Stop That! 5 Ways You May Be Misinterpreting Scripture

The Bible contains many precious promises of God to the believer. They are and should be a great source of comfort to us. Promises of God’s presence with His people, His enduring strength in our weaknesses, and mostly, His covenant with His people through the perfect work of His Son, Jesus, are causes of rejoicing and celebration, and rightly so.

Problems arise, however, when we begin to misinterpret or misapply these promises. Do not fret. We all do it. We are all guilty of making these promises more than they were intended to be. The important thing is to recognize what we are doing wrong and readjusting so that we interpret and apply Scripture correctly. Here are five ways we may be misinterpreting Scripture.

it’s me! (allegorizing yourself into scripture)

Allegory is a useful way to teach theological truths. What else are Jesus’ parables but allegorical stories that demonstrate their spiritual meanings? The parable of the soils teaches us the condition of the human heart in response to the gospel. The prodigal son shows us God’s acceptance of a repentant sinner and a self-righteous person’s indignant attitude of the repentant person. And one of my favorite allegorical stories in the Bible is found in Judges 9:7-21. After Gideon’s death, his son, Abimeliech became the self-appointed king and murdered all of his brothers, save one. This youngest son, Jotham, confronted him and told him an allegorical tale that would be Abimilech’s downfall.

Allegory is not a problem in and of itself. Problems arise when we attempt to take a passage of Scripture, usually historical or narrative, and place ourselves as one of the main characters in the story. Perhaps the most famous type of this fallacy is that of David and Goliath. The common Evangelical pastor interprets this to mean that God will help you defeat your “giants” and that with His help you can overcome anything. Marshmallowy mush like this has caused many a Christian to wrongly interpret the story of David and Goliath and claim a promise of God not found in the narrative. How do we avoid such fallacies? Here are three simple rules on how not to misinterpret allegory.

  1. True allegory will be presented as such. Therefore, you will not find allegory in historical and narrative passages unless it is stated as allegory. Parables, hyperboles, Apocalyptic literature, and the like are introduced by specific phrases and keywords such as, “there was a man…”, “he told them a parable…”, “it was like…”, etc.
  2. Allegory is full of imagery. The passage in Judges, for example, depicts the enemies of Jotham as certain types of trees while the main character, Abimilech, is depicted as an olive tree. Since olive trees were viewed as good and safe, the imagery is useful and appropriate for the occasion. If the passage you are reading does not contain these types of elements, it is not an allegory. Don’t interpret them as such or place yourself as one of the characters. Narrative is written to inform us of something past and usually contains an over-bearing theme for the benefit of the reader. Hence, the entire book of Judges warns us of apostasy and the continual wavering between serving the Living God or dead idols.
  3. Allegory will always be tied to the lesson that the author is presenting. In other words, the author has a point to make and launches into a story that represents this. Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants in Luke 20:9-18 exemplifies this type of allegory where the Pharisees represent the tenants, the prophets of old represent the king’s messengers, and Jesus represents the heir. The point of this allegory is that God has a vineyard, Israel, and expects fruit. He has placed the religious leaders over the people to care for them. They failed and so He sent prophets they ignored. The final person is the heir, Jesus. They will also reject Him and therefore be kicked out of the Kingdom of God. If your allegory is not indicative of the lesson the author is trying to make then it is not an allegory.

stone skipping in the pond (skipping straight to the application)

One of the greatest temptations of Scripture reading is not understanding the full context. This tends to happen when we see a verse that stands out to us or affects us emotionally one way or another. Instead of examining the surrounding verses, we tear up and go with that “feeling.” We never consider whether the application that we think is correct is valid because it makes us feel good. Just as interpretation is dependent upon the context, so too our application must reflect the context. It is doubtful that a first-century audience would have understood Zepheniah 3:17 as God giving believers the feel-good assurance of His love. That is a purely modern application and stems from lazy Bible reading/study. It is a total disregard for the text and ignores the entirety of God’s judgment upon the leaders of Israel, of which the context of Zepheniah 3:17 speaks. Before jumping to an application ask these questions:

  1. What is the full context of this passage?
  2. What message is the author trying to convey?
  3. How would the original audience have understood it?
  4. What was the response the author was seeking?

verbs, tenses, & roots (word study fallacies)

“The Greek word for power is dunamis. It’s where we get our word ‘dynamite.’ This passage is saying that God’s power is dynamite!”

NOT!

