There are certain Bible passages that often get misinterpreted.
How does this happen? Several things in particular go awry. First, we tend to read the Bible on a fairly superficial level in general. Second, we tend to ignore the surrounding literary context of a passage. Third, we instinctively read our own cultural values into the verse.
Here are four commonly misinterpreted verses:
1. Habakkuk 1:5 – “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.”
This verse is sometimes used in missions to create anticipation about how God could work in ways that amaze us (we could probably go to Ephesians 3:20 instead to communicate that idea). But the verse in Habakkuk is news of judgment – God will use one of Israel’s enemies to judge Israel, as part of God’s goal to discipline Israel.
2. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 – “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Readers tend to assume an individual context here – that we should take care of our bodies by staying physically fit, by avoiding immorality, by not committing suicide, by not getting tattoos . . . . 1 Corinthians 6:19 does use similar language in a different context to warn against sexual immorality. But the context of 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 shows clearly that God’s concern is for unity in this passage. He will judge anyone who divides the church (his temple) through selfishness, personal ambition, or false teaching.
3. Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Sorry, athletes, entrepreneurs, and aspiring celebrities – Paul is not saying, “Give your dreams to the Lord, and he will make them come true” here. Paul’s point is that no matter the circumstance, in fact, especially in difficulties, God gives us the strength to carry on and even to thrive. Paul is in prison and is learning what it means to go without abundant food and comforts. But God is strengthening him through it all, giving him peace and contentment.
4. 1 Timothy 5:8 – “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Many people see the verse as a call to provide for spouse and kids. I have even heard some speakers use this verse to critique stay-at-home dads. But the context shows that this is a command for believers to take care of elderly relatives, instead of just expecting the church to do that for them. We tend to miss this because we live in a culture in America that doesn’t typically value the elderly. We think of “family” as being spouse and kids, and that’s it.
Why does all of this matter? Is it that big of a deal to misinterpret a few verses here and there? When we misinterpret verses, we may come away with a distorted view of God, our world, or ourselves. Or, we may miss something important that God wants to teach us through the proper interpretation of the verse. A careful and informed reading of the Bible takes hard work, but the potential benefits are worth the effort.