Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Some Incredibly Misused Passages of Scripture

The following are just a handful of verses that tend to get misused the most in this day and age.
"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." [Jeremiah 29:11]
This baby right here is probably the granddaddy of all misused verses. We've all seen this verse on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and those little verse cards they sell at Lifeway. We've probably also heard at least one pastor use this verse in the midst of his sermon. The basic interpretation by most people is that God has plans for you (you, the individual), and that in your future will be welfare and hope.

First, let's ask ourselves something obvious: if this verse is true, why don't we see it more often? If God has "plans for welfare and not for evil," or "a future and a hope" for all believers, then what about those Christians whose end saw anything but welfare or hope? The apostle Paul was sent to Rome in chains and eventually beheaded - was that the "welfare" and "hope" in his future that God had planned for? William Tyndale, the famous Bible translator, was burned at the stake and strangled - was that the "welfare and "hope" that God had planned for him? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran theologian, died naked in a concentration camp - was that the "welfare" and "hope" God had planned for him? Let me ask a blunt question: if you sincerely believe with absolute certainty that God has plans for "welfare" and "hope" in your future, then what is it about you that makes God treasure you over the apostle Paul, William Tyndale, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

You see, this is the problem when we treat scripture in such a therapeutic way. Reading this verse might make us feel warm and fuzzy on the inside, but the only thing fuzzy is the theology we get from it.

Second, what does this verse really mean? Well, a verse before, God says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place" (Jer 29:10). This verse is actually in reference to the exiles in Babylon, and verse 11 is God's promise of restoration for them. Verse 11 is therefore only relevant to you if you were one of the exiles in Babylon.

Some people might still argue, "Yeah, well, why can't you say verse 11 is for us?" Go to verses 15-23, which are about the Jews still in Jerusalem, and read them. God promises "sword, famine,  and pestilence," and becoming like "vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten" (v. 17). Is that part of the plan God has for us? Are those verses applicable to us? Why is verse 11 applicable to us, but verse 17 isn't? In fact, why is it only the good verses are applicable to us, but the bad verses are only relevant to their proper audience? Again, this is the problem with reading scripture in a therapeutic rather than exegetical fashion.
"For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." [Matthew 18:20]
A lot of people - and I do mean a lot - take these words to be a definition of the church. In fact, Christ is actually talking about church discipline, not an identity of what the church is. For more information on this, see this post.
But Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." [Matthew 19:26]
Those last few words - "with God all things are possible" - are perhaps some of the most misused words in scripture, and are the most abused next to Jeremiah 29:11. Ask yourselves the following questions. Do these words mean that you'll get healed? Do these words mean you'll get a white Christmas in Hawaii? Do these words mean your car is going to miraculously fill up with gas? Do these words mean that space aliens might exist? Does this mean that, between ages 12 and 33, Jesus might have gone to Wisconsin and been a raging Packers fan?

The quick answer to all these questions, courtesy Darth Vader...

These words are speaking of salvation. This takes place right after the encounter with the rich young ruler. Christ says, "Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven," adding "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (v. 23-24). The disciples, hearing this, are greatly stunned by this, and so they say "Who then can be saved?" (v. 25). It is then that Christ states, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (v. 26). The great impossibility that God can overcome is the very fact that man can be saved at all.
"And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'" [Matthew 25:40]
This is another passage that gets seriously misused, almost to the point where I think most people don't even know what it's originally talking about. Most of the time it's used to promote the social gospel, universal health care, or any other program. To see an in depth discussion on how this is referring to Christians in the midst of persecution and not your local homeless shelter, see this post.
[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. [1 Timothy 2:4]
These words are perhaps not necessarily misinterpreted, but are taken to a certain extreme. Most people take this verse to mean that God wants everyone everywhere to be saved. While this in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing to believe, it has led many down the trail of inclusivism and, even more erroneous, universalism. When they go this road, this verse is often used to justify what they believe. Rob Bell, in his book Love Wins, used this verse as a kind of battle cry for universalism, asking the question "Will God get what God wants?"

We must, however, understand the full context of what is being said here. This is being addressed to Paul's disciple Timothy, to whom he is giving instructions. He first says that "supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people," (v. 1) for "kings and all who are in high positions," so that Christians "may lead a peaceful and quiet life" (v. 2). Paul says this is "pleasing in the sight of God our Savior" (v. 3), and then says the famous words "who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (v. 4). He follows up by saying there is "one God, and there is one mediator between God and men," being Jesus Christ (v. 5), who gave himself as a ransom for all (v. 6), and for this reason Paul was appointed a preacher to the Gentiles (v. 7).

From this fuller context, what is being discussed here? Does God desire everyone everywhere at all times to be saved? Actually, what Paul is saying is that God desires all kinds of men to be saved including kings and those who are in high positions, and Jews and Gentiles. He is not a God of the Jews alone, nor is he simply a God for the poor (despite what the "social gospel" may say). He desires all men - commoners and those in authority - to be saved, and gave himself as a ransom for all - both Jews and Gentiles. Verse 4 is therefore a very inclusivist verse, but in regards to classes, rank and ethnicity. It does not mean God desires every single person to be saved, and hence all people will be saved, or some will be saved with a little bit of leeway.
"Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me." [Revelation 3:20]
This is a popular verse to be used by street preachers and people witnessing to others. The words are interpreted as Christ offering salvation to all who will answer the door - however, it is actually a call from Christ for a church to repent. For an explanation on this, please see my post here.