What does the text mean to me?

This question, asked in Bible studies and sermons around the world, can lead believers to spiritual renewal. When it is the only question Christians ask of the Bible, warns Eric J. Bargerhuff, faith in Christ can become disconnected from the meaning of given passages. In The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God's Word Is Misunderstood (Bethany House), Bargerhuff, until recently a Florida pastor, advocates careful interpretation of Scripture based on attention to context. Owen Strachan, Christian theology and church history professor at Boyce College, spoke with Bargerhuff about how the Bible becomes a mere handbook, and its verses a talisman, when our desires crowd out sound interpretive practices.

Are there specific categories of verses that evangelicals tend to misinterpret?

Our temptation is to interpret the promises of God materially and temporally instead of spiritually and eternally. We Americans have bought into a materialistic, right-now mindset, and so we're tempted to pull verses out of context to fit that mindset. We need to understand that God's greatest desire is to glorify his name. Too often, we interpret God's promises in a way that is appealing to our sinful side. We often grab things out of Scripture and try to use them for our own benefit, instead of taking the necessary steps to submit to Scripture, to be humbled by it.

You critique prayers that uncritically expect God to grant us, well, anything. Like John 14:13: "And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son."

God is not a genie in a bottle. Yes, he has a good, pleasing, and perfect will. But this doesn't mean we should pray for whatever we want. We are sinful people and don't even know what's best for us, as the Book of Romans says. Sometimes we pray with wrong motives. Praying random prayers that are self-centered is not God-honoring. We should seek his will when we pray.

What would you say to athletes who latch onto Philippians 4:13 ("I can do all this through him who gives me strength")?

In that passage, Paul is teaching on contentment and arguing that no matter what our situation is, we should learn to be content. The ability to be content, whatever the situation, is contingent on what Jesus gives us. This verse doesn't necessarily mean that Jesus will give the player victory, but rather that he can be content either way because of God's strength in him. It's not about God giving you the strength to dunk the basketball as much as it is him working in you to be content no matter what happens in the game.

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Why is Jeremiah 29:11-13 ("'For I know the plans I have for you …'") commonly misinterpreted?

Most people overlook the context of the verse because it speaks to what they want to hear for their life. This was a corporate promise given to the nation of Israel, to a generation that came out of 70 years of captivity in Babylon. We think through an Americanized filter based on our preconceived notions of what blessing is. But God's promises are spiritual promises, not promises of instant gratification. Though God does bless us in many ways, he has not promised us our best life now. This world is not our home, and we should long for a better country.

Is there a danger, when reading Acts 2:38 ("Peter replied, 'Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'"), of thinking that baptism is a precondition of salvation?

This was a specific command given to a specific group of people who were to express their salvation through baptism. There is a difference between the means of salvation and an obedient response to salvation. Baptism was an expression of what had already happened in the heart. Baptism was not to be linked with salvation, because that would make salvation the product of a specific action, contradicting the teaching that salvation comes through faith, not works.

What principles can guide careful interpretation of Scripture?

There are several: understanding the Bible's various literary genres, understanding historical context, discerning the author's intent, carefully defining the meaning of words, looking at grammatical relationships, reflecting on the church's history of interpretation, and always adhering to the principle that the Bible never contradicts itself. These elements are very important to understanding what Bible passages really mean. There are plenty of resources today—Bible dictionaries, commentaries, lexicons, and more—to help ordinary Christians gain a better understanding.

Could evangelicals ever become so focused on getting texts exactly right that they end up debating how many angels can dance on a pin?

Anyone who engages the study of mathematics or architecture knows that even one slightly off-balance angle can distort the whole picture. Theologians who are trying to build an overview of what the Bible says know that we have to get things right. Satan, in the garden, twisted the Word of God ever so slightly. We must understand that God has embodied his will and his nature in these texts. If we skew them even ever so slightly, we will misunderstand him.

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Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for "Misusing the Bible," a Bible study based on this article.

Related Elsewhere:

The Most Misused Verses in the Bible is available from Christianbook.com and other retailers.

Other Christianity Today articles about the Bible include:

Why the Bible Is Not a Book of Moral Laws | Contrary to popular belief, it's the startling gift book. (January 12, 2012)
Location, Location, Location | Particular places shape the biblical story, and each Christian life. (November 22, 2011)
How to Read the Bible | New strategies for interpreting Scripture turn out to be not so new—and deepen our life in Christ. (October 7, 2011)
The Son and the Crescent | Bible translations that avoid the phrase "Son of God" are bearing dramatic fruit among Muslims. But that translation has some missionaries and scholars dismayed. (February 4, 2011)

CT also has more books, film, and music reviews.

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The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God's Word Is Misunderstood
The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God's Word Is Misunderstood
Bethany House Publishers
176 pp., 13.49
Buy The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God's Word Is Misunderstood from Amazon