How many times have you heard this or something similar? Enter, the word study fallacy. Word studies yield vital information when done properly. However, the saying, A little Greek is a dangerous thing, should always be minded carefully. Understanding syntax, not just basic definitions, goes a long way in proper interpretation. Most fallacies of the word study type occur in two areas:

  1. Tenses – verbs are packed with tenses which indicate time and Greek is no different. Most unskilled interpreters look at a specific tense, ascertain a basic definition, and conclude that this tense bears the same nuance every time it occurs. One of the most famous examples is John 1:1. The ‘to be’ verb in that passage is an imperfect tense. Imperfect, as given in many grammars is described as a past event that is not yet completed or an action that is yet ongoing. For this reason, I have heard pastors attempt to translate John 1:1 as, In the beginning, was being the word, and the word was being with God, and the word was being God. This kind of fallacy stems from a misunderstanding of how tenses work. Though the imperfect may bear this kind of action in some way, it is not always the case and should not always be assumed. Careful consultation of Greek scholars and grammarians will go a long way to aiding you in the syntax of word studies. One of the primary sources used is Dan Wallaces Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. It is an excellent resource that will help with understanding verbal aspects and how they work together.
  2. Root words – also called the Etymological Fallacy, it assumes the root meaning of the word must continue to mean the same thing throughout time. A wise person once said that language is dynamic rather than static. In other words, words change their meanings over time and it should not be assumed that the word you are now studying carries the same meaning as it once did. The Greek word διαθήκη, for instance, is translated as covenant in the New Testament. However, the original use of the word according to the LSJ Greek Lexicon is that of a will of property. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament further indicates that it was often used as coming to an agreement or a distribution of property. It would be improper to assume that it means this in every context simply because the root word initially indicated this usage. But one of the vilest misuses of this fallacy I have ever encountered came at the attempt to equate the same usage of the Greek preposition ἐν (in) in all contexts. The sermon was on Ephesians 2:2, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience. The pastor came to the conclusion that because the basic definition of ἐν is a place of location, and the text stated that lost people had the spirit of disobedience working ἐν them, then all lost people must be demon-possessed! This kind of reasoning is destructive and always leads to bad theology. Beware of the Root Fallacy.

For more information on these types of bad hermeneutical practices, D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies is an excellent resource.

unintended promises (is it for me or another group of people?)

Scripture is replete with promises. God’s word is written to assure us of His faithfulness and goodness towards us. But one thing that we need to reckon with is that not every promise in Scripture is individualistic. That is, many of the promises are corporate, or for a specific people group. When we take a corporate promise and make it individual, it often results in disappointment. Jeremiah 29:11 is perhaps the most misapplied promise in all of Scripture.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future

This verse has been hung on thousands of walls in homes, venerated in countless Bible studies, and passed around social media like wildfire. The promise is not a promise for God to fulfill a plan for your life, or even to bring you to a place where He can begin to shape your “destiny,” as has been so wrongly taught. God’s promise here is a corporate promise to the nation of Israel to restore them as His inheritance and to bring them back to the land of Israel after their time of punishment has ended. It is His assurance that even in the midst of their chastisement, He has not forgotten His promise to be their God and for them to be His people.

Therefore, the only feasible way to apply a modern application of this passage is the realization that when God now punishes His people, the Church, it is out of love. The Church should cling to the promise that despite their discipline, it is through the covenant of His Son that He will not forsake them. He does this because He knows the plans He has for [them] declares the LORD

It is truly sad when a person becomes depressed and begins to think that God is unfaithful. Knowing a little context goes a long way. When claiming promises from Scripture, be extra diligent that you understand the full extent and context of that promise.

hello, my name is context. You ripped me from my pages. prepare to die! (context–the over-arching theme)

You may have guessed by now that the main thing stressed throughout this post has been the importance of context. Context ripping is all too often a reality in the pulpit as well as in our personal studies. Misinformation, misinterpretation, and misapplication are all a result of destroying the context. Do not fret, Christian for we are all guilty of this at one time or another. The important thing is to recognize and correct our mistakes. There are guidelines that can help us avoid this pitfall and though we will not always be one hundred percent correct, we can be confident that we did not butcher God’s word to such a degree that it is irreparable. Here are some things to consider when interpreting and applying Scripture.

