Can you imagine being told by Jesus exactly how you will die? That
happened to Peter in John
21:18-19. Peter would be crucified. You can imagine the
kind of questions this would raise in your mind. We read one of
Peter’s questions in John
21:20-21. “But Lord, what about this man?” According
to traditional understanding of this gospel, the disciple to whom
Peter referred was John. Jesus replied in John
21:22, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is
that to you? You follow Me.” Interestingly, a saying went out
among the disciples; not just a saying, a misunderstanding.
According to John
21:23, the saying spread among the disciples that John
would never die. But that is not what Jesus said. Rather, His
words had been misinterpreted. We can learn some great lessons
about the Bible, interpretation and truth from this.
Bible teaching can be misinterpreted.
We should expect this. Misunderstanding the Word is not
necessarily a grievous sin and error. In fact, there will be many
times when we will learn we also misinterpreted something. That
doesn’t mean we are beyond hope as growing Christians, it means
we need to grow.
Keep in mind what interpretation is. We speak of
interpretation in two similar but distinct ways.
When someone speaks in a foreign language, we recognize
their words must be interpreted. I
Corinthians 14:10-13 demonstrates this use of
interpretation. Consider John
1:38, 42 which show one word translated into another
language. In fact, the NASB says “translated,” while the KJV
Another sense in which this word is used is to give an
explanation of what was meant. We see this in Daniel
2:36ff when Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.
Also, we see an example of this in Nehemiah
8:8. The priests were interpreting the Law as they read
it, gave the sense of it and helped the people understand it.
According to John
21:23 mistakes can be made in this process. Knowing that
should not anger us, offend us or distress us. Rather it should
prepare us to be on guard.
Bible teaching can be understood.
Even though an incorrect interpretation had been
disseminated among the disciples, John corrected their
understanding. That effort, in and of itself, demonstrates that
John, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, expected people to be
able to understand the word of Christ.
Today, many try to gloss over misinterpretations by simply
saying the mind of God is so vast we can never fully understand
His will. When we misunderstand, they think it doesn’t matter.
However, we can understand and we are expected to understand. Paul
clearly expects us to in Ephesians
3:3-4 and 5:17.
No doubt there are things hard to understand in the
Biblical teaching. But difficult and impossible are two different
concepts. Even the hard things can be understood—it is our
obligation to study, understand and interpret them correctly (II
Multiple interpretations cannot all be right.
Some disciples interpreted Jesus’ statement to mean John
would never die, because he would live until Jesus returned. John,
however, interpreted it to mean Jesus’ plans for John were none
of Peter’s business. According to John’s interpretation,
Jesus’ statement was in no way a promise. It was a hypothetical
statement to make a point.
Can both interpretations be correct? Of course not. Either
Jesus promised John would never die or He did not. We cannot
believe He was doing both. Note Paul’s statements in II
Corinthians 1:17-20. When we proclaim the gospel
correctly, we do not say both yes and no. We cannot hold
contradictory positions at the same time, nor does the gospel
teach such. Therefore, if you and I study the Bible and come to
contradictory understandings, at the very least one of us does not
understand but misunderstands. We cannot both be right. To suggest
such is dishonest.
Some try to gloss over the possibility of
misinterpretation, misunderstanding and being mistaken by
suggesting we are each allowed our own interpretation. But Peter
clearly denies this in II
Peter 1:20-21. Scripture did not come from men who were
allowed to write whatever they wanted. Rather, it came as men were
moved by the Spirit. In like manner, we are not allowed to believe
whatever we want about scripture. We are to interpret it the way
the Spirit meant it. Any other interpretation is wrong.
Please understand, I often tell people not to believe,
teach or practice something simply because I say it. I will even
tell you to read the Bible for yourself and see if what I have
taught is true (Acts
17:11). However, I am not saying we are each allowed to
have our own interpretation. What I am saying is my interpretation
may be wrong. If it is, you do what the Bible says, not what I
say. If I am wrong, then you need to tell me. This leads to the
Misinterpretations and misunderstandings need to be
demonstrates one of the first misinterpretations among Christ’s
disciples. Though this misunderstanding is seemingly
insignificant, John wanted people to interpret it correctly.
That is what growth is all about. In I
Peter 2:2, Peter says he wants babes in Christ to desire
the milk of the word and grow. What is that but bringing our
understanding in line with Christ’s word? In II
Peter 1:5, he talks about adding knowledge to our virtue
and faith. Paul nails it down in I
Corinthians 14:20. We are to be mature in our
When we misunderstand and misinterpret something we need to
be corrected—if for no other reason than it is better to be
right than to be wrong. However, we need to learn that in many
cases it is not just about being right or wrong. Rather, it is
about being right or being lost.
