This article contains some of the most commonly misinterpreted verses in the Bible, why they got that way, and how to correctly interpret them.
2 Timothy 2:15 is clear that we are to “be diligent to present ourselves approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
This verse points out three important aspects in understanding the Bible:
- We are to be “diligent” and “study” to determine God’s word (Peter even states some verses are hard to understand – 2 Peter 3:16 – in other words, it may require effort),
- we are responsible “to God” for our interpretations, and
- if we are to be workmen “accurately” handling the word of truth, this implies the Bible can be correctly interpreted.
Like any worthy and serious endeavor, we need to learn and use some fundamental rules to help us precisely interpret the Bible. You can refer to a more in-depth study of this in my post on hermeneutics, but for now, it may be helpful to review the following:
- Assume a normal literal interpretation – unless the context or style would indicate otherwise, “7 days” should mean a literal 7 days.
- Read and interpret the passage in its context. Thoughts out of context can easily be misinterpreted.
- When necessary, comprehend the historical setting. Both Old and New Testament cultures were very different than our modern culture. Recognizing this will help illuminate the true meaning of a verse.
- Research the correct vocabulary meanings of the original word. The original languages are more precise than ours, and understanding true meanings are critical to correct interpretation.
- Examine cross-reference verses. The Bible explains itself with other verses in both testaments that are harmonious. Many misunderstandings are verses to which no other cross-reference exists or even contradicts a perceived conclusion.
- Finally, although there may be many applications, there is only one interpretation of any verse.
12 of the most commonly misinterpreted Bible verses
Matthew 7:1 Never Judge others!
Matthew 7:1 – This is a very popular verse – “judge not lest you be judged.”
Misinterpreted: We are not to judge others. This thought goes nicely with the “love don’t judge” culture, provoked by the influences of existentialism to where there are no absolute truths to even make any judgment.
Interpreted correctly: If we look at the context of this verse, however, what Jesus is condemning is hypocritical judging. The Pharisees were famous for seeing other’s sins while being blind to their own faults. In fact, Jesus in verse 5 encourages judging when He states “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Additionally, many of the remaining verses in chapter 7 are judging statements: “beware of the false prophets..,” “you will know them by their fruits,” and “I will declare to them, I never knew you.” We cannot beware, or know without judging. And certainly, God cannot declare without judging.
1 Corinthians 5:12-13 sheds some additional light on this subject. Paul states “what have I to do with judging outsiders [nonbelievers]? Are you not to judge those who are within the church [this assumes an affirmative response]? But those who are outside, God will judge. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”
The point here is uncomplicated, Christians are not charged with running around pointing out the sins of non-believers. We’re to share the gospel in expectation of their redemption. At the same time, we’re to guard the purity of the church as Matthew 18:15-17 details. This doesn’t mean that we run around looking for every little misstep, but if we see serious sin, we need to confront in love both for their sanctification and the purity of the church.
(You can read more on this subject here.)
How do they get this wrong? When read in context it becomes obvious that Christ is condemning hypocritical judging and that we are to judge. There also are a number of cross-reference verses that state we are to be discerning. Looking at this verse and understanding the historical attitude of Pharisees, a term almost synonymous with hypocrisy also offers a clue.
Matthew 16:18 Peter and the rock
In Matthew 16:18 Christ is speaking to Peter when He states “And I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
Misinterpreted: This is the foundational verse for the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy, with Peter as the initial Pope.
Interpreted correctly: Contextually, this verse is a continuation of a conversation between Christ and Peter in which Christ asks “who do you say I am?” and Peter replies “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Christ then uses a play on words by saying “My Father who is in heaven…revealed this to you,” for “you are Peter” [Greek Petros – you are a little stone] and yet you have revealed a foundational truth that “upon this rock” [Greek petra – foundation or cornerstone] “I will build my church…”
The foundation or cornerstone is none other than Jesus Christ Himself as expressed in 1 Corinthians 3:11 “For no one can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
In 1 Peter 2:5 Peter extends this “little stone/cornerstone” imagery when he refers to believers as “you also, as living stones, are being built up…” and in 1 Peter 2,6-7 when he refers to Christ “…behold I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious cornerstone…the stone which the builders rejected, this became the very cornerstone…”
How do they get this wrong? Read contextually this verse is easily understood. Knowledge of the original words – little stone and cornerstone or big stone, sheds additional light on the meaning of this verse. Finally, from a cross-reference analysis, there is both the continuation of this imagery in 1 Peter and the lack of any other verse that speaks to the establishment of a church hierarchy or Pope. In fact, leadership in Christianity is decentralized with the deployment of a plurality of elders. You can read more about church leadership here.
