There are times when we see or hear a passage, over and over, and believe we understand it. It seems so obvious. But sometimes the popular use of a passage belies its actual meaning. Sometimes the context of a passage can make the passage so clear that we wonder how it could have been misunderstood. What’s more, sometimes the context takes the passage in a completely different direction so that understanding it adds a completely new understanding.

Below are four verses that people assume something about. But the real meaning escapes many of us. It doesn’t take any special knowledge of original languages or deceptive wordsmithing to get the meaning from a passage. Let’s go through them and then figure out how to solve this problem.

#1 Jeremiah 29:11

‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.

How do we usually read this passage? God has good things in store for us. We can look to the future with confidence. The idea might even be a bit materialistic – He will meet our temporal needs.

But what’s the context? The people of Israel are headed into captivity. Jeremiah is telling the people to look beyond this. It is what we would call an eschatological statement. They are to look beyond the current time, even the next generations, to see that God has a plan. That’s what he said in verse 10:

When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place.

It was their grandchildren and great grandchildren who would see this fulfillment. It was not for the recipients of the message. It was their responsibility to keep the promise alive and pass it on to their children and so forth.

He is also addressing the people not as individuals but as a group. This is not about individual wealth, success, or ease. He is not saying that the current calamity will be removed. He is saying that His future plans hold something different in store.

#2 Romans 1:20

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

A lot of people in apologetics appeal to this passage, though you may hear this same explanation in a sermon or Bible study from time to time. The claim is made that, through the observations and understandings of the human mind, God can be found. From there the person can progress to find salvation through faith in Christ.

But is that what it says? Go back to verse 18, or earlier if you like. This is a statement about judgment and not a path to redemption. It is not presenting an alternative path to redemption. The knowledge that a person may gain is to this end, that they may learn their lack of excuse. His wrath has been revealed because creation declares Him.

This is made clear in verse 20. This knowledge is given for a purpose, whether they see it or not.

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

Creation does not provide a path. No option is presented. What is presented is human failure and that failure is presented as universal. Romans 1 is about the gentile world. Romans 2 proceeds to make the same argument about the Jewish world. Then Christ is presented as the source for salvation – that one’s status before God changes because of redemption in Christ (3:24). All of the provision for redemption is through Christ and nothing through our capacity to know God apart from this provision.

Romans 1 is about nature as a type of law for the gentile world. The Jewish people had the law of God in all of its iterations. But the gentile world, without the revealed law, is condemned by natural law. Nature is to them a law and all law judges and condemns. Law does not redeem. That parallel was stated specifically a little later (2:12)

For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law

At the core of the erroneous interpretation is this: Salvation is not an epistemological question. That is, it is not a matter of knowledge and is not attainable by gaining knowledge. Salvation does not begin with our knowledge of Him but with His provision.

#3 Matthew 5:31-32

“It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

This is a popular passage, cited when one wonders if a divorced person might remarry.

It is easy, with a cursory reading, to draw this conclusion: The passage is about the right to divorce and that wrongness of divorce with one “except” statement. This passage is taken as justification for divorce.

To answer this let’s do something simple, something that we did in grade school. Let’s diagram the clause. I’ll do it in a more casual manner and just separate the subordinate phrase from the main subject and predicate.

Everyone who divorces his wife makes her commit adultery;

except for the reason of unchastity

and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

The issue is this: How can I avoid causing another person to commit adultery (sexual infidelity). In the first part, should you divorce your wife you set her up for adultery, unless of course that was the cause for divorce in the first place. The reason she is being set up is because people do not remain unmarried. A woman will need to remarry lest she be destitute, a situation which nobody wants.

Of course a man who marries a divorced woman (because marriage does not end on account of divorce, it is a life-long relationship & commitment) commits adultery because she is, according to the law of God, still married.

In short, this passage does not provide any exception. Just because we see the word “except” does not mean that we get permission. It might mean something entirely different.

The first two sections of the Sermon on the Mount can be viewed like this:

Your righteousness needs to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. (5:20)

They said “don’t do x”

I say don’t even think it and do not lead someone else to do it.

We can view the discussion of adultery like this (abbreviated):

Don’t do it.

Don’t even think about that woman in front of you.

Don’t cause a woman to commit adultery by putting her in a difficult position.

The section on murder proceeds likewise:

Don’t do it.

Don’t hold onto that murderous, hateful attitude.

Don’t give someone else cause to hold that attitude toward you. Make things right with your opponent.

Jesus is not making an allowance for divorce and with it infidelity. He is calling to account the Pharisees for their short-sighted view of righteousness. He is making clear that righteousness is as much internal as it is external. He is also making clear that righteousness is quite often an interpersonal and relational matter which involves maintaining relationships to the best of one’s responsibility in that relationship. Personal piety is important but even that is far from a fulfillment of God’s standard of righteousness.

This final passage is far less complicated.

#4 Amos 3:3

Can to walk together except they be agreed.

Take a look at some of the images on the Internet that use this passage.[1] They are filled with sentiment. But this passage says something quite different. Let’s begin by looking at the prophet’s broader statement (the context) and see what he is getting at.

The section from verse 3 through the first half of verse 8 gives us a list of similar truisms. Each of them makes sense when taken separately. The question to ask is why they are all together. Verses 1, 2, and the last part of verse 8 explain that.

First (v1-2), the message involves the word, the prophetic message, that the prophet spoke against His people. He does this precisely because they are His people. Then the concluding statement of verse 8 makes his purpose clear – “The Lord GOD has spoken! Who can but prophesy?”

Amos fits his message and calling along with the list of truisms. The people would have understood that one called of God would not resist proclaiming the message given to him by God. That is the obligation and calling of a prophet.

That statement also conveys something about the certainty of judgment. The message Amos is bringing has been given to Him by God. Thus the two in agreement are he and God for the purpose of delivering the message of judgment to Israel. The remainder of the statements are thus not mere truisms but statements about God’s coming judgment.

In comparison, the light sentiment that we attach to Amos 3:3 might make a person feel good but it should be read as a warning. It is intended to let God’s people know that judgment comes to His people. He disciplines His people to purify them.

One may claim Amos 3:3 if one is a prophet of God delivering a message of the certainty of coming punishment. One may not claim Amos 3:3 for the purpose of feeling good about a relationship.

The Solution

First, don’t take for granted the interpretation given you by a preacher or a bumper sticker.  Read the Bible.  Better yet, get one without verse markings [2] so that you can read the flow of a passage and get the thoughts of the author as clearly as possible.  You may find that much of the time you agree with what’s being taught. Sometimes you will disagree.  But you will have a reason to agree or disagree.

Reading is a lost art.  Reviving it for yourself and your children and grandchildren will enrich everyone’s life.

[edited for form & typo corrections 12/21/15]