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“The Top 10 Passages Most Frequently Misinterpreted
By Dr. Edward Dalcour
In Exodus 20:16, the Lord commands: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” This commandment clearly extends to the NT teachings dealing with honesty and love. Even worst is to bear false witness against God by falsely misinterpreting what He said in His Word—namely, saying things of God that God never said and/or proclaiming promises that God never promised. Embracing and asserting erroneous meanings of a text is typically due to one’s personal experience and/or a traditional interpretation, which was never properly (exegetically) confirmed.
Whether one adds to or subtracts from the canon of Scripture, or misapplies/misinterprets the intended meaning of the author, he or she is promulgating a false testimony of God, the ultimate Author. In 2 Peter 3:16, the Apostle Peter indicates that the “untaught/unstudied [amatheis] and unstable” distort the Scriptures. Biblical accuracy is utterly important to God—for faulty interpretations both controvert Scripture and destructively affect Christians who embrace them. So in 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul says to Timothy, “be diligent to present yourself approved to God.” In which Paul explains how: “As a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” Two important points here 1) Do not be ashamed of any part of Scripture whether they are tough to accept by the unstudied and liberal or offensive and 2) accurately handle (interpret) the word of God.
Passages Most Frequently Misinterpreted
Although there are countless passages that can be offered, we have selected (in order of usage) John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9; Jeremiah 29:11; Matthew 18:20; 1 Peter 2:24; Revelation 3:20; 1 Timothy 3:16; 3 John 1:2; 1 John 2:27; and 1 Corinthians 2:9:
JOHN 3:16: “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.”
Problem: Although John 3:16 is arguably one of the most frequently quoted passages in the Bible, it is one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted passages. Basically, the problem is two-fold. 1) Coming to the text with the presupposition of universal atonement (i.e., Jesus’ atoning cross work was for every single person, but for no one in particular). Hence, many “traditionally” quote the KJV mistranslation of the Greek adjective pas (which the KJV renders as “whosoever” ). And 2), along with pas, a universal meaning is also imposed on kosmos (“world”). What does it actually mean? We are prevented from presenting a full exegetical presentation of v. 16 and its surrounding context, however, outlined below are some of the main features:
1. The Greek text reads: Houtōs gar ēgapēsen ho theos ton kosmon hōste ton huion ton monogenē edōken, literally, “In this manner, indeed, loved the God the world, that the Son, the one and only, He gave. . . .” The context actually starts in v. 14 dealing with the snake in the wilderness (cf. Num. 21:6-9) with which Nicodemus would have been familiar. The particularities of the event are contextually interrelated with John 3:15-16. Firstly, the bronze serpent was the only means of healing/deliverance for “only” God’s people (the Israelites), which corresponds to trusting in the Son as the only means of salvation. John 3:14-15 reads: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” Note here and in v. 16 the hina (“so that”) “purpose and result” clause—indicating that the PURPOSE of the Son’s cross work (being “lifted up”) was for the RESULT of eternal life to all the ones believing in Him.
2. The verse starts with the affirmation of God’s redemptive love to everyone believing, which God demonstrated by sending His Son into the world and giving them eternal life. Which world? Many who misinterpret v. 16 are unaware that in the NT, kosmos (“world”) has over a half of dozen clearly defined meanings. For example, kosmos can denote every single person (cf. Rom. 3:19); only non-believers (cf. John 1:10; 15:18; Rom. 3:6); only believers (cf. John 1:29; 6:33; 12:47; 1 Cor. 4:9); Gentiles, in contrast from Jews (cf. Rom. 11:12); the world system (cf. John 12:31); the Earth (cf. John 13:1; Eph. 1:4), 7); the universe as a whole (cf. Acts 17:24); the known world (i.e., not everyone inclusively [cf. John 12:9; Rom. 1:8; Col. 1:5-6])—only context determines the meaning of kosmos.
Kosmos (“world”)—every single person? Due to the presupposition of autosoterism (self-salvation), chiefly promoted by the Arminians, kosmos is assumed here to mean every single person, thus embracing the “traditional” (not exegetical) view of a universal atonement. Although kosmos can have various meanings, as seen above, rarely does it carry an all-inclusive “every single person” meaning. Further, we know that the “world” in v. 16 is not the same “world” that Jesus does not pray for in John 17:9; nor is it the “world” that John speaks of in 1 John 2:15, which we are not to love. Also, in 1st cent. vernacular, the normal meaning of “world” was the “world” of Jews and Gentiles—as John’s audience would have understood (cf. John 12:17, 19).
