Have you ever read a news report that caused you to question its accuracy? It just seemed that the material was lifted out of context and lost its connection to reality. This type of report is all too common today as “fake news” floods the headlines.
As bad as this distortion of truth may be, another more serious problem exists in mishandling biblical content. Often, Bible verses are pulled out of context and made to mean what they did not mean to the original audience, usually as a way of making applications to present-day situations.
Right application can only be determined once the correct interpretation has been discovered.
When reading Bible verses, applications are many, but interpretations are not. Right application can only be determined once the correct interpretation has been discovered. Skipping the first step is a recipe for misapplication and possibly spiritual harm. Knowing the audience, the historical and cultural context, and the place in God’s redemptive plan are critical for a legitimate understanding of the biblical text. If these aspects are not considered when interpreting the passage, a correct interpretation is unlikely. This is especially problematic in the Old Testament, where the audience is usually Israel, either before or after the division into the southern or northern kingdoms.
One verse often quoted as affirmation of God’s positive plan for Christians is Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (ESV). In context, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Israeli exiles telling them that when their 70 years of captivity was complete, they would return to their homeland, giving them hope for the future. This was based on God’s revealed plan for Israel established in the Abrahamic (Genesis 12, 15) and Davidic Covenants (2 Samuel 7; 1 Chronicles 17). It was specific to the exiles, which must take priority in understanding its meaning, so that its application is controlled by that meaning. In context, this assurance was the basis of confident prayer by the exiles, prompting one well-known exile, Daniel, to pray for Israel’s restoration (Daniel 9:2).
No doubt, the principle meaning of this text is affirmed elsewhere for Christians, such as Romans 8:28, which declares that God works all things together for good for those who love Him. Yet, it is unwise to ignore the original context of Jeremiah 29:11, which limits the application to Israel. Their future and hope were defined specifically as a return to their homeland, emphasized in verse 14.
It is safer and wiser to use those passages clearly addressing Christians to avoid these pitfalls.
The Christian future and hope are quite different, although still sourced in God. A guarantee of no evil for the exiles was again specific to them and an application to Christians may be misleading, if not controlled by other biblical input. To quote this text to Christians without qualification is fraught with danger and misses the point it was intended to convey. It is safer and wiser to use those passages clearly addressing Christians to avoid these pitfalls.
Another verse that is used without careful consideration of its context is Psalm 51:11: “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (ESV). This psalm is a record of David’s confession of sin, and, in recognition of its seriousness, he prayed for God’s forgiveness to include retaining His presence and the Holy Spirit’s empowering. In the Old Testament, divinely anointed kings received the empowering of God’s Spirit, but with the condition of faithful obedience. Saul had the Spirit come upon him (1 Samuel 10:10), but then the Spirit left him (16:14) on account of his blatant disobedience to God’s commands (13:8–15; 15:10). David knew that his wicked behavior, having committed adultery and murder, was ground for the Spirit’s departure, but he pleaded for mercy so that he might continue to serve faithfully as king of Israel. Christians are in a different era of God’s dealing with humanity and receive the Holy Spirit as a permanent indwelling presence which cannot be taken away (Ephesians 1:13–14). David’s prayer is not one Christians should pray.
Sometimes a verse is so attractive in its promise that we are drawn to apply it without due consideration of its context. Jeremiah 33:3 is one such verse: “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known” (ESV). Here, God was speaking specifically to Jeremiah about Jerusalem and its future restoration, as well as other cities of Judah and Israel (33:6–13). This was in fulfilment of God’s covenant with David, which is unbreakable, guaranteed by the permanence of day and night, as well as the fixed order of heaven and Earth (33:14–26). The promise is for Jewish people, the nation of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem. With the fall of Jerusalem pending and the seeming permanent destruction of Israel as a nation, God affirmed to Jeremiah that this was not the end of their story, giving them much-needed hope in the midst of despair.
