Debunked: I Don't Think This Verse Means What You Think It Means
By Jake Sletten
Last summer at the Higher Things Concordia conference in St. Paul, I was privileged to present a topic that I'm very passionate about: setting the record straight on certain passages of Scripture that are woefully and dangerously misinterpreted.
First Things First
Before attempting to interpret any passage of Scripture, the FIRST thing that we must do is pray. We must pray to the Holy Spirit that we read Scripture through the lens of Jesus and Him crucified, dead, buried, and resurrected. After all, Scripture itself is very clear: that it ALL points to Jesus. John 20:31 says as much: "…but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."
The second and third things are linked: we must understand that Scripture always (and only) interprets itself. We cannot simply pluck passages out of their context and think that we will know what they really mean. It is sort of like that scene in Return of the Jedi when Han Solo gets really bummed because he thinks that Leia loves Luke. . .romantically. If he had been paying attention, he would have figured out that Leia is actually Luke's sister. . .eww.
There are also these important verses from 2 Peter 1:19-21: "And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."
Philippians 4:13: Context Is Everything
Athletes have been putting this verse on their shoes and eye black for as long as sports have been around, to motivate them and others, while also earnestly desiring to give a witness to their Christian faith.
Let's begin with what this verse DOESN'T mean. What this verse DOESN'T mean are things like this: "You can do anything you set your mind to!" "Set your goals and you will achieve them!" "Dream it. Believe it. Achieve it!" Or, the even more ludicrous: "There's no possible way I can die while climbing El Capitan without a rope because, well, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!"
The first three are all examples of the kind of positive attitude that any well-intentioned parent would want to instill in their children. The last one is just crazy talk, although there are some who believe it to be true! According to the context of the book of Philippians, however, none of these examples apply to what Paul was writing about.
So, what DOES Paul actually mean in Philippians 4:13? First, we must understand what the "things" are that Paul is talking about. Allowing the context to help us, verse 12 gives us the answer: "…facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need…" NOT the ability to be the best tent maker ever. NOT the ability to one day be Caesar (though he ever wanted such a thing). NOT the ability to do anything he wanted as long as he set his mind to it. He was able, however, to face having plenty and to face being in need.
And what gave him this ability? In the previous chapter, verses 7-8 tell us. "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of knowing Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…"
So for Paul, the "“secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need"” that he wrote about in 4:12, and the reason why he can confidently write "I can do all things…" is because he KNOWS that Jesus Christ is Lord!
1 Corinthians 10:13: All About God's Promises
Let me just get straight to the point. Nowhere in this verse (or anywhere else in Scripture for that matter) will you find this sentence: "God will not give you more than you can handle." It. Doesn’t. Exist.
The importance of correctly reading and interpreting this passage cannot be understated. If it gets interpreted as "God will not give you more than you can handle" it is setting up the hearer for dangerous disappointment.
Try telling the mother of four whose cancer has returned for a second time that God will not give her more than she can handle. Try telling it to the father who has lost his job and isn't sure where his family's next meal is coming from. Try telling it to the child whose parents are getting a divorce and she thinks it's all her fault. Even the apostle Paul tells us he was given more than he could handle! 2 Corinthians 1:8: "For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the afflictions we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself."
You and I both know that what life throws at us is often more than we can handle. But our comfort lies in this: God knows that. And that’s why 1 Corinthians 10:13 is such an awesome verse. It reminds us that our God is faithful to the promises that He has made to His people—and it is this reminder that is the key to interpreting this verse.
You and I will always face trials and sufferings this side of heaven—and sometimes it WILL be more than we can bear. So, Paul reminds us, "God is faithful." Another way to put it? God keeps His promises. This is not the first time that we have heard this message from Paul in this letter! He writes the same words in chapter 1 verse 9: "God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."
The Corinthians were struggling with divisions in their church which had caused their consciences to become weak. Consequently, they forgot the Gospel that Paul had taught them. He wanted to remind them that God is faithful, and He will keep His promise to them, and will provide the way of escape from temptation, though not from hard times.
Today, we struggle with a host of different things that cause us to suffer emotionally, physically, and spiritually. When times of trial come upon you, remember these three words: God is faithful. When your season of suffering is more than you can bear, remember that God is faithful and He keeps His promises to you.
Know the Truth
The next time you see a misapplied Bible verse scrawled on a football helmet or featured in a social media meme, don't hammer the person passing it on. Instead, make sure YOU are clear when you communicate the truth that ultimately, Scripture is about Christ for us.
Rev. Jake Sletten is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and School in Freistatt, MO. He thinks the mission of Higher Things is exciting: to help raise up new generations of believers for the Gospel. He is husband to Courtney, and dad to MJ, Bradley, and Emma. He loves going on dates with his wife, grilling on his Weber, coaching his kids' basketball teams, watching basketball (mainly his Los Angeles Clippers), and reading books about dragons.
This Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the winter 2019 issue of Higher Things Magazine, but we're reprising it here because it sparked the concept of a Debunked! column. We're excited to have Pastor Sletten on board as a columnist!
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