5 Ways Christians Misread The Bible

If you misread the instructions for a dangerous piece of equipment, you could lose a limb. Misinterpret the signs while driving, and you could die.

We all know this, except when it comes to the most significant writing of all.

Christians believe that the Bible is the written word of God to people, revealing who God really is through the person of Jesus.

Through the Bible, we come to know God’s heart, character, intent and purpose, not only for us, but for the whole world and for all of history. Big stuff. And we meet Jesus, in whom God is fully revealed, come in the flesh to make everything wrong right, and to rescue us from our own mess, forgiving us and setting within us his Holy Spirit. Again, huge.

And yet, Christians who confess all this to be true about the Bible will commonly misread the very Bible that reveals it all.

We’ll approach these inspired stories and letters and biographies and prophecies as though they are a simple smorgasbord of dainty edibles, rather than a unified meal of sustenance. We graze, pick, disregard, ignore and over-consume, as our preferences dictate.

When I look at my own life, as well as interact with others, there are 5 ways Christians consistently misread the Bible, to our detriment and the detriment of Jesus’ mission.

5 Ways Christians Misread the Bible

  1. Reading without context.

    Many of our reading slips can be traced back to our pick-a-part style of consumption. The first way we read without context happens when we isolate texts from their original, literary and cultural contexts, ripping them off the page and applying them to whatever contemporary situation we deem worthy. We don’t understand what the text meant, and then make assumptions about what it might mean today. Whether this be represented by haphazard cherry-picking or by simplistic interpretations, the result is the same: a disembodied word ripped free from the context into which God spoke, the context which gave it the meaning God intended.

    Craig Groetchel preached a series called “Twisted”, featuring the Most Misused Verses of the Bible. I highly recommend it. Here’s the first one.

    And while disregarding the original context is a cardinal Bible-reading sin, we can also read without any awareness of our own cultural context, leading us to assume that the way we hearing the original story is the way the original recipients would have heard them. Wrong. We live in a unique context, and depending on our own cultural context we will hear in particularly unique ways. For example, many of us hear the Bible through Western, post-scientific, consumerist, individualistic lenses and think that’s the way it’s meant to be heard. (Here’s a book that’ll help with this: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes)

  2. Reading to support a decision already made.

    Ever heard of confirmation bias? It’s the tendency we all have to interpret new data according to the theory we already hold. And it has powerful effect on our Bible reading.

    When we finally find the verse we’ve been looking for.

    We really want to do a certain thing, go with a particular person, quit that job or justify that action, so we search the Scripture for an authoritative nod from God. Ignoring the context helps, but this goes beyond that: we assimilate what we hear into our previously accepted decision, actively (although potentially unconsciously) disregarding anything that would contradict our desires. Translation variants can help with this, as we search for that oh-so-perfect fit.

    What does this mean? Rather than submitting our lives to God, we can read his Word only for its permission to live in ways we’ve already determined we want to live. And when we do, it’s amazing what we can make the Scriptures say to us.

  3. Reading all alone

    One of the more subtle ways we misread the Bible is through isolation. We read or listen or access God’s Word alone, and we never submit our reading or interpretation or questions or lack of obedience to the larger community of saints. But the Bible is a community book, given by God to a community, penned under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by people in community, and intended to shape the life of his people. You can explore more about that in this article.

    It’s only when we really dig into the Scripture together that we are able to hear the Word of God as he intended us to hear it.

  4. Reading for mastery rather than obedience.

    But maybe we are reading the Bible in context, accessing the community of saints (living and dead) to hear it as it was meant to be heard. It’s still possible for us to misread it by our pursuit of mastery rather than our commitment to obey.

    I think it was Eugene Peterson who said it: Our goal in Scripture study is not to master the text, but rather to be mastered by the text. Or, as others have said, we need to let the Bible “read” us more than we ourselves “read” the Bible. The goal is spiritual formation, not just theological information.

    It all comes down to the same thing: We can read so that we know more stuff, rather than for the sake of actionable obedience. But the goal of God’s word is to shape us into the image of Christ, to align us to his plan of action, and to equip us into the mission he has given us. We don’t read the Bible just to get more knowledge–we read it to become more like Jesus. And while we do gain a lot of information along the way, all of that must serve the larger goal of spiritual formation.

