We’ve Read the Bible Wrong. It has had a Devastating Impact on how we Understand God’s Voice

When we read the Bible wrong, it can have devastating consequences. The Jehovah Witnesses read a verse in Acts about non-kosher food (15:20) and conclude that it is wrong to have blood transfusions. People have died as a result. 

Some Asian Christians have read the words of Jesus that if your hand causes you to sin, you should cut it off (Matt 5:30), so they literally have. 

Others have read about the Canaanite Genocide in Deuteronomy 7 and used it to justify mass murder.

The misreading of Scripture has also happened in the area of hearing God’s voice – in particular, the events of the Day of Pentecost. This too has had a tragic impact on the church. 

Let me explain.

The Day of Pentecost was one of the most important moments in church history. On this day, the Holy Spirit was poured out on everyone, irrespective of their gender, age or status. This represented the fulfilment of promises given by the prophets hundreds of years before and by Jesus before he left the earth. It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. The experience of that day turned a hapless group of disheartened Jews into a force to be reckoned with. Peter explains the significance of the occasion in Acts 2:16,17:

This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, 

your young men will see visions, 

your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2:16,17)

Yet, hundreds of years later, these verses are frequently misread. What do they mean? For the people of the first century? For us?

Let’s start with what they don’t mean…

1. It doesn’t mean that old men will get dreams because they sleep more than their younger counterparts…

This is the interpretation I held growing up in church – I’ve even heard it in sermons since. The idea is that because men are “old,” they are more prone to dreaming. Since “dreams” are fanciful and meaningless, and “vision” points to destiny and purpose, we should have vision while we are young. Acts 2:16,17 becomes a call for youth not to waste their lives.

But, this is not what these verses mean. The use of the phrases “sons and daughters” and “young and old men” is a Hebrew parallelism. It is a poetic device (note how the lines are arranged in our Bibles) that is used to emphasise that people from every demographic: young and old, male and female – now has access to the Holy Spirit. This is in contrast to the time of the Old Covenant, when largely only designated people known as “prophets” could hear from God. 

2. It doesn’t mean that everyone is called to be a “prophet.” 

Another interpretation of Acts 2:16,17 is that everyone is called to be a “prophet.” Yet the Apostle Paul’s writings to the Corinthian church tell us clearly this is not the case (1 Corinthians 12). While under the New Covenant, everyone can hear from God for themselves, not everyone has the calling of a prophet. The title “prophet” in the church today is reserved for those with a specialist vocation. As “experts” in hearing God, their primary role is to equip the church to hear from God for themselves (Ephesians 4:11,12). In addition, they may be used of God to speak to the wider church (as in the case of Agabus, Acts 11:28).

3. It doesn’t mean that we are visionaries who devise great plans for their personal mission statement…

Finally, Acts 2:16-17 does not mean that we all need to become “visionaries.” This is the most common way these verses are read today. People take the phrase “dreams and visions” and turn it into a metaphor for our sanctified imaginations. They talk about having a “vision for your life” and how to commit our plans for the future to God. Of course, these are goals worthy of pursuing, but they are not what Acts 2:16,17 means. 

The Bible was collated as a series of books that give us God’s story. But it is also an ancient work written from the perspective of people who were situated in a particular time and culture. That means we need to read it with care, considering what the words meant for the original audience.

In biblical times, “dreams and visions” were the most common way God spoke (Numbers 12:6, 1 Samuel 28:15b, Hosea 12:10, Acts 2:17). They were not visionary ideas or personal plans. They were actual Spirit-inspired experiences; a dream when people were asleep or a vision when they were awake. Joseph’s famous dream for example was a literal dream. He placed his head on the pillow, fell asleep, and saw himself as a great leader in days to come. The vision was God’s revelation to him. Similarly, when we read the famous verse, “write the vision and make it plain” in Habakkuk (2:2), it meant that Habakkuk was to write down what God had said to him, so he could pass it onto others and live according to it.

The true message of Acts 2:16,17 is that with the coming of the Spirit, all who follow Jesus have the ability to hear from God through his most common form of communication. It means that wherever we go, wherever we are, we can receive God’s messages from Heaven. Let’s not miss our inheritance as the church under the New Covenant. We can all have a two-way conversation with God.

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