The Bible has multiple meaning (Part 4)

Bible verse used in podcast:

  • Revelation 2:8-11
  • Matthew 22
  • James 1:12

Interesting resources

How many layers?

When looking at the Bible there are often multiple things that a single passage could be talking about. One example of this (or several) is Revelation 2-3. Here you find Jesus is speaking as John is recording letters for seven different churches in the area. In these several letters, there are several layers of meaning.

  1. The Structure of the letter
  2. Real issues
  3. Application to churches
  4. Personal Application
  5. Theological issues
  6. Prophetic application

If you worried that I stopped at 6 layers of meaning, you could organize this differently to get 5 or look deeper to find more if you really wanted to. These are just a handful to focus on. In this, we will only focus on the letter to Smyrna simple for time’s sake. All letters could not be summed up in this length of discussion but Dr. Chuck Misslers commentary on Revelation goes into great detail on these letters and is a great resource for this.

[8] “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. [9] “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. [10] Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. [11] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ – Rev 2:8-11 ESV

The Structure of the letters

As an overview, if you look at all the letters, you will find that there is an interesting structure that they all follow. Each has the following:

  1. Name of the church
  2. Title of Jesus
  3. Compliments
  4. Criticism
  6. Promise to overcomer
  7. Ending Phrase

All letters have all of these except some that don’t have either compliments or criticism. But all elements of the letters reflect the church and things that are going on in the church.

In the case of Smyrna (Σμύρνα G4667 – smyrna), it comes from a root word myrrh, which was often used in during burial at the time. The whole letter happens to center around persecution and death. The title used of Jesus is “ the first and the last, who died and came to life” which speaks to the idea that Jesus is in control of death and we have nothing to fear for persecution. Jesus mentions some good things about them “I know your tribulation and your poverty” in their time of persecution they were doing good things regardless of those who were accusing them. They don’t have any criticism which could be missed unless compared to the rest of the churches. This is important because Jesus isn’t telling them to fix anything in their persecution. Maybe there could be things the church could work on as individuals, but they are already enduring hard times and all they need to do is be faithful. There are general commands about: “ the devil is about to throw some of you into prison” and “for ten days you will have tribulation.” there is a promise to overcome which in this letter comes in two parts, they will be given a crown of life, the second being that they will not taste the second death. Both of which are reassuring to hear during times of persecution. Finally, there is this phrase that all the churches have, “he who has an ear.”

Real People, Real Problems

These are real people who are living in a real place during a real-time in history. The letter is addressing the persecution they are having. At the time there is an issue with the Jewish community as Christianity is emerging. You can find this all throughout the book of Acts as tensions between the Jewish community come as some convert to Christianity and some gentiles are being included in the Christian conversion. But on another level, there is an issue with Rome. They were expected to pay tribute to Rome, but for some of the Christians, this took a deeper meaning. Paying the tribute would have meant that they are recognizing Caesar’s power as their first authority and everything else first. Not complying meant that they had serious trouble on their hands. They could have avoided issues if they simply paid tributes.

Personal Application

Of course, following directly from the real problems of the day, the issue of persecution comes in. What should we do when situations get hard in our lives. How serious should we take our convictions? When you think back to the Book of Daniel, he felt so strongly that he shouldn’t eat the meat of the king, that his diet was an issue. Of course in Smyrna, all they had to do was pay tribute and all was easy (or easier). Jesus speaks of himself and talks about perseverance and how Jesus alone is the only authority who truly matters. Why? Because Jesus conquered death. The fear of imprisonment shouldn’t scare you and the threat of death shouldn’t cause you to turn. Even something as simple as a symbolic act was taken seriously to the people of the day. 

Church Applications

There are several questions that come up. One thing is this phrase, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This is important for several reasons (which we will come back to). One is that all the churches were expected to get a copy of the letter so they could learn from it. But the important thing is it’s not just those churches learn from their own letter, but the letters from others. On some level, all churches, even today, have elements of all seven letters. In the case of Smyrna, some questions are raised, How serious should the church take cultural norms? How serious should the church promise and uphold their convictions as a body? Is having problems in the church a bad thing? 

Theology and Prophecy

In the area of Theology, several things come up. For instance, what does the phrase “who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” mean? What about this crown of life? Is it the same thing as James 1:12 or other passages?

