Ideas have consequences. Since the dawn of Western philosophy, we have witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly of this axiom. From the influence of John Locke upon the founders of America, to the disastrous results of the influence of Karl Marx in Communist Russia and Friedrich Nietzsche in Hitler's Germany, it can hardly be argued that ideas don't have consequences. Yet, not only do ideas have consequences, but so too does exegesis.
The danger of erroneous interpretation of Scripture is not new in our day. The Apostle Paul instructed a young Timothy, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). There is a right way and a wrong way to handle the Word of God. Unfortunately, our era continues to be littered with those who may find themselves ashamed because they have mishandled the Word of Truth.
Take, for example, Mark 16:17–18:
And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly poisons, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.
Although the authenticity of this passage is debated, some have taken these words and used them to justify the practice of literally handling deadly snakes in the midst of the congregation as a demonstration of faithfulness. Tragically, many have died from snake bites as a result. Exegesis has consequences.
Consider another well-known text of Scripture that when mishandled and misapplied has led to tragic results as well:
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14–15)
The encouragement to call for the elders to pray for the sick has led some to misunderstand James as prohibiting the use of doctors or medicinal practices. Unfortunately, I have known families who have needlessly lost loved ones to sickness and diseases that were easily curable if only they had enlisted the help of a physician or used proven medical practices. Alas, erroneously interpreting and wrongly applying this text led them to believe that to call for such help would be disobedient to God. Again, exegesis has consequences.
While misinterpreting Scripture can unnecessarily prolong sickness and even result in physical death, the greatest danger is in what it can do to the soul. Through wrongful exegesis, people can and have been led to eternal death.
A few years ago, a popular charismatic pastor in the Midwest determined that God had given him the revelation that the Bible teaches that Jesus died to redeem every human being, without exception. This pastor began teaching universalism, a heresy that asserts that not one person will ever be lost in eternity, whether they repent in this life or not. Armed with this idea, he went to the Scriptures and began re-interpreting, re-exegeting, and reapplying many of the texts he had previously taught. For example, 1 Timothy 4:9–10 says, "We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe." From this passage, the pastor suggested that God's plan is to save every human being, and not just those who believe in Him.
In an interview, when asked about those who willfully sin, reject Christ, and die unrepentant, the pastor turned to Philippians 2:10–11: "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Through misinterpretation and misapplication, this pastor suggested that Paul teaches that everyone will recognize and accept Jesus either before they die or after. He stated, "Even in the afterlife some will get the revelation of Jesus and be inspired by the Holy Spirit to confess His lordship."
Needless to say, the consequences for this interpretation and application are staggering. Not only is the preaching of the gospel made of no effect, but the suffering which the Apostles and the church have endured for preaching the gospel was in vain (Gal. 3:4). There is no more dangerous and deleterious an idea than the idea that men and women do not need to hear the gospel, repent of sin, and believe upon Christ in order to be saved. Exegesis has consequences. Some exegesis has eternally disastrous consequences.
However, just as bad exegesis has eternally condemning consequences, faithful exegesis has eternally rewarding consequences. Second Timothy 2:15 encourages us that those who rightly handle the Word of Truth do not need to be ashamed before God. They will not shrink back when presenting their labors to God.
Therefore, if we are faithful, then we, like Paul, seek to handle God's Word not deceitfully but with integrity and open accountability before God and all those who hear (2 Cor. 4:2). We must not be peddlers or corrupters of God's Word (2 Cor. 2:17). Rather, we preach Christ and faith in Him. We must remember that our exegesis has consequences.