Five Popular Bible Passages We May Be Misinterpreting (Part 2)

Not long after Rambling Ever On was created, while it was still cooling on the window sill, I wrote an article on Five Popular Bible Passages We May Be Misinterpreting. It created quite a bit of response. In the vein of much of modern Hollywood, I have written this sequel years later.

The point of it, I will repeat from last time, is to challenge how we think about the Bible. I want to push against our preconceived interpretations that perhaps we have never thought much about, the popular ones that do not often get challenged.

I give two disclaimers, though: First, I am not saying that I am positive that the alternative interpretations below are correct. Just that, according to some students of Scripture, they may be. And we should think through them in humility and wisdom, aiming to rightly divide the word of truth. Even if it means saying, “I was wrong.” Secondly, I am purposely avoiding passages like Philippians 4:13, Jeremiah 29:11 and the “Where two or three are gathered” verse because they are commonly picked on. These, in my experience, are not. Let’s look at them.

Exodus 14:14

Moses answered the people, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Exodus 14:14

Traditional Interpretation: When faced with daunting circumstances, we need to be still and let God fight for us.

Alternative Interpretation: God may want us to move instead of crying out to him.

The next verse is absolutely why I believe this:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.”

Exodus 14:15

I hasten to add that I have heard wise, biblically sound Christian pastors and teachers cite this verse on social media. So maybe I am overthinking it. But at this point, Exodus 14:14 is not a verse I would use to teach people to be still. Psalm 46:10, yes. Instead, I use this pair of verses and their greater context to teach that there is a time to pray but there is also a time to get moving. Prayer is not a substitute for action.

Matthew 27:46

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

Matthew 27:46

Traditional Interpretation: God turned his back on Jesus (or abandoned him, or some verb of relational separation) to judge him for the sin of mankind since God cannot look upon sin.

Alternative Interpretation: Jesus, using a rabbinic practice of quoting only the first verse of a Psalm to communicate the entire psalm, is telling the audience that God will save him from this horrific circumstance. As Psalm 22 teaches.

I think “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us” has contributed to the understanding of this verse, as it says, “The Father turned his face away.” But even without the hymn, I have heard the traditional interpretation over and over in my life. I have always assumed it to be true.  Yet read the words of Jeffrey Crabtree in the Randall House Commentary on Matthew:

Was Jesus actually abandoned and calling on God from His sense of that? Or was He primarily saying this for the benefit of His human audience? Some interpreters understand Jesus’ question to mean that the Father did in some sense forsake His Son as He hung on the cross as the atonement for the sin of the world (Hendriksen 971; Hagner 33B:844). Others understand Jesus to have been implying, “Read the twenty-second Psalm. It tells you what this crucifixion is about. I may look forsaken (Mt. 27:43) but I am not” (Ps. 22:24). This makes Jesus’ quote and question mainly rhetorical…

…It seems probable that Jesus was not forsaken (Ps. 22:24) even though it appeared to those on the ground that He was and even though He Himself felt forsaken (Evans, Matthew 514). He had suffered forty days in the wilderness at the beginning of His ministry and endured extreme loneliness in the Garden the previous night in prayer. In like manner, on the cross at the time of His greatest suffering Jesus again felt isolation, only this time the sense of isolation was the most intense of His entire human experience—because He bore the wrath of God for the sins of the entire world.

The interpreter will want to consider the implications of the position he determines to be Scripture’s intent. Can the Father and Son really separate in their beings (Jn. 10:30)? Would such a real separation agree with Psalm 22:24?

Jeffrey Cabtree, The Randall House Bible Commentary: Matthew, 466-67

I find Mr. Crabtree’s explanation nuanced and balanced and it causes me to consider it. Yet I add that I am still struggling through this one. And I have not bought the alternative interpretation completely yet. This is not a major doctrinal issue to me but it’s still something worth thinking through and wrestling with. Verses like 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Romans 8:3 give me pause in abandoning the traditional interpretation.

John 3:30

“[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.”

John 3:30

Traditional Interpretation: We must increase Christ with our lives and be humble.

Alternative Interpretation: Christ must increase by the very nature of things no matter what we do or don’t do.