  1. Read the entire context. The entire context includes the verses before and after the passage you are reading. Sometimes it may include entire paragraphs depending upon the genre. A lot of heart misinterpretation is suddenly taken care of when the full context is taken into consideration.
  2. Understand the background of the book. Part of knowing the context consists of knowing the who, what, why, when, where, and how–the 5WH method–of what you are studying. Understanding the background is a tremendous help in interpreting the passage. For example, the book of Galatians was written for the purpose of debunking Judaizers. These were men that were teaching the young church that adherence to the Mosaic Law was required alongside of faith in Christ. When we realize what is at stake, we begin to understand some of the harsh and condemnatory language Paul uses towards his audience. The book of 1John serves as another example. Some people are baffled at the opening of this treatise. What does John mean by all of this talk? Simply stated, he was combating a form of Gnosticism that taught that Jesus did not have a real physical body because the flesh was evil and the spirit was good. At the outset, John makes it very clear that he and the other disciples physically touched, talked, and heard Jesus.
  3. Keep the book’s context in mind while reading. If you know the context of the book it should always be front and center while attempting to interpret. The New Testament authors wrote for specific purposes and this purpose is what drove them to engage their audience. Jude, for example, states that his brief epistle was written for his audience to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. He wanted to write to them concerning their common salvation but changed gears as he felt the necessity to address false teachers. The Gospel of John was written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. When you know the why of the book, it must be kept at the forefront to understand a correct interpretation. Grasping for an interpretation or application outside of this context will usually be wrong. No doubt there will be many topics addressed in a book or an epistle but the important thing to remember is that the authors usually had a specific audience in mind with a specific reason for writing to that audience.
  4. Know your genre & literary devices. Genre and literary devices are important when it comes to interpreting Scripture. You don’t interpret poetry the same way you would interpret a didactic (teaching) passage, for instance. Or you would not interpret apocalyptic literature the same way as an historical or narrative passage. How are hyperboles to be interpreted? What about some of the stranger sayings in Scripture? Though context is the guiding factor in all interpretation, different genres must be interpreted according to their rules. Let’s take, for example, Jesus’ statement in Luke 14:26: If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother… he cannot be My disciple. Are we to come to the conclusion that Jesus is commanding us to hate our parents or other family members? What of His own teaching on honoring your parents? This particular verse demonstrates hyperbole, a literary device used to exaggerate something in order to make a point. Here, Jesus is not advocating hate for family. He is using the extreme to make a point. Your love for family members should be of such degree that it pales in comparison to that of even your closest Jesus. And if those family members keep you from following Him, you are to forsake them instead of rejecting Him. I once knew a pastor who took this passage at face value and encouraged others who had family members that were unsaved to do the same. This is why great care should be taken when interpreting different genres and literary devices.
  5. Go with the plain meaning of the text. There is no reason to complicate things. Sometimes, it really is that simple. When the Bible states that we are all dead in sin (Eph 2:1) it really means that. When Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again of water and Spirit (John 3:5) that’s what it actually means. Sometimes there’s a deeper meaning like our example passage Luke 14:26 above, but most times it really is as simple as the text states. If the plain meaning of the text is the plain meaning of the text, then the plain meaning of the text is the plain meaning of the text. Let’s not complicate it.

It may be discouraging to realize that you have been guilty of any of these interpretive fallacies. When I began to understand how hermeneutics properly worked, I had many ooops moments of my own. Do not let it deter you from studying God’s word. We are all guilty of these methods and we must all learn how to correct our mistakes. Be sure to visit the Study Aids page for books and other tools that will be of help. Until then, God bless your study of His word!

Text Flow – Step 1.1 – Basic Grammar

This is part 1 of 2 , subjects & verbs, in Basic Grammar.

Grammar–blech! Nobody likes it and once we finish our education we tend to forget as much as possible. After all, who really cares about subjects, and adverbs, and adjectives, and gerunds?

As much as we may hate it, grammar is a part of all written languages, including the Bible. In John Piper’s thirty-four page booklet, Biblical Exegesis: Discovering the Meaning of Scriptural Texts, he says this about the grammar of the Bible.

An evangelical believes that God humbled himself not only in the incarnation of the Son, but also in the inspiration of the Scriptures. The manger and the cross were not sensational. Neither are grammar and syntax…Therefore, if God humbled himself to take on human flesh and to speak human language, woe to us if we arrogantly presume to ignore the humanity of Christ and the grammar of Scripture.


Biblical Exegesis, John Piper, p. 5

Love it or hate it, grammar is an important part to better understanding Scripture. The Biblical authors used grammar and syntax to convey the meaning they wished their audiences to understand. Likewise, we will briefly study grammar and syntax to come as close to that meaning as humanly possible. With that brief introduction, let us begin our journey.

Verbs-It’s Where The Action is!

Photo courtesy of PXhere.com

We start with verbs because they are words of action and tell us what’s happening in the text. The Bible wouldn’t make much sense if we left out all the verbs. There are two types of action that verbs perform: transitive and intransitive.

  • Transitive verbs transfer the action to a direct object (discussed later in part 2 of Basic Grammar). In the sentence, Bob hit the ball, the action of the verb hit is transferred to the word ball. In simple terms to be a transitive verb, there must be someone or something for the action of the verb to act upon.
  • Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, have no object which to act upon. They are still verbs but the action remains, so to speak, with the person or thing performing the action. In John 11:35 we read, Jesus wept. The verb is wept yet it does not weep on someone or something. The verb is somewhat stagnant and has no object. Therefore it is called Intransitive. That is, the action does not transfer to something else.

Verbs also have something called a voice. No, they don’t talk but they do show action in two kinds of ways. Their action is either active or passive. in the action voice the subject performs the action. Bob hit the ball, tells us that the verb is being done by someone or something, in this case Bob. But in the passive voice things get flipped around. Now the action of the verb is the subject. Bob was hit by the ball, tells us that Bob is no longer the one performing the action, but is rather the one being acted upon. Passive verbs are usually written using a helping verb to make it passive.

Kinds of Verbs

Now that we understand the kinds of actions verbs perform we need to understand the different kinds of verbs we will encounter. At this point, I believe it will be helpful to introduce to be verbs and helping verbs.

There are eight be verbs: be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been. When we talk about finding verbs we must also include these being verbs. Take John 1:1 for example:

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The two be verbs are italicized and underlined and show a state of being. When picking out verbs and their subjects it is important to include these in clauses you may separate out. It is also worth pointing out that Being verbs don’t take an object and can be considered passive.

