There are few verses that apply more to the church today than Matt. 22:29 where Jesus said:
“You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”
Jesus did not say, “You are in error because you couldn’t quote a proof text.” He said “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures,” with the implication being that they did not take the total, whole counsel of God into account in their confrontations with Jesus. They could quote a passage or two out of context, but they didn’t know, or bother to take time to understand, ALL of God’s revealed revelation that they had up to that time.
In large measure, all of us are still worthy of that rebuke from our Lord. It is so easy to pull out a verse or two completely out of context, a verse that sounds nice, helpful, and not too demanding to support whatever we want it to say. But if we do that, our Lord’s rebuke stands and we are often in error.
How to avoid this error
The most obvious answer is of course to read the Bible, cover to cover, often, and in historical order–advice that every class I teach hears repeatedly from me. But even if we do that, we still have the challenge to read with understanding. Following are two essential books to help you do this. If you click on the image next to each description it will take you to amazon.com where you can immediately download or order them. Go without a few lattes or dinner or whatever you need to, but get these books.
Out of Context, How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible, by Richard L. Schultz
I recently got this book and am amazed at how the author kindly but firmly and carefully explains interpretation errors that flood the church today. He has hundreds of carefully documented examples including why the Prayer of Jabez was so misinterpreted and dozens of other, but equally false, popular interpretations. In addition, he does not leave the reader with negative citations and examples of bad interpretation. His tone is kind and he does not accuse of people of willful misinterpretation. He includes practical advice and teaching on how to correctly interpret the Bible in ways that will help anyone from the casual reader to the teaching pastor.
How to read the Bible for all Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart
This classic focus on genre analysis (e.g. on whether a book in the Bible is a history, letter, prophecy, etc.) and shows how important it is to understand the overall form of the book before we begin to understand the meaning and application of individual verses. For example, we should interpret a historical book very differently than we do one of Paul’s instructive letters to the church. We should interpret the books of the Law in the Old Testament very differently than we do books of poetry or proverbs. Prophetic writing has its own unique set of challenges. If we are confused about genre or have no understanding of it, we will most certainly misinterpret the material we are reading.
What is especially sad about misunderstanding the genre of a book and how to properly interpret it is that we can become disappointed with God. We may assume He is not true to His Word, when things don’t turn out like we assume He promised they would, when the real problem is that we didn’t take time to properly understand what God said in his Word. We all know the frustration when we feel a spouse, child, or friend doesn’t really listen to us and only assumes they heard what we said. That situation may have serious consequences, but they pale in comparison to the misunderstanding that can take place in our lives if we don’t listen carefully to the Words of our Lord.
Why you might not want to read these books and why you should
You may have many excuses not to read these books: the topic is too difficult to understand or only for theologians; you don’t have time; they really sound boring–lots more excuses come to mind. There may be some validity to all of them, but the books are written at a layperson’s level and we all find time to do what we want to do.
If you are a teacher in any setting (home, church, study) the books are even more essential. Consider:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. 2 Tim. 2:15
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 timothy 3:16-17
There is nothing more important we can do than to carefully read and understand the Words of our Lord. These books will help you do that.