Contextually, kosmos (and the adjective pas, “all/every”) in vv. 16 and 17 here is comprised of all or every one believing (viz. believing Jews and Gentiles) as v. 17 (and 1:29; 12:47) indicates. Again, the Arminian universal understanding of kosmos and pas in v. 16 would make v. 17 affirm universalism (i.e., all of humanity will be saved). The Father does intend to save the “world” through His Son, but it is the world of the believing ones that He saves, that is, “those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:24; cf. Eph. 1:4-5); men “from every tribe, tongue, people and nation” (Rev. 5:9); all the ones the Father gives to the Son (John 6:37-40, 44); it is the world for whom the Son dies and “gives life” (John 6:33) and “takes away” their sin (John 1:29)—as the surrounding context (vv. 14-15 and 17-19) provides. Since we know that not every single person will be saved, it would be biblically untrue to read into kosmos a universal (all of humanity) meaning.
Pas ho pisteuōn (lit., “every one believing”). As mentioned, many use the mistranslation of the KJV (“whosoever”) to assert the view of a universal non-definite atonement. However, the phrase in Greek teaches no such thing. Rather, it is a promise of eternal life to all the ones doing the action of the present active participle, pisteuōn, “believing”—“Everyone now believing” has eternal life.
Pas. The Greek adjective pas (as in pas ho pisteuōn) means “all/every.” Thus, “whosoever” is not a concordant translation of pas. Most modern translations accurately render the phrase pas ho pisteuōn: “whoever believes” (NKJV, NASB, NIV); “everyone who believes” (NLT, Holman, NET); and most literal, “every one who is believing” (Young’s lit.).
Pisteuōn (lit., “believing”). The verb here is a present active participle—denoting a present ongoing action—“believing.” In John’s literature, present active participles (on-going actions) are normally used in soteriological contexts to denote the life of a true Christian (e.g., John 5:24; 6:47, 54; 1 John 5:1, 5). Grammatically, the adjective pas (“all/every”) modifies the phrase ho pisteuōn (“the one believing”)—i.e., all the ones believing. As noted, both vv. 15 and 16 contain the same participle phrase: pas ho pisteuōn (“every one believing”).
Therefore, as this concise summary indicates, 1) the meaning of kosmos (“world”) in vv. 16 and 17 is defined by the context: all the ones doing the action of the verb (“believing”)—i.e., both Jews and Gentiles, 2) the KJV rendering, “whosoever” is not according to the Greek text, 3) the adjective pas (“all/every”) grammatically modifies the verb (“believing”), all, without limit, the ones believing. Thus, in biblical contrast to the Arminian traditional understanding of v. 16 (viz. a universal atonement), vv. 15-18 is God’s promise, through the cross work of His Son, to provide eternal life to all the ones believing in Him (see 1 John 4:7-10 where John provides his commentary and explication of John 3:16).
Problem: Along with John 3:16, Arminians especially use this to support the notion that God’s desire is to save all of humanity (a universal atonement); however, because men supposedly have “free will,” many “choose” not to come whereby frustrating God’s desire to save all men. What does it actually mean? First, Peter’s letters were written to Christians (cf. 1 Pet. 1-2; 2 Pet. 1-2). Second, the main context of 2 Peter 3, is not salvation, but rather the second coming of the Lord. Third, from vv. 3-7, Peter is addressing (in 3rd person references) the “mockers” who deny the Lord’s coming (“mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming?’” (vv. 3-4). It is not until v. 8 that Peter now turns to his Christian audience: “But do not let this one fact escape your [2nd person pronoun] notice, beloved.” The switch from 3rd person references (“scoffers”) to 2nd person references (his Christian audience) is key to correctly understand v. 9.
Also, note the term “wishing” (“not wishing for any to perish”) is from boulomai (boulē), not thēlō (“to will”). The term underscores God’s counsel or purpose, His predetermined decree or plan (see Luke 10:22; Acts 2:23; Eph. 1:11). Whereas thēlō merely indicates a desire, which can be resisted (depending on the context). Hence, following the context: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some [the mockers] count slowness, but is patient toward you [Peter’s Christian audience], not wishing [purposing/decreeing] for any [i.e., any of you] to perish, but for all [all of Peter’s Christian audience] to come to repentance.” Thus, God’s definitive decree (boulomai) is that no one perishes, and all (“who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God,” 1 Pet. 1:1-2) come to repentance and faith in His Son. (cf. John 6:37-39, 44; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:29-30; 9:16ff; 2 Thess. 2:13).
JEREMIAH 29:11: “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.”
