To many Christians, the Bible is like putty. Just add the Spirit and it can be molded into almost anything at all.
21st Century kids have cell phones, DVD players, and X-boxes. When I was a kid we had simpler delights. One was a handful of malleable goo that could be pulled, twisted, or distorted into any shape imaginable. It was called Silly Putty®.
Sadly, many Christians use their Bibles like Silly Putty®. Just add the Spirit and the Bible becomes putty in their hands, able to be molded into almost anything at all. Rather than approaching the Scripture as a treasure of truth for all Christians, some Evangelicals have the dangerous habit of searching the text for a personal “promise” or “word” of guidance from the Spirit that is unrelated to the text’s original meaning.
Often, the results turn out to be silly. Other times, they are dangerous. Regardless of the outcome, this practice is always a bad habit. Here’s how it often looks.
The Holy Spirit Give-Away
Instead of studying to find the objective meaning of a passage and then making personal application of that scriptural truth to their lives, many Christians read the Bible looking for verses or isolated phrases the Spirit “impresses” on them with personal messages that are foreign to the context.
For example, a Christian woman who has been praying for her family’s conversion stumbles upon Acts 16 during her quiet time. Her eyes settle on Paul’s response to the Philippian jailer who asked, “What must I do to be saved?” “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved,” Paul answered, then added “you and your household” (v. 29–31).
Encouraged by these words, the woman begins to claim the “promise” that her own household will be saved, with the justification that “The Holy Spirit gave me this verse.”
Why would she use that particular wording to describe what she experienced? Because in the normal, natural understanding of that passage, the verse wasn’t “hers” to begin with.1
Rather, she believes that, under the Spirit’s influence, there was a mystical transformation that took place causing the meanings of the words to change just for her, conveying a private message not intended by the original author (Luke, in this case) and not intended for anyone else. It was a private message from God just for her incorporating the words of the biblical text, but not previously in those words.
Notice, her confidence is not based on the objective meaning of the passage, but on the unique subjective meaning given to her by the Spirit in the moment. I—or any other Christian, for that matter—could not claim that verse for myself unless the Holy Spirit “gave” the verse to me, as well.
Experiences like these are powerful because they seem intensely personal. But there’s a problem: Acts 16:31 is not her promise. It’s the Philippian jailer’s promise, if a promise at all.2 Using the passage as she has done is an abuse of God’s Word. It’s also deeply relativistic.
Relativism is the defining characteristic of the age, and has influenced the church in subtle yet profound ways. When an objective claim (a verse) communicates completely different meanings (“truths”) to different subjects (people), that’s relativism. Since truth is not in the objective meaning of the words, but in the personal, subjective experience of the reader—in this case, an experience allegedly caused by the Holy Spirit—a personal prompting can be “true for me, but not for you.” Since there are different experiences for different people, there are different “truths” for each.
Let me speak plainly: There is no biblical justification for finding private, personal messages in texts originally intended by God to mean something else. This approach is the wrong way to read the Bible. One reason I know this is because of what the Bible teaches about itself.
The Bible on Bible Study
First, the Bible teaches that the written words of Scripture are inspired.
“All scripture [graphe, Gr.—the “writing”] is inspired by God” ( 2 Timothy 3:16). The wording here is important. Paul says that the writing itself is “God breathed,” not the thoughts, impressions, or private messages that occur to us when we read the writing.
God told Moses to speak to Pharaoh the specific words of God: “I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say” (Exodus 4:12). “Let them hear My words,” God said later at Horeb, “so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth” (Deuteronomy 4:10). These are the “living words” that Stephen said have been passed on to us (Acts 7:38).
God told Jeremiah, “Write in a book all the words I have spoken to you” (Jeremiah 30:2). He said to Isaiah, “My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring” (Isaiah 59:21).
God has always been concerned with the words, because precise words are necessary to convey precise meaning. That’s why Paul confidently refers to God’s revelation not as words of human wisdom, but as “words...taught by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:13).
Second, the Bible teaches it is important to accurately understand these inspired words of Scripture.
Note Jesus in Luke 10:25–28:
And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” And he answered and said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And He said to him, “You have answered correctly.”