Matthew 18:18 Bound and Loosed
Matthew 18:18 shows Christ saying “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
Misinterpreted: Since, by way of misinterpretation, we’ve already created a Roman Catholic Church and a Pope, we might as well establish Priests and give them some duties – in this case, the Sacrament of Confession. And that is exactly the result of distorting this verse – to establish and justify the Catholic Church’s Sacrament of Confession in which Priests hear the sins of members to forgive their sins and determine what penance is necessary to finalize the pardon.
But the errors don’t stop there…
There exist endless cults that use this verse as justification to bind and loose Satan.
Interpreted correctly: Beginning with a contextual understanding of this verse, this is part of Matthew 18:15-19 which addresses the purification of the church through Church Discipline – “if your brother sins…” This verse is clearly talking about the authority of believers to discern and address sin within the church and confirms that God, in Heaven, is authenticating the actions of believers and the Church in this purifying effort.
This verse is also similar to Matthew 16:19, which continues with Peter and the Rock above, and discusses the authority, and invincibility of the Church. Additionally, Matthew 18:20 discussed next, also reiterates this authority.
As to binding and loosing Satan, the Bible is specific that we are to do quite the opposite. Jude 1:9 discusses how “Michael the archangel, when he, disputing with the devil, was arguing about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a blasphemous judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” and James 4:7 instructs us to “resist” the devil, not rebuke him. You can read more about whether we should rebuke Satan here.
How do they get this wrong? As usual, the verse is taken completely out of context as it is clearly authority for Church Discipline, not a new sacrament or instruction to rebuke Satan. With regard to using the Bible to cross-reference this verse, we also see God’s support of church authority in Matthew 18:20 as well as the absence of any verse which establishes confession of priests. With respect to binding and loosing Satan, there are at least two verses that state the exact opposite – as even Michael of Archangel did not rebuke Satan.
Matthew 18:20 Two or more
Another very popular verse, Matthew 18:20 states “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst.”
Misinterpreted: This is like a mystic formula for an instant mico-church with God present. As if God were not present before, when two or more are gathered together, for example for prayer or a small group, He instantly appears.
Interpreted correctly: Verse 20 is the closing sentence to Christ’s discourse on Church discipline in Matthew 18. It is stating, as in the two verses above, that God will be confirming our authority as a church body, the called-out ones, to keep the church pure and confirms our decisions.
2 Corinthians 13:1 (referencing Deuteronomy 19:15) supports this “two or more” concept and shows “…By the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter shall be confirmed.” Again, God is setting the condition before an accusation can be validly made. When this threshold is achieved, God is there confirming it.
How do they get this wrong? As is often the case, ignoring the context of the verse creates something that is nowhere to be found in the Bible – an instant micro-church. In fact, it directly contradicts 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 which affirms that “our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” Since the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the Trinity, Jesus is already indwelling and in our midst, even alone.
You can read more about interpreting Matthew 18:20 correctly here.
Matthew 25:34-46 The social gospel?
Matthew 25:34-46 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Misinterpreted: “Preach the Gospel, if necessary, use words” that is the mantra of the new woke gospel. Does the Great Commission “Go and make disciples…” really mean to give priority to works of social justice? Is Christianity now woke? To listen to many progressives, this is what you would have to conclude – good works are more important than the Word of God. Good works are now the Gospel of Christ.
