Many of us often struggle to understand the Bible. And many sincere Christians understand some parts of Scripture differently from each other. While there are many reasons for our individual struggles and the doctrinal differences between groups and denominations, there is one problem that affects many of us: We often read the Bible incorrectly.
Christians have a God-given responsibility to handle God’s Word with the utmost care. “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 Timothy 2:15).” But even those of us who genuinely long to be good stewards of God’s Word are susceptible to faulty handling of Scripture.
We truly want to know the Bible. We commit time to reading and studying it. But if we employ unsound interpretation methods, we will misunderstand the passage and miss what God has for us. While there is no end to how we might misuse and misunderstand Scripture, there are three interpretation trends in widespread use today.
3 Faulty Ways to Read the Bible
Applying culture to Scripture instead of applying Scripture to the Culture
We’ve all seen examples of this popular trend. And it isn’t just those outside the church who follow it. Some Christians today – even prominent Bible teachers and ministers – have allowed pressure from the culture to shape the way they see the Bible. (Also see “God’s Truth Trumps Culture Every Time” & “4 Reasons Christians Compromise with the Culture.”)
Sometimes this happens as a misguided attempt to be relevant. Sometimes we focus on God’s love and grace while ignoring His justice and holiness. And other times, we give in because we simply cannot handle the push back from the culture. But none of us have the authority to reshape or rewrite God’s divinely inspired Word.
God’s Word reflects His character. God is truth and determines truth. Therefore, His Word is truth (John 17:17). God does not change; His character does not shift or move to reflect the tides of time (James 1:17). Therefore, His Word is unchanging, established forever.
“’I the Lord do not change’ (Malachi 3:6a).”
The Bible is relevant today and forever. It is not static or bound by time. It crosses all cultural barriers, language differences, and geographical borders. Culture constantly changes, but God’s Word never changes. The Bible is the constant against which everything should be measured. When culture conflicts with the Bible, God is always right.
“Yet you are near, Lord, and all your commands are true. Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever (Psalm 119:151-152).”
The Bible is God’s revelation about Himself to us. It is by God and about God. Yes, His Word is for us, but not primarily about us. The Bible’s objective is to reveal God, His character, His purposes, His plans, and His ways, including His provision for salvation through Jesus.
“…and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” 2 Timothy 3:15
Yet in our 21st century, western mindset – even if it’s unconsciously – many of us make the Bible about us. We read it with ourselves as the main character because that’s what our culture – and our sin nature – has taught us to do in our everyday lives.
But reading the Bible this way causes us to miss the main point of Scripture – to know the Author. Going to the Bible with a me-centered perspective hinders us from understanding God’s true meaning. Instead, let us keep our focus on God. Let us approach Scripture looking for truths that elevate and glorify Him. Let us search for what the text teaches us about God’s character, purposes, and ways. When we do this, we will learn about ourselves, but it will always be through God’s perspective. (See also “Do You Look for God When You Read the Bible?”)
Straight to Application
This is probably the most common trend in incorrectly interpreting the Bible. This faulty tactic often begins with the question – “What does this mean to me??” Or, if in a group, “What does this mean to you?” – We want to go straight to how the passage impacts us, to application. Sometimes, it’s because we are looking for a quick emotional lift to get us through the day. But asking this question has the potential to lead us far astray.
Honestly, it does not matter what a Bible verse or passage means to us. It only matters what it means to God. We must find the original meaning of Scripture before we can apply it. Yes, the Bible has endless application for our lives, but only one original meaning.
A passage can never mean what it never meant. Every part of Scripture means the same thing today as it did when it was written. If we fail to discover the original meaning, we will misuse, misapply, and possibly even abuse God’s Word. In our desire to understand the Bible, our goal should be to discover that one original meaning. To grasp the eternal truth God gave us through the pen of man. (For help on discovering the original meaning of a Bible passage, see “4 Guidelines to Help You Understand the Bible.”)
Instead of asking “what does this mean to me,” let us ask “what does this mean for me.” After we understand God’s original meaning of a passage, with the Holy Spirit’s help we can determine how God wants to apply His Word to our lives. God wants His Word to impact us, encourage us, shape us, equip us, and lead us to Christ. Yes, His Word is for us.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17
You can understand the Bible
Not all Christians have seminary degrees. Few of us can read the Bible in its original language. But all Christians can comprehend its truths. (For a simple method for reading and understanding the Bible, see “The 4 R Bible Study Method.”) God wants us to understand His Word. He has given Christians the capacity for understanding the Bible through the Holy Spirit dwelling within us (1 Corinthians 2:10-12). He is our Teacher (John 14:26). Unfortunately, the biggest hinderance to correctly understanding God’s Word is usually ourselves. Let us not fall back on faulty ways of interpreting Scripture. Instead, let’s read and study the Bible with the right attitude and proper focus, and rely on the Spirit to help us understand and apply God’s truth to our lives.
Have you ever fallen into one of these faulty traps? What other faulty methods have you seen?
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This is so important! I write Bible studies and I use a lot of Scripture. Your point that we need to understand what God is saying before we apply it to ourselves is critical.
The context is also a key factor we can overlook when we apply it. I always read the whole passage instead of just pulling a Scripture that says what I want. One day, I found the “perfect” verse to describe peace. When I read the context, I found that David was praising the peace God gave him because He killed all his enemies. Not the idea I wanted to convey.
Than k you for these valuable ways to search the truth of Scripture.
Hi Sherry! Thanks for coming by. And thank God for Bible teachers like you that work to correctly handle God’s Word! You are right about context. That is also one area where many people get off track. I have also written a post about the importance of context – and the different kinds of context. I’d be honored if you’d check it out: https://www.kathyhoward.org/4-things-to-consider-for-biblical-context/
Thank you so much for this information! I have found myself at one point or another doing all 3 of these without realizing it.
Thanks for coming by! It’s easy for all of us to fall into these if we aren’t careful.
Not “to us” but “for us” stood out to me.
Interesting and as always like to see where you come from on scripture
Another faulty method I’ve witnessed is reading the Bible out of duty and not out of love. God wants a deep relationship with us and He encourages to stay in His word, but if we do it simply out of duty, it can feel like a chore. Instead, I think that we should study the Bible to get to know its Author! If we love someone, we want to know them more and more. We want to spend hours and hours with them! So, if we love God, we should want to be in His word simply to be near Him! Blessings – Joan
Yes! Good word! Though I will admit there have been times in my life where I had to discipline myself to read the Bible. But the cool thing is, as we read and get to know God then we want to read it more!