That's Not What That Means! 4 Verses We Misinterpret
Do you ever find yourself struggling with a Bible verse and wonder what it really means? Perhaps you are quick to share a verse because it sounds good or simply because it’s popular. When Scripture is cherry-picked, often times the verse is misunderstood and therefore becomes misrepresented.
What Is Context and Why Is It Important?
Grasping an accurate understanding of Biblical passages is essential to properly represent the meaning of Scripture. To establish proper context of a passage it is necessary to look at the content and framework of the passage. The essential elements to determine context are: the author of the book, the audience he is writing to, the purpose for writing, the time period and culture of the passage, and the genre.
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1. Jeremiah 29:11
“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.”
What people think it means: A popular verse many people interpret as a promise of a future with material prosperity and happiness – a life void of suffering and challenges.
What it actually means: The verse at hand is included within a letter Jeremiah penned to the Israelites being held captive in Babylon. These Israelites have been exiled from Judah because of their wickedness, disobedience to God, and idolatry (Jer. 21, 25:1-14). Through this letter, God informs them that their stay in Babylon will be lengthy – 70 years – so they need to settle in for the long haul. He exhorts them to get married, grow food, have babies, pray, and live peaceably in the city they now call home. An imperative to disregard false prophets is also given along with God’s promise to visit and return them to their land in Judah (Jer. 29:5-10).
This brings us to the first portion of verse 11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord.” Here, God is assuring the exiles that their futures are not left dangling in the winds of chance. He has not forgotten them. He has already formed plans for their lives. Furthermore, it is because these plans are already made and what we know of God’s nature that He is wholly committed to bringing about His will. The final portion of the verse is specific to His exiles and reveals His will for them, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
What does God mean by “welfare?” Some translations use the word, “prosper.” The Hebrew word for “welfare” or “prosper” is שָׁלוֹם (shalom), which translates to peace, according to the Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. The kind of peace referred to here is being at peace with God, which will naturally pour over into daily life. God isn’t promising a life without suffering or hardships, but one of hope and joy in Him. God wants His people to be at peace with Him rather than separated by evil–that is, sin. The remainder of the verse speaks of the expectancy of God fulfilling His promises, specifically to those exiled in Babylon, “to give you a future and a hope.” Despite their sin, God did not abandon His people. While discipline was necessary, such as it is for us today, His children are never forgotten or disowned. We can rest our hope in God fulfilling His promises.
Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t about us, a materialistic or trouble-free life – it’s about God fulfilling His promises, love for His people, the mercy He bestows onto those who wholeheartedly follow Him. We are invited to partake in His lavish promises and grace, trusting the future God has written for us, to have peace with God, and rest all hope in Him.
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2. Philippians 4:13
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
What people think it means: Many believe this portion of Scripture affirms their desire to be and do anything they want. They believe the world is their oyster and God will give them the ability – the strength – to obtain it. All too often only a portion of the verse is used, thus it is used out of the context in which it was originally written.
What it actually means: Paul, the author of Philippians, is sitting in a prison and chained to a guard, expecting each day to take his last breath. During this time, he writes to tell the Philippians that despite his horrific situation he is content with the circumstances God is allowing in his life and he trusts God’s promised provision. Paul knows what it is to have more than he needs and also to only have his basic life-sustaining needs met (Phil. 4:10-12).
Essentially, the phrase, “I can do,” is not about what Paul can do on his own. Nor is it boasting of his own strength. He recognizes his own weaknesses as a sinner saved by grace. Paul writes that “all things” he has been able to endure – the pleasant and the tragic – is only because of Christ, and His strength (v. 13). Like Paul, we are not strong enough to endure life. It is the strength of Christ that sustains us through everything.
Philippians 4:13 is an assurance for Christ-followers that God will sustain us – provide all of our needs – through whatever we are called to endure. He stayed with and strengthened Paul and He does the same for us. This Scripture boasts of God’s goodness and mercy as He calls us to be content and trust the path He has chosen for our lives.
