Twisting Scripture Needs to Stop!
Tony Cooke

Twisting Scripture Needs to Stop! by Tony CookeWhat a privilege and honor it is to share God’s Word with others. Every Christian has the responsibility to represent Jesus to the world, but in this letter, I am writing specifically about the awesome responsibility of those who teach and preach God’s word. Daniel Webster said, “My greatest thought is my accountability before God.” It is true that “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Rom 14:10), but it appears from Scripture that we will not all be judged the same way. Jesus taught, “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required” (Luke 12:48, NLT). Likewise, James wrote, “not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1, NLT).

As a minister of the Gospel, it is imperative that I not only study the word of God diligently but that I also maintain an awareness of my own heart and motives. I will answer to God for what I teach others, and I must ensure that my motives are truly for the benefit of others and not for self-gain. I recently was sent a preacher’s message, and I regret to say that he twisted and misused Scripture considerably. It is probably not surprising to you that the issue pertained to money and prosperity. Listening to this message reminded me of what A. T. Robertson said, “One proof of the inspiration of the Bible is that it has withstood so much poor preaching.”

In the full context of the message, “giving to get” was overtly promoted, and the idea of receiving a 30, 60, or 100-fold return (monetarily) was strongly advocated. In the midst of this teaching, Mark 4:24 was used. It reads, “Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.” The problem with this is that Mark 4:24, in context with Jesus’ teaching, has absolutely nothing to do with money, with offerings, or with receiving a “harvest” of finances. Please take the time to read Mark 4 in its entirety, and you will see that this is true. Mark 4 is all about how a person hears the word of God. It is about the attitude, respect, and reverence that we give to Scripture. The context makes this very clear, and no one listening to Jesus teaching that day would have thought that Jesus was talking about a return on their giving (because he wasn’t).

The Amplified version of Mark 4:24 clarifies Jesus’ intent well. It reads, “Be careful what you are hearing. The measure [of thought and study] you give [to the truth you hear] will be the measure [of virtue and knowledge] that comes back to you—and more [besides] will be given to you who hear.” When a preacher represents a verse as saying something that it does not say, he not only misleads people by presenting a false idea, he hinders people from grasping the truth that is really there.

Distorting Scripture regarding money and offerings becomes particularly suspect when a minister claims that he has an anointing for increase on his life. Can you imagine one of the apostles or anyone in the New Testament making such a claim? It is certainly not there. An excellent text on Bible interpretation states, “To use the Bible for the preacher’s own agenda constitutes a reprehensible abuse of both the preaching office and the Bible.”[1] I am certainly not that minister’s judge, and he will not answer to me. I am, however, responsible to “test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good” (1 Thes 5:21, NLT).

There is an enormous need today for ministers to be excellent students of Scripture and faithful proclaimers of truth. This means that we must adamantly resist the temptation to say anything that would appear to hype people or manipulate people. As I considered the message by that particular minister, I found myself asking the question, “What would people preach if it could not benefit them financially in any way?” Would they talk about how prosperous they are and how people have received great financial blessings by giving to their ministries? Would they take certain Scriptures and present the idea that they are about finances when in context, they are not? God help us to have pure hearts, clean motives, and godly methods!

The issues that I speak of are nothing new. Paul addressed Timothy strongly about the need for sound doctrine. Consider his admonition in 2 Timothy 2:15 (NKJV). “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

The Amplified version renders this passage, “Study and be eager and do your utmost to present yourself to God approved (tested by trial), a workman who has no cause to be ashamed, correctly analyzing and accurately dividing [rightly handling and skillfully teaching] the Word of Truth.”

Several components of this verse are worth noting. First, Paul spoke of being “approved to God.” The goal of ministry is not to please people or even to get a crowd. It is also important to realize that “getting results” is not the goal of ministry either, especially if it involves distorting Scripture. The ultimate purpose of ministry is to honor God, allowing him to do what he desires in the lives of others.

I was shocked many years ago when a minister became upset that godly standards and ethics concerning offerings and finances were shared in a corrective manner. He had been using some of the methods that I described earlier in this article, and he told me that since he’d been using those techniques, his offerings had increased four-fold. It seems that this person felt that “getting more money” was now the litmus test for what is true and legitimate. If we are not biblically principled, we will become carnally pragmatic. When Scripture, rightly understood and honestly applied takes a back seat simply to “what works” and what produces results, we are in real trouble.

Let me repeat, Paul admonished Timothy to be “approved to God.” As a minister, I need to be reminded that I stand before God and that ultimately, he will evaluate my work. Paul was ever mindful of this. He writes:

But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (emphasis added)

You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us. (emphasis added)

The last part of 2 Timothy 2:15 addresses the accurate handling of Scripture. The phrase “rightly dividing the word of truth” literally means “to cut straight” or “to cut right.” Various commentators have identified different metaphors that illustrate this idea:

  • A farmer who plows straight furrows in his field
  • The construction of a straight road
  • A stone mason who accurately cuts a stone so that it fits properly into the building
  • A tentmaker (such as Paul himself) or another person cutting leather or fabrics so that which is cut will be of the correct size and dimension

Vincent writes, “The thought is that the minister of the gospel is to present the truth rightly, not abridging it, not handling it as a charlatan (see on 2 Cor. 2:17), not making it a matter of wordy strife (ver. 14), but treating it honestly and fully, in a straightforward manner. [2]

There is a tendency in today’s world for the believer (and even preachers) to skim through Scripture simply looking for a text to support whatever happens to be their need of the moment. God can certainly bless and encourage us with a particular text, but that does not take the place of the habit of carefully reading and diligently studying Scripture. Speaking of his study of the Bible, Martin Luther said, “If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.”

Taking Scripture out of context can be done deliberately for the promotion of a premeditated agenda (such as getting people to give more money), but probably far more often it is done due to haste and carelessness and without malicious intent. Perhaps one of the most decontextualized verses in the Bible in recent years (I know I’m guilty of doing this to this verse) is Jeremiah 29:11 which reads, “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” What a great verse! Of course, we all want to be helpful to people and encourage them. In addition to sharing this verse with others, many of us have probably found encouragement in it ourselves. I believe the principle in this text is true, and no doubt, the Holy Spirit can quicken hope in us through such a thought.

But if all we do is skim through Scripture looking for encouragement, we are going to miss tremendous truths that help us develop a mature and solid faith. For example, in this particular passage in Jeremiah, it wasn’t just a random, hopeful thought. When we study it in context, the people of Judah had recently gone into Babylonian captivity. Some people were thinking God was going to miraculously and quickly deliver them. But in the verse immediately before this (Jer 29:10), God told them that they are not getting delivered quickly, but will be in captivity for seventy years. False prophets had been telling them they would experience a quick release, but Jeremiah told them:

Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.

Jeremiah 29:11 was not addressed to a specific individual, but to the nation. It was certainly not a message that “you’re going to get blessed quickly.” It was going to be 70 years before they were delivered from captivity and returned to their land. From this passage we also learn that extended endurance and perseverance are often strongly required before eventual blessings are experienced. In short, we can’t read Scripture like some people read a fortune cookie—just looking for a quick, easy “Bless Me Verse.”

We need to study Scripture looking for all that it contains, Spirit-inspired doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). If we are to be faithful preachers and students of Scripture, we must be diligent, reading Scripture in context and not superimposing our own wishful thinking on passages and making them say something the author never intended or the original audience never heard.

[1]  William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 467.

[2]  Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. Vol. 4 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887), Logos Bible Softwar