    Which brings me to my final point, the fifth way we misread Scripture is by missing the point altogether.

  5. Reading without seeing Jesus.

    When Jesus confronted religious leaders of his day about their misreading of Scripture, his main challenge was their failure to see how all Scripture points to him. They were convinced of Scripture’s value, and no one knew their Bibles better than these guys. And yet . . .

    “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40 NIV)

    What a powerful indictment. They were all studied up and failed to get the point. And yet, we can do the same today, and need to hear this reprimand for what it is: an invitation to read the Scripture as the way to Jesus himself. Because when it’s all said and done, whether we know this theological point or that particular verse, whether we can quote Scripture or hardly remember what we read, it all comes down to this: are we letting God reveal himself to us through his Word, so that we see and follow Jesus? Are we coming to Jesus, through the Scripture, to receive the life he has for us? 

So what’s your tendency? If you had to identify your weakness, which of the 5 would it be?

Is the Bible Boring You? Try Switching Translations

girl-yawning-reading-book

The Bible can be boring. 

Yes, it’s okay to say it. After hearing the same words repeated in the same way, over and over again, our brains tune out. Familiarity causes us to gloss over words we’ve heard before.

If the Bible has become boring, the simplest way to kick-start your interest is by switching translations.

Here are 4 ways switching translations helps.
  1. A new translation helps us hear truth in fresh ways. Rather than gliding over the same old-same old, our minds are jolted awake through fresh expression. Like seeing an old friend in a fancy suit, we admire them in new ways.  I love the New Jerusalem Bible for this very reason.
  2. A different translation pushes our standard interpretations of certain passages. While most passages of Scripture differ very little in content, there are a few where the translation differences are quite stark. This indicates difficulties translators had with the original text, cautioning us against dogmatic interpretations and leading us to consider other possibilities within Scripture.
  3. An alternative translation grows our appreciation of the Scripture’s breadth.
    Switching Bible translations can take us to surprisingly new destinations.
    Switching Bible translations can take us to surprisingly new destinations.

    When we hear in fresh ways and consider different interpretations, we see how deep and rich the Bible really is. The words no longer sit flat on a page, but leap out and take form before our eyes. I know this has been the experience of many when first encountering The Message. 

  4. A fresh translation breaks through our common defenses. Having “heard it all before”, we can become immune to truth. New translations of Scripture sneak around our complacency and surprise us with challenges. Just as a person who’s repeatedly beat one opponent will fall to fresh tactics from another, our common defenses can fall to new expressions of God’s Word to us. The New Living Translation has done that for me.

So, a bit bored with the Bible? Try something new. Over the last few years, I’ve switched my daily reading translation yearly and I so appreciate the richness I’ve received from each one.

What translation have you found surprising to you?

Why do people resist different translations of Scripture?

Could you be making one of these classic mistakes? Here’s 3 ways we can all get stupid answers from sacred Scripture

“Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t make it biblical.”  (Iain W. Provan,  from my personal notes taken during Regent College lectures, Vancouver, Canada, 2002.)


 

Yep. That’s just so true.

How many times have people used Scripture to assert their stupid ideas? From the past nonsense of propping up slavery to the ultra-modern bias for supporting lavish lifestyles, we’re adept at claiming Bible support for crazy ideas.

How do we do this? By making these classic mistakes.

1. Ignore the context.

If you just narrow your focus and ignore everything else, you can make the Bible say pretty much anything you want.

Need a verse to support your idea for the future? You’ll find it.

lady-covering-ears
You can shut out everything else and hear only what you want.

Would Scripture be helpful in an argument with your boyfriend? Got that, too.

Need something to make you feel better about your resistance to change? Easy.

All you need to do is eliminate the larger story, ignore what’s going on around the chosen verse and you’re away to the races. People do it every day.

2. Make it all about you.

It’s not, you know. Not all about you, that is. We aren’t the main subject of the Bible. God is.

Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)_edited
Narcissus loses himself in his own image. We can, too. (Image from Wikipedia.)

Don’t get me wrong. The Bible has a ton to say about us. But it’s all about God, first. He’s both the author and the hero of the Bible, and we come to understand ourselves only in reference to him. As people created in God’s image, the more we come to know him the more we come to understand ourselves and what it means to really live. But God is first, not us.

If we default to ourselves first, we demand the Bible answer our questions rather than attending to Scripture’s main concern. We make our situation central, forcing the Bible to give into our demands and yield up the results we want. And that, my friends, is a sure-fire way to get bad answers from the Bible. If we push hard enough, the Bible will give us answers alright, but they might be dead wrong.

3. Rush your conclusion.

When we do look to the Bible for answers, we are often in a rush. We’re under pressure, needing to respond to a situation, frantic to just do something. Needing God’s support, we can rush to the Bible and snatch a conclusion that’s likely wrong.

You see, the Bible is not a quick-fix guide for whatever’s broken in our lives–it is God’s living Word to us, designed to reveal himself to us so we can align ourselves with him. Yes, the Bible gives us guidance. I happen to think the Bible is incredibly practical on many things, such as marriage, finances and addictions. But ultimately Scripture reveals Jesus to us so we can follow him and let him lead our lives; the helpfulness of Scripture supports the Spirit’s goal to help us follow Jesus.

If we come to the Bible determined to get answers by the end of coffee break, we may not only get stupid answers, we might miss the whole point of God’s Word–to mature us into people who look and love and lead more and more like Jesus every day. It’s only those who take time, over time, who really experience the guidance Scripture offers.

So let me ask you:

Which mistake have you been prone to make?

How can we prevent these classic errors?

 

God's Word

Getting the Mix Right: 3 Things You MUST Know about the Book of Revelation

How you hear the Book of Revelation determines how you interpret it. If you think it’s primarily futuristic, you’ll see it as a blueprint of what’s coming. If it’s ancient sci-fi, you’ll read it like Dune. If it’s rendering history through symbols, you’ll navigate accordingly. And if it’s a discipleship manifesto, you’ll respond with action.

The key is how you hear it. If you want to do that right, then you’ve got to hear it the way it was meant to be heard. This is true for anything you read. Gary Larson’s Far Side doesn’t help me fix my furnace; I don’t read up on ice cream to understand how to drive a car.  To hear the Revelation right, we need to know what kind of literature it is so we can engage it as designed. So many headaches and misunderstandings would be solved if we did just this one thing.

DJ-spinning
The Revelation is a literary mash-up, masterfully combining three classic genres into one, great party mix.

So what kind of literature is the Revelation? This simple question has three answers (I know, welcome to the Revelation), laid out in the first eight verses. I love musical mash-ups, where two songs are artfully combined to create something unique and beautiful–the Revelation is a literary mash-up, masterfully combining three classic genres into one, great party mix.

#1. The Revelation is an Apocalypse.

The first thing we hear in the Revelation is the starting note: The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants . . . The English word “revelation” is the Greek word “apocalypse,” the word that has come to our common speech to represent a horrible, devastating end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it kind of event. But that’s not it’s original meaning. Apocalypse meant, well, just as it’s been translated: revelation. Something’s being revealed, like a curtain being pulled back or a door being opened. Something, or more accurately, someone is present whom we had not seen.

Jesus Revealed
We called our Revelation message series “Jesus, Revealed” to keep its apocalyptic purpose central.

The Apocalypse pulls back the curtain and shows us true reality, what is really going on, who is really in charge, where history’s actually going. Apocalypse is an art form, a known style of writing, and the Revelation mixes in that genre throughout. But at its heart, the Apocalypse is the Revealing of Jesus Christ. Every page, every symbol, every note that’s struck or table that’s spun, everything serves this purpose: to reveal Jesus to his people. So when you read the Revelation, ask this Key Apocalyptic Question: How is Jesus revealing himself to us? Ask it every turn of the page.

#2. The Revelation is a Prophecy.

