Recent surveys by both Gallup and the Barna Group[i] reveal that bible literacy in America is at an all time low. For example, Fewer than half of all American adults can name the four gospels. Many professed Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples. According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60% of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments. Worse yet, Barna’s work revealed that at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Another survey of graduating high school seniors revealed that over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A majority of respondents to one poll believed that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham. Since bible illiteracy is so prevalent what passes for bible teaching and bible verses is distorted. Because of this, there is a plethora of proverbial sayings that are called Phantom Bible Verses.
What is a Phantom Bible Verse?
A phantom bible verse is any saying that sounds biblical in wording and/or concept, but in fact is not biblical on one and/or both accounts. Because bible illiteracy is so prevalent, people really don’t know the truth from error. We can categorize Phantom Bible Verses into five groups:
Condensed Verses: “Pride goes before a fall” is not in the Bible. It’s a distillation of Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Another example would be, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Again, it’s a slightly condensed form of the biblical proverb, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24). Condensed Phantom Bible Verse capture the essence of the verse, in a tweet like form, just not the wording.
Summarized Verses: A close cousin to Condensed Verses is Summarized Verses. Again, these are not sayings found in the Bible, but they do capture biblical principles quite nicely. For instance, “You’re to be in the world but not of the world” encapsulates the teaching found in John 17:11, 16 and Romans 12:1-2. Or how about this venerable favorite, “God will never give you more than you can handle” which captures one application of 1 Corinthians 10:13.
Embellished Verses: These verses are embellishments added to well know Bible stories such Adam and Eve eating an apple, when in fact it was an unnamed fruit (Genesis 3:1-7) or Jonah being swallowed by a whale instead of a “great fish” (Jonah 1:17). Perhaps the granddaddy of them all, the three wise men visiting baby Jesus in the manager. The wise men brought three gifts but their number of men is never mentioned (Matthew 2:1-11). This kind of Phantom Bible Verse stems from man’s desire to explain the unexplained, or add detail when part of the picture is missing.
Misquoted Verses: “Money is the root of all evil” is a misquotation of 1 Timothy 6:10, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” We might also add, “The lion shall lay down with the lamb” is a Phantom Bible Verse. It is a misquotation of Isaiah 11:6 which states, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb.” These subtly changes can be rather benign, as with Isaiah 11:6, or they can be rather serious by altering the meaning of Biblical teaching, as with the example of 1 Timothy 6:10.
Forged Verses: This kind of Phantom Bible Verse will be the subject of this lesson. In my opinion these are the most dangerous kind of verses that we have looked at thus far, because the wording sounds biblical, as does the meaning. Furthermore, these verses are generally accepted by those in the world and those who profess to be Christians. With that in mind, let’s examine for of these Unbiblical Phantom Bible Verses:
“Forgive and Forget.”
Origin: An old saying popularized in Shakespeare’s King Lear and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The present day version has been condensed and reversed from, “Let us forget and forgive injuries” (Don Quixote) and “Pray ye now, forget and forgive” (King Leer).
Meaning: The implications of this saying is that in order to forgive, one must also forget the wrong infringe upon them. How often have we ill advised an injured person to, “forgive and forget”? Or, on the flip side, how many times have you heard someone declare, “I’ll forgive but I’ll never forget!”? Or even still, how many people have decided they won’t forgive someone because they knew they could never forget?
The Truth: The truth is God never joined forgiveness of a wrong with the forgetting of the wrong. Notice the absence of forgetting from such passages as:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will you father forgive you your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
“Then Peter came up to and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven time?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from you heart!’” (Matthew 18:21-35)
“You should rather turn to forgive and comfort… or he may be overwhelmed by excessive grief.” (2 Corinthians 2:5-11)
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32; cf. Colossians 3:13)
To condition forgiving with forgetting is to add to God’s word, to go beyond what He requires (cf. Proverbs 30:6). Now you might say, “But we’re not supposed to keep a record of wrongs. Isn’t that talking about forgetting?” (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV). No, that’s talking more about being resentful, than forgetting (see ESV; NASB translations of this verse). If sins are to be forgotten in conjunction with being forgiven, then Paul erred in bringing up Peter and Barnabas’ sin of hypocrisy in Galatians 2:11-14. The forgetting of sin, or better yet, not remembering sin, is an ability that only God possesses, it’s one of His divine attributes (Psalm 25:7; Isaiah 43:25; Hebrews 8:12; 10:16-17). He never requires us to purposefully forget, because we can’t. The more we try to forget, the more we remember. Now it doesn’t me we can be resentful, or hold a grudge, or be bitter (cf. Ephesians 4:31-32). This is not a license to sin (cf. Romans 6:1). I’m simply saying, let’s not be fooled by this Phantom Bible Verse, God requires us to forgive as we have been forgiven by Him, but He never demands we forget.