Learning How to Interpret Scripture Correctly
New Testament passages affirm that Christians can call on God and receive insight necessary for their situations. James teaches that, in the midst of trials, wisdom is available from God for those who ask in confident faith (James 1:5–6). Paul affirms that Christians have the Holy Spirit to “understand the things freely given to us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:10, 12). The letter to the Ephesians teaches that God has made known to Christians “the mystery of His will” (Ephesians 1:8) and, in that letter, Paul prayed that Christians would receive “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Ephesians 1:17). We should therefore use these passages, which are intended for Christians living in this era, to avoid possible well-meaning misuse of Old Testament passages addressed to Israel in a different era.
One interpretive paradigm lends itself to this approach to the Old Testament. It replaces Israel with the church and consequently interprets passages specifically speaking to Israel, the Jewish people, as though they were addressed to the church, Christians. Known as Replacement Theology, it replaces the intended meaning for Israel by an invented meaning for the church, usually by spiritualizing the text. Such an interpretive approach opens the door to multiple meanings governed by the preconceptions of the interpreter, having lost the safeguard of the context in which the text was given. It overrules the clear meaning intended for the original audience, Israel, and substitutes a different meaning that connects it to the church.
A proper understanding of the Old Testament is needed for Christians.
Some may think this approach makes the Old Testament more relevant to Christians, but loss of meaning and addition of alternative meaning is spiritually harmful. The Old Testament must retain its original purpose as revelation to Israel if it is genuinely to bless Christian readers today. A proper understanding of the Old Testament is needed for Christians. It reveals God’s redemptive plan in the Messiah, Israel’s place in that plan, and God’s faithfulness to it. Further, the apostle Paul wrote that the Old Testament provides examples for Christians, which requires familiarity with them as lessons for godly living (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11).
The Old Testament is essential for Christian growth to maturity, but it must be handled correctly so that the intended meaning for the original audience controls the application made to a different audience. We should learn much from the Old Testament, so let us make sure our interpretations and subsequent applications are legitimate.
Oh how I wish this letter could be read from every pulpit, the church has been so mislead
and sadly willfully, this, of course, is satan at work blinding their eyes, thank you for this letter may bless you all at FOI.
I was saved out of the Charismatic Movement. It was a mixed pot of scripture not rightly divided. So much confusion in those years. I’m very thankful now for clear dispensational teaching. The Lord is my savior and is continually providing sound bible teaching at my church (MN)and on-line through Duluth Bible Church and Grace Global Radio! His Word taught within context never contradicts and provides all we need pertaining to life and godliness. Praise the Lord❣️
Thank you ! Much needed information.
Do you think we also should be aware of how we read the gospels? Seeing that Jesus came only for the
Jews. I know that the plan was also for gentiles but that wasn’t until It was completely opened to Paul. Just wondering, not challenging.
Scripture must always be interpreted in its context and all Scripture is given for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), so the Gospels are certainly for Christians, but also must be interpreted contextually. Jesus said that He would build His church (Matthew 16:18) and so the church is already in view prior to Paul and Gentiles are included, even in the Old Testament era. It is evident that certain portions of the Gospels are specifically oriented to Israel’s future, such as the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25), but even then we can learn from that passage despite the absence of the church from the Tribulation period. Paul was used by God to explain more extensively the New Covenant in its application to the church and its mystery nature, but Gentiles have ever been part of God’s redemptive program. Israel as a nation was to be a light to the Gentiles and the Abrahamic Covenant was intended to bring blessing to all nations, not only Israel. Hope this is helpful.
I understand that the salvation for Jew and Gentile is evident through the Old and New Testament – Melchizedek(his family line is unknown) and Ruth are just to name two who were Gentiles before Paul’s time. We should read the Gospels considering who they were written to and what for.
Pls. Clarify how to use Genesis 12:3 to Christian audience . Can this be applied to Christians.
I would like to have your answer for application of Genesis 12:3 for today.
Would a NT parallel be Do onto others as you would have them do unto you!
Genesis 12:3 expresses blessing for those who bless Abraham and by extension Israel, as well as cursing for those who curse Abraham and by extension Israel. It also extends Abraham’s blessing to all the families of the earth. The context is broader than Abraham’s lifetime and location, which means its application can also be broader than that setting. It would therefore be legitimate to apply the promise in both respect to Christians, but the nature of the blessing and cursing would be different from Old Testament times, because the specific descriptions of blessing and cursing in the Old Testament are national, material, economic, agricultural and military. I think a general sense of blessing and cursing would apply without trying to be too specific. The church exists as a spiritual entity composed of all ethnicities and cannot claim the earthly blessings promised to Israel as a nation, but nations can be positively or negatively disposed to Jews and now the reconstituted nation of Israel, which I do believe has consequences for those nations. Individuals are also included in this declaration of blessings and cursings, but again how that works out in life is more difficult to describe. Hope this is helpful.
