Satan quotes the Bible, but he doesn’t interpret it properly.
In the infamous scene in Matthew 4, Satan uses Scripture to tempt Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple:
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:
He will give his angels orders concerning you,
and they will support you with their hands
so that you will not strike
your foot against a stone. (Matt. 4:6, CSB; cf. Ps. 91:11–12)
It’s not surprising that Jesus doesn’t fall for this trick. Yes, Satan quoted a psalm that promises God’s provision of angels to aid his servant. But Jesus replied with a Bible verse of his own: “It is also written: Do not test the Lord your God” (Matt. 4:7, CSB; cf. Deut. 6:16).
In this story, both Jesus and Satan quote the Bible. The difference? Correct interpretation.
In this story, both Jesus and Satan quote the Bible. The difference? Correct interpretation. Psalm 91 mentions God’s provision of angels in the midst of praising God for his majesty and his love. Nowhere here does the psalmist assert that God’s people should throw themselves off tall buildings to see if God really means it. If he’d thrown himself off the temple, Jesus would have been testing God; it would have been a reckless act of pride, not an act of dependent humility.
We cannot merely stack up Bible verses, making biblical claims based on a handful of verses that are isolated from their immediate and broader biblical contexts. We must interpret the Bible rightly.
The Problem with Stacking Verses
Satan shows us that quoting out-of-context phrases and sentences that seem handy in the moment can be a dangerous game. Obviously, he was nefarious, but even if he were innocently quoting the verse, the type of application he suggested would have been inappropriate. One doesn’t need a seminary degree to see this problem.
Verse-stacking is an age-old problem and has been the source of a myriad of heresies throughout church history.
- Marcion separated the Old and New Testaments because he perceived a disconnect between the “angry Old Testament God” and the kind Jesus.
- Arius denied Jesus’s divinity because Proverbs 8 and other passages appeared to support his subordination to the Father.
- Fausto Sozzini used a collection of disconnected passages of Scripture to deny original sin and Jesus’s preexistence.
In every case, heresy was the result. Indeed, one can quote the Bible extensively and still teach the Bible wrongly.
Some modern examples include Instagram posts and coffee mugs that quote Philippians 4:13 or Jeremiah 29:11. In both cases, these verses appear to promise material, physical, or even eternal blessing from God. However, in both cases, the context of the passage reveals that these verses are a promise of provision amid suffering.
Stacking up these verses might be innocent for some, but this is also the root of the dangerous prosperity gospel that has infiltrated the global church. From as early as Jesus’s ministry to our world today, verse-stacking has plagued the church and brought about countless negative consequences.
Keys to Biblical Interpretation
We can boil down the best biblical interpretation in every era of church history to two key interpretive convictions—one is theological and the other is canonical.
1. The Bible is a coherent theological book before it is anything else.
The church has always assumed that the Bible is God’s revelation, and therefore, it’s a unified, non-contradictory story. When fighting back against heresies like Marcion’s, Irenaeus asserted that the unity of God entailed the unity of his revelation. Whereas Marcion drove a wedge between the two Testaments because he could not reconcile them, Irenaeus argued that we should interpret the more difficult passages of Scripture by the clearer ones.
Rather than assume a contradiction or hang on to only a few verses to build a faulty or biased theology, Irenaeus taught that the Bible was like a beautiful mosaic in which every piece fit together—somehow, someway—because the non-contradictory God had ordered all of creation, including Scripture, in a non-contradictory way. Of course, it’s possible in some cases to make clear doctrinal claims based on one verse or passage, but we should always ensure the claim doesn’t contradict other portions of Scripture.
2. The Bible is a canon—a set of 66 books that serve as the rule or measuring rod of our theology.
This point flows from the first. One simple way to see the Bible’s unified story is to notice how it’s entirely self-referential. Rarely does one read for long in their Bible before coming across some sort of citation or allusion to another part of Scripture. Whether it’s Moses’s intra-Torah references to creation or the exodus, or the New Testament authors’ constant reference to the Old, the Bible compels readers to see it as a unified story. If this is the case, then the divinely inspired biblical authors themselves are teaching us to interpret the Bible as a whole. To stack up Bible verses or proof-text one’s personal theological assumptions is to go against the very grain of Scripture itself.
Biblical Interpretation for Worship and Living
We worship God rightly when we read his Word rightly. If Matthew 4 is any indication, a mere stacking up of Bible verses can be, frankly, satanic. Now, most people don’t use the Bible maliciously as Satan did, but this scene is instructive for us nonetheless.
Whether it’s Moses’s intra-Torah references to creation or the exodus, or the New Testament authors’ constant reference to the Old, the Bible pressures readers to see it as a unified story.
Jesus modeled correct interpretation for us in that moment. When met with Psalm 91, he passed Satan’s reading through an interpretive grid before assuming it was correct. Psalm 91 by itself could indicate that God might always send angels in every scenario. However, when brought in canonical unity with Deuteronomy 6, its meaning and application are clarified. God will provide for us, but his provision isn’t a game to be manipulated or twisted.
We are not the perfect Son of God, the very Word himself. But he nonetheless is our exemplar when it comes to understanding Scripture. He’s the one who reminded Bible readers in his day that the Bible is a unified story that centers on him (John 5; Luke 24). By the power of the Spirit, we are able to understand this divine revelation so that we might worship and live rightly in obedience to his Word (1 Cor. 2).
May we allow Jesus to be our divine teacher that we may be instructed by God and say with the apostles, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68, CSB).