“Some of these translation nuances can have a HUGE impact on our understanding of God.”
If you grew up in the church, you probably had ample opportunity to memorize certain Bible verses.
Some of them became 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 three 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 …” (Jer. 29:11).
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.
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” (Jer. 29:11).
2. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness …” (Matt. 5:6).
There is a recurring pattern throughout the Bible, in which 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. In other words, 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 (e.g., Matt. 5:6) and as justice (e.g., 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 …” (John 3:16).
Could there be any verse more beloved than John 3:16?
Almost all of us know it by heart. We see it lifted high in the crowds at a football game. We see it on billboards. We even find it on the 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 it’s 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 mountaintops. 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.
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).
Does knowing the original term help shed new light on these verses for you? How do these Scriptures affect your understanding of God and what he cares about?
Craig Greenfield (@) is the founder of Alongsiders International and author of Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World (Zondervan, 2016). A storyteller and activist living in urban slum communities for the past 15 years, Craig’s passion is to communicate God’s heart for the marginalized around the world. Get a free copy of Craig’s first book Urban Halo at his website. This article was originally published on Craig’s blog.