What does 2 Cor. 1:20 mean in light of ALL the promises of God are YES in Christ to which we by faith believe and give the “AMEN!” — so be it unto me and UNTO THE GLORY of God by us? I surely understand giving clarity to what Old Testament promises in context meant to those to whom they were given. But I also believe that God’s heart does not change … what He has revealed as His will for one? Has He not revealed His heart’s intent to all? And then, is it not then “according to our own personal faith and relationship with God” that it is something we as Christians can appropriate for ourselves? I take ALL to mean ALL ….
G’day Karen – thank you for your comment – it is certainly true that only in Jesus Christ are God’s promises a YES! This does not mean that they all apply equally to all believers in all human history. That is stretching the point of the text beyond its intended meaning, which is an affirmation that God’s plan for Paul’s ministry were not vacillating because God does not vacillate, i.e. yes one moment and no another. You need to take the verse you quoted in its context. Hope this is helpful.
Don’t forget ‘rhema’.
Many, many times the Lord has pointed me to a verse to meet a need.
With research, prayer and consulting with other Christians, it is exciting to know we serve a personal God.
G’day Helen, thank you for your comment – I presume by “rhema” you are referring to a verbal communication from God or some kind of personal leading by the Holy Spirit. God is indeed personal and we have a personal relationship with Him, amazingly so! I am not convinced that Christians receive authoritative verbal communications from God apart from the written Word. God can certainly speak to us through His written Word, but that will not contradict the meaning of the text as properly interpreted. God can providentially lead us to a particular text for a particular situation, which I have experienced also, but He still requires us to be faithful to its meaning and not arbitrarily or unwisely apply it as we desire. The dangers of doing so can be observed in church history. Hope this is helpful.
Years ago many understood how to rightly divide the word. An author that has helped me is Lewis Sherry Chafer.
His book Grace, is an excellent one to consider in this context. Written about a century ago, it contains truth rarely considered by today’s theologians.
This book and many others by him have given me valuable insight in understanding the Bible.
I was auto corrected with Sherry for Sperry!
Wonderful and timely reminder! I would appreciate reading an exposition of 2 Chronicles 7:14 by FOI based on this verse’s historic and cultural context, in light of how this verse is used by Christians in America today.
This is equally true for the New Testament. John 1 is about Jesus being the Living Torah not Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 2Timothy2:15! Great article! I wished you had clarified 2Chronicles7:14 as well! Thank you so very much for the article! The LORD
continue to bless and keep This ministry!
Phil. 4:13 is a good verse and part of a very good chapter, but I get so weary of its misuse, treating God like a super vitamin pill. Thank you for this article and for pointing out other verses to consider as well.
I am so very Blessed that I “bumped” into your website! I had a friend that is charismatic and insist on listening to and reading books written by false teachers and prophets. He maintains that he believes in the Bible. What I discovered is that this movement uses the Bible as a scrapbook to suit their purpose. Their purpose is to sell their wares (books, conferences, etc., etc) to pleasure seeking people only interrested in subjective truths of their mythological experiences. This often leads to heretical beliefs and including blaspheming Holy Spirit. Once I realized this; I discontinued the relationship because I did not want to be unevenly yoked and am Blessed that I am.
I am so very Blessed that I am unevenly yoked and have been been gifted wonderfully with expository preachers who have divided the Word of Truth rightly. 2 Tim. 2:15
I’m not quite sure I understand this author’s point. On one hand, he says because Old Testament verses (e.g. Jeremiah 29:11 and Jeremiah 33:3) were written specifically for Israel, they are not applicable to believers today. But on the other hand, he says “the Old Testament provides examples for Christians, which requires familiarity with them as lessons for godly living (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11).” Well, if God’s promises in the Old Testament are not applicable to us today because they were meant specifically for Israel, why should the examples and lessons for godly living in the Old Testament by applicable to us? Weren’t the lessons/examples also meant solely for Israel?