Jesus did not ask, “What does the Spirit say to you on this issue?” He asked, “What is written? How does it read?” Then He waited to see if the lawyer got it right.
There is a correct and incorrect way to read the Bible. Paul tells Timothy to handle the Word accurately to avoid bringing shame on himself (2 Timothy 2:15). Jesus scolded the Pharisees for not understanding the Scripture properly. He then made an argument for the resurrection that hinged on the tense of a word: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:29–32).
Third, the Bible teaches that private interpretations do not yield the accurate meaning.
Peter is clear on this point. He writes:
But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:20–21).
Because there is a divine author behind prophecy, the Apostle argues, there is a particular truth—a determinate meaning—that God intends to convey. Individual, personalized interpretations that distort this meaning only bring danger (note the reference to false prophets and false teachers in the next verse).
The same reasoning applies to all Scripture, not just to words of prophets, because the same rationale applies—the same Divine author stands behind the entire Bible.3 The meaning God originally intended through the inspired writers is the same meaning for anyone reading the verse today.
Simply put, “a text cannot mean what it never meant.”4 Whenever God speaks, He has a particular truth in mind that fanciful interpretations obscure. We are not free to extract our own personalized revelations from Scripture. The Holy Spirit did not mean one thing when Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, for example, and then something entirely different when we read it 2000 years later. There are no private messages in the Bible.
Fourth, the Bible teaches we are to be diligent in study to get the accurate meaning.
The “good hand of the Lord” was upon Ezra specifically because Ezra “had set his heart to study the law of the Lord” (Ezra 7:9–10). The New Testament Bereans were called noble precisely because they went back to the words of the text, “examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).5
In Paul’s last words before his death he admonished Timothy to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Paul warned of a time when the church “will not endure sound doctrine,” but instead will turn to “myths” that “tickle” the ears (2 Timothy 4:3). Truth is the antidote, he said, preached faithfully and accurately. Success in this depends on diligent work, not on “hearing” from the Spirit.
Fifth, the Bible teaches we must guard the accurate meaning from being distorted, twisted, or maligned.
This is clear from a number of passages. Jude writes (1:3):
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.
Paul assured the Corinthians that he was “not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). By contrast, Peter warned that the “untaught and unstable” distort Paul’s words, “to their own destruction,” he adds (2 Peter 3:16).
Anticipating his imminent martyrdom, Paul told Timothy, “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me.... Guard...the treasure which has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:13–14).
Do you realize you cannot distort something unless it has a specific, correct meaning that is able to be twisted? You cannot retain the standard of sound words unless the words are the standard for accuracy. You cannot contend for the same sound doctrine for everyone that protects us from myths—a “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints”—if each individual Christian can receive his own personal message from the text.
Finally, the Bible never teaches the subjective, individualized interpretation approach.
Where does Scripture advance the idea that the Holy Spirit changes the meanings of the words of the text for individual readers? Where does the Bible teach that private messages lurk between lines wanting only the Holy Spirit’s touch to bring them to life? Where does God’s Word suggest the relativistic, take-the-verse-out-of-context-for-my-own-private-use approach? It’s not there.
If you think God is telling you something through Scripture that is not connected to the meaning of the words in their context, it can’t be God because He chose to communicate through language, not around it. God will not twist, distort, or redefine His own Word for our private consumption.
“We cannot make [the Bible] mean anything that pleases us, and then give the Holy Spirit ‘credit’ for it,” Fee and Stuart wrote. “The Holy Spirit cannot be called in to contradict Himself, and He is the one who inspired the original intent.”6
The Bible speaks clearly on this question. The written words of Scripture are God-breathed, chosen specifically by the Holy Spirit for their precision. There is a correct way to read them and an incorrect way. Private interpretations do not yield accurate meanings. Instead, diligent study and careful examination of the text deliver to us unadulterated truth, a treasure we are to guard and protect from shameful distortion and abuse.
The OT in the NT
How is it, then, that Old Testament verses cited by New Testament writers sometimes seem so far removed from their original context? This is a fair question to which there are a couple of explanations, depending on the citation. Most hinge on our core principle: Meaning is always based on the author’s intent.
Since the principle author of Scripture is God, He may have intended more than what the Old Testament authors were aware of and may clarify His original meaning in subsequent writings.