In the realm of Prophecy, some scholars have noticed some characteristics of the letters. It appears that when you take the church in the order that they are presented they lay out the history of the church in advance. This could be a study in itself but just as a highlight:

  • Ephesus – Strict on Doctrine Early church
  • Smyrna – Persecution Persecuted church
  • Pergamum – “worldly marriage” Church during Rome acceptance
  • Thyatira – Jezebel Medieval church
  • Sardis – Name but issues Reformation
  • Philadelphia – Overall good Missionary age
  • Laodicea – Overall bad Modern times

Just to hit a few highlights when looking at the details from the letters. Smyrna mentioned that there are ten days of persecution. Historically there happen to be ten emperors who explicitly adopted anti-christian rulership. After them you have Constintain (being a large factor) helping Christian tolerance and bringing in pagan practices some of which are still debated today. Thyatira mentions Jezebel who used her power to get land from the people using religious claims but lived an ungodly life. After the medieval church area, many reforms happened with different denominations forming trying to break off from the church. But it was still a time of religious conflict and debate about what we should be united over (which we still argue about).  

Of course, each of these letters has its own layers of meaning. When you put them together you get even more meaning whether it be through a timeline or through seeing how Jesus addresses the church and their situations compared to others. Often we need to keep an open mind knowing that a single passage can have multiple layers of meaning even with different interpretations that could all be correct. 

The Bible has Multiple Meaning (Part 3)

Bible verse used in podcast:

  • Genesis 15:18-21, Genesis 17:3-14, Genesis 22, Hebrews 11:17-19
  • Matthew 2:15, Hosea 11:1-2
  • Revelation 3:20
  • Matthew 26:39
  • Romans 15:4
  • Numbers 20:12
  • 1 Corinthians 14:32
  • Colossians 3:23-24

What are we allowed to interpret? 

After looking at literal versus figurative interpretation, other questions start popping up. For instance, does the whole Bible apply to our lives? Does a figurative interpretation need to have only one meaning? How are we supposed to go about interpreting different passages?

It helps to look in the Bible and see how different situations in the Bible deal with these issues. It might seem crazy to do so, but it turns out it happens all the time. Look at Abraham’s promise for example. When you track down different passages about Abraham’s covenant with God, it is clear that his promise is supposed to be fulfilled through his son Isaac.

1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – 1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12:1-3 ES

18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

Genesis 15:18-21 ESV

3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. … 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” 9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.

Genesis 17:3-5, 8-10 ESV

From here it is clear that God’s promises are going to be extended to his children. But there is a problem. The promises were supposed to go through Isaac. When looking at this, we then find that God later tells Abraham to offer Isaac as an offering.

2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

Genesis 22:2 ESV

Of course, we could take some detours and talk about everything that is happening. But instead, we find that we get more insight into this situation later in the Bible. 

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Hebrews 11:17-19 ESV

We do not get this from the story of Abraham in the old testament. Somehow Abraham has the idea that Isaac could be raised from the dead if he died, why? Because God gave a promise and God needs to fulfill this promise. If something happens to Isaac, God is responsible not Abraham. If Abraham follows through with the offering, obvious Isaac could die. Abraham was not explicitly told that God would raise him up from the dead, but Abraham looked at the promise that God gave him and understood that this was a possibility. The promise was a physical promise and yet he was able to derive more meaning about what was going on in a different situation because of this promise. 

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Matthew 2:13-15 ESV

When looking at this passage, we find that Mary and Joseph took Jesus down to Egypt. But Matthew is linking it to a prophecy from the old testament. There doesn’t seem to be any name attached to it so naturally many scholars try to find where this comes from. 

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols.

Hosea 11:1-2 ESV

You find it in Hosea which seems to match the context. It seems rather problematic though. The context of the passage is talking about Israel and if you follow the rest of the passage, it seems to reinforce that. How could this be the same thing? There are at least two things you could say to this. One thing is to broaden our perspective on prophecy. We tend to think of prophecy as prediction and fulfillment, but there is another way to look at it. Prophecy can also be a pattern. Just like how Israel went into Egypt so did Jesus. But you can take this a step further. 

16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.

Galatians 3:16 ESV

Here Paul is saying that the promises are directly looking at Jesus. From this picture, we can look at the person of Jesus being carried through Israel as they go down into Egypt. 

Do all interpretations apply to us?

There tends to be a problem when trying to apply the Bible to our lives. For instance, can anything apply to our lives? After Abraham sacrificed Isaac, There is a servant that goes and finds him a bride. They don’t meet before the wedding plans are already made. Does that mean all of us should have arranged marriages? On the other hand what about if we look at things that happen in the Bible and try to apply them to our lives like this idea of patterns? Should we take the same pattern that happens in Hosea 1 and apply it to our lives?

