5 Popular Bible Passages We May Misinterpret (Part III)

You can read the previous two installments of this series to get a deeper sense of what I mean when I say there are popular Bible passages we may be misinterpreting. But absent that, I want to be clear on a few things every time I write one of these.

First, it is nearly impossible not to bring preconceived biases and pre-understandings to Bible texts. Especially when you grow up in church. It is normal and reasonable that we learn things at a young age and then are slow to ever question or doubt what we have been taught. Yet as you get older I find it healthy to question and at times push back.

This does not mean I doubt or question everything, or live with a jaded sense of “I cannot truly know anything absolutely”. I believe Jesus physically died and physically rose from the dead and I do not doubt or question that. I have wrestled with it, but I will preach and live these truths boldly and unashamedly until the day I die. At least, I plan to. But there are many other Bible texts and doctrines that aren’t that way. I hold many interpretations that I do not mind saying, “I believe this, but I may be wrong.” We all need to acknowledge there are passages we are at least possibly misinterpreting.

This is what this series of articles is about.

And lastly, I want to be clear, as some of my commentary below will communicate, that I am just offering alternative explanations. This does not mean I believe they are correct and we must capriciously throw out the mainstream views. No, all I am truly seeking is to get people to think, reason, and be a bit more humble when it comes to handling the Bible. It is supposed to dominate us; not the other way around.

With that as a background here are five that I have been reconsidering for the last few months:

1. Matthew 14:22-33

Peter responded and said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water, and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and when he began to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” 

Matthew 14:28-30

Popular Interpretation/Possible Misinterpretation: Peter did the courageous and good thing by getting out of the boat to walk on the water to Jesus, and only failed because he took his eyes off of Jesus and focused on the storm.

Alternative Interpretation: Jesus never wanted Peter to walk on the water, but instead desired that all of his disciples wait on him to reach them to save them.

Commentary: I admit for the most part this alternative interpretation works because Peter is notorious for acting and speaking foolishly and quickly when Jesus wanted him to be more meek. And the question, “Why did you doubt?” seems to fit with this interpretation. As in, why did you feel the need to come when I was coming to you? Verses like Isaiah 43:2 promise that God will save us in such circumstances and we do not need to meet him halfway.

However, the biggest problem with this potential misinterpreting is that the passage makes a big deal about Peter sinking because of his fear of the wind and waves. That is the clincher to me in the traditional interpretation. It is strongly implied that had Peter not been afraid, he would have made it to Jesus. As such, even though I’ve considered this, I have rejected it. The plain reading of the passage doesn’t need to be doubted or tweaked.

2. Acts 16:25

Now about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them…

Acts 16:25

Popular Interpretation/Possible Misinterpretation: Paul and Silas pray and sing joyfully to God despite being unjustly imprisoned.

Alternative Interpretation: Paul and Silas may have been praying and singing with grief or some other emotion, not joy.

Commentary: This is an example of possible misinterpreting that I can get behind. With the disclaimer that there is no way to know either way because the text doesn’t describe their mood or emotions. And as such, it is good to keep the traditional interpretation from becoming absolute. Allegedly, you can classify 63 of the 150 Psalms in Scripture (over 40%!) as lament psalms. Not all singing in the Bible is joyful. We sing when we are hurting and confused. Not only when our feelings are positive.

3. Hebrews 4:12

For the word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, even penetrating as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart….”

Hebrews 4:12

Popular Interpretation/Possible Misinterpretation: The “Word of God” here means The Bible.

Alternative Interpretation: The “Word of God” in this verse means Jesus.

Commentary: This one, I admit, struck me as weird and caught me completely off guard when I heard it 15 years ago. The case for it is that Jesus is referred to numerous times in the New Testament as “The Word” and at least one time, in Revelation, he is expressly referred to as “The Word of God”1.

Two verses later in Hebrews 4 it refers to Jesus so it has that in its context favor.

Also, do not be confused by an English translation that says “It penetrates…” as if that means it couldn’t be “He penetrates…”. The original doesn’t have a pronoun there and translations like KJV and NASB do better to avoid adding one, in my opinion. It helps us avoid misinterpreting out of ignorance.

But the case against this being Christ and being the Bible is stronger to me. First, the “Word of God” is used an avalanche of times in both testaments to refer to the written Scriptures. And the context leading up to Hebrews 4:12 has numerous Old Testament quotations, leading strongly to the assumption that the verse means “The [Written] Word of God”. I do not think we misinterpret this phrase traditionally.

4. Habakkuk 1:13

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
    you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
    Why are you silent while the wicked
    swallow up those more righteous than themselves?