“Moderation in all things.”
Origin: Aristotle from his work the Doctrine of the Mean. His desire was to find the middle ground between excess and deficiency. An example would be courage as the middle ground between rashness and fear.
Meaning: However, it’s original meaning and application is lost in our modern world. Now “moderation in all things” is generally applied to indulging in bad or unhealthy activity so long as one does it in moderation.
The Truth: Now you might be saying to yourself, I know this isn’t in the bible per se, but the concept is because my KJV says in Philippians 4:5, “Let your moderation be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.” And Paul told the Corinthians to be “temperate in all things” (1 Corinthians 9:25). Let’s take the Philippians passage first. A better translation is found in the NKJV which reads, “Let your gentleness be known to all men.” The idea is “gentleness” or “patience” as used in 1 Timothy 3:3; Titus 3:1-2; James 3:17 and 1 Peter 2:18. In regards to the Corinthians passage, Paul indeed is emphasizing self-control in not committing sin, which is in fact the opposite of how “moderation in all things” is used by people today. The truth is, no where does the God allow for moderation in all things, whether it’s sinful or otherwise. A little sin, even in moderation, is like “a little leaven [which] leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6; Galatians 5:9). Is it okay to lust, so long as it’s done in moderation? Is it okay to use foul language, or take the Lord’s name in vain, so long as it’s done in moderation? Is it okay to ________________ and you fill in the blank with your sin of choice. Is it okay to do that so long as it’s done in moderation? Well the answer to these questions is no. The flipside of this coin is, do we to show moderation in love, joy, forgiveness, compassion, etc. etc.? Well no, rather, we give ourselves wholehearted to these things. Let’s not be fooled by this Phantom Bible Verse, God doesn’t allow moderation in all things. If it’s evil, don’t dabble in it. If it’s good, give yourself totally to it.
“To thine own self be true.”
Origin: From Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Polonius, the older counselor of Prince Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius, is in the midst of dispensing advice to his son Laertes (who was about to leave Denmark and return to France) when he speaks forth the famous line: “This above all things: to thine own self be true.”
Meaning: I’m confident Polonius’ intent, or its Elizabethan meaning, is different than its modern interpretation. Today, “To thine own self be true” means: be loyal to yourself by being who you are, or following your heart, or doing what you think is right. Perhaps because it has a King Jamesy kind of ring to it, it’s believed to be a bible verse.
The Truth: Of all the sayings we are looking at in this lesson, I do believe this one, unlike the others, has a sliver of truth. I need to know who I am, and not be someone I’m not, especially in areas of my personal strengths and skills. Nevertheless, in the modern world we live in, “To thine own self be true” is the motto of a narcissistic society. Where people are encouraged to be whatever their twisted minds will allow them to be. Just last week I read a news story about a 6 year old transgendered boy, that is, he is a boy who lives as a girl[ii]. His parents are suing their child’s school because he was not allowed to use the girl’s restroom. According to the parents, as early as 18 months their son expressed a desire to be a girl and as the behavior persisted they allowed it. Why, because they have believed the lie, “To thine own self be true.” I don’t want to be true to myself because I’m sinful flesh. I don’t want you to be true to yourself, because you too are sinful flesh. Our Lord doesn’t say, “Be true to self” He says just the opposite:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26).
