Rightfully Dividing the Word of Truth A look at passages of Scripture often taken out of context
By Roger Marshall*
2 Timothy 2: 15 says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”
One rule for correctly interpreting scripture is hermeneutics. What is hermeneutics? Bible scholar Dr. Robert Morey explains: “Hermeneutics is the discovery, understanding and use of those linguistic and literary principles or rules of interpretation which should be followed when one seeks to understand the Bible. Exegesis is the practical application of hermeneutical principles to a specific text in order to discover the intent and mind of the author. It is the opposite of eisegesis, which is reading into a text our own ideas with little or no regard for what the author meant.
“Why bother with hermeneutics? First, the Bible comes to us as literature (prose, poetry, historical narrative, apocalyptic literature, letters, dialogue, theological treatises, biography, etc) Since it is literature, we must treat it as such.
“Second, hermeneutics is simply a reflection on the unconscious principles which we all follow when reading any piece of literature in general. When we pick up a newspaper or novel we (1) observe grammar and syntax [i.e. the grammatical arrangement of words in sentences]; (2) observe literary units such as paragraph and chapter; and (3) seek to understand what the author was saying. These same things apply to reading the Bible.
“Third, the Scriptures themselves warn us there are wrong ways as well as right ways to interpret the Bible (2 Pet. 3:16; cf. [i.e. refer to compare] 2Tim. 2:15).
“Some of the wrong ways are (1) partial quotation of a text; (2) not observing who said it or wrote it; (3) bringing together unrelated proof texts; (4) taking the verse out of context; and (5) taking a mystical approach to the Bible in which it is allowed to fall open at random and then a verse is picked by “chance.”
This means it is erroneous to say the Bible can be interpreted any way one pleases. God has given us a library of literature which we call “The Bible,” and we must avoid misinterpreting it or reading into it our own theological biases. Hermeneutics is the attempt to curb or bridle invalid ways of interpreting the Scriptures and to set those positive literary principles which should govern everyone’s interpretation of the Bible” (L. Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1950); B. Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1979); B. Ramn, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Boston: W.A. Wilde Co., 1956); M. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. Co.); cited in Death and the Afterlife by Dr. Robert A. Morey, p. 19).
With this in mind let us now consider some verses and passages of Scripture that are often taken and quoted out of context by many Christians in our contemporary Evangelical and Charismatic Church circles.
“By His Stripes I Am Healed”
Scripture verses often quoted out of context to prove that physical healing is guaranteed to us in the atonement are: Ex. 15:26; Is 53: 4-5; Matthew 8: 17; 1 Peter 2: 24; 3 John 2.
Concerning Ex. 15: 26, it needs to be noted that this was directed towards Israel and was based upon their keeping the Sinaitic or Mosaic Covenant. All the commandments and statutes of this covenant had to be kept in order for this promise to be realised. That would entail observance of the Sabbath day rest and restrictions, circumcision, dietary laws, purification laws etc. Secondly the diseases that were guaranteed not to trouble Israel were the plagues God brought upon Egypt. These were: the plagues of water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, diseased livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the fist born. Obviously over the last 2000 years of Christianity godly Christians have encountered some aspect of at least some of these problems in their lives. In other words this verse is not a New Testament promise.
As for Isaiah 53: 4-5 and 1 Peter 2: 24, these passages refer to spiritual healing and not to physical healing. Let’s look at these two texts and see what I mean.
Isa. 53: 5 is structured according to what is known as “Hebrew parallelism”, where the same point is made using different words. For example:
1. “But he was wounded for our transgressions” (this has to do with sins, and thus is spiritual in nature relating to our souls).
2. “He was bruised for our iniquities” (this also has to do with sins, and thus again is spiritual).
3. “The chastisement of our peace was upon him” (this has to do with our peace with God through Jesus’ suffering for our sins. As Romans 5: 1 says: “Therefore being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Thus again Isaiah is making the same spiritual point in relation to our sins and our souls reconciliation to God).