Habakkuk 1:13

Poplur Interpretation/Possible Misinterpretation: Habakkuk is explaining that God is too holy to look on sin.

Alternative interpretation: Habakkuk is actually wrong in asserting this, as the passage makes obvious because Habakkuk is upset that God has looked on evil

Some of this is semantics because I think it is indisputable that God doesn’t have relationship with sin, as in unrepentant sinners. But sometimes we do take this further because of verses like Habakkuk 1:13. And we say things like “God can’t look upon sin”. Yet I believe the alternative interpretation is true here.

God has to engage with sin in some sense to be able to forgive it, and even (in this case) to work His will in the world. Habakkuk couldn’t stand the thought of God using a more wicked nation to punish his wicked people. But it is, in fact, exactly how God worked. His eyes ‘tolerated’ the evil until the appointed time of Babylon’s judgment came.

5. 2 Samuel 11-12

Popular Interpretation/Possible Misinterpretation: David knew what he was doing with Bathsheba and then Uriah was wrong, did it in secret, and felt guilt about it. But didn’t repent until Nathan the prophet confronted him.

Alternative Interpretation: David did not feel guilt about what he did in the Bathsheba narrative, did it all out in the open, and only repented once Nathan shamed him in the context of the Israelite community.

Commentary: Gulty Culture vs. Shame Culture. If you have never heard this discussion, you are missing out on a truly fascinating area of anthropology.

I first encountered it in 2009 on a mission trip to Japan, where I preached to lost people. My friend and veteran missionary Josh Crowe humbly and lovingly talked to me after my first sermon about how I focused solely on getting the audience to understand their “guilt” (which meant little to nothing to them) and not on getting them to experience shame (which is a powerful concept in this country and countless others around the world).

Is it possible that we misinterpret how David felt when he had his affair with Bathsheba and then killed her husband? Guilt vs. Shame Culture is to be considered.

I admit as I studied the Bible through this lens I was quite surprised to see that the Bible had less to say about guilt than I would have imagined and more to say about shame. Yet, both are clearly present in both testaments. And while the word “guilt” is far less frequent than I would have assumed, ideas like courtroom judgment are all over the Bible. From Job to Romans, the idea that humans understand their individual guilt and not just family or societal shame is prevalent.

Enter this narrative on David and Bathsheba/Uriah. This alternative interpretation (and hence, my misinterpretation) that David did things out in the open and did not feel guilt because he operated in a “shame” culture rocked me. And in honor of these misinterpretation articles I was determined to give it a fair hearing.

Yet after fairly extensive study, I have rejected it. Primarily because when you read the account of David doing the census in both 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, the idea that David felt internal guilt and not just community shame is fairly obvious. The 2 Samuel account says it plainly: “David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men…”

Now, is it possible David felt shame in 2 Samuel 12 and guilt in 2 Samuel 24? I suppose. But this view on 2 Samuel 11-12 presupposes that David did everything in the context of shame. Not guilt. As king, he could do whatever he wanted.

My ultimate view is that humanity is too complex for cultural and semantic boxes. I’ve said this about me being an “introvert” many times. Because some of the things I enjoy doing, like having a mic on stage at a talent show, are confusing to people when I classify myself this way. Same with David. He likely experienced both guilt and shame repeatedly throughout his life.

Yet at the end of the day, I truly believe he knew the law of God about adultery and murder and was concious-stricken in 2 Samuel 11-12 as well. The way he had Uriah killed seems secretive to me.


The comments section is open below for any respectful feedback, even disagreement! We have seen plenty of this in the first two installments of this series.

  1. There are other times, I admit, “Word of God” could be referring to Jesus, as in 1 Peter 1:23 and 1 John 2:14. But those are far more dubious. Peter referring back to Isaiah in that verse definitely sounds more like Scripture than Jesus.
Gowdy Cannon
Series Navigation<< Five Popular Bible Passages We May Be Misinterpreting (Part 2)

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married over 8 years and have a 4-year-old son, Liam Erasmus, and a baby, Bo Tyndale. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chick-fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

2 thoughts on “5 Popular Bible Passages We May Misinterpret (Part III)

  • March 25, 2024 at 3:42 pm

    We were about to “throw down” when I thought your interpretation of the Peter walking on the water passage was going to undercut the entire premise of one of my most popular articles.

    It’s all good, though.

    • March 25, 2024 at 6:20 pm

      Ha! I think some people have too much thinking time on their hands and are looking to find alternative interpretations, just to be cutting edge.


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