Listen to the words of Paul,
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Notice the example of the Corinthians:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
Today the Corinthians would be told to embrace who they are and their lifestyle. However, they didn’t believe the lie, “To thine own self be true.” Therefore, they accepted to call of Christ and renounced their allegiance to self, and died to their own self wills, and gave themselves wholly to Him. Until you and I follow this example, we will not be pleasing to God. That’s the truth. Friends, don’t buy the lie of this phantom bible verse, believe our Lord’s truth.
“God helps those who help themselves.”
Origin: For American, this phrase was coined by Benjamin Franklin, but it has its roots in ancient world, even being the moral of a story in Aesop’s collection of fables, namely Hercules and the Waggoner. In the story a waggoner has become stranded in a ravine. When he cries out to Hercules for help, Hercules responds,
“Put your shoulders to the wheels, my man. Goad on your bullocks, and never more pray to me for help, until you have done your best to help yourself, or depend upon it you will henceforth pray in vain.”
In essence Hercules was saying, “Don’t pray to me for help until you’ve done all you can do for yourself, because, you might be able to take care of it yourself and not need me.”
Meaning: This is the motto of self-reliance. Meaning, you’ve got to get the ball rollin’ before God will even think about helping you. The irony of this is that Benjamin Franklin was deist. He didn’t believe that God even played a role in man’s life. Therefore, when he said, “God helps those who help themselves” at best he was saying man earns God’s favor and at worse he was saying, God has no part in helping man because man can help himself. I would defer to the latter.
The Truth: Sadly, as a boy, this concept shaped my understanding of salvation more than anything else. It came through the medium of the 1974 film Where the Red Fern Grows. In the movie young Billy wants a couple of coon dogs. He tells his grandfather, that he’s been praying for a couple of dogs but since God had given him any dogs he concluded God didn’t want him to have any dogs. The camera then zooms on the face of the grandfather as he says, “if you want God’s help you’ve got to met him half-way.” That was burned into my mind and my heart. I can recall as a young man preaching, “that if you want God’s help in anything, you’ve got to met Him half-way.” And you know what sadder still, people in the audience were shaking their heads yes! I am so sorry I ever preached anything like that. For reference, here’s the clip. To see what I’m talking about watch the first 1.15 minutes.
The Barna Group says the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is one of the top well known Bible verses, problem is it’s not in the Bible. Moreover, 75% of teenagers thinking this is the central message of the bible. A similar study by Barna found that 68% of “born again” Christian agree with and think the statement is biblical. Nevertheless, it’s not biblical in content or in principle.
Rather than emphasizing man’s need to work his way to God, the bible emphasizes God’s grace and mercy that reaches down to man. Listen to what Paul says in Ephesians 2:1-10:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of the this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming age he might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by His grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared before hand, that we should walk in them.”
Did you hear what Paul said? We were dead. We were pitiful. We were helpless to do anything for ourselves. When God looked down upon us he was moved with pity because of our helpless state. For if we have received anything from God as a result of works, and then we can boast before God and others about how awesome we are. Does that sound familiar? Jesus addressed this kind of attitude in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14):
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God I thank you that I’m not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’”
If God truly helps those who help themselves, then Jesus didn’t get the message. According to Benjamin Franklin the Pharisee had the inside tract and the tax collector didn’t have a prayer (pun intended). If this were the case then the tax collector needed to get his life right and then come to God for salvation. But praise God, Jesus said it was the one who was justified wasn’t the one who worked his way to God. Rather, it is the one who, in his humble and weakened state, cries out to God for help. God doesn’t help those who help themselves… He helps those who surrender to Him.
In the Old Testament, it is recorded for us by the prophets that the nation of Judah was destroyed and the people were in slaved “for a lack of knowledge” (ref. Isaiah 5:3; Hosea 4:6). As we have mentioned, bible literacy is at an all time low in America. I have to wonder if it is also at an all time low among God’s people. I hope this lesson challenged you to reexamine God’s word, and you believe God’s word teaches. It would a terrible thing for the Divine to say… “___________________ (insert your name) was destroyed for a lack of knowledge.” Get into God’s word today. I’m here to serve you and if I can help you with any spiritual need email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. God bless and remember share the good news of Jesus with someone today.