“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…” (Matthew 5:29a).
I explained during a sermon that a particular statement Jesus made was hyperbole and that it wasn’t intended literally. I was told by someone afterward that I should be ashamed because “the Bible means what it says,” and that I shouldn’t “ad lib” for the Bible.
Friends, it is a plain fact that not everything in the Bible is to be taken literally. Not only are there various literary styles (prose, narrative, letter, chronicle, proverb, song, metric poetry, acrostic poetry, to name a few), there are numerous figures of speech used in Scripture: simile, hyperbole, parable, and so forth. There are many volumes printed to elaborate on this fact, like Bullinger’s classic work on figures of speech in the Bible. If we’re going to understand the Bible, we will have to increase our familiarity with these things.
I can’t say with certainty, but perhaps the lack of literature-based learning in some sectors has contributed to this loss of interest in, and understanding of Scripture. If that’s true, undoubtedly the devil is behind it. But I digress.
So how do I know what is literal and what is figurative? There are numerous ways to determine this, but here is a very simple one everyone should know:
Every statement should be taken literally unless the literal is absurd.
The following is not the statement over which I was called into question, but Jesus stated that we should pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands because it is better to enter heaven painfully mutilated, than to have all our body parts in hell (here’s the general context of that statement: Matthew 5:27-30).
Imagine if some very sincere person took that literally and hacked off his hand with a chainsaw (perhaps he had a proclivity for theft). There are those who have castrated themselves because they believed they were inclined to sexual sin. They took it literally. That’s for God to judge, but I have serious doubts that Jesus expected all his followers to keep a spoon handy so they could pop their eyeball out at a moment’s notice. That’s absurd.
Jesus’ own disciples were tempted and sinned, but they didn’t mutilate themselves to prevent it from happening again. Peter didn’t take a sword and cut out his tongue after he used it to deny Christ. He believed what Jesus taught, but he didn’t take it literally. He knew that the real surgery needed to take place in the heart. He understood that what Jesus said in hyperbole was spoken clearly elsewhere: “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23, AV).
There’s what Jesus said, and then there’s what he meant by what he said. Big difference. In this instance, Jesus used a hyperbole – an exaggerated statement – to make an impact. What he said was chop off your hands and and gouge our your eyeballs. What he meant is that discipleship will at times be painful. Jesus’ intention was to drive home the point, with as much clarity as possible, that anyone or anything that separates us from God should be “severed” from our hearts and/or lives.
Fact is, it would be easier to cut off a hand rather than lose a family member over our allegiance to Christ, literally.