We are going to be starting a new sermon series for the month of July that I’m calling “Oh, So Close!” There are a lot of verses that are misquoted, misapplied, and misunderstood today in our wider culture, so I thought that we would take a few weeks between Bible books to look at a few of them. The point of this series is not to condemn people who have misunderstood or misapplied the verses we will cover. This is part of the reason why I have titled the series the way that I have. Sometimes, these misapplications are very close, but not close enough. Some mistakes are worse than others. If you have misapplied the verse in Matthew 18 that says, “where two or three are gathered together, there I am in the midst of them” to a prayer meeting of a few people, you can still be saved. You are not applying that verse correctly, but you can still go to heaven. Other times, the misapplication of verses can set you up for a real problem in the Christian life. People can take Jeremiah 29:11 and think that based on that verse God only intends to bring good things into their lives as defined by them. When troubles come into their lives, they can think that God has abandoned them.
The real point of this series is I want to give you a helpful set of tools in your own interpretation of the Scriptures. If you can apply the things that we will see in the next few weeks, you will have a greater chance of interpreting the Bible for yourself with precision. It is not enough to be correct that a certain topic is taught in the Bible; you need to be precise as to what that verse specifically is saying about a given topic. To use the Matthew 18 passage again, it is true that God is with us, even when our numbers are small, but that is not the precise meaning of that passage. As we will explore when we get to that one, the truth that God gives to us in that verse is more profound and comforting than just a general blanket statement of God’s presence with us.
Whenever we are interpreting a verse of the Bible, we must keep at least three things in mind.
We must keep the context of the passage in mind.
What do I mean by that? I mean to say that you need to read, at the absolute bare minimum, the entire chapter that the verse is in if you actually want to understand it. If you just read a single verse without accounting for the rest of the chapter, you are almost certainly not going to get the correct idea to say nothing of the precise idea of the passage. I remember one humorous example of this was a flip calendar of “Inspiring Bible Verses for Your Day.” The person had flipped to a page that took its verse of the day from Matthew 4:9 which reads, “’And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” Can you see the problem here? Verse 9 is not Jesus talking to the disciples, it was Satan trying to tempt Jesus to disobey God! The caption under the photo said, “Less inspiring when you know who said it.” You can see how if you just read a verse in isolation and don’t read the whole chapter, you are bound to misinterpret the verse. Most of the verses that we are going to cover would be understood properly by reading the entire chapter that contains them (even better if you read the chapter before and the chapter afterward).
You will hear in real estate that the three most important things are location, location, location. In Biblical interpretation, as I believe RC Sproul said, it is context, context, context. As you grow in your knowledge of the Bible, you will actually see how the more context you have the better the deeper the knowledge you have of a verse. If you read the verses before and after, you might have something. The chapter will give you more. The chapters before and after give you even more. Soon, you’ll see that the entire book, its purpose, structure, audience, and cultural background all have something to say about that individual verse. Then the Testament it is in and how the whole rest of the Bible interact with that gives you the sense of how deep these verses can be. This isn’t to say you have to read the entire Bible every day in order to understand the verse from your Daily Bread devotional, but you do need to keep in mind the fact that the whole of God’s revelation has something to say about how we understand any verse.
We must keep the context of the people in mind
This is the second thing that we must keep in mind while studying the Scriptures. What do I mean by the context of the people? I mean to say that you have to understand the passage the way the original audience would have correctly understood it. In other words, the truth of a Bible verse can’t mean something different today than it did then. Let’s take a classic example of this from Romans 1:16 which reads, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Tell me if you have heard this explanation before. People will preach this passage saying, “The Greek Word for power here is ‘dunamis,’ from which we get the word ‘dynamite.’ So when Paul is talking about the power of the gospel, we should think of the kind of power we would get from a stick of dynamite!” First of all, what does that really mean? Jesus is going to blow up my sin? Blast me to heaven? That’s very unclear. And it certainly isn’t what Paul had in mind. Paul didn’t know about dynamite, neither did anyone in his audience. The Holy Spirit is going to write in such a way that everyone, including the people sitting there, would understand. That word is talking about the power of dynamite to save someone. No it is talking about the power of God. Dynamite destroys things into chaotic pieces, God steps out into the chaos and speaks it into order. God doesn’t blow up your sin into pieces so small you can’t see them, He completely removes them because He has the dunamis, the ability, the power to do it because He is God. You see the difference? See how much clearer the Holy Spirit is than we are when we try to get clever?
We have to remember that the Bible was written in a certain time, with a certain language, with cultural expectations, assumptions, and metaphors. That doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t speak with authority in a world with Google and cell phones, but it does mean that we need to lose our cultural assumptions and learn theirs. Learning about inheritances, birthrights, and father-son relations gives the story of the Prodigal Son a massive impact. There are a number of places where Jesus said something that would have gotten a shocked gasp out of the people listening to Him that we miss. That’s not the Bible’s fault, that’s ours! That’s mine. We need to learn and explain what God is saying by learning how He said it.
We must keep the context of the prose (genre) in mind.
If you have heard of the other two, you might not have heard of this one, but it is equally important to remember. If I were to tell you that I am going to read you some history, you are going to assume that I am going to read you true facts about the past. If I tell you that I am going to read a novel to you, then you know that I am not reading you something that really happened. I am telling a story. If I tell you that I am reading history, when I am really reading Lord of the Rings, you are going to be very confused! That is the importance of genre. Knowing what kind of work I am reading is going inform you on what to expect.
