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The Pitfalls of Biblical Misinterpretation, Part 1

Tuesday, September 18, 2012 | Comments (12)

by John MacArthur

Whenever you’re speaking on behalf of someone else, it’s important to get the message right. Even in simple matters, accuracy is critical. Forgotten details and sloppy summaries can lead to confusion, mistakes, and frustration.

In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul exhorts Timothy to be careful to get God’s message right: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.” Clearly, handling Scripture involves diligence and care. It must be treated accurately. Those who fail to do so will be ashamed.

Over the next few days, I want to bring to your attention some common mistakes people make when it comes to interpreting God’s Word.

First, God’s people must refrain from making a point at the price of proper biblical interpretation. It is easy—and often tempting—for a pastor or teacher to sneak a foreign meaning into a text to get a desired response. Even in your personal Bible study, it can be tempting to contort Scripture to fit the point you want it to make.

A good illustration of that error is found in the Talmud (commentaries on the Jewish Scriptures). A rabbi is trying to convince people that the primary issue in life is concern for human beings. He uses the stones of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 to support his contention, telling us that the builders of the tower were frustrated because they put material things first and people last. As the tower grew taller, it took several hours to carry a load of bricks to the bricklayers working at the top. If a man fell off the tower on the way down, no one paid any attention—it was only a workman who was lost. But if he fell off on the way up, they mourned because the load of bricks was lost too. That, said the teacher, is why God confused their language—because they failed to give priority to human beings.

That teaching simply cannot be found in the Bible. In fact, it completely skews the lesson of Genesis 11. While it is true that people are more important than bricks, that’s not the point of the Tower of Babel. That chapter says nothing whatsoever about the importance of people over bricks. The point is that God is more important than idols, and that He judges idolatry. Babel was a judgment on proud men who were defying God.

It is never good, right, or helpful to come up with a message—even a good one—by ignoring the real lesson and intent of a passage of Scripture. Reaching a conclusion about a passage without intensely examining its context essentially says to others that you don’t think it means anything apart from the insight, wisdom, and cleverness you bring to it. In fact, that’s not true interpretation, since it ignores rather than investigates the author’s original intent.

Just as hunting and pecking through Scripture can’t produce mature believers, twisting it to fit and support a predetermined point robs God’s Word of its true, sanctifying power.

Tomorrow we’ll look at another interpretive pitfall—superficiality.

(Adapted from Charismatic Chaos.)


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#1  Posted by Thad Cully  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 7:12 AM

Dear GTY,

Thank you so much for caring so deeply about the word of God. Thanks to Pastor MacArthur, but also for the amazing staff and body that God has given to support him.. The Lord is doing great things through all of you, and its been a pleasure and blessing learning from the sermons and services you provide. I pray The Lord grants you nothing but the best, and keeps you faithful in His service. Your friend, Thad.

#2  Posted by Scott Sorum  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 7:23 AM

I always appreciate your direct and clear messages and comments like this. It's very sad and unfortunate that this is more the norm and common in today's preaching to misinterpret scripture rather than correctly interpret. It seems most pastors and teachers are trying to make their point rather than interpret the word. It is hard work to rightly divide and study the word to make sure it is being correctly interpreted. Thanks for continuing to be an example of this.

#3  Posted by Nameco Ward  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 10:08 AM