Taking the argument further, one could even say that most of the admonitions and promises in the New Testament are not applicable to us today because they were not written directly to us. For example, one could make the argument that Paul’s epistle to the Romans was written to the first century believers in Rome, not to 21st century believers; 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians were written to the first century believers in Corinth and not to us in the 21st century; and the epistle to the Ephesians was written to the believers at Ephesus and not to us.
If we take this approach, it means nothing in the Old Testament or New Testament would be applicable to us today. Yet the Bible says “All Scripture [both Old and New Testament] is inspired by God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Surely, nothing stops a believer today from applying God’s promise in Jeremiah 29:11 to his or her life today. The truth is, God has a plan for every believer today, and God’s plan for His children are good plans, not evil plans; this holds true not only for ancient Israel but also for believers of today. This is because God is the same yesterday, today and forever; He does not change. Since God had good plans for Israel in Jeremiah’s days, you can be sure that He also has good plans for His children today. Indeed Paul says “All things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28). Since God was merciful to ancient Israel, you can be sure He is merciful today. This has to do with God’s nature which does not change.
While it is true that there are specific end-time prophecies meant for Israel, that does not mean every promise or instruction in the Old Testament is exclusively meant for Israel.
Thank you for your comments Victor – my main concern is not considering the larger redemptive context of the nation of Israel as against the Church, which have different specific outcomes with respect to promises. An obedient Israel as a nation could expect physical prosperity, military protection, peace with surrounding nations and so on, which is not applicable to the Church. When considered at an individual level, care must be taken in how Old Testament promises are then applied by New Testament believers (Christians). The good plans for Christians may be considerably different to those of Old Testament believers, even though both are certainly good. The New Testament promises persecution for those who live godly lives (2 Timothy 3:12), which will still work together for good, but that is hardly the same good as some apply from Jeremiah 29:11.
With respect to the consistency of applying Old Testament examples but not specific promises to Israel, may I suggest that examples are different to specific promises and so do not fall into the same category. I am sure Israel was meant to benefit from prior examples, such as Abraham, and so I concur with your point, but such examples were not restricted to Israel, as they are used in the New Testament for Christians. However, the same cannot be affirmed for specific promises to Israel, as they are not used in the New Testament for Christians.
With respect to consideration of the target audience, which is always specific in the Bible, those audiences live at particular periods of redemptive history and that is my major concern as stated earlier. Christians today live in the same period as those of New Testament times and so can expect that the New Testament has particular focus for them, which means that the writings are more directly applicable. Even so, the context must still be considered carefully so that misapplication does not occur. For example, the apostle Paul was promised survival of a shipwreck (Acts 27:24), which is specific to him and those with him, but cannot be applied to anyone else.
No doubt, God’s nature is unchangeable and He is ever consistent with it, but that does not mean His dealings with humanity look the same across redemptive history. I hope this further response assists you in understanding my article regardless of whether you agree.
As a Christian (and I use the term loosely) – I cannot say how much this article is appreciated. As I really dug into the Old Testament (ready both Masoretic and Septuagint), I realized just how badly my fellow Christian abused the OT verses – especially the prophets like Isaiah. They were using cherry picked versus out of context to prove their doctrine (thus breaking even their rules), to make their teachings ‘easy’. This making a milk addiction. For instance – Immanuel? Hezekiah. The battle of God and fallen angels? The fall of Tire and Sidon. The even earlier written prediction of the end of the world? Simply G-D telling people what their transgressions will cost them. The list goes on and on. Point is – this was a very refreshing read, and I thank you greatly for writing it.
How painfully I remember being deceived over 4- decades ago….by immature believers who wanted signs and wonders every single day….
This destroyed many young Christians…..as they were seeking a real life with Jesus. It became the ‘ Name it Claim it ‘ culture….Sadly this is still alive today. There are so many ministries out there who profit from false teachings…they are wealthy…..and their dangerous teachings are being touted all over the world ….especially in Asia, Africa and South America …… It’s stilly “ Gimme , gimme my name is Jimmy “. So very, very sad ….