The Bible works in the same way. The Bible has a ton of different genre’s in it, each with their own rules and ways of communicating. For example, Jesus often uses the story-telling teaching format of parables. Parables have been defined as an earthly story with one heavenly meaning. When Jesus told the Parable of the Prodigal Son, He wasn’t reciting history that literally happened, he was telling a memorable story so that we would get the one point of the God’s love for sinners. If you don’t know what the rules of a parable are (that these are fictional stories only meant to communicate a single point) then you can go in wild directions trying to interpret every last detail of the parable (do the pigs symbolize the Gentiles?) and miss the main meaning. One big place where we see genre as chief importance is in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, particularly the first 3. Are these chapters history, or are they poetry or parable? How you answer that question will determine how you interpret Genesis.
I’ve only mentioned a couple different genres, but there are so many more! In the Bible you have, history, poetry, epistle, wisdom literature, law, gospel, genealogy, and more!
To sum it all up
If all of this is a little overwhelming to you, just ask yourself the question, “What does the author intend here?” That will force you to intuitively ask those other questions above. You will read the whole of the author’s writings to get a sense of his style and purpose (context of the passage), you will ask whom he is writing to and why (context of the people), and, finally, you’ll ask how he is doing that (context of the prose). Really, just knowing that this is a question you need to ask will help keep you from some of those assumptions that lead to misinterpretation. These things were not written by Americans last week. This is literature from thousands of years ago with something still to say today. And I think that is quite amazing.
Let’s try it out
So, let’s try out these means of interpreting Scripture into probably the most misapplied sections of Scripture that I have personally seen, Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” If you have been a Christian who has gone to prayer meetings, you have almost certainly heard this verse quoted, especially if the prayer meeting is only attended by a few people (which, sadly, they usually are). Now, I’ll begin by saying that it is correct to say that God is with you at that prayer meeting. That is true. There are lots of Bible passages that assure us that God is with us. Matthew 28:20 “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Hebrews 13:5 says, “I will never leave nor forsake you” itself a quote from Deuteronomy 31:6. The Bible cleary teaches us that God doesn’t abandon us and is always with us, but just because it says it in those places does not mean that this is the precise meaning of this passage here in Matthew 18. If we keep the context of the passage in mind, we will see that this is a passage reporting the teachings of Jesus with the genre of a sermon, authoritative prescriptions for how we are supposed to live. In the immediate few verses of 15-20, we will see the context of the people is outlining how the Church is supposed to confront sin in its midst. First, it needs to be dealt with one on one, and if that is unsuccessful, then you bring in a couple of other people in on this process. Anyone who has had to do that knows just how scary that is.
It gets even harder when you look at the rest of the context of the passage, the earlier part of the chapter. We find out at the beginning of chapter 18, verses 5-9 that sin is the worst thing in the world. In fact, it is said that you would be better off having been drowned in the sea with a 200 pound rock wrapped around your neck than cause other people to sin. Jesus goes even further and says that you would be better off cutting off your hands and plucking out your eyes than sinning. But then, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep in verses 10-14, showing that God shows mercy on the sinner and pursues them to bring them back. Far from just kicking the sinner out of the church like a disease to never interact with them again, we are called to pursue the sinner and call them to righteousness. But! We still have to deal with their sin, and if they won’t repent, we do in fact tell them that we think they are acting like non-believers and take away their invitation to the Lord’s Supper until they repent of their heinous sin. But until they repent, we don’t shun them, but we don’t pretend like there is nothing going on. We are concerned about their soul and will put in every effort we can to bring them to Jesus because that is the heart of our Lord as indicated in verses 10-14.
That all sounds really complicated, doesn’t it? Don’t you wish there was a promise from God that He would be with you in that specific process, guiding you? Well, that’s exactly what we find in verse 20. God promises to be with you in exactly that type of scenario that requires immense wisdom and balance. This is just like what a father does when he is with children who are scared of a storm. He reminds them, “I’m right here.” Now, did the kids really forget that he was there? No! He’s holding their hand! But to hear it from him again in that moment is a reminder not only that he is there, but it is a reminder of all the other times that he has been there. If he has been a good dad, that is a comfort to the kids. Dad is here, just like he was before. I was safe then, so I’m safe now.
God has been the perfect dad. He has always been there. It may not always have been easy or pleasant, but He has always brought you through everything and will do so again in this hard season. Yes, Church discipline is scary, trust me, but God is always holding your hand, and here He is pointing that out to you so you remember. So yes, God is there when you are in a lightly-attended prayer meeting, but oh, isn’t that promise precisely interpreted so much more comforting? There are other places to go to make us feel better about the small prayer meeting. But this passage is a precious promise to those who have to be faithful in very hard times. It’s not one we want to overuse or water down in our application of it. If you want a great passage on prayer, look at Luke 11:1-13. There Jesus promises to give good things to those who ask. The context is about prayer, and the promises are about prayer, and those are just as comforting. God will be more than with you in that prayer meeting. He will also hear and grant those requests that are good for your soul.
What is our takehome point today? God has given you precisely what He wants to give you in His word. Not a word is wasted or unnecessary. Find out exactly what God means, and I promise you, that you will find the comfort, instruction, and joy that God means for you to have from it.
Image by Abby Jessup