Interpreted correctly: Without question, James 2:20 states “faith without works is useless” and in 1:27 he asserts “pure and undefiled religion…is this: to visit orphans and widows…” This confirms that faith without action is not genuine faith, and as Christians, we are to show mercy to the less fortunate of society. But, works never supersedes the Word of God as Paul exhorts in Romans 10:17 “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” And Paul boldly claimed his primary evangelistic efforts in 1 Corinthians 1:23 “…we preach Christ crucified.”
Additionally, verse 40 states “to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine…you did it to me.” In the Bible, “brothers” only refer to siblings and believers – it never refers to non-believers. This passage, then, is not referring to the evangelism of non-believers, but to how Christians are being treated.
Another supporting cross-reference is Matthew 7:21-23 where Christ states “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; leave Me, you who practice lawlessness.“ This correlates with the purpose and timing of “that day” in Matthew 25, and is actually the final judgment of Sheep and Goats at the end of the Millenium. Christ is not speaking of a social justice gospel, but of the final judgment of those who deceptively believe they are saved because of their good works.
How do they get this wrong: Again, this is another verse taken out of context, along with a misinterpretation of the expression “brother,” and without the supporting cross-reference verses which clarify the timing and meaning of “that day” as the final judgment of the sheep and goats. The sheep being chosen for salvation, and the goats rejecting Jesus Christ but being deceived by their belief that their good works merit salvation.
John 3:16 God loves you oh so much
Probably the most popular verse of our generation, John 3:16 states “for God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
Misinterpreted: It’s interesting that one of the most popular verses is also one of the most distorted, and yet what seems minor in error is magnified by its very popularity. Does God in fact just absolutely love the world “so” much? Is this love unconditional as many preach? Does this teach universalism where everyone who intellectually acknowledges God is saved? It seems like God loves us so much that we can just believe and be saved. Is this not easy believism? Can we just ask God into our hearts?
This small, popular verse presents an abundance of delusions.
Interpreted correctly: Contextually, this verse is part of the discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus where Jesus was asked “how can a man be born when he is old.” Jesus, preconceiving his question, had just told him he must be “born again” and is explaining what Nicodemus must do to be saved.
The word “so” in this verse does not mean God loves the world unconditionally, it refers to “in which way” God loves the world. This passage is stating “in this way God loved the world – He sent His Son.”
“Believes” is much more than mere intellectual assent, James 2:19 records that “…the demons also believe, and shudder.” Here “believes” conveys trust and commitment. This is the belief or faith of Hebrews 11:1 where “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
It should be remembered, the Father does indeed love you and sends His son for your redemption. God does not love you because His son died for you, God loves you and chose you in order for His son to die for you.
How do they get this wrong? Context, again, is critical to correctly interpret any Bible verse. In this case, knowing, through cross-referencing what belief really means is also essential. Finally, understanding the true word meaning of “so” is, well, so important.
You can read more about John 3:16 here.
Romans 8:29-30 Looking down the corridor of time
Romans 8:29 “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters, and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified“
Misinterpreted: Sadly, one of the greatest gifts to the redeemed believer is also one of the most denied and misunderstood. Many today, and throughout history, have concluded that “foreknew” simply indicates that God “looked down the corridor of history” saw who, by their own free will, would become a believer, and ratified their choice by writing their name in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Effectively instead of giving God the Glory for their salvation, they insist on giving the glory to themselves, and this is the best verse that harmonizes their misconception.
Interpreted correctly: Contextually, this verse follows Romans 8:28 which states “…all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose. This one verse lays out much of God’s Order of Salvation which is discussed in detail here and starts with our Election to God’s loving choice by “foreknowledge.” God did look down the corridor of time, not to ratify our choice but to initiate His appointment of those whom He chose to be presented to Christ Jesus as a pure bride. This is conveyed in 2 Corinthians 11:2 “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy, for I betrothed you to one husband so that I might present you as a pure virgin to Christ.”
The Greek word “foreknew” (discussed more fully here and here) means “to appoint as the subject of future privileges” (Greek and English Interlinear by Mounce and Mounce). The Old Testament Hebrew equivalent of foreknown is “yada” and is used to signify the induction of a loving relationship. For example, Genesis 4:1 says “Adam knew [yada] Eve his wife, and she conceived.” Obviously, this implies much more than simply looking down the corridor of time.
