I have previously listed and summarised the forty ‘urban legends’ discussed by David A Croteau.
Here are some more New Testament passages that are frequently misunderstood or misapplied:-
1. ‘Going the second (or ‘extra’) mile’ (Matthew 5:41). When people are willing to make an effort above and beyond the call of duty, they often refer to this as going the second (or extra) mile. This is not a complete misapplication of the text, but common usage does tend to mask its radical nature. Jesus gives four illustrations of a certain attitude in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, and they all relate to the question of not insisting on our rights, or (to put it more positively) of loving our enemy.
2. ‘Jonah was swallowed by a whale’ (Matthew 12:39). Well, most people know that the story tells of a fish, rather than a whale, that swallowed Jonah. But I’m going to be a bit more controversial on this one. Are we sure that the story of Jonah isn’t precisely that – a story? The whole thing is told in such colourful, exaggerated language, and with such comical twists and turns, that I’m inclined to think that it’s a kind of extended parable. My hunch is that we evangelicals tend to go for the most conservative option on questions like this just to be on the safe side. But I think that the ‘maximal conservatism’ approach lacks integrity.
3. ‘We all have a cross to bear’ (Mt 16:24). This has become a cliché for any unpleasant situation that a person has to endure: everything from a gammy leg to an objectionable spouse. In context, ‘taking up one’s cross’ means to be willing to be treated in the same was as Jesus was: as a criminal condemned to death. It means to ‘be prepared to be ridiculed, spit on, be seen and treated as a criminal, be thought to be guilty of shameful things.’ (Gundry)
4. ‘With God all things are possible’ (Mt 19:26; see also Luke 1:37). This does not, of course, mean that God can do nonsensical things, such as make a round square, or create a stone too heavy for him to lift. In fact, the Puritans used to say that there are three things that even God cannot do: he cannot lie, he cannot die, and he cannot deny himself.
5. ‘The Virgin Mary is “full of grace”‘ (Luke 1:28). When this verse is translated, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’, readers are likely to be misled into assuming that this means that she is so full of grace that she is able to give grace to others. The true meaning is well captured by the NIV – ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored.’ In other words, the angel is referring to grace that Mary has received, rather to grace that she bestows on others.
6. ‘Jesus came to bring “peace on earth, goodwill toward men”” (Luke 2:14). This verse is often used to conjure up the hope that the world might become a more peaceful place to live in, and that we might have a spirit of generosity and kindness towards one another. Although we might all reasonably hope for these things, this is not the meaning of the verse in question, notwithstanding how this verse is rendered in the AV (based on a faulty text found in some late manuscripts). Again, the NIV gives a better translation: ‘on earth peace to men on whom [God’s] favour rests’. It is the peace and favour of God, of which the angels speak.
7. ‘Just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me’ (Matthew 25:40). The so-called ‘parable’ of the Sheep and the Goats is popularly thought to teach that the criterion of final judgement will be acts of kindness towards the needy, even though the person carrying out these acts of kindness might be totally unaware that they were being done as if to Jesus himself. This interpretation assumes that ‘the least of these brothers or sisters of mine’ refers to any person who is in need. In fact, however, a study of usage elsewhere in the Gospels demonstrates that such an expression must be equivalent to ‘the least of these disciples of mine.’ The ‘parable’ central teaching would then be that a critical criterion of final judgement will be how people treat Jesus in the persons of his disciples.
8. ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’ (John 8:7). This saying is often assumed to be a blanket ban on judging others. After all, no-one is without sin, so no-one should criticise anyone else. This teaching of Jesus (assuming it is authentic) certainly does prompt us to consider our own faults before condemning those of others. But our Lord’s disciples, ‘who were taught to pray confessing their debts (Mt. 6:12), were also to “bind” and “loose,” “retain” and “forgive” sins (Mt 16:19; 18:18; Jn. 20:23), and to treat the unforgiving sinner “as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mt. 18:17). Christ warned His disciples against trying to remove all who offend (Mt 13:36–43), since if only the sinless could discipline, all discipline would be eliminated.’ (Gerstner, ISBE, art. ‘Law in the NT’)
9. ‘All things work together for good’ (Romans 8:28). When (mis)quoted in this way, a precious truth is trivialised and distorted. The text does not say that ‘things’ work together, but rather that ‘God’ does. Nor is this an indiscriminate promise: it is for ‘those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’. Moreover, the context indicates that the ‘all things’ in which ‘God works for the good of those who love him’ are those he has foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. This is a far cry from the superficial ‘everything will turn out all right in the end’ attitude that the verse is often assumed to encourage.
10. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). If Paul’s teaching is quoted without the following verse (as it often is), then it becomes a statement about the unknowness of God’s provision for his people. This is is a thought beloved by those who like Scripture (and their own Christian faith) to be full of ‘mystery’. But this saying does not stand on its own. Paul goes on to say: ‘…but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.’ This, of course, gives a very different slant on the apostle’s meaning and intent.
11. ‘All things to all men’ (1 Corinthians 9:22). This phrase is often assumed to recommend to an almost infinite capacity for compromise or adaptability. But, as Leon Morris points out, ‘this does not, of course, mean that his conduct was unprincipled. On occasion Paul could be very stubborn in following courses of action in the teeth of strong opposition. But where no principle was at stake he was prepared to go to extreme lengths to meet people. Personal considerations are totally submerged in the great aim of by all means saving some.’
12. ‘We go to heaven when we die’ (Phil 1:23). For many Christians, their future hope consists in ‘going to heaven when we die’. But this obscures the difference between the ‘intermediate state’ and the ‘final state’ of the blessed. To be ‘with Christ’ when we die is a truly wonderful prospect. But there will still be more to come: the final state involves the resurrection of the body, the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth, and the completed triumph and eternal reign of God.
13. ‘Work out your own salvation’ (Phil 2:12). Torn out of context, this text can be taken to mean that salvation is achieved entirely on a DIY basis. In context, however, the apostle means nothing of the kind. Rather, he is urging his readers to ‘out-work’ their salvation. Having been saved (by the grace of God) they are to put it into practice. In modern terminology, we might say that we need to give our salvation a good ‘work-out’.
14. ‘We are living in the end times’ (1 Timothy 4:1). You only have to pick up a newspaper, it is claimed, to see that what the Bible predicted about the ‘terrible times’ that would characterise the ‘last days’, are happening right now. Bible prophecy is being fulfilled before our very eyes. The end is near. The NT, however, insists that the entire period between Christ’s first coming and his second coming constitutes the ‘last days’. Indeed, the author of Hebrews can refer to his (her?) own time as ‘these last days’ (Heb 1:2).
15. ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8,16). It seems tragic to have to place any caveat upon the glorious truth that ‘God is love’. And yet it has to be said that many misuse this statement by using it as a ‘trump card’ against other things that are also true of God. For example, it has been said that ‘God is love’ is the only biblical statement that is in the form ‘God is…’ (i.e. giving some kind of definition of God. But this is not so: our Lord himself said that ‘God is Spirit’, and Hebrews 12:29 (quoting Deuteronomy 4:24) says that ‘God is a consuming fire’. We may not place one vital truth about God in opposition to another.
16. ‘Avoid every appearance of evil’ (1 Thessalonians 5:22). The AV reads: ‘Abstain from all appearance of evil’. Without a doubt, the translators meant what the NIV and other modern translations say. But I have heard members of a previous generation of evangelical Christians, brought up on the AV, take it to mean: ‘Don’t do things that are really evil, or even things that appear to be evil.’ They thought thereby that they could prevent the gospel from being brought into disrepute. Now, Paul does have some teaching about abstaining from certain things which, though not evil in themselves, might seem to be evil to ‘weaker brethren’, but that it not what he is talking about here. And, in any case, some of our older brothers and sisters went even further in misapplying this text when they would, for example, allow the viewing of films (movies) at home on the TV, but not in the cinema, because the latter would be apparent to non-Christians, and constitute a ‘bad witness’.