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3. Romans 8:28
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
What people think it means: Reduced to a feel-good sentiment, all things work together for good, many people carelessly apply this verse as a band-aid over the wounds of those who are hurting. Others use this biblical text as assurance of tangible goods coming to those who proclaim love for God.
What it actually means: As Romans 8 begins, Paul makes known that those who are in Christ – that is, those who follow God wholeheartedly – are freed from condemnation of the law because of Christ’s work on the cross. He continues on to offer hope for fully pleasing God by walking according to the Holy Spirit.
As we come to verse 28, Paul reiterates that he is speaking to Christians, “we,” about what they “know” because of the Holy Spirit. It is important to recognize that Paul is only speaking to Christians, not unbelievers; what he is about to share does not apply to everyone, but is “for those who love God.” This type of love is agape, deep and sacrificial. The “all things” is everything from the deepest sufferings to the fullest joy, “work together for good.” This is where many often struggle with a narrow lens.
The first portion of the verse can feel heavy and disheartening without a proper understanding of the meaning. Suffering in any manner and in all capacities does not feel good. There are those who take this portion of the verse to mean that everything that happens to them will produce tangible good. However, this is not the case. Through the process of sanctification – growing us to conform to His image – we better understand the “good” Paul is speaking of. This “good” points to our ultimate salvation. While this process is often not painless, it holds immense purpose. God is active and working our deepest sufferings and joys for good – working in us to make us Christlike and to draw us nearer to Him and His glory.
Paul’s conclusion, “for those who are called according to his purpose,” reiterates those to whom this gracious promise belongs – God’s elect children fulfilling His will for their lives (Romans 1:6, 8:30).
Romans 8:28 is a comforting reminder for those who are called into God’s family: our earthly afflictions are not without purpose, and God will use every circumstance and emotion for our good through sanctification and to God be the glory.
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4. John 14:13-14
“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”
What people think it means: A popular piece of Scripture and easily mistaken as a verse that promises to deliver all of the dreams and wishes to anyone who believes in Jesus.
What it actually means: Beginning in John 14, Jesus is with His disciples during the Last Supper. Jesus states that those who believe in God also believe in Him and those who see Him have seen the Father. That is to say, Jesus and the Father are one – together they hold mutuality. Jesus offers two implications: His words are given on God’s authority and His works are also the works of God. Again, because of the mutuality of Jesus and the Father – He is in the Father and the Father is in Him – the words and works of Jesus are also of God (John 14:1-11).
Soon, Jesus will no longer be walking amongst humankind, and marvelously He promises the disciples will accomplish greater works, that is, a broader reach of ministry than He did while on earth (v. 12), as explained by Edwin Blum in the Bible Knowledge Commentary. We are invited to pray “in Jesus name,” and He will answer our prayers according to the will of the Father. This not the magic genie moment many believe it to be. We will not be given everything we ask for. The central purpose of the work Jesus accomplishes is to glorify God (v. 13).
We know by Jesus character and nature His repetition in verse 14 is not accidental. Jesus promises to hear every prayer, answering each one according to the will of the Father, and in doing so He will bring God honor and praise.
John 14:13-14 is an invitation and promise for Christ-followers in the same regard as it was for the disciples. We are invited to do the work of Jesus and pray, making known all requests, in His name. Through the mutuality of Jesus and the Father, we are assured each petition will be answered according to God’s will and glory.
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What Did We Learn?
As we’ve seen, taking Scripture out of context leads to errors and a misrepresentation of God’s Word. Once proper context has been established, we are able to hold a proper understanding of Scripture, apply it correctly, and deepen our relationship with Him. We are also able to better serve God as we correctly share His Word with others.
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Christine A. Carter is an author for Wrath and Grace Publishing. You can connect with her on Facebook. Christine’s roots are planted in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and four children. She holds a deep desire to know God and His word in depth, while also pursuing the gifts He has given her. Additionally, Christine is a writer and artist for rightbraintheology.com, and a biblical counselor.