Monday, February 13, 2017

Literally Seriously

Salina Zito, who writes for The Atlantic, has been quoted over and over again since she wrote one line last fall. When all the pundits and prognosticators were declaring Hillary Clinton as the victor in the weeks coming up to the election, Zito cleverly wrote about Donald Trump:

“The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

The press would exegete every statement made by Trump (as they still seem to do) exposing the apparent errors… giving little attention to what his statements were meaning to his supporters. By taking Trump literally, but not seriously, the press (and Trumps opponents) were stunned that he was elected by those who took him seriously, but not always literally.

I think that clever truism can be applied to the Bible.

There are those who take the Bible literally, but not seriously.

So, in the case of a tough passage like Matthew 5:27-30, there are those who take Jesus literally when He talks about gouging out eyes and cutting off hands. Because they take Him literally, they are forced to not take Him seriously. They point to a passage like this, and taking it literally, they find it barbaric, extremist, and ridiculous. They reject it… and likely reject much, if not all, of the Bible.

It is vitally important to know when to take the Bible literally (which, of course, is most of the time).

I want us all to take the Bible seriously; to do so requires an ability to know when not to take it literally.

Sometimes we have Bibles with red letters for the Words of Jesus; maybe we should come up with a version that has different colors for what should be understood figuratively and what should be taken literally. Unfortunately, this is an area in which we don’t always find agreement, so we are going to need other tools to make these kinds of determinations.

Here are some questions I use to determine what is literal and what is figurative:

  • What does the context indicate? 
  • Is the passage intended to convey a fact or teach a principle? 
  • Does a literal or figurative meaning better align with other passages of Scripture?
The figurative meaning of going to extreme measures to choose righteousness is clearly the best meaning in the Matthew passage.
  • The premise gives us important context since an eye or a hand cannot cause us to sin; sin is a matter of our hearts and minds, not our organs and extremities.  
  • This passage is clearly not about setting rules or facts; this is a teaching passage… Jesus teaching radical ideas with radical illustrations. 
  • Nowhere in Scripture is self-mutilation promoted; in fact it is universally prohibited.

The point is that Jesus was saying that while we might naturally be ruled by lust, this is not the system of His Kingdom. There is no room for the rule of appetites and lust in His Kingdom; His rule is love.

This is an excerpt of a message delivered at Northshore Church on 2/12/17; for more of the message, check it out at