How do they get this wrong? Again contextually, this verse clearly defines God’s loving appointment of those whom God elects. Reviewing the original Greek and related Hebrew words also verifies a loving selection versus simply looking into the future. Myriad other verses illustrate God’s foreseen choice of Israel, Moses, Abraham, Isacc, Jacob, Mary, the Apostles, John the Baptist, and even Paul. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), God didn’t just look into the future, He created the future.
Philippians 4:13 I can do anything with God
Philippians 4:13 states “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” As common as John 3:16 is among the stadium spectators, Philippians 4:13 is equally prevalent with the stadium participants, the athletes.
Misinterpreted: Christ wants to help me do whatever I want to do. He is my energy source for success and achievement. According to Joel Osteen (Today’s Word January 21, 2013) “all things are possible to those who believe. That’s right! It is possible to see your dreams fulfilled. It is possible to overcome that obstacle…all you have to know is that if God said you can…you can!…open up yourself up to possibilities…by simply declaring this verse, “I can do all things through Christ…”
Interpreted correctly: When you study the context of this verse, it is not about personal achievement, it’s about contentment; contentment in any circumstance, contentment via the sustaining power of God.
Philippians was written while Paul was in prison and upon receiving a financial gift from the Philippians he wrote this epistle to express his gratitude. In fact, in Philippians 4:10 Paul thanks the Philippians for their gift “…I rejoiced…that now, at last, you have revived thinking about me.” Verse 11 states “I learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.” He goes on to elaborate on this contentment in verse 12 “I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in abundance…”
Paul then concludes in Philippians 4:13 with “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” The Greek word for “strengthen” means to “put power in.” Paul is stating that God’s power sustains believers no matter what circumstance they are in.
How do they get this wrong? Over and over, we often read into a verse and end up reading it out of context. Paul is not trying out for the quarterback position of the Prison Football team, he is learning to be content, even in his dire circumstances, through God’s power. It helps to understand the meaning of “strengthen” but the real key to understanding this verse is simply to read and understand it in its natural flow and context.
Revelation 3:20 Knocking on the door
Revelation 3:20 states “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”
Misinterpreted: This is one of the most popular verses of evangelists, camp speakers, and anyone who want to stress the urgency for a person to respond to the Gospel call, or Altar Call, in their lives. I can literally see velvet paintings of Jesus knocking on a door to your heart begging you to accept the free gift of salvation – “Here I am knocking…signed Jesus.” This is typical of “ask Jesus into your heart” and the easy believism movement, which seem more concerned with “numbers” than true believers and making disciples.
Interpreted correctly: This is the end of a letter to the last of the seven churches in the book of Revelation. The church of Laodicea, which was both an actual church and figuratively typical of seven types of churches even today, was “lukewarm” – it was an apostate church. Christ was knocking on the “church door” urging the church to repent. Notice the precise use of “in to” verses “into” – this is not the door into a person’s heart, it is the door in to the church. Additionally, the reference to “door” is also used in the Church of Philadelphia in Revelation 3:8 “I have given before you an open door which no one can shut…”
It is important to understand that although Christ “desires” all to be saved (which you can read about here), John 6:44 clarifies that “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him….”. Salvation is not a matter of just walking down an aisle and asking Jesus into your heart, it is responding to an effectual call with the gifts of faith and repentance and committing to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. For a more detailed review of the Gospel, you may want to read this.
This verse is so much deeper and different than the misinterpreted “ask Jesus into your heart” that it actually reaches the point of becoming a false gospel.
How do they get this wrong? The knocking on a door is used contextually to describe Christ’s efforts to bring repentance to a fallen church. This contextual conclusion is critical in understanding the verse. It is true also, that no other cross-reference verses support a “door” analogy regarding evangelism or non-believers. This is typical, however, of forcing a verse into being what one really desires it to be – a great altar call imagery. Vivid maybe, but false.
2 Chronicles 7:14 Heal our land
2 Chronicles 7:14 “My people who are called by My name humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Misinterpreted: Very simply, the U.S. can be healed if we can just get enough people to pray and seek after God.
