This is probably not a new idea to you: ”Pay attention to context.” The easiest way to misunderstand a verse is to read it by itself, ignoring the context. There’s a variety of pithy sayings, like “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text.”
My favorite comes from Greg Koukl: “Never read a Bible verse.”
The point being, never read just one verse. Always read the surrounding verses, too–to get a better idea of the topic, and to help understand what the main point is, and to help figure out ambiguous phrases. (I wrote a post a couple years ago on this, called Understanding God’s Word.) Sometimes it’s a jarring experience to read a familiar verse in context–because you discover that it doesn’t actually say what you always thought. Maybe the idea is still found elsewhere in the Bible (i.e. maybe it’s just a case of “Right idea, wrong passage”)…or maybe not. Either way, it’s a moment of dissonance.
I’m going to start a series. Each entry will present a familiar verse from the evangelical world, describe the common interpretation, and look at the context. Most of these will be very straightforward.
I’d like to highlight both (1) how important it is to be careful about context, and (2) how easy it is to avoid so many mistakes. (Some things do require deeper study–but you can get a long way with simple, obvious habits. It’s not esoteric.)
Note: An internet friend of mine, Lisa Robinson, was talking on Facebook about doing some posts like this for Parchment and Pen. So I’m sort of stealing her idea. But my own blog has so few readers that I don’t think I’ll actually be stealing her thunder. :)