A few weeks ago I shared a screenshot of a popular verse on my Instagram stories. The verse is one we often see on mugs and in Instagram captions. It’s used for women’s ministry events and as a “life verse” for college girls. The problem? The verse is being taken completely out of context! Not only is it not about women—even though it’s applied to them—but it’s being used in ways the author never intended.
This happens far more often than we like to admit. Since so many believers are not taught how to study the Bible, they unwittingly take verses out of their literary and historical context and apply them in ways the verses should not be applied. While this might not seem concerning, it can be quite serious. When we don’t understand God’s Word in the way it was meant, we’re in danger of creating an idea of who God is that’s not accurate. This in turn changes how we live out our faith.
Following are five popular verses that are often misinterpreted and used in ways the author did not intend. You may be surprised to find they don’t mean what you thought they meant!
1. “Judge not that you not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)
This is a popular verse to quote in Facebook comments when someone doesn’t want to hear biblical truth: “Judge not,” aka “Don’t tell me what to do!” But when Jesus said to “judge not,” He was not saying we should never judge right from wrong or point out sin. To the contrary, Jesus says in John 7:24, “Judge with righteous judgment.” This verse in Matthew 7 is meant to discourage hypocritical judgment—judging someone else for the very sin you are committing. That’s why Jesus says to “judge with righteous judgment,” with discernment from the Lord.
2. “‘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.’” (Jeremiah 29:11)
This is perhaps the single most misinterpreted verse of all time. Jeremiah 29:11 is taken out of a paragraph in which God is addressing the people of Israel. In it, God tells them that they are headed into Babylon for captivity—essentially, they are about to become slaves because of their disobedience. God tells them of the consequence, then follows it up with a hopeful promise: “For I know the plans I have for you….”
Yet the promise is a conditional one. In verses 12-13, God says: “Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” God’s plans for Israel’s future will be fulfilled when Israel seeks Him with all their hearts. The Babylonian enslavement and captivity were meant to draw them to repentance and relationship with Him, and His plan was a gracious opportunity for those who would submit to Him.
3. “God is within her, she shall not fail.” (Psalm 46:5)
It was this verse that sparked the discussion on my Instagram feed. This is a newly popular verse for many young Christian women—but it’s not actually about women at all. This verse is in reference to the city of Jerusalem! In Psalm 46, David is proclaiming God’s faithfulness to his kingdom and the city. Jerusalem would not fail because God’s presence was there, fighting on Israel’s behalf against their enemy. It was not written about women nor is it in reference to God being “within us.”
4. “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)
Another beautiful verse from a beautiful psalm—but often misused—Psalm 37:4 is often taken out of context to prove a form of “prosperity gospel.” If we pray hard enough, if we have enough faith, if we “delight ourselves” in God, He will give us what we want!
But this is not the intent of this passage. The emphasis here is on delighting in the Lord—not on getting the desires of our hearts. As we delight ourselves in Him, our desires change to match those of the Lord. Using this verse out of context leads us down a dangerous road of using God to get something we want.
5. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthen me.” (Philippians 4:13)
Lastly, Philippians 4:13 is a popular verse among athletes: God gives the strength to do ALL THINGS! But in context, the author, Paul, is not talking about running a race or winning a game. He’s talking about contentment. Right before this famous verse, he says: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12)
God gives the strength to be content in any situation. This is the real meaning of this verse!
While we can glean theological principles and truths from any of these verses, we must honor the intent of the authors and be careful not to twist Scripture to mean something quaint and Instagram-worthy. God’s Word has its own meaning, and by approaching it correctly, we learn what that meaning is.