Problem: This passage has been cited constantly to encourage disheartened Christians that God’s promise to faithful believers is prosperity, protection from calamity, and a future hope. Who would not want that, right? However, after a simple examination, no Christian can or would want these things applied to them in the defining context of Jeremiah 29. What does it actually mean? It is utterly amazing to me the misconceptions Christians have about their life here on earth—mainly due to bad teachings that promise that earth is their “Best life Now” and teach worldly discontentment resulting in an overly zealous need for financial prosperity, and being impressed with those who have it. Thus, a concentrated pursuant for earthly things is exactly what Scripture opposes: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15ff.). Similarly, Paul teaches us to set our “mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2; cf. v. 3).
Second, the key point of understanding this passage is to recognize the specific group to whom the particular promise in v. 11 was given. The answer is found in v. 1: “Now these are the words of the letter . . . to the rest of the elders of the exile, the priests, the prophets and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile. . . .” This starts the context—the promises in v. 11 are specifically given to the “elders [and others] of the exile” (still in captivity!), not to anyone else (esp. the Christian church).
Note v. 10: “When seventy years have been completed for [at] Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you”—and it is in this context that the Lord declares His promises in v. 11 to them.
So, in light of the context and the specific recipients to whom the prophecy was given (those in captivity), it is incorrect to apply the promises of v. 11 to Christians—vv. 1-10 cannot be disconnected from the prophecy of v. 11. Now, here are many NT promises that are indeed applied to Christians—promises of peace/reconciliation with God, justification, glorification, prayer being answered according to His sovereignty, all things working out together for good, nothing being able to separate the believer from God’s love, etc. but Jeremiah 29:11 is not one of them. In fact, God never promised believers financial prosperity, happiness, or an exemption from calamity in this life (cf. Rom. 8:18; Phil. 1:29; Heb. 11). Rather, our absolute joy and happiness is reserved in heaven.
MATTHEW 18:20: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”
Problem: Many use this passage to teach the idea that prayer is more powerful and efficacious when two or three (or more) are praying together. What does it actually mean? To say at the onset, there is great emotional and psychological benefit to corporate prayer. The early church did just that (esp. shown in Acts). God designed the church to function corporately—Christians encouraging and edifying each other (cf. Ps. 133:1; 1 Cor. 12:12ff.; Eph. 2:19-20; Heb. 10:25). However, this passage is not expressing the power in numbers regarding prayer, as if a lone prayer is weak and unproductive.
Simply, v. 15 starts the context surrounding v. 20: “If your brother sins.” Jesus then in the following passages provides the process of disciplinary actions among believers (ekklēsia). In v. 16, Jesus cites Deuteronomy 17:6 (as He did in John 8:17) regarding “the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses.” In the accusation of elders, Paul too uses the same law (cf. 1 Tim. 5:19; and cf. 2 Cor. 13:1; Heb. 10:28 where this rule is recognized). Thus, the context here are matters of accusation and discipline. So in these particular matters, when the church obeys this frequently utilized biblical rule of “two or three witnesses,” Jesus shows His approval: “Again, I say to you . . . where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (vv. 19-20).
1 PETER 2:24: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”
Problem: People abuse this passage by isolating, “by His wounds/stripes you were healed” making it a routine prayer or guarantee for physical healing. What does it actually mean? The context again provides the intended meaning. First, when a NT author cites an OT passage(s) as Peter is doing here, it is the authority of the NT author that provides the interpretation of the OT reference. This is a basic rule of biblical interpretation. Second, in the Greek text we find a purpose and result” clause denoted by the conjunction hina (“so that/in order that”). Hence, as Peter explains, the PURPOSE of Christ bearing our sins was for the RESULT of us dying to sin and living to righteousness. The context is clear: Through the passion (suffering) of Christ on the cross (i.e., “by His wounds”), we are healed of sin (“die to sin”) and now we can “live to righteousness.” Thus, Peter is speaking of a spiritual and not physical healing.
REVELATION 3:20: “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.”
Problem: This passage is used frequently in revivals and other evangelistic events to present to an unsaved crowed that Jesus is knocking at their heart and all they have to do is open it and let Jesus in. What does it actually mean? Plainly, Jesus addressed these words, not to the unregenerate, but rather to Christians—the church at Laodicea. Jesus is constantly knocking at our door desiring more of us in our holy living, obedience, devotion, and in our continuous worship. That Jesus is constantly knocking on the door of all unbelievers begging them to open the door, yet many of them reject His offer, gives the impression that Jesus is a persistent failure that just can’t overcome the mighty will of man.
1 TIMOTHY 3:16: “By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”
Problem: Because the English term “mystery” stands at the introduction of this high Christological hymn, many Christians (and even non-Christians) apply it to the Trinity. As a result, in response to questions and passing conversations about the Trinity, they obliviously say things like, “No one really understands it, it’s a great mystery”; or even worse, doctrinally apathetic pastors confine the entire doctrine to a “mystery” avoiding the responsibility and diligence of their calling. What does it actually mean? First, a plain reading of the context reveals that the hymn is specifically speaking of the incarnation (“He who was revealed in the flesh”), not the Trinity.
