We’ve all done it. You’re having a rough day and need some inspiration, so you do a quick google search. Maybe you type in “most inspiring Bible verses” or “verses to get me through a hard time.” Within seconds you’ve got an entire list of positive Bible verses from a Southern Living blog post. You read your favorites, maybe write one down on a post-it note to stick on your bathroom mirror, and then you go about your day feeling so much better about yourself.
But do you ever stop to think that these Bible verses might be taken out of context? What if that verse doesn’t mean what you think it means? Does it matter?
I want to walk us through five of the most commonly twisted Scriptures and why it’s important to interpret them correctly.
Twisted Scripture #1: Jeremiah 29:11
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
This is a graduate’s favorite verse. We love to believe it’s all about us—that it means that God has plans to give us everything we could dream of and that the ultimate goal for our lives is happiness and prosperity. But then what happens when we don’t get everything we want? What happens if harm does come to us and we aren’t prosperous?
Context is so important. If you open up to Jeremiah 29, you’ll find that this chapter is actually a letter. And it’s not written to a college graduate, much to our disappointment. In fact, it’s not written to any one person at all. The “you” in this letter is plural and the people Jeremiah writes to are the exiled Jews. It’s a response about a false prophet named Hananiah. Ironically, Hananiah had been prophesying prosperity to the Jews and he prophesied that it would be fulfilled within two years. In chapter 29, Jeremiah not only refutes this false prophecy, he also reveals that the Jews would not see freedom for more than seventy years. Not exactly the prosperous ideal we’d like to imagine!
“The ‘you’ in this letter is plural and the people Jeremiah writes to are the exiled Jews.”
We’re often tempted to believe this verse is about our personal well-being, but we’re missing the big picture. It’s not about us at all. These plans God is referring to? They are actually his plans for his people as a whole, and these plans ultimately point to Jesus. That promise for a future and a hope that we long for was fulfilled in Jesus’ death and resurrection! So, if you’d like to use this verse for your college graduate, make sure they know that it’s not about the job they’ll get or the happiness they’ll receive in life. It’s so much bigger than that! It’s ultimately about the Savior that died so that they could live!
Twisted Scripture #2: Romans 8:28
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
The most common way to twist this verse is to read it like this: “In all things God works for the [material] good of everybody.” It’s amazing what you can do to Scripture when you form it to your own thoughts.
But read it again, and you’ll see that this isn’t talking about the good of all people. It says that God works for the good of “those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” In other words, believers. And what exactly is the “good” that God works out for his people? Let’s look at the context.
The whole of Romans 8 is about the difference between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. When we get to verse 28, Paul has just finished writing about how our sin causes weaknesses that only belief in Jesus and the power of the Spirit can cover. So before looking at the good, it’s important to see what “all things” are that lead to this good in the first place. I think it’s safe to say that the “all things” emphasizes the adverse things we experience which cause us weakness and suffering. And what good does God work through these experiences of weakness and suffering? Simply read ahead one more verse. “For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29, emphasis mine).
God uses seasons of weakness and suffering and “groaning” (vs. 18-23) to make us more like him. The good is becoming more like Christ!
“The good is becoming more like Christ!”
This is why defining the terms is so important. Take this verse out of context and twist it a bit and you’ve got a great verse about living your best life. But read it with the surrounding verses and you realize that yet again it’s not actually about you. It’s about Jesus. It’s about seeing our suffering and letting it be used to conform us to His image instead of conforming him to ours.
Twisted Scripture #3: Philippians 4:13
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
I typed this verse into Instagram to see what kind of pictures came with the hashtag. Do you know what the overwhelming majority of content included? Pictures of people working out. There’s even a hashtag titled #philippians413fitness. I hope I don’t sound too snarky here, but do we really think this verse is about exercise? I have seen this verse twisted by so many bloggers and influencers. “You are capable of anything you set your mind to!” This seems to be the reverberating message thrown out (especially to women) and so many of us have been led to believe that Philippians 4:13 is a passage about our own abilities and potential.
Jump back to verses 11-12.
“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” (Phil. 4:11-12)
Then we get to “I can do all things through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13).