The word “must” works one of two ways, illustrated by the two interpretations above. We can say, “If you want to take English classes, you must register.” You control that. But we also say, “What goes up, must come down.” You don’t control that. You cannot to anything to affect it, start it, stop it or alter it. It’s something that happens by the very nature of things. The latter definition is what I think John means.

There are several reasons I believe this but here are three: First, it fits with how John the Gospel author used the Greek word “must” (δει) earlier in the same chapter when he said, Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” Based on verses like Acts 2:23 and 4:28, we know that the death of Christ was something God determined should happen and that humans could not prevent it or cause it. It is God’s—and Jesus’s—nature to save, just as it is gravity’s nature to bring objects to the earth.

Secondly, this fits with Jesus in Luke when he said, “If [my disciples] keep quiet the stones will cry out.” Christ will be worshipped because His nature as God demands it and not because we must do it.

And lastly, the context before John 3:30 leaves the interpretation up in the air, but in the verses after he says, “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.” This speaks to Christ nature as above us, which leads me to believe John is explaining why Christ must increase by the very nature of things more than Christ must increase because we must do it.

All of this matters because it helps me understand how Christ as God is bigger than my worship. He must increase as God in the sense that he must be exalted, praised and magnified. And even if free will beings refuse to do so, there are still billions of created voices doing it around the clock.

John 11:33-35

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept.

John 11:33-35

Traditional Interpretation: Jesus was saddened by the death of his friend and cried as a result. 

Alternative Interpretation: Jesus was angry because of the reaction of the people and was overcome with emotional distress. 

I suppose it’s possible both are true but at the very least I think this passage needs to be taught as Jesus was angry as much as sad. “Deeply moved” in the verse above is open to interpretation over a range of stressful emotion but it definitely bends to anger in my opinion. And this can be seen in how some prominent translations render it (NLT, HCSB). The people doubted him (vs. 37) and lack of faith often made Jesus angry (Mark 16:14).

Revelation 3:16

So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.

Traditional Interpretation: God wants you to be for him or against him, but not on the fence. 

Alternative Interpretation: God wants you to be for him and hates lukewarmness. 

This doesn’t change the main meaning of the passage, but it is possible that when God refers to hot and cold water he means that both hot and cold have a purpose. Cold water is good to drink and hot water is good for cooking, among other uses for both. So God wants us to be useful. Lukewarm water is good for nothing. It’s nasty and worth only spitting out.

Let me conclude by saying that when I did the last article, the discussion in the comment section below was very edifying and I actually adapted my opinion of Proverbs 22:6 as a result. So we strongly encourage feedback and interaction, even respectful disagreement.

Series Navigation<< 5 Popular Bible Verses and Passages That We May Be Misinterpreting

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married nearly seven years and have a 3-year-old son, Liam Erasmus. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

11 thoughts on “Five Popular Bible Passages We May Be Misinterpreting (Part 2)

  • July 6, 2018 at 11:51 am

    Very good article. I especially think you are spot on with the “lukewarm” passage.

  • July 6, 2018 at 12:10 pm

    In John 11, there are several instances of Jesus’ disciples and close friends doubting or questioning his plan, so I get where you are coming from with his anger at the lack of faith.

    I still think it makes sense that “Jesus deeply moved” and “Jesus wept” are just different expressions of his grief. The anger may be directed at more than just his friends death, but probably includes it. The anger at Lazarus’ death makes the weeping more powerful. If he was angry just at the lack of faith, the weeping seems like a side note.

    • July 6, 2018 at 12:49 pm

      I could actually get behind that. It does seem odd that Jesus would cry like that just in anger but a more complex difficult combination of emotions. It also seems odd to me that he’d cry knowing he was about to raise him, but 1) that seems less odd and 2) bible interpretation cannot be boxed in by definition of “odd”.

      I’ll be honest too: apart from John 3:30 I’m not going to be adamant about any of the above interpretations, either traditional or alternative.

