Lesson 6: Principles of Biblical InterpretationRelated Media
As a Protestant I cherish the NT teaching on the priesthood of believers—that each Christian has the right to his own interpretation, but also that each Christian has the responsibility to get it right. ―Daniel Wallace
When it comes to making claims about what the Bible means, sometimes we hear comments from Christians or non-Christians like the following: “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” “The Bible can be made to say anything you want.” “You can’t really understand the Bible. It is full of contradictions.” “No one can understand the true meaning of anything anyone says.” Or, someone sitting in a Bible study might say, “This is what the Bible means to me.” All of these types of comments are about principles of biblical interpretation also called in theological jargon hermeneutics. Welcome to our postmodern world. Pilate’s question lives on: “What is truth? (John 18:38).”
Some issues that we as Christians face regarding the topic of biblical interpretation include: How does divine inspiration and human authorship affect biblical interpretation? What does a text mean? What are some general principles of interpretation? How do we interpret the Old Testament? How do we interpret the New Testament? These are all critical questions for us to consider as we seek to become better interpreters of God’s word, the Bible.
What Does a Text Mean?
The last lesson looked at the topic of inspiration and found that the Bible is both a human book and a divine book. There are certain implications of this for biblical interpretation. The first is that the human authors had a specific historical audience, context and purpose. These authors used their own language, writing methods, style of writing and literary form of writing. The divine authorship of the Bible gives it its unity and the ultimate source of all interpretation is from God. In the book of Genesis Joseph was asked about the meaning of some divinely given dreams and he replied, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? (Gen 40:8).
So let’s just start with the most basic question. What does a text mean? The answer to this question is that a text means what the author intended it to mean. If there is only one thing you learn from this lesson this is it. For a simple example, if you wrote a letter with some statements in it that are a little ambiguous, then what does the letter mean? Does it mean what you intended it to mean or how the readers interpret it? Of course it means what you intended it to mean. The true meaning of a text resides in the authorial intent of the text. This leads us to the first primary and fundamental principle of interpreting the Bible.
General Principles of Biblical Interpretation
Principle 1: Interpretation must be based on the author’s intention of meaning and not the reader. This means we must get into the author’s context, historically, grammatically, culturally and the literary forms and conventions the author was working in. To be able to do this some good Bible study tools are needed since we are 2000 years or more removed from the biblical authors and their context is very different than ours. The first tool that any one should get is a good study Bible with notes that explain historical and cultural background information. Most major Bible translations come in editions with these types of notes but by far the NET Bible with its over 60,000 notes surpasses them all. Get the most extensive Study Bible that goes with the translation you use. After this, good evangelical commentaries are essential tools to study the Bible but make sure to look at a couple to get a variety of perspectives. When someone in a Bible study states what the verse means to him, we need to redirect and clarify that the meaning is what the author intended. After that the question then is how that historical meaning applies to us today. The second principle of biblical interpretation should also be considered foundational.
Principle 2: Interpretations must be done in the context of the passage. What does the following mean? “It was a ball.” Well, the answer depends on the context. Consider the following sentences: The baseball umpire saw the pitch drift to the outside and said, “it was a ball.” We went to the dance last night, in fact it was so formal “it was a ball.” As I was walking along the golf course I spotted something small and white in the tall grass, “it was a ball.” I had so much fun at the game night, “it was a ball.” In each case the word ball means something different. Therefore, context determines meaning! The nearest context must given the most weight in interpretation. First, there is the near context of the sentence, then the paragraph, then the section and then the book and even author. The interpreter should look at all these circles of context to be able to correctly assess the meaning.
Far too often people try to interpret a verse by itself in isolation without looking at the context itself. For example, consider the verse Revelation 3:20 which is sometimes used as an illustration for evangelism. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me (Rev 3:20; NASB).1 If this is all you looked at, it would be easy to understand the verse in terms of someone asking Jesus into his or her life for the first time. But the context in the preceding verse (v. 19) is talking about discipline of those whom Jesus loves, which would most naturally refer to believers. Also, in looking at the larger paragraph the passage is to a church
(Rev 3:14, 22). The verse is really addressed to believers who need to repent from their sin and return to fellowship with God.
