It’s easy to be wrong about God’s Word—but it’s not always easy to know we’re wrong. How should we approach our own potential for misunderstanding?
A couple thousand years ago, the Jewish people were waiting for the Messiah to come.
They knew the Scriptures. They’d been studying them for centuries. To them, it was obvious that the Messiah was going to overthrow the Roman government and reestablish Israel as a dominant world power.
God was going to “raise up for David a righteous Branch” who would “reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5, English Standard Version). This king would use righteousness to judge the poor and “decide with equity for the meek of the earth; He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).
The Scriptures were right . . . but the Jews were wrong. The Messiah wasn’t coming to overthrow the Romans; He was coming first to die as a sacrifice for sin. (He will return one day as a conquering King—but not yet. See Hebrews 9:28.)
Even the disciples—who were, of course, all Jewish—were expecting to see Jesus fulfill those prophecies at that time. After His resurrection, they asked, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
With 2,000 years of hindsight, it’s easy to see how the answer to that question was, “Not yet.” But at that moment, it was hard for the disciples to see how God’s plan could involve anything else.
(Read more about this important step in God’s plan in our online article “Sacrifice of Jesus.”)
More first-century misunderstandings
That was not the last misunderstanding God’s people have ever had. Early in the history of the New Testament Church, God made it clear that He was calling gentiles (non-Jews) into the Church. That was a shocking—and divisive—turn of events. It was hard for some to accept the idea that the historical enemies of God’s people were suddenly allowed to become God’s people (see Acts 11:2-3, 18).
But the apostles came to understand that none of this was a change in the plan of God—in fact, it had been recorded for centuries in the words of the prophets. James quoted Amos to explain to the Church: “So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the LORD who does all these things” (Acts 15:17).
Why the answers aren’t always obvious
The question for us to ask here is, “Why was it so hard for many to see that?”
We all have the capacity to misread, misinterpret and misunderstand the Word of God—especially when we’re sure that we have something completely figured out.After all, these truths—the eventual sacrifice of Christ and the salvation of the gentiles—had been in Scripture for ages. Today we can easily point to the passages in the prophets (and even earlier books) that make it obvious these events had always been part of God’s plan.
From where we stand, it all seems so obvious. So why did it take the early Church so long to understand?
Here’s why: because it’s obvious only now.
We have 2,000 years of hindsight that enable us to look back and know that Jesus “was wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities.” Looking back, it’s clear that “the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6).
It wasn’t clear at the time.
It also wasn’t clear that “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed’” (Galatians 3:8).
These things, unclear at the time, were obvious only after they happened—and not because of human intuition, but because God made them obvious. Even after watching prophecy unfold before their very eyes, the disciples didn’t fully understand the death of Christ until a resurrected Jesus “expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27, compare verses 30-32). Verse 45 emphasizes that Jesus “opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.”
Then their eyes were opened. Then things made sense.
Finding the balance
Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “Test [prove, examine] all things; hold fast what is good.” He also said, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Fulfilling both of these directives requires a balance of both confidence and humility.
Those striving to prove and understand God’s will always find they are right on some things and mistaken on others. We all have the capacity to misread, misinterpret and misunderstand the Word of God—especially when we’re sure that we have something completely figured out.
This is where humility becomes critically important.
At the same time, these verses don’t tell us that we should exist in a constant state of self-doubt. Just a few chapters later, Paul wrote, “Stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13).
We are supposed to stand. Through faith in God, we are capable of standing. But there’s a danger in being so self-confident that we’re standing—so proud that we have and fully understand the truth about some issue—that we wind up losing our balance in the process. Peter describes that happening in the early Church, where false teachers brought in “destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1).
That’s why the Bible emphasizes over and over the importance of humility when it comes to the Word of God. Humility, God says, factors highly in His working with us: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2, ESV). And “though the LORD is on high, yet He regards the lowly; but the proud He knows from afar” (Psalm 138:6).
On the other hand, human pride blocks our ability to learn from Him. “When pride comes, then comes shame; but with the humble is wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2).
Humility leaves room for learning
In other words, one of the most important things a Christian in progress can do is allow for being wrong.
That doesn’t mean second-guessing ourselves at every opportunity or on core doctrinal truths—it just means being honest with ourselves. Simply put, we don’t know as much as God.
So we have to allow that while we’re striving to live according to the Word of God as we understand it, our understanding of some things might be wrong.
Sometimes we may discover a problem with the way we’ve been looking at something in God’s Word—a problem we hadn’t noticed for years, maybe even decades.
Sometimes we may discover a new and exciting way of looking at things, only to find out later that it actually conflicts with important truths in God’s Word.
In either scenario, humility is what makes the difference. In those moments, we have to choose. We can either allow God to show us our error and redirect us—or stubbornly cling to the ideas and concepts we prefer (whether those ideas are old or new).
Receiving and searching with readiness
As the news of the gospel—a gospel that included details about who the Messiah was and how the gentiles fit into the picture—spread through the first-century world, it forced quite a few faithful Jewish believers to reevaluate how they looked at the Scriptures.
Some of them rejected what God was showing them. Others did what the Bereans did and “received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
When God asks you to reevaluate your understanding, how do you handle it?
The Scriptures don’t change. But our understanding may change. What God leads us to see in the Scriptures may change.
As Christians in progress, none of us are infallible. Any of us can misinterpret the truth. Our job is to be aware of that possibility—because when we’re aware, it’s much easier to go where God leads us instead of trying to force Him to go where we want.