Second, the term translated “mystery” is from the Greek, mustērion. The term denotes something that was secret, previously hidden, but now revealed, made known (cf. Rom 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; 4:1; Eph. 1:9; 3:3-9; 6:19; Col 1:26-27). As with the “mystery” of God effectually calling the Gentiles to salvation through faith alone by Christ alone (cf. Eph. 3:3-9), the “mystery” here is the incarnational work of the Son, which is now plainly revealed to us in Scripture, which is not a “mystery”—“The Word became flesh” (John 1:14).
3 JOHN 1:2: “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.”
Problem: Many eager Charismatic preachers and their followers take this passage to teach the idea that “faithful” Christians can/should have flourishing wealth and unrestricted physical heath. What does it actually mean? First, the content of this letter erases any such notion.
Consider this: 1) the letter was written to a man named Gaius, who, if John were teaching him how to get rich and healthy, would have had no idea what John was talking about given the content of the letter, 2) the term “prosper” is euodoō from eu (“well, good”) and hodos (“a journey, journey, path”). Hence, prosperous in a journey, to have a good journey, as exampled in LXX (cf. Gen. 24:21). We are not saying that the term cannot mean financial prosperity, but the content here opposes that meaning, 3) the phrase “Be in health” is from hugiainō. In Paul’s letters, this word always means sound teaching (e.g., 1 Titus 1:9, 13), but here and in Luke-Acts it is used of bodily health, and 4), mostly importantly, John wrote his letter in the typical format of the culture of the day. As with most the NT letters, there is an opening salutation, which includes the sender’s and/or recipient’s name. Thus, John’s is sending a normal greeting to beloved Gaius that he may prosper and be in good health, as his soul prospers. John is not promising Gaius (or any Christian) ultimate health and wealth. We send greetings in the same way wishing our friends or family well, or wishing them a safe trip, etc., but we do not send these greetings as a guarantee or prediction.
The fact is, contra to biblically thoughtless preachers who teach that riches and health God’s promise to faithful Christians, many of God’s faithful people were and are sick and financially deprived. For example, Paul told the Galatians that “it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you” (Gal. 4:13-14). Faithfull Timothy had stomach problems and frequent illnesses (cf. 1 Tim. 5:23). Paul was hardly a rich man when he explained: “To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless” (1 Cor. 4:11)—this was at least twenty years into his ministry.
1 JOHN 2:27: “As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things. . . .”
Problem: This passage is often cited to support the idea that one’s own interpretation of a passage (or God’s will) is determined by a subjective so-called “anointing” in which biblical confirmation becomes secondary and/or unneeded. What does it actually mean? As with Colossians, 1 & 2 John was written as an anti-gnostic polemic. The gnostic philosophy was a spirit (good) vs. matter (evil or non-existent) dualistic system—thus denying that Jesus became “flesh.” Gnosticism also taught that only those who possessed the so-called “Christ mind” received “special revelation/knowledge” (similar to Christian Science). Hence, contextually the Apostle declares to his readers that they do not need a “teacher” (i.e., gnostic philosophy), for they are born of God (cf. 1 John 5:1) having the ability and desire to hear the words of God (cf. John 8:43, 47; 1 Cor. 4:6).
Without one taking basic steps to warrant an accurate interpretation, misinterpretation or misapplication is unavoidable. We as Christians must have a high view of Scripture. We must resist the temptation to read in our own presuppositions or particular “pet theologies” into the text, which infers we have more authority than that of the intended meaning of the biblical author!
“Every word of God is tested; he is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. 6 Do not add to His words Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar” (Prov. 30:5-6).
1] Canon addition is the process of adding to Scripture by way postulating a “new revelation” supposedly from God or by adding to the intended meaning of the biblical author (e.g., Catholics, JWs, and LDS). Further, many (not all) Charismatics are also guilty of this every time one presents a “new revelation” for the church. Whereas Canon reduction is the process of removing (or denying) sections or important biblical teachings (e.g., liberal Christians remove/deny in various ways the biblical prohibitions against homosexuality).
 The phrase “accurately handing” comes from the Greek verb orthotomeō, from temnō (“to cut”) and orthos (“straight”) literally, “to cut straight,” thus, denoting the idea of exactness or precision. In addition, the verb here is a present active participle (orthotomounta), thus denoting the continuous action of handing the Scripture with precision.
 See Galatians 4:13-14; 1 Corinthians 4:11