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.