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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?