Auxillary verbs, or Helping verbs, help complete the action of the verb. Galatians 1:4-5 is a prime example of a helping verb.

Galatians 1:3–4 Grace to you and peace… from our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,

The word ‘might’ helps to complete the meaning of the verb, deliver. Helping verbs should be included in their clauses as we begin to separate them. Now, let’s continue with the kinds of verbs we will encounter. There are three major kinds of verbs we typically see.

  1. Finite – these verbs simply assert something happened. These are the only kinds of verbs that can be the main verb of the main clause. We will flesh all this out in later posts.
  2. Participles – these guys are often used as an adjective and describe further the noun or verb they modify. In John 6:51 Jesus states, I am the living bread. The word ‘living’ is describing Jesus further. He is not only bread that came from Heaven, He is living bread. Participles also indicate the means or the manner in which action is carried out. Paul uses participles in this way in Ephesians 6:17-18 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; 18 praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.

    The two participles in verse 18, praying and being watchful, modify and describe the manner how spiritual armor, namely the sword of the Spirit and the helmet of salvation are taken up through prayer and watchfulness. (Cohick, L. H. (2010). Ephesians. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books. pg. 158). Participles can be versatile in their function so it is important to ascertain their use when you encounter them.
  3. Infinitives – These are verbs with our English word ‘to’ preceding them. Like participles, they can be used a number of ways including being objects, subjects, and showing the purpose of an action.

1 Samuel 15:22 So Samuel said: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams.

The infinitive ‘to obey’ is functioning as the subject of this sentence. In the New Testament infinitives can also be used to express the purpose or result of an action. In Matthew 4:1 the infinitive ‘to be tempted’ is semantically functioning as an infinitive of purpose. The passage then could be read as “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness [for the purpose] to be tempted by the devil.” As we progress through the steps we will touch on how infinitives are subordinate to their clauses.

Subjects

A subject of a sentence is a noun that performs the action of the verb or is acted upon by the verb. In order to find the subject of a clause you simply ask who or what performed the action. Using the example of John 11:35, “Jesus wept,” we can find the verb, wept, and ask who or what wept? The answer is Jesus is the one who wept. This would be the subject of that clause. Of course things become a bit more complicated when there are several clauses in a sentence. Sometimes the main subject and main verb are separated by several clauses and phrases. When this is the case, care must be taken to pick out the correct pieces. 1Peter 1:10 should suffice for an example.

1 Peter 1:10. Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully…

At first glance it is easy to think that prophets is the subject and prophesied is the verb. But the entire relative clause has to be ignored to find the correct verb for the word prophet. Once we go over the different kinds of clauses and phrases it should become a little more clear. In our next post we will begin to flesh out grammar a bit more as we talk about direct objects and indirect objects.

Below is a practice sheet you can download. The answers are given on the second page.

Bible & Coffee-An Aid to Help With Bible Study

introduction

One of the greatest needs our culture has at this moment is understanding what the Bible says and the proper way to interpret and apply what has been read. Interpreting passages wrongly gives us a skewed perspective of who God really is and what He has promised us through the gospel. On the other hand, a close and careful reading allows us to see Him as Scripture proclaims.

One of the best tools to accomplish this is text flow diagramming. You may have heard this method referred to as block diagramming, semantic diagramming, text hierarchy, phrasing, or numerous other labels. The main gist of a text flow is to visually layout a passage of Scripture so that you can clearly see the main points of a passage. It is done through a several step process that includes careful reading of the text several times and then proceeding to allow the main clauses to stand at the left-hand margin while indenting the subordinating clauses and phrases under the main clause(s). The result is a visual stair step (or block) like aid that represents the flow of thought of the author. Below is an example from Galatians 1:1-5

Text Flow of Galatians 1:1-5

A brief glance at the diagram reveals the main thoughts of Paul and his companions writing and their desire that God would give them grace and peace through the person of Jesus. It doesn’t sound too spiritual but those are the main points in Paul’s introduction to the Galatians.

Some Words of Caution

It’s tempting to see a Scripture that really stands out and try to force it to be the main point. Text flow diagramming, although flexible and not as rigid as line diagramming, is bound by grammatical rules. How we “feel” about a particular verse does not automatically mean it should stand as the author’s main theme or the central focus of an entire pericope. Therefore, it is important to let the author’s meaning and the grammar (which will be discussed in a follow-up post) dictate what the main point is.

One last caution would be understanding that text flow diagramming is a starting point and should never be the only part of your Bible study. You need to put the work in and dig as deep as you can with other resources. You can see some of my favorite tools on this page.

how is text flow helpful?