Do you see it? This verse is not about our potential. It’s about our contentment. And that’s the complete opposite of what the influencers are telling us. While influencers tell us we can do anything we set our minds to, God tells us we are to be content where we are, and that it’s possible through his strength! When we become obsessed with becoming our “best selves,” God tells us to focus on becoming more like Christ. Reading this verse incorrectly actually encourages us to be discontent, because we’re constantly longing for our version of better. But what if God’s version of better doesn’t change our circumstances? What then?
“This verse is not about our potential. It’s about our contentment.”
The “all things” in this verse is contentment. I can live in any situation with contentment because God gives me strength to do so.
Twisted Scripture #4: Matthew 7:7
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
By this point in the article, you should be able to guess that this is not a prosperity gospel verse and that Jesus is probably not telling us that all we have to do is ask him and he will give us whatever our hearts desire. This verse is smack dab in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount—the famous sermon Jesus gave during his ministry. He’s just finished talking about all the ways to become righteous. Knowing this, we can figure out what he’s talking about here in verse 7.
What are we to ask for that it will be given to us? The context tells us over and over that our goal is true righteousness, from the heart (Matt. 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33). We ask to become like Jesus! We ask to grow in the areas he has just addressed in the previous verses. What are we seeking that we should find it? We are seeking Jesus! What will be opened to us? His righteousness.
“The context tells us over and over that our goal is true righteousness, from the heart.”
We can be assured of this when we look back at the beginning of his sermon, when he starts with the Beatitudes (otherwise known as blessings). What kind of people are blessed: those who seek selfish desires or those who seek Jesus? He gives promises with each blessing, and not one of those blessings comes with a promise of an earthly, material gift. So, if you start to question what you should ask for—what you should seek—read Jesus’ whole sermon and see if your desires line up with what his Word tells us he wants for us.
Twisted Scripture #5: Mark 10:27
“With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
Is it possible to lose ten pounds in a week? All things are possible with God! Is it possible to make six figures by next year? All things are possible with God!
You got it: wrong. At least when you look at the context. Could God help you do those things if he truly wanted to? Of course. But is this what he’s promising us in his Word? Absolutely not. One more time, let’s look at the surrounding verses.
The context of this verse is the story of the rich young man. In this story, we find that the issue here is that Jesus found the one thing the man was not willing to part with in order to gain salvation. His wealth was his stumbling block to following Jesus in complete obedience. Now, this is not to say that it’s impossible to be rich if you want to get to heaven. What is being said here is that following our own desires instead of following Jesus will prevent us from heaven. The rich man was asking what he needed to do to have eternal life, and he was expecting a to-do list he could easily check off without giving up anything. But when he learned that he would have to sacrifice his greatest desires, he found he couldn’t do it. And none of us can! In our own strength and power, we cannot earn our salvation, but with God’s power we can receive it.
“The rich man was asking what he needed to do to have eternal life, and he was expecting a to-do list he could easily check off without giving up anything.”
In verse 26, we find the disciples asking Jesus who can be saved, in light of the rich man—who seemed to have his life together—not having what it took. This is where our verse comes in, in answer to their question. This is the “all things.” Salvation is possible with God! With man’s strength, salvation is impossible, but by God’s grace and strength, anyone can be saved!
What a beautiful thing, and it goes so much deeper than simply being able to accomplish earthly feats.
Now what do we do with what we’ve learned?
If you want to be someone who reads Scripture without twisting it, it can be helpful to ask a few basic questions when reading Scripture:
- What is the context of this particular passage?
- What does the rest of this book tell us about Jesus?
- How does this passage fit in with what the rest of Scripture tells us?
- What does this tell you about who God is and how you should respond to him today?
Along with these questions, we need to read every verse with the reminder that the Bible is not a self-help book. It wasn’t written for us to grab a bit of wisdom here and there and then move on with our day. The Bible was written for us to get to know God’s story, and we should read it for the purpose of understanding who he is and what he’s done for us. No shame if you’ve been reading it wrong for a while. Now’s your chance to dig into his Word the right way. Just wait and see what incredible truths he teaches you!