Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers (3 John 2 NASB). Sometimes misinterpreting a passage boils down to decontextualizing a single word—in this case prosper. “This passage has typically been used as a proof text that God is mandated to bless in a very specific way—usually financially and materially,” says Ernest Gray, senior pastor of Keystone Baptist Church in Chicago and assistant professor of Bible at Moody. “Human beings misunderstand the place of suffering, and Christianity in the West tends to idolize success. We struggle with viewing the Christian life from a triumphalist perspective: ‘I’m a Christian; therefore I’m entitled to victory in every way.’
Chris Maxwell, director of spiritual life and campus pastor at Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Georgia, recalls a troubling episode during his pastoral tenure in Orlando: “In March 1996 I almost died of encephalitis. A group of people came to visit me and read Matthew 7:17–18: ‘Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.’ For them, admitting I had brain damage and needed medicine was lack of faith. This was the reason I became sick and wasn’t being healed. I told them, ‘If that caused my sickness I would’ve been sick long before.’”
John Koessler, professor and chair of pastoral studies at Moody Bible Institute, is all too familiar with scenarios like this. “I find that people tend to be one-sided in their handling of the Bible. They ‘lean into’ certain texts or truths to the exclusion of others. Some focus only on a portion of a verse. Others use one text to cancel out another.”
This isn’t surprising to most church leaders, who often see verses plucked from their homes to serve other purposes. To better understand these tricky situations, I asked several pastors to share the misused passages that make their skin crawl and how people in ministry can model healthy biblical interpretation.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
An entire cottage industry has developed around this decontextualized verse. It adorns t-shirts, knickknacks, and the walls of our churches, written in graceful, soothing script. “Having worked with college students,” says Ben Connelly, who co-leads The City Church in Fort Worth, Texas, “I heard this verse time and time again as discouraged graduates struggled to find jobs. Christian friends and family would pat them on the back, lift their downcast chins, and recite Jeremiah 29:11.”
Yet when it’s lifted from our coffee mugs and placed back into context, we discover a difficult truth about Scripture: the Bible was written for us, but not everything in it was written to us. In an interview with Christianity Today, Eric Bargerhuff, director of the Honors Program at Trinity College in Florida and author of The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, said, “Most people overlook the context of the verse because it speaks to what they want to hear for their life. This was a corporate promise given to the nation of Israel.” Connelly elaborates: “Only after promising to leave his people exiled in a foreign land for seven decades (Jer. 29:10) does God make the declaration we’re familiar with.”
So should we avoid sharing this verse with those in despair? Not necessarily. Abram Kielsmeier-Jones, pastor of Union Congregational Church in Magnolia, Massachusetts, says, “Certainly the God who knew us before we were born desires to give us ‘hope and a future.’ Even if the immediate context is not addressed to individuals, might not the general truth still hold that our God (even ‘my’ God) desires to offer hope and a future to each of his children?” If so, this passage presents a key teaching moment for church leaders. “There is comfort in this verse, and let’s never forget that God does have a plan,” says Connelly. “But we need the context to remind us that God’s goodness is true whether we find a job tomorrow or if his plans include 70 years of trial and oppression.”
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