Besides laying out the main points visually, text flows are useful as a study aid in several ways:

  1. Text flows give a bird’s eye view of an entire passage. Scanning the page will help you see the big picture of a pericope and the main topics the author is trying to drive home.
  2. Text flows provide a natural outline. Since the main points are available at a glance you can easily outline a passage. The subordinating clauses often serve as sub-points, helping to flesh out the main clauses.
  3. Text flow syntactical labels (discussed at a later time) help identify the connection of individual clauses and phrases to the main clause.
  4. Text flows when done properly, align closely with the grammar of the original languages. (this is mainly the Greek text. Hebrew is different.)
  5. Text flows are easier to learn than traditional diagramming.
  6. Text flows still force you to slow down and observe the whole text.

the tutorial outline

Our journey to understanding the Bible will be taken in steps. It is important to try and learn these concepts well. After every step, practice what you have learned by reading a familiar Bible passage and picking out the key elements you learned that day. Let’s get started by looking at the outline

Step 1 – Basic Grammar

We will identify the basic grammar essential to understanding the Bible. Scripture was written according to the grammar and syntax of the time and it is important for us to understand it, as well. This lesson will cover the following:
• How to find subjects, verbs, direct objects, and indirect objects
• Different types of verbs
• Apposition words

Step 2 – Clauses and Phrases

This lesson will focus mainly on how to identify clauses and phrases. And yes, they are different.
• What are clauses?
• What are phrases?
• Different types of phrases

Step 3 – Identifying Propositions

This is where we begin to dig into the text. Everything we’ve learned up to this point will come into play, so make sure you learn the previous lessons well.
• Finding propositions
• Splitting propositions
• when some propositions stay together
• Prepositional Phrases and their contribution to the text

Step 4 – Indenting Subordinating Clauses

This step will go into detail on how and where subordinating clauses should be indented.
• Two methods of indentation
• Extracting phrases
• “Testing” subordination for correct placement
• Using arrows to show subordination

Step 5 – Semantic Labels

We will identify and place semantic labels beside each subordinate clause.
• Categories of semantics
• Color coding schematic of labels

Step 6 – Final Touches

In the last step we will see what is done once we finish the text flow.
• Proof reading your diagram
• Internalizing your study (how is God’s word changing you?)
• Creating an outline
• Further study

I pray that text flow diagramming will be another useful tool in your Bible study belt. It will take practice and perseverance just like any other skill. But once you get the hang of it, I think you will find that it will be one of the most important steps in the observation phase of your study.

John 3:16 – The Gospel in a Single Verse

For God so loved the world…

It is a simple yet profound statement. Somehow my mind tends to skip over this verse when reading through the gospel of John. I always thought of it as too simple. I always said to myself, “Yeah, yeah, I know that!” This time, for no particular reason, I stopped to meditate on it. And I was astounded by the truth of Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus.

God’s love for sinners was so great, so astounding, so broad in its spectrum that He gave! Think about that for a moment. YOU had nothing to give to God except your sin, your rebellion, and your faithless wavering. God initiated the action because of His love for sinners. It was not because we were great or loveable. We had absolutely zilch to offer in return. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 2: 4-5). As I truly pondered the scope of this verse a few things stood out to me.

The Gospel in a Single Sentence

In Greek the very first word that stands at the head of this verse is the word houtōs, which is translated as ‘so’ or ‘in this manner.’ What follows is an explanation of how God loved a sinful wicked world. In short, the plain simple gospel is given within a single verse. Just as Lenski points out,

The “must,” the compulsion, lies in the wonder of God’s love and purpose. By telling Nicodemus this in such lucid, simple language Jesus sums up the entire gospel in one lovely sentence, so rich in content that, if a man had only these words and nothing of the rest of the Bible, he could by truly apprehending them be saved. 

Lenski, R. C. H. (1961). The interpretation of St. John’s gospel, p.259. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.

God’s Agape Love Stands As the Theme

It has been stated that agapē love is the highest form of love presented to us in the Scripture. John presents this love to us through Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus. And this love is so important to John that he emphasizes it by causing it to stand at the head of the clause. Greek is a very flexible language and word order is not so important. Biblical authors used this to their advantage. Often, when they wanted to make a certain action or person emphatic they would do so by allowing to stand at the head of a clause.

Diagramming is a great way of seeing such construction. I’m kind of a geek and love to diagram so when I begin to meditate on this verse I did just that. Below is my diagram of the verse. The English is presented along with the Greek for easier reading. All nouns are in blue, verbs are in red, and direct objects are in green.

Diagram showing the main clause of God’s love for John 3:16

Notice how God’s love, not our believing, stands as the headpiece of this entire passage. Often, we are tempted to read the Bible and make it about ourselves. But this passage is very clear that the focus should be on the Father’s love for sinners not those whom He saved by sending His Son. St. John Chrysostom comments on God’s love for sinners.

Now he spoke at greater length, as speaking to believers, but here Christ speaks concisely, because His discourse was directed to Nicodemus, but still in a more significant manner, for each word had much significance. For by the expression, “so loved,” and that other, “God the world,” He shows the great strength of His love. Large and infinite was the interval between the two. He, the immortal, who is without beginning, the Infinite Majesty, they but dust and ashes, full of ten thousand sins, who, ungrateful, have at all times offended Him; and these He “loved.” Again, the words which He added after these are alike significant, when He saith, that “He gave His Only-begotten Son,” not a servant, not an Angel, not an Archangel. And yet no one would show such anxiety for his own child, as God did for His ungrateful servants

Schaff, P. (Ed.). (1889). Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and Epistle to the Hebrews (Vol. 14 pp 95-96). New York: Christian Literature Company.