Of course, there is a reason why God had the events of the Bible happen the way they do. Every person is different and God has different plans for everyone. But that does not mean that all because he does it one way, he will do it that way all the time. For those situations, there are reasons why he did it that way. But what about for the rest of us? If God is telling us to do something there is a reason behind it and often (if it isn’t clear in the situation) you can see how it fits in with other things God does and how they comply with scripture. To give an example I knew someone who was a pastor; he was married to some kids. A younger woman in the church and he felt that God was using the story of Hosea to speak to him about how he should divorce his wife and go with this younger woman. This brings up many many questions and red flags but of course, that is one extreme. 

What about other situations like how we interpret the Bible in different ways. Often we try to take scripture and apply it to help people understand a concept. Let’s take this passage for example.

20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

Revelation 3:20 ESV

Often people use this as an invitation when evangelizing, telling people that Jesus is waiting for them to open their hearts and receive him; Which is true. But when you look at the context this should worry some. We often look at this as a nice invitation but that is not the reflection you get if you read this in context. John is writing down several letters to every church as Jesus is giving them a report of good things and bad things they are doing. We get to the church of Laodicea and they are doing everything wrong to where Jesus is talking about spitting some people out for being lukewarm. The fact that he is talking to a church of believers, who are in the body and yet Jesus is outside of the church altogether.

It is as if it was an act of desperation trying to get people’s attention to invite him in because they haven’t been considering him. But does that mean we can’t use this for evangelism? The concept is the same but the target audience and tone at which it is being presented is not. You could find other passages that also talk about non-believers accepting Jesus with proper context. But does it matter? Often we get this issue not being able to separate the difference between the concept of the message and the theology of the message. If you didn’t know about the context mentioned, did you do something wrong? This deserves a whole discussion on itself but often story and analogies help us understand and experience situations and ideas. Whether or not it is okay to take a story out of context for demonstration purposes is another story.

Regardless of the issue of context, the scripture is still supposed to be used so we can apply it to our lives to some degree.

4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:4 ESV

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV

Is our interpretation always right?

This would be obvious to many but it can be easily forgotten while in a situation. If we think we learned something from God and we think it is something we want to share with people, that still does not mean we are always right. This might be counter-intuitive but it is an important point to make.

31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints,

1 Corinthians 14:31-33 ESV

When you reflect on this, there is a problem; that problem is us. Even if we get a message from God, we still have the responsibility to deliver it. This is an important lesson to learn. 

7 and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 8 “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” 9 And Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he commanded him. 10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”

Numbers 20:7-12 ESV

Here we find Mose who directly heard from the Lord. There is no question about that. Yet God gives him some instructions. We think, what God wanted was too simple to give the people water to drink and perform a miracle the people would remember. Yet there were more important things that God wanted out of this. For one Moses was supposed to speak to the rock not strike the rock. Not only that he went out of his way to call the people rebels. This leaves the people with an impression of who God is angry with the people. More could be said here but you find that even though Moses delivered a message and the end result appeared to be what God wanted, it was still not correct. The reason is that the message was not delivered correctly even though the person delivering it heard straight from God.

Often we need to separate a few things when looking at interpretation. There are the theological parts and then there are the application parts. They are not exactly the same thing in every situation. When looking at the passage in Revelation where Jesus is knocking at the door; the theological part is how the church could operate without involving God (which is bad). But the application (which you can find as theological for claims elsewhere) is about how we should act in response to learn about this. In the situation of Moses, a person can be given a message from God and yet still not deliver it right. The application then is to take care of how you deliver the message. One can think of theology as the facts and statements that we know to be true and the application of how these should change our lives. 

We should always try to do our best to understand what God is saying to us. But we should always remember that we need to take care of what he has given us and make sure we understand and deliver it right. This shouldn’t stop us or give us any fear. We should be doing everything to the best of our abilities because at the end of the day, we will be in front of God and it would be best to do with what you understand. 

23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.

Colossians 3:23-25 ESV

The Bible has Multiple Meaning (Part 2)

Bible verse used in podcast:

  • Hosea 12:9-10, John 10:1-6, John 16:25
  • Matthew 5:19
  • James 2:10, Matthew 5:26, Romans 6:23
  • Ezekiel 28
  • Danial 2

Is the Bible figurative?

When jumping into this debate, people often overestimate figurative vs literal interpretation. Last time I focused on a literal interpretation, but this time let’s focus on figurative interpretation. There comes a problem when you only use literal interpretation; the Bible says it includes figurative language.