Principle 3: Interpret the Bible literally (or normally) allowing for normal use of figurative language. Take the plain meaning of the text at face value. When the literal does not make sense you probably have a figure of speech. For example, Isaiah 55:12 states the trees of the field will clap their hands. Since trees do not have hands or clap this must be a figure of speech. Look for words such as “like” or “as” which can also communicate a figure of speech. Figures of speech and illustrations give the Bible a powerful and colorful means of expression. They are an important part of the normal expression of language.
Principle 4: Use the Bible to help interpret itself. Interpret difficult passages with clear ones. This is sometimes called the law of non-contradiction. Because the Bible is God’s word, and God is true, the Bible will not contradict itself. For example, there are clear passages that teach the doctrine of eternal security, that once a person is truly saved he or she cannot lose salvation (John 5; Rom 8). Some passages in the Bible are very hard to interpret like Hebrews 6:4-6.2 So I would let the overall and clear theology of the Bible influence me that a very hard passage like Hebrews 6 is not teaching that someone can lose his salvation. Also, use the New Testament to help interpret the Old Testament. This recognizes the progressive nature of revelation, that is the Bible is giving more revelation on topics over time. But one must start by interpreting the Old Testament text in its context before a New Testament consideration is made.
Principle 5: Interpretation must be distinguished from application. While there is one interpretation that is historical, there are many applications that can be carried over to our modern context. Build an application bridge from the interpretation to the timeless principle and then to the application now. For example in John 12, Mary anoints Jesus with very expensive oil. The historical context records a historical event. The interpretation relates only to what Mary did to Jesus. What about us today? An application might be that we are willing to give sacrificially for the Lord’s work and give Jesus acts of worship as Mary did. Or when Jesus states the principle in Matt 7 to love one’s enemies it is a general command that I might apply specifically by loving a worker who undermines me or a neighbor who offends me.
Principle 6: Be sensitive to distinctions between Israel and the church and Old Covenant and New Covenant eras/requirements. Promises made to Israel in the Old Testament cannot automatically be transferred to the church in which we are a part. For example, the land promises were given to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:7) but that does not include me, a Gentile Christian. Christians are not under the requirements of the Mosaic law (Rom 6:14). For example, in Lev 19:19 there is a command “you must not wear a garment made of two different kinds of fabric.” This was a binding command under the Mosaic law but not under the terms of the New Covenant. It is true that certain Old Testament commands repeated in the New Testament are still binding, but this is made clear by their repetition in the New Testament. The church was formed in Acts 2 with the descent of the Holy Spirit and most direct statements to and about the church occur after that. Also, there is a future for national Israel (cf. Rom 11) in which many Old Testament promises will yet be fulfilled and certain practices of the church age will come to an end at the second coming of Jesus (such as the Lord’s supper 1 Cor 11:26).
Principle 7: Be sensitive to the type of literature you are in. The Bible contains many different types of literature: law, narrative, wisdom, poetry, gospel, parable, epistle, and apocalyptic. Each of these types of literature has specific features that must be considered when interpreting a text. Some of these will be examined in the next section. For now we need to understand that where we are in the Bible makes a big difference on how we interpret and apply it.
Interpreting the Old Testament
Narrative Literature: Much of the Old Testament contains narrative literature. First, the passage needs to be interpreted in its historical context and then applications can be drawn from the characters and events. In the book of Judges, only one verse is given to the judge Shamgar. It reads, “After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath; he killed six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad3 and he too delivered Israel” (Judges 3:31). Why did God include this passage? Yes, it records an historical event. Also, the verse teaches God’s delivering power can come in an unexpected way, not with a mighty army but with one man wielding an oxgoad.
