An Easy Way to Weed out Bad Bible Interpretations

I want to show you a trick to help you weed out bad Bible interpretations, the kind that don’t fit the context or the flow of thought of a passage. I call it the “paraphrase principle.” The technique trades on two obvious features of language.

First, a good interpretation depends on accurately summing up a verse’s meaning by using other words. A teacher reads a passage, says, “What this verse means, in other words, is…,” then offers an explanation in his own words—his paraphrase—that he thinks squares with the author’s meaning.

Second, most words or phrases have more than one meaning, and that can be a problem. Often, a teacher will assume one meaning, while the biblical author intended another, yet the mistake goes undetected since his take makes perfect sense of the word when read in isolation from the larger passage. The paraphrase principle helps root out that mistake.

Applying the principle is easy. Here’s how it works. Simply insert the supposed synonym into the text, then read the flow of thought of the immediate context—either the verse or the paragraph—to see if the paraphrase still makes sense of the larger passage. If it doesn’t, you immediately know you’re on the wrong track.

I’ll give you two quick examples of how this works to help you get the idea.

Worship leaders often cite Jesus’ statement, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (Jn. 12:32). Then they apply the insight by inviting the church to sing heartily, taking “lifted up” to be synonymous with “exalted in worship.” Sometimes that’s exactly what it means. But is that what Jesus meant in this passage? Let’s see.

Using the paraphrase principle, when we insert the alleged synonym into the larger passage (v. 32–33), it reads: “‘And I, if I am exalted in worship, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.”

Oops. Our worship is going to kill Jesus? You see the problem. Clearly, “lifted up” in this case does not mean to praise but to crucify. Inserting the correct synonym into the passage now makes perfect sense: “‘And I, if I am crucified, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.”

Here’s another example. Paul writes, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7 KJV). Some think Paul means that whenever a Christian is afraid, there’s a demonic “spirit of fear” causing it.

The word “spirit,” though, could mean a demon, of course, but it could also mean a disposition or an attitude (e.g., “a spirit of gentleness,” Gal. 6:1). What sense does Paul have in mind here? The paraphrase principle comes to our rescue.

Here’s our paraphrase of the first option: “For God hath not given us the demonic spirit of fear; but a demonic spirit [an angelic spirit?] of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” This seems odd. Does the Bible teach that power, love, and a sound mind are spiritual beings? Or are they virtuous dispositions we develop and possess?

Let’s try the alternate meaning: “For God hath not given us a fearful disposition; but a disposition of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Much better, especially considering that, in the larger context, Paul admonishes Timothy not to be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord (v. 8). Paul is talking about fearful timidity here, not spirit beings.

Note that the paraphrase principle is a negative test, not a positive test for accuracy. As a negative test, it will weed out obvious errors, but passing the paraphrase requirement is no guarantee that your take is the correct one (positive test). Some faulty interpretations can still slip by that must be disqualified on other grounds.

Getting an accurate understanding of Scripture is critical for your growth as a Christian ambassador. The paraphrase principle is simply another tool in your toolbox to help do that more effectively.

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Greg Koukl