4. “And with his stripes we are healed” (If in this last phrase Isaiah now switches from a spiritual theme to a physical theme in relation to healing of our bodies that would not be in keeping with the structure of Hebrew parallelism. The fact is that this phrase is also spiritual and has to do with healing of our souls and not our bodies).
This fact is further made very clear in 1 Peter 2: 24-25 which says: “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” Thus the healing in view of these passages of Scripture is healing of the sin-sick soul, which is our reconciliation to God after having gone astray (see Isa. 53: 6).
With regard to Matt. 8: 14-17 the context of this passage has to do with the fact that Jesus fulfilled the first clause of Isa. 53: 4 during his healing ministry to the Jews (cf. Matt. 10: 5-8). It is not teaching that all believers are guaranteed physical healing today. It should be noted that Matthew did not quote the entire verse of Isa. 53: 4 due to the fact that the last clause was not fulfilled until Jesus went to the cross where he suffered and died for the healing of our souls which is the theme of verse 5 as I’ve already pointed out. In short the same one who bore the griefs and carried the sorrows of the Jews by healing them of their diseases during his earthly ministry, is the same one who was later “stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.” He is the same one who was wounded for their transgressions and bruised for their iniquities to secure the healing of their souls, a healing which was graciously extended to all people (cf. John 3: 16; 2 Cor. 5: 19). Therefore Matt. 8: 17 is actually about what Jesus did before the atonement that was actually accomplished by his death on the cross (cf. Rom. 5: 6-11). It is not guaranteeing healing this side of heaven.
A careful look at 3 John 2 reveals that this is not a guarantee/command for health or wealth but simply a wish in John’s course of greeting, much like what we do today when we wish other people well in our written correspondence to them.
Healing guaranteed in the new heaven and earth
Nevertheless the Bible does teach that ultimately healing is guaranteed to our bodies and in fact to all creation because of the atoning work of Christ but this is to come in the new heaven and earth when sickness and its inevitable end result, death, will be forever banished from existence. That’s when our bodies (and not just our souls as is now the case) will be redeemed (cf. Rom. 8: 18-23; Rev.20: 4).
Is divine healing ultimately dependant upon our faith or God’s will?
Many often quote passages of Scripture dealing with faith to teach that healing is guaranteed to all believers once they can muster the faith required, however, the fact that divine healing is not ultimately dependent on our faith but rather is dependent on the sovereign will of God is bourn out by a number of incidents in Scripture. In fact some of the people healed in Scripture did not exercise any faith at all! For example:
1. The lame man at the Temple gate was not expecting healing, he did not ask for healing, he was not earnestly seeking God for his healing, his faith was not involved yet he was miraculously healed (Acts 3: 1-8).
2. The widow of Nain was not expecting the miraculous resurrection of her dead son. Her faith was also not involved yet a mighty miracle occurred (Lk. 7: 11-15).
3. Malcus, one of the men who arrested Jesus was healed after Peter cut off his ear. He too was not expecting healing (Lk. 22: 50-51; Jn 18: 10).
4. Lazarus was raised from the dead after four days even though his sisters (Martha in particular) were not exhibiting great faith for this miracle to occur on that day. Martha expected Lazarus’ resurrection to be at the “last day” (Jn. 11: 24), after all Lazarus was dead for four days so this fact alone would have dashed all hopes for an immediate resurrection as far as many Jews were concerned. You see in that time many Jews believed that the soul remained near the body only for three days after death in the hope of returning to it. So if this idea was in the minds of these people, they obviously thought all hope was gone-Lazarus was irrevocably dead This raises the question as to how much faith does it really take for God to act on our behalf. Faith healers often encourage believers to turn loose their faith, muster all the faith they have, or exhibit “violent” faith in order to receive healing. However, the Bible says that it only takes a mustard seed amount of faith for God to honour it (Lk. 17: 5-6). The same simple faith that brings salvation also brings healing in accordance with the will of God. Mark 10: 51-52 and Luke 7: 48-50 bears out this fact, in both passages, one dealing with divine healing (Mk. 10) and the other with salvation (Lk. 7), the exact same Greek grammatical structure is used: “he pistis sou sesoken se.” Translated: “…thy faith hath made thee whole” (Mk. 10: 52), “Thy faith hath saved thee…” (Lk.7: 50).