God’s Great Agapē Love for Sinners Caused Him to Initiate an Action of Giving

It was God that sought us. We did not seek Him. We did not care to seek Him. We ran away and were happy to be left to our own vices and destruction. The apostle Paul tells us clearly that we were at enmity with God (Romans 5:10). In this same discourse Jesus tells Nicodemus that men naturally run away from the Light because we are evil (John 3:20). But because of His great love towards sinners the hõste (result) was that He did not leave us in that state. He initiated the action of seeking us through the giving of His Son. And what of our weak faith? Christ will cast out no one who comes to him with but the tiniest of faith. The Book of Concord, the Lutheran Confessions states,

As Christ says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” [Matt. 11:28*], and, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” [Matt. 9:12*]. “God’s power is made mighty in the weak” [2 Cor. 12:9*],206 and Romans 14[:1*, 3*], “Welcome those who are weak in faith …   p 606  for God has welcomed them.” For “whoever believes in the Son of God,” whether weak or strong in faith, “has eternal life” [John 3:16*]. Moreover, this worthiness consists not in a greater or lesser weakness or strength of faith, but rather in the merit of Christ, which the troubled father with his weak faith (Mark 9[:24*]) possessed, just as did Abraham, Paul, and others who have a resolute, strong faith.

Solid Declartion VII, 70-71, Kolb, R., Wengert, T. J., & Arand, C. P. (2000). The Book of Concord: the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press

The Result of God’s Agapē Love Is the Reason We Believe

There is nothing special that God sees in us. I know that goes against the popular modern Evangelical teaching. Scripture has nothing positive to say about man in his natural lost state. We are told that we are slaves to sin (John 8:34), dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1), blinded by Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4), and a host of other things that make us altogether unlovely. The only reason we believe is because of God’s gracious love for us poor, weak, miserable sinners. It is He and He alone that calls us and draws us to the grace and forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ perfect atoning work.

And though we experience God’s great love for us we still fall short. We still sin and grieve the Holy Spirit. We still struggle with our flesh every day. Fear not! Look to the cross and know, weak one, that Christ died for sinners; Christ died for me…

And Christ died for you!

3 Reasons Western Christians Are So Ignorant of the Bible

Biblical Ignorance Amongst a Bible Flood

We are at a time in history when the Bible has never been more accessible. Typing in ‘online bible‘ in a Google search yields tens of thousands of results. Bible software is readily available, whether free or paid. Online Bible studies dominate the Internet and social media. And people pour into the pews of their churches on any given Sunday to hear a sermon. So why is there so much Biblical ignorance in Western Christianity?

You don’t believe me? A 2002 Barna research says otherwise. Though many of the core beliefs about the Trinity and the afterlife were intact, many were still quite heterodox. The research concluded that those who identify as Christian have many unbiblical beliefs. To name a few, Barna concluded:

  • 59% reject the existence of a real and personal Satan. They believe he is only a “symbol” of evil
  • 51% believe that praying to saints affects a person’s life positively
  • 35% believe they are able to communicate with the dead
  • A whopping 42% believe Jesus was a sinner
  • 50% hold that salvation is earned by good works

If some of these seem disturbing you’re not alone. How did Western Christianity get here? Below, I offer 3 reasons why I believe we are among a Biblical drought even though we have more accessibility to God’s word than ever before.

the bible is boring

If you ask any nominal Christian about their thoughts on the Bible you are more likely to hear that it is outdated and archaic. They believe many of the passages need to change or be reinterpreted in light of the cultural shift, especially those that address man’s sexuality. They are not willing to realign their own beliefs with that of Holy Writ, so therefore they forsake it altogether. The old boring book is not worth their time. Bored Christians are people that look elsewhere for the answers. They are seeking the excitement and adrenaline the Bible fails to give them. As a result they look for the latest, greatest method, that best selling self-help book on ‘fill in the blank’, or more relevant ways they can contribute to community and feel good about their self-worth. This spills over into their church lives as their new churches are more about cool music and pep talks rather than sound, Biblical preaching that properly divides the Law and the Gospel.

the bible seems irrelevant

When the Bible no longer seems to change with the culture people deem it as unnecessary and stray from its precepts. Psalm 119:4 says, You have commanded us to keep Your precepts diligently. Though culture would deem this unreliable, Christians know that that the Law of the Lord is a lamp to our feet (Psalm 119:06), a guide to point us to Christ and His Gospel (Galatians 3:24), and to show us our shortcomings before God (Exodus 20:1-17). The irrelevance only comes as more youth create their own paradigm shifts to fit their current situations. This seems to be founded upon another 2015 Barna poll which stated that only 35% of Millennials claim faith as an external factor in their lifestyles. Another poll conducted in January of 2018 found that the atheists among the newest generation has nearly doubled.