Interpreted correctly: The Old Testament is replete with stories of Israel apostatizing, repenting, and being restored by God – over and over and over again. This is an example of one of those sequences. Here, Solomon had just prayed for the newly constructed temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 6), had offered burnt offerings (2 Chronicle 7:4-7), and had just celebrated the feast of dedication for the temple (2 Chronicle 7:8-10). God now responds with promises and warnings in 2 Chronicle 7:12-22 and this is one of the promises. God is speaking to the Nation of Israel, not all believers, concerning the land of Israel, not the U.S.
Obviously, we should continue to pray for our nation, and 1 Timothy 2:13 encourages such prayers, but it is misguided to claim the promises of God, made specifically to another nation and another land, to be applicable to us.
How do they get this wrong? Much of the Old Testament is “narrative.” As such, we can glean insights into God and His people, but we are unable to claim promises made to others for our own benefit. Again, context is important as well as understanding the nature of the Old Testament narrative.
Psalm 118:24 The day the Lord has made
Psalm 118:24 “This is the day which the Lord has made; Let’s rejoice and be glad in it.“
Misinterpreted: If this doesn’t have refrigerator magnet written all over it, I’m not sure what does. This verse implies that every day is a special day that God has made and we need to rejoice in that. Although there’s some truth in that, this verse is not really addressing a special joyful day every day.
Interpreted correctly: Certainly, God’s common grace (to which you can read more about here) magnifies the beauty and joy of His creation every day around the world. Without a doubt, there is not only joy in His creation but Romans 1:20 states “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, being understood by what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” This specific verse, however, is not talking about God’s common grace and the beauty of His creation.
Psalm 118 is one of the praise songs and may very well have been one of the last songs Christ led the night before His death (Matthew 26:30). Psalm 118:24 refers not to every day but to a particular day, the day when the Lord made the rejected stone the cornerstone – the day of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. Ephesians 2:20 refers to this “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone,“
“The day” is not just every day, it’s the day the Lord becomes the cornerstone.
How do they get this wrong? Just because the Old Testament is generally narrative doesn’t mean it doesn’t have very specific meanings. If read without context, it’s all too easy to misunderstand and even devalue the word of God. In some of these situations, it’s also helpful to refer to reliable commentaries.
Jeremiah 29:11 I have only good plans for you
Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for prosperity and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.“
Misinterpreted: God has made every day beautiful, and for our enjoyment. The idea here is that we shouldn’t worry since God has a plan for our day and that our future is bright. Rick Warren, in his Purpose Driven Life, p 31 states “The greatest tragedy is not death, but life without purpose…If you have felt hopeless, hold on! God says, “I know what I am planning for you…’I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you. I will give you hope and a good future.'”
Interpreted correctly: Although God does have a plan for his children, He certainly doesn’t promise a life of ease. Ask any of the Apostles about how their life of ease was with no plans to get hurt – better yet you can read about it in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Like most Old Testament verses, God is dealing specifically with explicit peoples, times, and places. Here God is dealing with the Babylonian capture of Judah which itself was a punishment by God because of Israel’s rejection. God is telling His people to settle in and build houses, get married, and have families. Why? Because they are going to be there for 70 years. At which time God will let them return home. This was a promise made to Israel nationally not to everyone who wants to name and claim it.
How do they get this wrong? Again understanding the context of this passage, and the history – to who was it written, what peoples, countries and times did it pertain to. These contextual questions alone will answer most issues of correct interpretation.
The purpose of this article is not only to point out a dozen misinterpreted Bible verses but to also show the similarities as to why these verses are misunderstood and what is needed to correctly interpret the Bible.
Often we tend to grab a sentence or portion of a sentence, without reading the surrounding materials and jump to a conclusion as to what that verse means. In many situations, we make it mean what we want it to mean. As you can see from the examples above, simply reading the entire chapter or surrounding verses usually sheds more than enough illumination to correctly interpret a specific verse.
Additionally, knowing some of the specific words and looking at the existence and lack of existence of cross-reference Bible verses also helps clarify the meaning of a verse.
Using reliable commentaries is also helpful, as is praying for the promised illumination of the Holy Spirit.