While the Bible teaches that God honours faith in Him for our healing it also teaches that God is not always obligated to honour that faith for reasons best known to Him and it doesn’t mean that we lack faith or that we are living a life that displeases God.
A classic example of this is Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2Cor. 12; 7-10). While the Bible does not explicitly say what it was it was nevertheless an affliction of some kind (whether physical or emotional we don’t know) yet Paul’s great faith in God could not get it removed
Other Scriptures that clearly show that God is not obligated to always heal His people are as follows:
1. Out of a multitude of sick folk at the pool of Bethesda Jesus only healed one man (Jn. 5: 1-9).
2. Timothy had frequent stomach related illnesses for which Paul encouraged him to use wine as a medicine to help with his ongoing condition (1Tim.5: 23).
3. Paul left Trophimus, one of his close companions, sick in Miletus (2Tim 4: 20).
4. Epaphroditus another one of Paul’s close companions was sick and nearly died. Paul appeared helpless in the whole ordeal (not powerful like many faith healers today who arrogantly “decree”, “declare” and “speak things into being”) and explained that his companion’s life was only spared because God had mercy on both of them (Ph. 2:25-27).
Is God a healer? He sure is! Does God still miraculously heal today? He sure does! But in accordance with his Sovereign will just as He always has either in the presence of faith or in its absence. The buck does not end at our faith but at God’s sovereign will. God has and reserves the right to grant our earnest requests or refuse our requests for purposes best known to Him, yet always for our good even when we don’t understand (Rom. 8: 28).
In light of these facts we need to keep the message of divine healing in Biblical balance.
“Binding and Loosing”
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt.16: 18-19).
Many Christians in Charismatic and Evangelical Church circles often quote these verses of scripture to teach that we as Christians have the God-given authority to bind demons, thus preventing them from carrying out their nefarious activities, and to loose people from sickness, suffering, poverty etc. and all negative influences in the believers’ lives which are all considered to be demonic attacks.
Take for example this quote from an exhortation sent out by a local church pastor to several cell groups in his church who were to engage in a night of what he called Kingdom Prayer. The pastor said, “Christ has given the church the keys to the kingdom i.e. the authority of God’s kingship. As a result God in heaven binds whatever the church binds on earth. And God in heaven looses whatever the church looses on earth. In other words, the movement on earth govern movements in heaven; the church’s action on earth precedes God’s action in heaven.
“Through kingdom prayer, the church becomes God’s instrument – His outlet into the earth. The task of the church is to bind Satan and to loose God’s hand on earth…”
But is this actually what the verse is teaching? Lets take a closer look.
Bible scholar and commentator Spiros Zodhiates, Th.D, in The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible points out that a more accurate translation of this verse from the Greek reads: “And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of the heavens. And whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be as having been bound in the heavens; and whatever thou shalt loose on the earth shall be as having been loosed in the heavens”
Why is this the better translation? Dr. Zohiates explains that the two verbs de-deme-non (which comes the Greek deo which means to fasten or tie i.e. to bind) and le-lume-non (from the Greek luo which means to loose), are both perfect passive participles which should have been translated as “having been bound” and as “having been loosed” already in the heavens.
Bible expositor and theologian John MacArthur concurs with Dr. Zodhiates. In The MacArthur Study Bible he says, “the keys of the kingdom of heaven…represent authority to declare what was bound or loosed in heaven. This echoed the promise of John 20: 23, where Christ gave the disciples authority to forgive or retain sins of people. All this must be understood in the context of [Matt.] 18: 15-17, where Christ laid out specific instructions for dealing with sin in the church. The sum of it all means that any duly constituted body of believers, acting in accord with God’s word, has the authority to declare if someone is forgiven or unforgiven. The church’s authority is not to determine these things, but to declare the judgement of heaven based on the principles of the word of God. When they make such judgements on the basis of God’s Word, they can be sure heaven is in accord. In other words, whatever they “bind” or “loose” on earth is already “bound” or “loosed” in heaven. When the church says the unrepentant person is bound in sin, the church is saying what God says about the person. When the church acknowledges that a repentant person has been loosed from that sin, God agrees.”