Not very many Pastors, teacher, and church leaders take this passage of scripture seriously. I find it very alarming and no reverence to God's word when one stands before many and mishandles the Word of God and not be affected or afraid of what type of damage it can cause both to themselves as well as those who are under their teaching. I had a situation with my Pastor about this very thing, mishandling scripture, taking a passage of scripture out of it's context and presenting it as it was correct. I was so upset about this sermon he preached on tithing and using scripture from 2 Corinthians 8-9. He was out of order and no one seemed to notice that 2 Corinthians had nothing to do with tithing. He manipulated the scriptures to say what he wanted to say. As the Sunday School teacher I wrote him a 10 page letter expressing my concern about the sermon he preached and that he took the scripture completely out of context and I did reference 2 Timothy 2:15 along with other supportive scripture on tithing, the history of it, the purpose of it in Old Testament times, the different tithes, and so on. I went on to question him on why would he do such a thing. Did he not understand rightly dividing the word of truth? He never answered any of my questions or explained to me how he could preach on tithing from 2 Corinthians 8-9, he just told me we would talk about it and 5-6 years has passed and he never talked to me about it. Couple of more incidents happened after this one and I just became very discouraged with being under him as my leader and Pastor. As a teacher I take it very seriously to handle the word with care. I'm not sure if the Pastor just doesn't know or if it's just out of pure pride and rebellion to ignore what scripture says. We have to pray for our pastors, teachers, and church leaders as well as being very careful who we choose to lead us in the church. It's imperative to study the word for ourselves so we won't be deceived. After trying so hard to see and understand my Pastor's point of views, what he believed, or what he was trying to do but I could not get an understanding from him or talk to me to get an understanding I left that church to seek a Bible teaching church. I feel confident for my soul's sake that I made the right decision to leave after there was no resolve to any of my questions or concerns. Please pray for me to continue to hold fast to what is true, acceptable, and honorable to God.

#4  Posted by Richard Miller  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 12:38 PM

How then do we handle passages that are interpreted in various ways? I note that Dr. MacArthur's book, Slave has influenced some long accepted interpretations of some passages of scripture.

I have been studying Matthew's Gospel and Matt. 25:31-46 seems to have as many interpretations as there are interpreters.

#5  Posted by Eric Rodvan  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 2:03 PM

Thank John MacArthur, you have helped my spiritual growth!

#6  Posted by Darlene Brown  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 2:17 PM

I so agree we must be diligent handlers of the Word. I am having a problem now with my Church as they are begining a study called "Experiencing God" and I have seen may things contrary to scripture in that book. It is trying to get people to "listen" for God speaking directly to them, outside the pages of scripture. Well I believe the Canon of Scripture is closed Jude 3, and this would be teaching it is still open which is false. My fear is my church will fall into heresy with this book. I have written to my pastor and others and no one wants to stand up for truth. The word can not be compromised! I am finding many have convictions without courage.

#7  Posted by Rick White  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 2:17 PM

Richard,

Proper interpretation of scripture always takes work. We can't bypass that basic fact. But there are some general principles we must use in coming to an accurate interpretation. Here is an article that summarizes those principles. http://creation.com/the-bible-and-hermeneutics

#8  Posted by Ben Enders  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 2:20 PM

Nameco,

I understand well. I had a similar experience with my last pastor over women pastors/elders. Finding a new church was not easy, but I believe the experience helped me grow in Christ.

Always seek the truth,

Heb 11:6

#9  Posted by Jordan Bushey  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 5:59 PM

Rich,

I don't see much ambiguity in those verses.

#10  Posted by Serita Veras  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 7:39 PM

Pastor MacArthur,

You have no idea how much your ministry has allowed me to read the word of God in its proper content. I enjoy not only listening to you on the radio but I look forward to reading your inspiring comments on your website. May God continue to richly bless you and this great ministry.

#11  Posted by Richard Miller  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 7:58 PM

Jordan,

You may not see much ambiguity, but if you read enough different analyses, you will find there are many and varied interpretations. The setting of the story, the time frame, the point Jesus was trying to make, who are "the nations," the sheep, the goats...There really are many different interpretations out there.

#12  Posted by Russell Aubrey  |  Tuesday, September 18, 2012at 10:18 PM

Oh, boy, John, Creflo Dollar tops this guy. The following is from his "Destiny" publication, 2009.

"The Word of God says that whatever you imagine to do will not be restrained from you: Genesis 11:6. When you continually keep your dream before you, it will consume you and drive you to take action."

That is just part of a longer quote of his on the same subject. He is using the rebellion at the tower as a means of telling his followers that it is an example of how they should always just keep dreaming and whatever they set their mind to will happen! Nothing could have been taken more out of context! I almost fainted when I read it. Then I almost threw up!