One of my favorite scenes from The Princess Bride includes a bit of dialogue by Inigo Montoya. He spends much of the story listening to the arch-villain use the word inconceivable, but each time he said it, what was supposedly “inconceivable” actually occurred. Montoya finally observed, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Which brings us to the Bible. Too often, verses are quoted out of context and assigned a meaning that differs from the original intent. One of the basic guidelines in interpreting Scripture is “context is king.” When verses are taken out of context, I struggle against the urge to say, “You keep using that interpretation. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 🙂
When we’re trying to determine the meaning of a verse, context is one of our most important resources. For example,
- What does the verse before and after it say?
- What is the thrust of the paragraph?
- What is the intent of the chapter it’s placed in?
- Who is the human author of the book?
- Who was the intended audience?
If we remember “context is king,” we may avoid common mistakes of misinterpretation, especially with the following examples:
1. Isaiah 54:17 (NAS) – “No weapon that is formed against you will prosper…”
I’ve heard this verse quoted as an encouraging promise for believers, especially as they proceed in serving the Lord. It’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it? But if you ask family members of martyred Christians, they’ll be the first to tell you that the verse is referring to something other than physical weapons.
The context tells us this message is addressed to the nation of Israel. The first ten verses of this chapter promise a future time of restoration and prosperity for Israel. The last four verses of the chapter promise divine protection for Israel. God promises that the nations that would come against Israel would not succeed.
Of course, there is a truth in this verse that applies to all believers. That truth is the assurance that while physical suffering and harm may come to us in this life, God seals His children spiritually for eternity with Him.
2. Jeremiah 29:11 (NAS) – “For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.”
This has always been a favorite verse among Christians seeking assurance of God’s leading. While the promise of God’s care is true for all Christians, this particular verse is specifically directed to ancient Israel. Chapter 29 of Jeremiah is a message to the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken captive to Babylon.
The previous verse speaks of the seventy-year term of the exile and God’s promise to bring them back to their land. Verse 11 continues with more information regarding God’s intent for His people at the end of their exile.
3. Philippians 3:13b-14a (NAS) – “forgetting what lies behind, and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal…”
This verse is often quoted as an admonition to believers to stop allowing memories of past failures discourage us. Confess the sin, don’t look back, and move ahead!
But if we examine the context of the verse, we find the apostle Paul wrote this chapter of Philippians to warn against confidence in our own accomplishments and successes. As he says in verse 8, “I count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.” In verse 9, Paul explains that his own righteousness is not acceptable, but only the righteousness of Christ which comes by faith.
Of course, we should stop allowing memories of past failures discourage us, too!
These are just three examples of verses that are often misinterpreted because they are taken out of context. God’s Word holds a multitude of promises for His people. It’s up to us to accurately handle the word of truth (II Timothy 2:15)!
What verses have you struggled to interpret accurately?