9 And I that am the LORD thy God from the land of Egypt will yet make thee to dwell in tabernacles, as in the days of the solemn feast. 10 I have also spoken by the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes, by the ministry of the prophets.

Hosea 12:9-10 KJV

At first, it seems straight forward, many people would think that dreams have symbolic means about our lives. But what about this word similitude? It comes from דָּמָה H1819 – damah; to be like, resemble. Some translations use the words parable, symbols, or similes when translating this passage in different ways. The idea does not change. The whole point is that the prophets use some type of figurative language. At the very least you would expect figurative language would be limited to the prophets (because it says sp to a degree). For many who have read through the prophets, this seems straight forward. But it turns out that is not enough.

1 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

John 10:1-6 ESV

25 “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father.

John 16:25 ESV

Here we see Jesus is directly using figurative speak and it is directly acknowledged as so. But this should worry some for a literal interpretation. The reason is we expect that what Jesus is saying are important truths for our lives. But we can see here he is using them in a way so that people don’t understand what he is saying. This could get into a deeper conversation, but the single point that figurative language thought the bible holds important meaning. But not only does it hold abstract theological meaning, but it also turns out even figurative meaning in the Bible holds real “physical” meaning about the world we experience.

Physical symbolism

One example is when you get to Ezekiel 28, the chapter starts off talking about the prince of Tyre. It is clear that the prince is not doing good and God is making statements against him. But as you keep reading something happens. God then turns his attention to the king of Tyre:

11 Moreover, the word11 Moreover, the word of the LORD came to me: 12 “Son of man, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him, Thus says the Lord GOD: “You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carbuncle; and crafted in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the day that you were created they were prepared.

Ezekiel 28:11-13 ESV

At this point, there is a problem, the king of Tyre could not have been in the garden of Eden. if this king was a human, he would have to be thousands of years old. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden in Genesis 3 so no humans except for Adam and Eve have been in the garden. This excludes all other possibilities and leaves us with the concept that this must be Satan (among other reasons). Clearly the symbolic meaning has a lot of implications on a person that we would want to know a lot about. But this “symbolic-ness” gives even more insight, the king of Tyre is not human but the prince is. In a symbolic way, it is looking at the chain of command. The one really in charge is Satan, so who is the prince? One implication could be that the prince is the human king we would think of and the king (the one who is really in charge) is Satan working as a power behind the human king. From here you head to Matthew 4 and think about the temptations of Jesus. Remember that Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus didn’t challenge Satan’s claim. Jesus does not give any indication that it is not Satan’s to give. Satan seems to have the real power behind the kingdoms of the world. 

Here is another example of this. When you get to Daniel chapter 2, King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and wants the interpretation of the dream (I copied over the bits that are important for the overall context, hence why it is a lot):

3 And the king said to them, “I had a dream, and my spirit is troubled to know the dream.” 4 Then the Chaldeans said to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.” 5 The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, “The word from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins. 6 But if you show the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. Therefore show me the dream and its interpretation.” 7 They answered a second time and said, “Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will show its interpretation.” 8 The king answered and said, “I know with certainty that you are trying to gain time, because you see that the word from me is firm– 9 if you do not make the dream known to me, there is but one sentence for you. You have agreed to speak lying and corrupt words before me till the times change. Therefore tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can show me its interpretation.” 10 The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. 11 The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.” … 27 Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, … 31 “You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. 32 The head of this image was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, … 36 “This was the dream. Now we will tell the king its interpretation. 37 You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, 38 and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all–you are the head of gold. 39 Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth.

Daniel 2:3-11, 27, 31-32, 36-39 ESV

When looking at this, Nebuchadnezzar’s demands are extremely clever and well thought out. If he tells the people his dream, anyone can make up an interpretation. But if they could tell him the dream and interpret it, that shows real power. Only he knows what he dreamed. Now here is Daniel getting the dream that no one knows. Clearly Daniel must have some special ability so Nebuchadnezzar has a reason to listen. But when looking at the dream, it is all symbolic, a status with different types of metals. Clearly it is all symbolic, but yet when Daniel turns to give the interpretation, it is talking about real events, real kingdoms, and real people. Daniel directly states that the head of Gold is Nebuchadnezzar himself. He even explains how this is not just him but his kingdom and soon others will come after him and other kingdoms. This is a classic study that comes out of this where you can find the major nations that rule over the middle east from Nebuchadnezzar until the Roman period, which you could set out on a journey to look for. But to the point, the symbolic dream has physical interpretation in our real world. 

