I accidentally started thinking about this when I was writing one of those silly, narcissistic facebook notes where you answer questions about yourself. I answered a question about pet peeves, and now I can't stop answering that question.
These are ten of the most common errors in biblical interpretation that I hear taught in various places. All of these are taught with good intentions, and most even have truth somewhere in them. That's why they're common, but that's also why we have to be more careful. My hope in posting these errors is that some people who teach the Bible will read this and be driven to invest even more time and study in their preparation to teach.
Here's the list:
10. The practice of 'claiming' promises that are in the Bible
Some of the promises God makes in the Bible are intended for us and some are not. For example, I once heard someone 'claim' the promise of Joshua 1:3, "Every place on which the sole of your foot treads, I have given it to you." This was a promise made to Joshua and the Israelites, and I seriously doubt that God intended it to mean He would give land to every person who reads this verse. There are legitimate applications of this promise for Christians in that we will receive an eternal inheritance from God, but to use that verse to demand something from God in this life is irresponsible. Also, there are lots of promises in the Bible that none of us would ever want to claim. If you doubt this, go read Nahum 3:5-6.
9. Using a commandment from the Law of Moses as an ethical imperative
Huge portions of the New Testament are dedicated to the teaching that Jesus fulfilled the Law and that we are no longer bound by it. Yet, it is still common to hear someone quote a verse in Leviticus as proof that something they don't like is sinful. For example, it's common to hear someone quote Leviticus 19:28 as evidence that it's a sin to get a tattoo. There's just no way to get that kind of teaching to fit with what the New Testament says about the Law. From a Christian perspective, ethical imperatives can only come from the New Testament.
8. Dismissing a commandment from the Law of Moses as unimportant
On the flip side of #9, we have to remember that the entire Bible is still the Word of God. Just because the Law is not binding on followers of Christ doesn't mean it's unimportant. After all, why would the Son of God fulfill every word of an irrelevant document? Even when certain commands in the Old Testament are explicitly reversed by the New Testament, there are still principles in those verses that can teach us important truths about God an how He wants us to live. For example, many of the dietary laws of the Old Testament had to do with avoiding the pagan practices of the culture around them. If the Israelites weren't supposed to boil a goat in its mother's milk, then maybe we shouldn't behave the same way as the culture around us either.
7. Using Proverbs 29:18 to prove that "casting a vision" is important
Yes, it's important for leaders to have an idea of where they want to go in the future. That's true. What's not true is that you can prove that point by tossing around the line, "Where there is no vision the people perish" (KJV). It's funny to me that Christian leadership gurus who would never dare preach from the King James Version in their churches suddenly adore it when it comes to this verse. Check a modern translation and you'll find out why. The "vision" that the Bible is talking about has nothing to do with modern leadership principles. It's talking about the literal sort of vision that God would give to a prophet and use to reveal truth to His people. In other words, it's the Word of God that keeps us from perishing, not the vision-casting abilities of a pastor.
6. Using Philippians 4:13 to say we can literally do anything
The verse reads, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." This is truly a great verse--in context. If you read the two verses that come before it you can see what Paul means by it. He has been through many hardships, and by the power of Christ he can endure them all. This shows us that by trusting Christ we can face any situation God brings into our lives. It does not mean that if you had just a little more faith in Jesus you could bench press an extra 20 pounds, or levitate, or make all your wildest dreams come true.
5. Drawing distinctions between the different Greek words for "love"
All of us who've been around Christian culture for a while have heard that there are several words for "love" in Greek and that each word refers to a specific kind of love. Usually the crowning moment of this lesson is that 'agape' is the kind of love God has for us and is the best love of all. I hate to be the one to burst the bubble, but this is just not true. Some of the Greek words that have made it into this teaching are never found in the Bible at all. The ones that are in the Bible are used interchangeably in a variety of contexts. In fact, there is one instance in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) when 'agape' actually means 'rape'. When you're trying to figure out what a Greek word for 'love' really means, the context of the verse is the best way to find out. Usually it just means love.
4. Using John 3:16 to say God loved the world "so much"
John 3:16 is certainly one of the greatest verses in the Bible about the astonishing love that God has shown in giving us His Son. But, the word "so" in that verse does not mean "so much". It would actually be better translated "thusly" or "in this way". John 3:16 is not about the amount of love that God has for the world but the way in which He shows that love. That doesn't mean God loves us any less than we've always thought, it just means that the verse isn't talking about the amount of love.
3. Using Revelation 3:20 to say that Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart
In this verse Jesus says, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock..." I think we can say from Scripture that the Lord legitimately offers a call to be saved to everyone who hears the gospel. But, this verse is not about that. This verse is addressed to a local church that has essentially shut Jesus out of their congregation. Jesus is knocking on the door of the church in this verse, not the door of someone's heart.
2. Taking Jeremiah 29:11 out of context
I know I'm messing with a lot of people's favorite verse here, but you need to know what it's really about if it's going to be your favorite verse. Here it is: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" This verse gets claimed pretty often in the fashion of #10 on this list. But before you claim it, read the verses and chapters that surround it. All of the false prophets are telling the people of Judah that everything is going to be fine, but Jeremiah is delivering an unpopular message from God that their nation will be destroyed and that they will become slaves in a foreign land. First of all, this verse is addressed only to the people of God, so it applies today only to people who know and trust God. Secondly, it is given as a message of hope as the people are about to be carried off into exile for 70 years. What it means is that even though God takes His people through some incredibily difficult times, He has a plan that is bigger and better than we understand.
1. Saying that the Great Commission really means "As you go"
The verse says, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations..." (Matt. 28:19). The mistaken teaching is that if we knew Greek we'd know that it really means "as you go" instead of "go". I've written about this before, so I won't go into too much detail. The basic truth is that if you knew Greek you would find out that it still means "go". The Greek is a little weird, but I dare you to find a translation of the Bible that says "as you go". The reason you won't find one is that even in Greek it really is a command, not a passive suggestion. How are you going to reach all nations "as you go" anyway? Jesus' words tell us that we really should go out of our way to share the good news.
That's all. I hope this makes you want to study your Bible more.