our own ideas into Scripture, rather than trying to understand what the author intended to say. Some health and ¬wealth Christians have used 3 John 2 to support the notion that God wants every Christian to be financially prosperous and physically healthy. The passage says, "Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.” Yet this verse is simply the standard form of greeting in a personal letter in ancient times. To extend John's wish for Gaius to refer to financial and material prosperity for all Christians at all times is totally foreign to the text! How can we ensure that we understand what the author meant to say? Read the verse in its broader context rather than in isolation; be sensitive to the language and literature the author is using; be aware of the historical and cultural context; and make sure the interpretation is based on a good translation.
Failing to Apply
Bible knowledge is great! But God didn't provide His Word to fill our brains, but to transform our lives. You can memorize 1,000s of verses, but if those verses do not affect your life the Bible knowledge is useless. When we make Bible study merely an academic exercise, we abort the life-changing impact it should have on our lives, families, careers, relationships, ministries, and communities. That's why James warns us, "Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves" (James 1:22).
-Pastor Mike Kotrla