Why this sudden falling away? When asked, most youth stated the problem of God and evil. In other words, if God truly existed all of the suffering wouldn’t. This is simply another way of saying, “The Bible isn’t relevant to my culture.” Millennials and Gen Zers are fast becoming a majority part of the population. Considering the current trend it would not be surprising if the next generation wholly abandons God’s Word altogether.

the bible is no longer sufficient

Since the Bible is boring and irrelevant, certainly it cannot be sufficient as the standard for faith and life. Though research shows that many young people still hold a high view of Scripture, their beliefs and practices seem to state otherwise. For example, a study cited earlier in this post revealed that 50% of self-identifying Christians believe they can obtain God’s favor through their good deeds. And it isn’t just the younger generation. This is the trend of people of all age groups. People flock after an experience rather than take the time to find the answers in Scripture. They depend upon fresh revelations instead of the way in which God has chosen to reveal Himself and His will through the written word. They flock to those teachers that can promise them their next big breakthrough or the fulfillment of life-long dreams. The number of “ministries” geared towards this disgusting puke attests to this. Teachers such as Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Creflo Doallar, Ken and Gloria Copeland, Christine Cain, and myriads of others prey on those seeking some kind of physical or monetary relief. Ultimately those who follow these teachers must share in the blame as they have abandoned sound doctrine for doctrine of demons. Their hope appears to rest in what God can do for then rather than in God Himself. All of this can be directly linked to the abandonment of Scripture as the sufficient means in which God communicates to His people.

Hope Amongst Drought

There is hope, despite the odds of these statistics. Another research performed by Barna revealed that an increasingly number of adults are becoming dissatisfied with “doing church.”

Adults among the varying groups who are dissatisfied with the current church culture.

This could go either way. It could drive people away from church completely or it could drive then to seek out a more satisfying experience in worship. Whatever the case, it shows that people are thirsty! They crave more than the monotonous weekly ritual. Even their usual cool, hip relevant churches aren’t doing it for them anymore. This is encouraging as those who remain faithful to Scripture as the innerrant, infallible word of God can be a beacon to point them back to the sufficiency of Scripture. When we allow our beliefs to come in line with God’s word we rest much easier, knowing that all the minor details will be worked out in the end. This is not to say that we must possess an ignorant faith or never seek the answers we desire. It is simply means that we take God at His word and believe that what He has revealed to us is sufficient for our entire lives.

How To Properly Claim Scriptural Promises

In times of grief, temptation, trial, or any other life-altering event God’s Word can be a firm foundation and a comfort for Christians. The myriad of Biblical characters who have banked on God’s promises to them are plentiful and examples of how we too can call upon God in our time of need. Unfortunately, many Christians claim these promises without realizing that the promises they are clinging to is not actually a promise that is relevant for the situation. In other words, just as Scripture can be taken out of context and misused, so too, can certain promises remain null when taken out of its proper setting.

Philippians 4:13 is a prime example of faulty claim-promising: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Most Christians use this as their default promise when they find themselves in tight situation. But this verse was not written in a vacuum. It has a context and should not be claimed outside of its context. Claiming promises on faulty premises in reckless in the least and dangerous at the most. While God holds His word on the same level of His Name He does not honor promises that were not meant to be promises. Many people have no doubt shipwrecked their own faith claiming promises that they should not have tried to claim, usually as a result of a careless reading of the text, but most times because of blatant false teaching. In this post I hope to share some steps in correctly claiming a promise of God that is relevant to the current situation and that does not violate the hermeneutical process. We will use Philippians 4:13 as our example verse.

Step 1. Context

All Scriptural promises have a context and just as we interpret a passage according to its context, so too, must we apply a promise to its context. Our example verse has a context. When we read that we can do all things through Christ we must first understand that ‘all’ has its own context. There are four aspects of context that need to be examined: immediate context, the verses surrounding the passage, the book context, and the theme of the book. Examining the entire context of Philippians 4:13 we learn a few things.

  1. The immediate context of all things consist mainly of the state of contentment that Paul is in. He explains that he has been in every possible situation–hunger, fullness, poverty, abounding. His declaration of being able to thrive through them is his usage of ‘all things.’
  2. Paul’s plight and his learning to be content has come as a result of being a witness of the gospel. Verses 14 and following make this abundantly clear (remember, the context includes all the verses surrounding the passage). All of Paul’s situations were during his ministry and this is precisely how he applies the ‘all things.’
  3. Zooming out a little further we notice that the book of Philippians belongs to a group of epistles (church letters) categorized as the Prison Epistles. This means that when Paul wrote this he was in prison, probably much like the one pictured below or under house arrest. This is important as it can affect interpretation. When we apply the principle in the text we must take this into consideration.
  4. Finally, we must consider the reason for the epistle. By using his own circumstances and hardships Paul’s reason for writing seems to be a demonstration of a life lived worthy of the Gospel Calling, The theme of a book should always be kept at the front of the mind when reading. It can help shed light on a lot of cultural nuances.

