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Why Do People Misquote and Misinterpret Scripture?

This week’s question comes from a young woman who asserts that if “God is the same yesterday, today, and always” (Hebrews 13.8) and that if “heaven and earth shall pass away, but the word of God shall never pass away” (Matthew 24.35) then how can anyone say that the Old Testament is not for today?

One of the most difficult things for most Christians to come to terms with is the difference between interpretation and misinterpretation of the scriptures. It is really very easy for most of us to go to church, listen to the minister preach a “good” sermon, and then, since it all sounded very logical and well thought out, we accept what was said as if it had been handed down from on high. It’s this very tendency that has the majority of church folks believing that there were three wise-men at the manger (the Bible doesn’t indicate how many were there), that all the animals on the ark went on two-by-two (they didn’t, some went on seven-by-seven!), and that God decreed, “The Lord helps those who helps themselves” (Ben Franklin said that). But there’s this assumption that if the preacher said it, it must be gospel. 

And so the Bible gets misinterpreted on a fairly regular basis.

Another difficult problem for most church folks is the tendency to remove a Bible verse from its context and try to get the passage to address situations that were unintended by the writer. For instance, one of my favorite passages is: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18.20). Every time I’ve heard this passage quoted it has been applied to prayer and/or worship. Indeed, when removed from it’s context, how else could we interpret it? But this verse has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus joining us when there’s a prayer meeting. Instead, this verse is an assurance that when there is a conflict in the church, that when the church leaders step in to mediate the solution and a covenant is made between the parties, then Jesus is involved and present in that agreement. Indeed, the whole promise of this verse hearkens back to Old Testament covenant agreements that were generally made into a three-way bargain: between the two conflicted parties and God who would watch over that agreement (cf., Genesis 31.49).

And then there is the ever popular misquoted scripture—which is the difficulty with our question today. When we hear a passage either misquoted or misapplied, we may come to believe that what we heard, or thought we heard, is what the Bible really says. I’ve known people who have built whole theologies based on misquoted scriptures, and that when shown the correct quote tried to change tactics and find other verses to bolster their new-found beliefs. 

The base question, “Why do some assert the Old Testament is not applicable to now” has been dealt with in this Column several times in the past few years. And it’s not that the question isn’t important, it is. But what’s critical for this column isn’t the fact that much of the Torah, the ancient Law, is not applicable to today (otherwise we have to stop wearing fabric blends, eating shrimp, getting tatted, piercing our ears, and sitting on the same couch as our wives during the menstrual cycle—not to mention all the sacrificial laws we’d have to keep). What is critical is that it is common to misquote, misapply, or misinterpret scripture to make a point.

Let’s look at the two scriptures that were quoted. The first is from Hebrews 13.8. “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Except the passage reads, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Which, in the understanding of the historical church, is almost saying the same thing—except when linked with the next quote. Matthew 24.35 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but the word of God shall never pass away.” But this time Jesus is speaking and he actually says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words shall never pass away.” My words. Not the Bible, not the scriptures (which for Jesus was only the Old Testament), not the “Word of God.” Jesus tells his disciples that what he has taught them, the words he’s said, will not pass away.

In neither verse was there any intention by the writers suggesting that the Old Testament was either valid or invalid. Nothing like that was on their minds at all. However, I can’t find too much fault with the author of our question, because I’ve heard these same verses quoted from the pulpit to assert a variety of dogmas, none of which had any real validity.

The moral of the story is this: be careful about scripture. It’s potent stuff and has the ability to change lives—for the better or for the worse, depending on how we handle it. Paul told his pastoral apprentice, Timothy, to be careful about preaching and interpreting the scriptures because to misquote for harm is to bring condemnation upon the teacher. So, let’s be careful out there.

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