  • July 6, 2018 at 1:34 pm

    *Exodus 14 to me is obvious. People who hold to the “traditional interpretation” as you called it need to continue reading the passage.
    *I’ve often thought about the theological understanding of Jesus’s OT quote in Matthew 27:46. I’ve always heard the traditional interpretation, but never fully understood how “God rejecting God” (as Martin Luther put it) works.
    *And I’m in total agreement with you on Revelation 3. That’s spot on.
    *I’ve often though John 11 is a perfect example of the hypostatic union. Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, yet He still felt personal loss of human friendship (temporarily), and He empathized with the others around Him.So I don’t know if I agree with your alternative interpretation.
    *The alternative interpretation for John 3 doesn’t make much sense to me, but for this reason: Why would someone who created the world and came to redeem said world need to increase, except that He needed to increase in the lives of the people He created and came down to redeem? Christ can’t increase by very nature of things, because HE IS already supremely above the very nature of things. Only His Spirit and influence need to increase in us.

    • July 6, 2018 at 2:26 pm

      I think the “God rejecting God” point is a great one. Though the Trinity bends logic at so many points it’s hard to rule anything out.

      I’m not positive that *I* agree with the alt on John 11. This group more than last I’m really not sure about. I just enjoy thinking through them and discussing them.

      But I am sold on John 3:30. I don’t think increasing Christ in either interpretation means making God higher. Creation cannot do that but it can magnify, exalt, worship, etc. That’s what has to happen by the very nature of things. What did Christ say in Luke 19:40 that the rocks would cry out if my interpretation is wrong? Rocks don’t have free will. THe vast, vast majority of creation doesn’t have free will but creation in general worships God. Only humans (and angels, at least for a time) had the choice not to. Why? Because Christ must be exalted.

      • July 6, 2018 at 3:05 pm

        You have a good point on John 3:30. I have always thought the meaning of the word “increase” to be “to gain; to become more.” Something good could increase in power, value, worth, influence, or significance. I have never thought of it meaning “to be more exalted.” I would still hold to the fact that Christ still cannot “increase” in being exalted as all of Creation already praises His name. The heavens already declare the glory of God, and the atmosphere shows His handiwork.
        Also, I don’t feel the previous verses leave it up in the air like you do. John was clearly approached by people who wanted Him to clarify who Jesus was and why He was stepping on John’s turf, so to speak, by baptizing. Thus, people were flocking to Jesus now instead of John. John pointed them back to Jesus by saying Jesus was the bridegroom and he was just the bridegroom’s friend. And it is the bridegroom’s friend’s role to make the wedding reception all about the groom. So John should decrease his influence by allowing Jesus to increase His influence in the lives of people. To me it has everything to do with increasing in the lives of people, for Jesus cannot truly increase since he is already unthinkably higher than all His creation. I don’t buy into your interpretation of this passage that Jesus must be exalted, for He is God. I do believe that idea, just not from these verses.

        • July 6, 2018 at 7:12 pm

          And my point about your first paragraph is that those things exalt and declare the glory because they have to, because it is natural to do so. Only humans go against nature by free will.

          Your second paragraph makes a good point. Going back further to vs. 17 or so makes it more ambiguous but the immediate prior context does lean toward the first interpretation. I suppose the overall argument to me overwhelms it.

          • July 7, 2018 at 10:03 am

            So you think the clause “He must increase” is better interpreted as “He will be praised and exalted?” I definitely agree with your overall point, especially as it concerns humanity’s fickle free-will-nature of accepting God and praising Him. There are several other biblical texts that say the same thing. I’m just having a hard time seeing it in this passage. I wouldn’t include verse 17 as significant to understanding verse 30, as there is a scene shift beginning in verse 22 from the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. But everything from verses 22-29 are very significant leading up to understanding verse 30.
            I respect your interpretation. You no doubt have had much more studies in the original language of the text than I have.

  • July 6, 2018 at 3:20 pm

    BTW Gowdy, I love this article. We need more stuff to actually get us meditating on the Scriptures and to challenge ourselves with the true meaning of it. I really appreciate your study on these passages and insights.

    • July 6, 2018 at 7:13 pm

      Thanks for real. Some of the ones I’ve done (10 total now going back to Part One) I have wrestled with so much that it would be hard to change my mind; they are in fact the product of me changing my mind. But most are still doing revolutions in my brain from time to time and I do benefit from public discussion.


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