Step 2. Piecing It Together

Now that we have the immediate context, the surrounding context, and the book context, we can begin to narrow things down,

For this phase it is best to start at the outer context of the spiral and work inward. This is a prison epistle and we must ask if there are situations in which a Christian not in prison for their faith can apply this verse. Since Paul is addressing ordinary Christians in the church, and not to pastors or other leaders he must of had in mind for his audience to put it into practice the things he was speaking to them about. The only influential people he mentions is Euodia and Syntyche, apparently two prominent women within the church that were having a dispute. He exhorts them to reconcile for the sake of the gospel.

We look then at next level on the spiral. It is ministry situational. That is, Paul’s context of ‘all things’ is placed within the context of his own ministry. Can this apply to those not in ministry? Again, considering the overall context and the theme of the book we must wait until the last step before we deem its applicability. But we also note that Paul’s comments are to the church at Philippi. Not everyone was a minister of the church. Most were common workers or slaves. All of this will come into play on the final step of application. But again, the running theme is living a life worthy of the gospel and forsaking worldly recognition as Paul states in 2:10, 3:12-14, 20-21.

We are now at the last part of the spiral. Contentment in all things is the immediate context and this is applied to an individual Christian in particular circumstances. We will look at different ways of application in our last step.

Step 3. Applying the Scripture

Applying the passage personally begins with yet another reading of the context. The natural flow of thought seems to begin at verse 8. I will start at verse 10 because the conjunction ‘but’ (Greek, δέ) provides a transition between the two thoughts.

Philippians 4:10–19 (NKJV)

As we apply Scripture we want to begin to take note of key themes and words which help us to remember the context of the passage. I’ve marked some of them in my own style. The two biggest things we see are the Philippians’ care for Paul during his ministry, and more importantly we see the context and content of ‘all things.’ As Paul recalls ministry hardships he praises the Philippians for sending him aid time and time again. He concludes this section by declaring that God will also supply the Philippians’ needs just as they cared for his. This last verse is also a verse that is taken out of context many times. Despite popular belief, it is not a claim-all promise for God to pay your rent or your credit card bill. This promise is grounded in the context of the gospel ministry and therefore must be applied as such.

Since we are dealing with two separate promises we will have to apply both of them. Starting with the first we remember,

  • ‘All things’ has its own context
  • the context is contentment in all situations
  • the situations include having much, having little, being healthy, being sick
  • Paul’s determination to continue comes from Christ’s own strength, not his

I see two different applications for this verse One for those in a pastoral ministry related occupation and one for those who are in their everyday trades and jobs.

Application 1 (v.13)

As a pastor/teacher you face many challenges day-to-day. More than likely, you are bi-vocational, as many pastors are today. You have the concern to provide for you own family but at the same time you know God has called you to under shepherd a local congregation. The added burden of taking on other people’s problems is taking its toll. You struggle financially because it’s a small congregation. Bills are late, debtors are calling, and inter-congregational fighting has you pulling your hair out. But God has not left you desolate. There are people in the congregation always encouraging you to move forward. Even though you believe you’re at the end of your strength you claim Philippians 4:13, as it is Christ’s strength, not your own, that will allow you to navigate any circumstance in ministry that may face you.

Application 2 (v. 13)

Our daily work should always be considered as ministry because of the command for us to live a life worthy of the gospel. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves and this includes doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, not to please man but to please God. You know most of your coworkers are lost. You begin sharing the gospel with one of them when your supervisor pulls you aside. He warns you that there’s no room at this job for “playing.’ You respectfully address him, explaining that your work quota is met and that you were on your break when you talked to your coworker. He shakes his head and gives you a final warning. The next day at break he overhears you talking again. He decides to give you a “crap” job in order to keep you away from your coworkers. The job is hard and laborious. Over time it begins to take a toll on your body and health. You really want to quit and get out from under the supervisor’s thumb. You’re praying at work one day and Philippians 4:13 comes to mind. You become convinced that this is where the Lord has placed you, and by His strength you will continue to share the gospel with anyone who will listen.

Application (v. 19)

The application here is ministry specific. Most of us have claimed this promise as a means for God to help us in a financial situation. Though it can be applied that way, the promise is rooted in the ministry of giving. Paul recounts in verse 15 at the beginning of his ministry the Philippians were the only church to supply him with his needs. In fact, it wasn’t just his initial need but they sent him gifts over and over. In verse 18 he prays that God will cause them to abound in fruit as their giving is a sweet aroma to God. The language is reminiscent of the Old Testament sacrifices, which when offered in the prescribed way, God saw as pleasing in His sight and in His nostrils as something sweet and precious. It would be proper for us to apply as we are loving our neighbors, pastors, and other Christians by selflessly giving as they have need. In turn, God has promised to supply your need according to His own riches,

Conclusion

Applying Scripture correctly is just as important as interpreting correctly. When we approach the application step in a cavalier manner without considering how it would have applied to the original audience we may find disappointment when that promise is not fulfilled. Always take the time to consider the full context before applying Scripture. If you are practicing regular hermeneutics with the Observation, Interpretation, Application process this step will be a little less tedious, as you will already have the necessary background and context information.

May God bless you richly as you study His word.