The second genre joins the Rev mix by verse 3: Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. The fact that the Revelation is a prophecy will come as a shock to exactly no one. Of course it’s a prophecy. But all prophecy (anywhere in the Bible) must be heard in stereo, played both as a something that is about the future and something that is about the present. In fact, I would argue that all the future orientation of prophecy (new Listening in Stereoheavens/new earth, death being destroyed, beasts slain, people redeemed)  is given to inspire present faithfulness. The Revelation offers a resounding blessing on all who read this prophecy aloud and all those who receive it obediently. That’s powerful. So what’s our Key Prophecy Question? It is this: How is this prophecy inspiring me to faithfulness today? Again, ask consistently throughout.  

#3. The Revelation is a Letter.

Apocalypse and prophecy have barely hit their opening chords when genre #3 spins in. In classic letter form, we read: John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you . . . it’s how letters started back then. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is a letter written from a pastor to seven particular churches in the Roman province of Asia (modern day Turkey). No one disputes that for the opening chapters, as Jesus himself addresses each church with a specific memo. But when the letter continues in chapter 4 with a vision shift, readers easily forget that we are still reading someone else’s mail! icon_youvegotmail-150x150From 1:1 to 22:21, the Revelation is a circular letter, written and delivered to real Christian churches. Keeping this in mind is crucial, especially when beasts start showing up; it’ll keep Revelation’s purpose central: to encourage and challenge Christians to remain loyal to Jesus during difficult times.

The genre of letter applies the other two genres of apocalypse and prophecy to their context, making it practical to everyday life. Our Key Letter Question is this: How is this letter helping these ancient Christians understand what was going on (apocalypse) and how to respond faithfully (prophecy), and, by extension, how does it help us now? Okay, that’s two questions, but the dual lens of “then” and “now” is critical. Ask these questions every step of the way through the Revelation.

There’s the Revelation mash-up, and each type of lit is essential to the mix Jesus wants us to hear. Here’s the point: in the Revelation, Jesus wants to reveal himself to us so we can faithfully follow him in our present reality and into his good future.

Want to hear more? I’ve been walking my friends through the Revelation in a series of messages at the Erickson Covenant Church; you can find them here. You can also subscribe and download through iTunes under “Erickson Covenant Church”.

Which genre of the Revelation surprised you?

How could this triple mash-up help your community hear the Revelation?

 

Note: I owe my understanding of the Revelation to so many authors, including Bauckham, Fee, Wilcock, Beale and Wright. But premier among them is Darrell Johnson and his work on the Revelation. I highly recommend Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey through the Book of Revelation if you want to find out more.

Three Easy Steps to Start Reading the Bible

1. Get one.

2. Open it.

3. Start reading.

Okay, maybe a little more direction would be handy. But seriously, it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. Oddly enough, though, we often make Bible reading more mysterious than it is, and then leave it on the shelf and never start reading.

My advice? Just start. You’ll be surprised at what you find.  A friend of mine recently started reading the Bible for the first time. Her discovery? The Bible is way more interesting than she expected it to be, the stories about Jesus intrigue her, and she is (surprise!) enjoying it. She is eager to continue.

That can be true for you, too.

Just Start Reading
Just Start Reading

Here’s three more steps you can take to enhance your Bible reading experience.

1. Start with a story about Jesus.  All Christians will agree that Jesus is the central figure of the Bible, so why not start with him? And you’ve got four options: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, located right at the beginning of the New Testament (see Table of Contents in any Bible). Extra tip: Use a modern translation, such as the New Living Translation (NLT) or the New International Version (NIV). It’ll be easier to understand than Grandma’s old King James Version.

2. Read a natural section and ask: What are these stories telling me about Jesus? And what do I think about what they are telling me about Jesus? Pay attention to how you respond to these Jesus stories. What intrigues you? What bugs you?

3. Find a good friend with whom you can discuss what you are reading. The Bible was never meant to be read alone. It was meant to be taken out in the daylight–read and discussed openly.

That’s it. Really.

Let me know what you discover.

PS. As a bonus, check out YouVersion, a great Bible App for your tablet or smart phone. You can even listen to some of the available translations, which is a great way of getting into the Bible.