The Internet is a fun place.
You can watch viral videos about cats doing funny things. You have social media to interact with friends and family from miles away. And then of course, you find some skeptics who discredit a Bible verse without putting any effort into properly interpreting it!
Many skeptics hinge their whole argument on one verse that is taken out of context. Many do not even bother to look up how any Christians have interpreted a biblical passage. As a result, Christians don’t entertain their objections to the Bible.
This series is an attempt to help skeptics better interpret the Bible, known as as the study of hermeneutics. This first lesson on how to interpret the Bible is of utmost importance.
Never Isolate One Bible Verse!
Quoting one Bible verse about a topic is a trap that many fall into, including Christians! But here is an example of a skeptic doing this with one verse on prayer:
“God answers prayer. Except when he doesn’t. The New Testament says, And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive (Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24). But everybody knows that in the real world that doesn’t happen. Christians face bankruptcies and bad test scores and death at the same rate as other people. God answers prayer at the margins of statistical significance, if at all.”
This skeptic makes the mistake of building a theology of prayer on one verse. Their interpretation of this verse is as follows:
God always answers the prayer of a believing Christian (i.e. gives us what we ask for).
And out of this bad interpretation, comes the bad objection:
But the prayers of Christians aren’t answered all that much, and certainly not all the time, so therefore the Bible is wrong!
To be fair, this skeptic does mention two explanations that some Christians give to “get out” of the implications of this passage. But there is no mention of the immediate context or different interpretations of this verse. Their interpretation leads us to believe that God is some sort of divine vending machine.
What might have helped out our skeptic friend with interpreting this verse? Here are two simple principles.
1. Read the immediate context before and after the verse.
In both Matthew and Mark, this saying about answered prayer comes right after Jesus curses a fig tree which amazes the disciples. Jesus tells them that not only could they do what he did with the fig tree, but they could also tell a mountain to rise up and be cast into the sea!
Jesus’ analogy of casting a mountain into the sea is meant to be taken as hyperbolic language. In other words, I don’t think Jesus is trying to be 100% literal here. He is saying that impossible and miraculous things can be accomplished through the prayer of faith. He is not saying that God will do whatever you want him to do as long as you have faith.
As 17th century commentator Matthew Henry says, “This is a proverbial expression; intimating that we are to believe that nothing is impossible with God, and therefore that what he has promised shall certainly be performed, though to us it seem impossible.”
2. Study the book as a whole on that particular topic.
If the immediate context does not help much, then the next step is to look at that theme in the rest of the book. For example, the disputed verse appears in the Gospel of Matthew. What else does Jesus say about prayer in Matthew?
In Matthew 26:39 Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
Here Jesus expressed his desire to have this cup pass from him. At the same time, however, Jesus recognized that God’s will was more important than his own.
This shows us that we don’t pray to God just to get whatever we want. We express our desires to Him, and at the end of the day we accept God’s will to be done.
In closing, Bible verses by themselves can be grossly misunderstood. All that we Christians ask is that you practice the basic rules of interpretation before attacking a Bible verse, such as reading the surrounding context and studying the theme as it is presented in the entire book.
However, if you don’t take the time to research charitable interpretations of a Bible verse (i.e. a 10 minute Google search), then Christians are probably not going to listen to your arguments, much less be convinced by them.
And that’s not what you want, is it?