The NIV Study Bible makes the same observation concerning Matt.16: 19. It says to bind and loose in this verse is “Not authority to determine, but to announce, guilt or innocence (see Matt.18: 18 and the context there; cf. Acts 5: 3,9).”
Again in the words of Dr. Zodhiates “The teaching here is that those things which are conclusively decided by the king in the kingdom of heaven, having been so decided upon, are emulated by the Church on earth, the Church being the true believers whose testimony is the Rock, even like Peter’s testimony concerning the deity of Jesus Christ upon whom the Church is built (1Cor. 3:11). “No reference is made here to the binding or loosing of persons, but of things, ho “whatever” (neuter) and not “whosoever,” and hosa (neuter plural) in Matt. 18: 18, “what things soever.”[it is interesting at this point to note that Satan is a personal being and not a thing]. Reference is made to the acts of persons and not to the decisions concerning persons by the church as an ecclesiastical or organisational body. The Church here is the body of believers themselves. We as believers can never make conclusive decisions about things, but can only confirm those decisions which have already been made by the King Himself as conclusive in the general context of His kingdom both on earth and in heaven. See Matt. 18: 18…see also Jn. 20: 23.”
As Dr. Zodhiates concludes, “Believers on earth can only confirm [on earth] what has already taken place in heaven.” In other words, heaven/God does not follow the dictates of the church on earth but rather the church is to follow the dictates of God from heaven on any given issue and declare God’s dictates and decisions to the earth. Therefore keeping in mind the meaning of this verse no Christian can bind Satan and his demons or declare them and their nefarious activities bound, simply because God in heaven has not bound them yet. The time for Satan’s binding is yet to come (see Rev. 20: 1-3).
Similarly no Christian can take it upon themselves to loose any one from their particular circumstance be it sickness, poverty or otherwise for heaven/God to rubberstamp the believer’s demand. That person’s circumstance is totally in the Lord’s hands what we, as believers, must do is to petition the Lord and intercede earnestly before Him on their behalf for His merciful intervention. A prime example of this was the apostle Paul with his “thorn in the flesh.” No amount of “loosing” on earth by any believer would have been able to free him from his particular testing circumstance simply because God had not already “loosed” him i.e. declared him free from his thorn in heaven, and in fact God had determined that the particular circumstance was for Paul’s own good.
“Command Ye Me”
Another verse somewhat akin to Matt. 16: 19 in its misinterpretation is Isa. 45: 11 quoting from the KJV it says, “Thus saith the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me”
Several Christians have used this verse to say that God has given us permission and the right to command Him to work on our behalf or on the behalf of others. In other words we can take authority over God and make him work for us.
However, the right interpretation of that verse is expressed very simply and clearly in the NIV it reads: This is what the Lord says-the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Concerning things to come, do you question me about my children, or give me orders about the work of my hands?” In other words, as the late Christian apologist Dr. Walter Martin once said, in this verse God is sarcastically asking those Jews who were questioning his wisdom in using the pagan Persian King Cyrus to regather Israel to their homeland from exile if they were going to tell the Sovereign Lord God creator of the universe what to do.
“God inhabits the praises of his people”
Psalm 22: 3 is often used to say that God comes down some may even say that he lives in the praises of His people in particular the more modern contemporary worship songs. It is sometimes thought that the more exuberant or loud the praise and worship session the more God’s presence becomes manifest. However, a closer look at this verse from the NIV shows that it actually means that God was the focus of Israel’s praise i.e. He was the one Israel praised. Thus even an old traditional hymn can be “inhabited” by the God of Israel because the God of Israel and his mighty deeds are the focus of the hymn.
