(NOTE: This sermon series and devotional series is based on a book by Randy Frazee entitled, “BELIEVE.”
You may choose to download or purchase the book as a supplement to your worship and devotional emails.)
“Do you read the Bible literally?”
“So, do you believe that only 144,000 people will be in heaven?”
“So you don’t take the Bible literally?”
“Yes, I do.”
Sounds like an Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” routine!
Perhaps you’ve had a conversation like this, or been a bit confused by the concept of what it means to have a literal understanding of the Bible.
Well, remember those primary education English classes when you learned about similes, metaphors and exaggerations? Remember your British lit class in high school where you learned about genres of literature? Remember when you tried to write your first poem?
But what does it mean to read the Bible literally?
Taking the Bible literally means to read the words of the Bible in the context of the type of speech they are.
Tip #6 Take a passage literally unless the Bible itself tells us it’s figurative.
Don’t look for hidden meanings in God’s Word. If the passage is meant to be taken figuratively either the passage itself or the context of the surrounding passages will indicate it is figurative speech. For example, a metaphor or simile gives permission to the reader to understand a “figure of speech.”
Matthew 13:24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.” A simile uses the word “like” or “as” to make a comparison.
Psalm 119:105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. A metaphor makes a comparison by making a symbolic connection without the words “like” or “as.” Obviously, the Bible does not give off light. But the passage figuratively describes how God’s Word gives guidance in life.
Matthew 19:24 “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This is a figure of speech known as hyperbole — exaggerating a statement for effect. Jesus’ point is that a rich person’s love of money can very easily supercede their love for God, which is idolatry.
The type of literature we’re reading will also help us determine if something is literal or figurative. Poetical writing (the Psalms, for example) will often be figurative. Apocalyptic writing often uses very vivid picture language to make a point. That’s why it is “literal” to take the 144,000 referenced above as “figurative” or a picture of the sum total of all who will be in heaven. The genre of Revelation and the broader context of the book and the Bible as a whole let us know.
Basically, having a decent understanding of the English language, understanding there are different genres of literature in the Bible, and that a literal understanding of the Bible is simply taking the words and meaning of the Bible in the context in which they are given, will enable you to hear what God is saying to you in his Word without all the extra noise of forcing an interpretation into a sentence or paragraph never intended to give that meaning.
Enjoy reading your Bible…don’t be intimidated by it, just be aware and afford the Bible you would the same understanding if you are reading a poem, a piece of history, or a picturesque analogy. The Bible has them all and more.
Apply: Consider one of the parables of Jesus. Notice he says, “The kingdom of heaven is LIKE…” and then goes on to describe it. Read Matthew 18. Describe to someone the meaning of the parable. Most parables have one key point of comparison – what do you think it is in these parables?
PRAYER: Keep us growing in our ability to hear and understand your Word! AMEN.