3 famous verses we translate wrongly (and why it matters)

Now don't be shocked Grandma but that verse might not mean what you think it means.

Now don't be shocked Grandma but that verse might not mean what you think it means.

If you grew up in the church, you probably had ample opportunity to memorize Bible verses.

Mostly, these were snapshots of encouragement - embroidered on your grandma's wall.

But over the years, as I've dug more deeply into some of these little gems, I've realized that words can shift their meaning.

And translators can have their biases.

And the English language can't perfectly capture every Biblical concept.

As I've done occasional word studies on certain Hebrew and Greek words, I've found those words turning up in unexpected places. 

And some of these translation nuances can have a HUGE impact on our understanding of God.

So, here's a brief survey of 3 classic verses that we often misinterpret... 

(For those scholars who would like a more in depth analysis, click through to the links included in each section below.)

1. For I know the plans I have for you...

Don't tell me I'm gonna have to change my Pinterest page!

Don't tell me I'm gonna have to change my Pinterest page!

Who doesn't love this verse? We ALL want God's blessing - and a double helping of financial prosperity doesn't sound too bad either!

But, the word we translate here as prosperity, is actually Shalom. And as you probably already know, shalom is much deeper and more far-reaching than just having a few extra bucks in your pocket. Sorry Joel Osteen!

Shalom is not just peace or prosperity - but a big, beautiful vision embodying all that God desires for His creation. He wants to restore ALL things.

(You can read more about shalom here.)

So, next time you read this verse, consider reading it like this, and imagine the amazing plans God has to restore everything and bring Shalom:

"I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans for SHALOM and not harm, plans to give you hope and a future." (Jeremiah 29:11)

2. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...

There is a recurring pattern throughout the Bible where the words justice and righteousness are translated almost interchangeably.

To our modern ears, those two words are very different. Justice is more about systems and structures, principalities and powers - while righteousness is more about our personal piety. But the Bible isn't using those terms in quite that way.

In our scriptures, the word righteousness means the restoration of relationships - with God, with each other and with the world - reconciliation.

Which is another way of talking about justice.

That's why, in the New Testament, we see the Greek word dikaiosynē translated as both righteousness (eg. Matt 5:6) - AND as justice (eg. Acts 17:31). You can read more deeply on this translation issue here.

So next time you read the Sermon on the Mount, consider reading it like this:

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for DIKAIOSYNE (righteousness and justice), for they will be satisfied." (Matt 5:6)

"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of DIKAIOSYNE (righteousness and justice), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matt 5:10)

3. For God so loved the world...

Could there be any verse more beloved than John 3:16?

Almost all of us know it off by heart. We see it lifted high in the crowds at a football game. We see it on billboards. We even find it on coke cups at In-N-Out Burger...

But, familiarity does not always lead to understanding. And this verse has often been taken to mean something a little different from the original hearers would have understood.

God's love for the "world" is usually interpreted to mean "the people of the world" - and yes it certainly does mean that. But not JUST that.

The original Greek word used here is cosmos. God loves the cosmos! He loves all of his creation - the woodpeckers, the grasshoppers, the penguins and the fireflies. He loves the rivers, the lakes, the sandy beaches and soaring mountain tops. He loves creation, and he calls us to love it and care for it too. 

Right there we have the beginning of a theology of creation care.

Tim Tebow. Now a tree hugger after reading John 3:16.

Tim Tebow. Now a tree hugger after reading John 3:16.

So next time you read John 3:16, allow God to expand your understanding of how far his love stretches:

For God loved the COSMOS in this way - he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

(For more thoughts on misunderstandings around this verse, you can read here.)

Does knowing the original term help shed new light on these verses for you?

How do these scriptures impact your understanding of God and what He cares about?