Sometimes, I hear comments after a class or a sermon, and I think, “Whoops, I certainly didn’t mean to leave that impression. Did I really say that?”
Such happened even to the inspired Apostles!
While reading 1 Corinthians, we discover that Paul said something in an earlier letter that was taken the wrong way.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral people. I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for them you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother, if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).
Paul clarified his words and correct the Corinthians’ misunderstanding. If we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired every word of the Bible, this mix-up was something God wanted us to witness, that we might also realize the danger of misconstruing Paul’s words.
How can we avoid such misunderstandings in the first place, when reading Scripture?
Pay Attention to Context. I don’t possess the uncanonized letter, but it’s safe to assume that Paul’s meaning should have been grasped by a careful reader who considered the context of his statement.
Many false teachings come from prooftexting, rather than reading a sentence as part of a surrounding paragraph, and part of a bigger Bible. Here’s a handy rule of thumb: if your interpretation of one Bible passage contradicts the plain meaning of another Bible passage, it probably needs to be reexamined. Read what Jesus said to Satan in Matthew 4:7. At least, your interpretation should not be applied as a blanket statement. That’s how people get Universalism from John 3:16, foolish courage from Philippians 4:13, Sabbatarianism from Malachi 3:6, and Once Saved Always Saved from John 10:27-30.
Don’t Put Words in Their Mouths. In Romans 3:8, Paul says,
Why not say, as we are slanderously reported, and as some claim that we say, “Let us do evil that good may come”?
Paul would never say the end justifies the means. He would never suggest, for example, the church open a bar as long as the proceeds go to spreading the gospel. But that didn’t stop people from namechecking Paul and attaching him to such ridiculous statements. Beware attributing chimney corner sayings (like, “cleanliness is next to godliness”) to the Bible. Beware using wishful thinking to create Bible verses out of whole cloth (like, “God wants me to be happy”).
Don’t Be Ridiculous. Even Jesus’ disciples misinterpreted His words.
Peter … said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” (John 20:21-23).
John must have rolled his eyes to hear people talk about him as the guy who would live forever. What a leap of logic! Yet, you should hear some of the crazy licentious things I’ve heard people conclude from 1 Timothy 4:4-5. Ultimately, this once again becomes a matter of reading things in light of the context of the rest of God’s revelation.
Don’t Pound a Square Peg into a Round Hole. Some misinterpretations are just willful. We want so desperately to justify some sinful activity that we are willing to twist and torture the text (like, what some perverted minds do with John 13:23). Peter points out that in Paul’s epistles are
…some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. You therefore beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness (2 Peter 3:16-17).
People make honest mistakes as they grow in knowledge. But Peter warns that the “untaught” (they haven’t studied the rest of the Bible) and the “unstable” (they want to justify their sins) and the “unprincipled” (they are willing to tickle ears to gain followers) will misuse Paul’s sometimes-difficult words. Actually, they even do this to “the rest of the Scriptures”—that is, even the easy stuff, like Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1.
Both speakers and listeners have a responsibility to promote successful communication. When it comes to God communicating with us through Scripture, the Bible is perfect (2 Timothy 3:14-17), and we must approach it with humility, stripping away our own prejudices. “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15)! –John Guzzetta