God may have intended multiple meanings or multiple levels of meaning, or an immediate literal sense and an additional spiritual sense, or possibly a double fulfillment (e.g., prophecy and apocalyptic literature). The New Testament writers have insight into these meanings that we do not because they were writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They had a direct connection, in a sense, to the Author’s intent.
There are other possibilities. Sometimes when a writer notes that the Scripture has been “fulfilled,” he may mean that a type has been fulfilled—a divinely inspired pattern or symbol—and not specific verses themselves. God’s history sometimes repeats itself (e.g., Jeremiah 31:15 vs. Matthew 2:17–18).
A later author may not be finding new meaning in a text, but giving new meaning to it. For us, then, the question is what did Matthew mean in his use of Hosea (for example), not what Hosea originally meant.
In no case, however, are New Testament authors relativizing the text for their own private use. Rather, they are revealing formerly hidden objective meanings in the text that might have been implicit but are now made explicit for application to the whole Christian community. This is critical since I have been arguing that God does not take verses out of context as a means of conveying private messages to individual readers.
No Power in Words
Christians err in thinking the words of Scripture are somehow vested with power. Just speak the words—“claim the verse”—and power is released to serve us. This is not so. God’s Word is alive, but in a very specific sense (see Hebrews 4:12–13). His words do not have a life of their own. That is an occult view of language, not a biblical one. There is only power in God, in whose mind the words originate.
Therefore, the words are only alive as they serve God’s original intent. They only have power when used as God purposed. There is no power when God’s words are twisted, distorted, or adulterated for our private use. We cannot claim divine authority for a verse when we are using it in a way God did not intend. This is not Christianity. It is superstition.
Anyone teaching the Bible out of context, therefore, is not teaching the Bible at all, regardless of how much they “baptize” their inventions with Holy Spirit language. A reflection on a Bible passage in a morning quiet time, a devotional reading, or a Sunday sermon may be edifying, encouraging, and uplifting. But if it’s not the message of the text—God’s message—it lacks power even when it’s quoted “chapter and verse.”
There is a legitimate activity of the Holy Spirit making unique, personal application in our lives. But this is based on the objective meaning of a passage. The Spirit does not give new information not already resident in the inspired words. The curriculum, so to speak, is standardized for all Christians. Every person has equal access to the meaning, at least in principle. The Spirit “illuminates”—sheds light on—the Word, helping us to see what is already there in words the Spirit Himself inspired through the initial writers (see 1 Corinthians 2:10–16). He then aids us in personal application.
Whether claiming promises during difficult times or citing verses to substantiate a view, make sure the texts you use to prove your point actually mean what you think they mean. Always be on the alert when reading books or listening to sermons. Are the authors or speakers simply quoting verses to buttress their points, or are they interpreting the Scripture carefully by looking at the details of the text?
Misconstruing a passage neutralizes the Word of God. It robs Scripture of its authority and influence. The entire reason we go to the Bible in the first place—to get God’s truth and apply it to our lives—is thwarted when we ignore the context.
Simply “claiming” a verse doesn’t make it our own. Only when we are properly informed by God’s Word the way it was written—in its context—can we be transformed by it. Every piece becomes powerful when it is working together according to the Spirit’s design.
The sword of the Spirit is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). Used properly, it parries deception and pierces the heart. It protects us from error. A sword made of putty, though, has no power. It pierces nothing. It offers no protection. And it has no place in the arsenal of a Christian.
Putting Your Knowledge into Action
- First, don’t look for private messages in the Bible. They’re not there. Do not “claim” verses that are not intended for you or your circumstances.
- When others say “God gave me this verse” (or “God gave me this verse for you”), check to see if the context is being abused. If you suspect so, raise a question: “I’m curious. How exactly did you get that meaning/promise/application from this verse?”
- Always direct the discussion back to the meanings of the words, sentences, and paragraphs as understood in their original context. Like the Bereans, examine the text.
- When someone says “You’re putting God in a box,” tell them, “It’s never a mistake to try to use God’s Word the way He intends.” You’re actually taking Him out of the box of private interpretation, subjectivism, superstition, and error.
- Purchase a book to help you with your own biblical interpretation skills, then study it and begin to apply it immediately.