Some misinterpretations are destructive.
I do not believe any disciples lost their souls because of
their misinterpretation of John
21:22. However, we need to be very clear that many
misinterpretations cost people their souls.
Peter 3:16, we are warned not to twist the scriptures. If
we do, it will be to our destruction. Peter did not say this about
malicious and devious people, but about ignorant people who had
not learned the truth. They were untaught and unstable. In II
Peter 2:1, Peter mentions destructive heresies. According
to Strong’s Enhanced Lexicon, this word translated heresy means
“dissensions arising from diversity of opinions and aims.” In
other words, the opinion or interpretation of some people is
destructive. Consider some times when this is so.
According to II
Peter 2:2, if the interpretation leads to reviling the
truth, it is destructive.
According to II
Timothy 2:17-18, if an interpretation leads people away
from faith in the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit or their word,
then it is destructive.
According to II
Peter 2:18-22, if the interpretation leads a Christian
back into the ways of uncleanness and sin, then it is destructive.
According to Matthew
7:21-23, if the interpretation leads us to do something
other than God’s will, it is destructive. If it leads you to
disregard or disobey God’s will, it is destructive.
According to II
Peter 3:17-18, if the interpretation leads you to fall
from your own steadfastness, then it is destructive.
According to Galatians
1:6-10, if the interpretation distorts the gospel of
Christ causing you to try to be saved in some way other than
Christ’s way, then it is destructive.
Do you begin to see a pattern here? If the interpretation
causes you to turn from God’s path and follow some other path,
it is destructive.
Scripture corrects misinterpretations.
21:23, we actually see the best method for correcting a
misinterpretation. I believe this method applies whether or not
the misinterpretation is destructive. What did John do to correct
the disciples’ understanding? He simply went back to what Jesus
said. Remember what it says in II
Timothy 3:16-17. The Scripture came from God and is
profitable for teaching, reproof and instruction in righteousness.
But notice the second thing Paul mentioned. It is profitable for
correction. When we misinterpret, we need to go back to the Bible.
I understand that this simple misunderstanding was based on
one statement and many misinterpretations are based on more
complex issues than that. So, as we go back to the word we have to
keep some keys of biblical interpretation in mind. We must
remember to take everything the scripture says on any subject. We
must keep in mind the context of the passage we are interpreting.
We must keep in mind the biblical context and harmony of
scripture. We cannot interpret any scripture to contradict other
scriptures. We must keep in mind who is writing, to whom they are
writing and in what context they are writing. We need to remember
the genre of the writing—is it prose, poetry, parable or some
other kind of writing? We must keep these things in mind, but the
key is that we must go back to the Bible. And we must understand
that we can go back to the Bible and understand what it says. We
do not have to have a seminary education. We do not have to have
theology degrees. We do not have to be able to write books or
appear on television shows. We simply need to be able to go back
to the Bible and see what it says. That is what we should believe.
As we conclude, let’s take a look at another passage. It
is a passage that is interpreted several different ways. And since
it is one that talks about our salvation, I believe it is one we
must interpret correctly lest we deny the gospel of Christ (Galatians
1:6-10). Let’s look at the passage and you tell me what
Jesus meant when He said in Mark
16:16, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved;
but he who does not believe will be condemned.” There are
several ways people interpret this passage. The skeptical
interpretation of this verse is that we are not even sure if this
verse should be here, so its proper interpretation doesn’t
matter. The Catholic interpretation of this verse is that an
infant is baptized and therefore saved, then they will believe
later. The typical Protestant interpretation of this verse is, if
someone believes they are saved. They may get baptized later for
some reason or other. The Calvinistic interpretation is that a
person is saved because God has chosen them to be saved, then as
one of the elect God has predestined them to later believe and be
baptized. The Universalist interpretation says everyone is saved
anyway and some may believe and get baptized.
All of these interpretations cannot be correct. What should
we believe? Let’s just go back and look at what it says. It says
“he who believes and is baptized.” I interpret that to mean
someone who believes and is baptized. The text says, “will be
saved.” I interpret that to mean that the one who believes and
is baptized will be saved. Then the text says, “he who does not
believe.” I take that to mean Jesus is now talking about someone
who does not believe. Jesus said, “will be condemned.” I
interpret that to mean that someone who does not believe will be
condemned. This is not confusing. This is not hard. I know that
lots of people do not see it this way. But, I think Jesus simply
meant what He said. If you want to be condemned, then do not
believe. If you want to be saved, then believe and be baptized.
Does it really matter how confused the religious world is on this
text. You can see it. Why not obey it? This is not just a matter
of interpretation; this is a matter of believing Jesus. It is a
matter of salvation (cf. Matthew
to God in the church by Christ Jesus
Church of Christ