Beyond context

There are times when the passage is obviously literal and obviously figurative. Not all passages are as straight forward. Often you need to look at the context of the passage to help understand which to use. But often, context is not just part of it. Sometimes you need to get deeper into the way someone is thinking about their words, not the way you interpret them. Sometimes people read for context and not realize that the way the writers are speaking is not the same way they understand it. For instances lets take this passage:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Matthew 5:27-30 ESV

Now it is pretty clear that Jesus’ words here are pretty harsh. If you read this literally, you run into a problem. Jesus is saying to destroy your body every time you sin. Not clearly that will run into problems. I spoke with someone on this issue, and they took a literal approach to the Bible in general. We were talking about how serious sin is when I came to this passage. When you look at how serious sin is, if you were to really cut off a body part to prevent you from sinning, it wouldn’t be hard to have to quickly need to cut off everything. When talking to this person he mentioned how your hand doesn’t cause you to lust so you wouldn’t need to cut it out. I then replied saying that list happens in the heart according to Jesus and if you follow his logic, if something causes you to sin, you need to cut it out. Now can you cut out your heart because that is where the lust happens? If you did you would be dead. The issue goes past just looking at a person, the issue is the intentions that come from the heart. To easily clear this up Jesus is using a hyperbole which is an extreme statement to express something. What is being expressed here is the reality of sin and how serious it’s effect is on our lives. All throughout the Bible, you find that Sin is a big issue. 

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:23 ESV

10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.

James 2:10 ESV

25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

Matthew 5:25-26 ESV

The whole point that Jesus is making is that sin is more than just the physical actions we do. Sin deals without inward being and the way our hearts are. If we really cared about sin and understand how serious it is, then we should do everything in our power to keep ourselves from sinning. But that is not enough. In this example, cut off the body parts that allow you to sin. But that is still not enough, our own effects can’t stop us completely from sinning because of how far gone we are. That is not even considering what we need to do about the fact that we did sin. Stopping yourself from sinning and paying for those sins are two separate issues. Both only Jesus can’t handle.

The Bible has Multiple Meaning (Part 1)

Bible verse used in podcast:

  • Isaiah 55:12
  • 1Co 15:12-17 
  • Act 2:36
  • 2Ti 2:8
  •  1Co 3:16-17
  • 1Co 6:17-20
  • John 3:4-6
  •  Psa 17:8
  • Psalm 91:3-4
  • Matthew 19:23-24, Mark 10:24-25, Luke 18:24-25
  • Matthew 27:57
  • Genesis 41:37-44, Daniel 2:48, 2 Chronicles 1:9-12
  • 1 Timothy 6:10
  • Matthew 6:24

Having a literal interpretation

Is the Bible literal or figurative? On the one hand, the Bible has literal places and real people. It talks about historic battles and describes buildings that did exist. Then you get to some verse with a literal interpretation and you get into a problem.

12 “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Isaiah 55:12 ESV

Do the mountains really sing? Obviously trees don’t have hands. So what do you do about this? First, let’s explore the literal interpretation and see what we get out of it. It is clear that some things are expressly literal. For instance, it is clear that Jesus literally died, if not we have a serious problem. In 1 Corinthians Paul is addressing this idea about whether or not Jesus went through a literal death. 

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

1 Corinthians 15:12-17 ESV

When looking at this, if Jesus literally didn’t raise from the dead, then we have a large problem. Our whole idea of Christianity has major problems with it. When you look at other verses, the writers of the new testament make arguments with the assumption that their audience was actually live and see some of the events. If not physically there, it was something they were supposed to already know as a fact. 

36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.

Acts 2:36 ESV

8 Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, – 2 Timothy 2:8 ESV

2 Timothy 2:8 ESV

There are other issues that come up too. Like for instance, the holy spirit living in us. What does that mean? If we take it as a symbolic idea that Jesus reigns in our hearts and it is a metaphor for God is always with us, we get problems. When you read some of the language about the spirit living in us it raises some questions about how serious the writers meant some of these things. (2 Timothy 1:14, Acts 6:5, Romans 8:1, John 16:13, Romans 8:9-15, Ezekiel 36:27)

16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 ESV

17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

1 Corinthians 6:17-20 ESV

4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

John 3:4-6 ESV

This idea of having the spirit in us is a major issue. It is a reason we need to take care of our bodies. So one might say that could still just be a symbolic idea, but in John 3, if you don’t have the spirit you don’t go to heaven? There are a lot of questions about what that means, but if we are just saying this is symbolic there are literal and real implications of that. Just reading the text, the writers don’t seem to take it so lightly.