Acts 3: 19-21 reads: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; and he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” Many often use these verses today as they claim that God has been progressively restoring lost truths to the Church ever since the days of the Reformation. Michael Moriarty in his book The New Charismatics: A Concerened Voice Responds To Dangerous New Trends points out that these “restored” truths usually include justification by faith (Martin Luther), water baptism by immersion (the Anabaptists), sanctification (John Wesley), diving healing (A.B. Simpson and John Alexander Dowie), Spirit baptism (the Azusa Street revival of 1906), followed by a number of other various “restored” truths which emerged from the 1948 Later Rain revivals. These included:
1. Immortalisation of the church. The belief that the church will attain to immortality before Christ’s return as a necessary aspect of its perfection and testimony to the world. While some in the LR tradition have dropped this teaching, for many it is key.
2. Faith Healing. The belief that miracles of healing should be commonplace in the church, to be expected by faith rather than simply requested; implying the ideal of the immortalization of the church.
3. Word of faith. The teaching that faith is a force that enables the believer (or, for some, the prophet, such as Branham) to create new realities out of nothing, just as God created the world out of nothing. This is the origin of the prevalent practice among several Christians today who claim that they can decree or speak things into being.
4. Distinctive spiritual disciplines. Emphasized in the LR movement were the following disciplines or activities: (1) deliverance – the exorcism of demons from believers, often as a necessary step in their overcoming sinful habits of the flesh; (2) fasting – going without food for extended periods of time in order to attain supernatural power over the body; (3) laying on of hands – a ritual expressing the power of the “anointed” church leaders over the faithful and their ability to impart the Holy Spirit and his gifts through this method; and (4) praise or the recovery of true worship – an unrestrained form of worship calling upon God to perfect the church.
5. Unity of the church. The doctrine that the church, or (usually) a small remnant of the church, will attain mature unity of faith before Christ returns.
6. Fivefold ministry. The belief that the church today has all five offices of Ephesians 4:11, including apostles and prophets, through whom the church received new doctrinal revelations and overall direction.
However, Acts 3: 21 has nothing to do with the above. In context this is a Messianic statement and is not initially or directly Church related but rather is related to God’s ancient promises to Israel to usher in a universal reign of the Messiah from Mt. Zion in which all the saints (including those brought in through the church age) will share (cf. Acts 1: 6-7).
Bible expositor points out that the word “times” used in the verses 19 & 21 i.e. “times of refreshing” and “times of restoration” means epoch, era or season. Two descriptions are given to the coming era of the millennial kingdom. This is clear because the bracket the reference to Jesus Christ being sent from God to bring those times. Peter points to Christ’s earthly reign (see 1:7; cf. Rom. 11: 26). The period will be marked by all kinds of blessings and renewal (cf. Isa. 11: 6-10; 35: 1-10; Eze. 34: 26; 44: 3; Joel 2: 26; Matt. 19: 28; Rev. 19: 1-10).
“The Former Rain & The Latter Rain”
James 5: 7 reads: “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain” (cf. Dt 11: 14; Jer. 5: 24; Hos. 6: 3; Joel 2: 23) These verses of Scripture are often used by many Christians as they claim that, just as God outpoured His Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (“the former rain”) similarly there will be a final mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit all over the world shortly before Jesus’ return to earth (“the latter rain”). Great supernatural signs and wonders are expected to accompany this final outpouring that would result in a bumper harvest of souls.
However, a clear straightforward reading of James 5: 7 will show that the text does not offer the promise of a new out pouring of the Holy Spirit. James is in this verse of Scripture is alluding to the Israeli crop cycle. In Israel the autumn rain (former rain) comes in October and November soon after the grain is sown, and the spring rain (the latter rain) comes in March and April just prior to harvest. All the verse is saying is that just as the farmer has to patiently wait on this cycle to plant and reap his crops so likewise we are to patiently wait for the return of Christ. Nothing else is in mind. The lesson is about patient waiting not about a “new” out pouring of the Holy Spirit.
In light of the foregoing information re the misinterpretations of scripture that are proliferating among many Christians today what we really need is a restoration of sound biblical hermeneutics in many of our churches.
*Roger Marshall is founder and executive director of Project PROBE Ministries, a Barbadian Christian apologetics organisation.