Extreme literal interpretation

There are some issues that come from taking a completely literal interpretation. For instance, if everything is literal, what about every detail that we see talked about God? 

8 Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings,

Psalm 17:8 ESV

3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. 4 He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

Psalm 91:3-4 ESV

If you take a literal interpretation you might be tempted to look for at least one more verse to confirm this and then start the church of the holy chicken. But then you ask yourself, what about when in Genesis 1 it says we are made in the image of God? How can God literally have wings and we literally be made in his image if we don’t have wings?

Another problem comes about when looking at some of Jesus’ teaching. Some are rather extreme and if he is talking about this in a literal way, this is pretty extreme.

26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Matthew 5:26-30 ESV

Is Jesus telling us to cut off our body parts? It would be extremely easy to lose all body parts if you have to cut them off whenever you sin. As a side note, there is an observation that can be made. Notice how at first he talks about the lust of the heart, the lust of the eye, and offense of the hand. Let’s say that cutting off your hand is the solution, it is a physical gate to sin that you can “shut.” Now the question is, what about the heart? On the one hand, if it is a literal heart you would die. If it is figuratively talking about the inward self then it would be like destroying yourself. There is no way to shut “the inner ward gate” other than completely destroying it. Instead, the changing need to be a complete transformation of the inward self.

Reading into literal interpretations

There is another danger that comes with a literal interpretation. What happens if you don’t cross reference your ideas? For instance, let’s start with a simple passage of what Jesus is saying: 

20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Matthew 19:20-24 ESV [Mark 10:17-25, Luke 18:218-25]

Often from this, we get the interpretation that we shouldn’t have a lot of money and we should live simple lives. Of course, what does it mean to live “simply?” ignore this, Are we all supposed to be poor? Does God want us to take all the money we have, use enough of it to meet our needs, and give the rest away? On one level, yes, but on the full extreme, no. If you try to find other instances of this being put into practice in the Bible it falls apart. For instance, Jesus had a disciple who was rich. 

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus.

Matthew 27:57 ESV

Not to mention this becomes a problem. God turned several people in the Bible into wealthy, rich people. 

37 This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. 38 And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” 39 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. 40 You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” 41 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” 42 Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck. 43 And he made him ride in his second chariot. And they called out before him, “Bow the knee!” Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt.

Genesis 41:37-43 ESV

46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him. 47 The king answered and said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.” 48 Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. 49 Daniel made a request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over the affairs of the province of Babylon. But Daniel remained at the king’s court.

Daniel 2:46-49 ESV

You might say, well God didn’t give them this wealth directly. This is true, but God gave them the gift and because of their abilities, the people of the world gave them wealth. Now let’s look at an even worse example. God gave wealth to Solomon:

9 O LORD God, let your word to David my father be now fulfilled, for you have made me king over a people as numerous as the dust of the earth. 10 Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can govern this people of yours, which is so great?” 11 God answered Solomon, “Because this was in your heart, and you have not asked for possessions, wealth, honor, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked for long life, but have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may govern my people over whom I have made you king, 12 wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like.”

2 Chronicles 1:9-12 ESV

How can God give Solomon wealth if having excess wealth is against what Jesus preached? If you follow the story Solomon, although wise, makes bad decisions, and because God gave him wealth, he has the ability to do it lavishly. If wealth is bad then God gave Solomon something that will ultimately cause him to destroy himself. This can’t be the case, looking at Daniel and Joseph, they had wealth and they were not destroyed. There is another issue that is at play, not just having wealth:

9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

1 Timothy 6:9-10 ESV

The issue is that the love of money, or desiring money is the problem. It goes back to the 10 commandments. The issue is whether or not money becomes your idol. In the case of Daniel and Joseph, they did not make money as their idol. They were in a foreign land, with an opposite culture, opposing religion and an easy environment to slip into temptation. But while in this, they still followed God personally regardless of their culture and family being a factor. Yet we ask ourselves, why doesn’t God give us money? On the one hand, if he did, would you still serve him? If you say, “how if I had money I would be better off to serve you,” what happens if you get the money? Would you still follow God or would it be easy to forget why you wanted him? Do you just want God simply because he fixes your problems? If you had all the money you needed would you be the God of your world? 

Of course, that is just looking at a literal interpretation and fixing it with a literal interpretation. But now the question lingers, does the Bible have any figurative meaning?