Law: Realize that Christians are not under the law as a legal system (Rom 6:14) but that we are to fulfill the principles that stand behind the law of loving God and loving one’s neighbor (cf. Matt 22:37-40)? Sometimes the teaching is carried directly into the New Testament (e.g., Do not murder, etc). Other times, the New Testament takes a text and applies a principle from it. For example, “You must not muzzle your ox when it is treading grain” (Deut 25:4). Paul takes this verse, which refers to feeding a work animal and applies the principle of the Christian worker being worthy of tangible support. Paul states, “Elders who provide effective leadership must be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching. For the scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and, ‘The worker deserves his pay’” (1 Tim 5:17-18, cf. 1 Cor 9:9). In general, if the Old Testament command in the law is not repeated in the New Testament, look for the principle behind the statement in the law and then try to apply that.
Wisdom Literature: Realize that much of the proverbial type of wisdom in the Old Testament is general truth based on observations but not absolute truths or promises. Two good examples are seen in the following: “A gentle response turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath” (Prov 15:1). Another one is, “Train a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Prov 22:6). Christians should not take these types of proverbial statements as promises of what will always happen but rather patterns that are generally true outcomes based on observation. A gentle answer will not always prevent an angry outburst but it is much more likely to than a harsh one. Christian parents who have a child who has gone astray from the faith may have done their best to train the child the right way but the child did not take it.
Poetry: Realize that poetry often has a greater use of figurate language than narrative or law. Also, Hebrew poetry’s main characteristic is parallelism. For example, Psalm 24 says, “The Lord owns the earth and all it contains, the world and all who live in it. For he set its foundation upon the seas, and established it upon the ocean currents. Who is allowed to ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may go up to his holy dwelling place?” (Ps 24:1-3). Here we have three sets of pairs in side by side fashion with the second reference restating the basic idea of the first. The phrase “the earth and all it contains” is amplified by the phrase “the world and all who live in it”. The phrase “he sets its foundation upon the seas” is rephrased “established it upon the ocean currents.” The question of who is allowed to ascend to the mountain of the Lord is restated “Who may go up to his Holy Dwelling place?” Most English Bible translations will format poetry using indentation, which helps show the parallel ideas.
Interpreting the New Testament
Gospels: Understand that each writer has a specific audience for whom he is writing, and that he has selected his material for them. Matthew was written for a Jewish audience. Mark was written for a Roman audience. Luke was written for a Greek audience. John was written for a universal or Gentile audience. This can help us see nuances or explain differences between accounts. For example, in Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12 Jesus teaches on the hard topic of divorce. Both gospels state that a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. Mark alone though adds the point that if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she commits adultery against him. Why is this difference there? It probably has to do with the audience. Matthew is writing to a Jewish culture in which a woman could not divorce her husband while Mark is writing to a Roman audience in which one could.
Read the gospels not only vertically, that is, understanding what is said in each individual account, but also horizontally, that is, considering why one account follows another. For example, see Mark 2-3:6; what do these various accounts have in common? One can notice that they are all different stories that relate to the conflict that Jesus had with the Jewish leadership. Mark 3:6 reads, “So the Pharisees went out immediately and began plotting with the Herodians as to how they could assassinate him.” The stories are grouped in a way that gives an explanation as to why Jesus was rejected as strongly as he was.
Lastly, recognize that the gospels are in a transitional stage between Old and New Covenants. Jesus lived in the context of Judaism prior to the birth of the church. For example, Jesus is keeping the Old Testament prescribed feasts in many of his journeys to Jerusalem. Also, he is introducing changes that will be inaugurated with the start of the New Covenant. For example, in Mark 7 Jesus declared all foods clean which was a change from the Old Testament dietary laws.4
Parables.5 Parables are a form of figurative speech. They are stories that are used to illustrate a truth. There are parables in different parts of the Bible but Jesus was the master of them and many are found in the gospels (e.g., Matt 13, Mark 4, Luke 15). How then should we interpret the parables? First, determine the context that prompted the parable. Parables always arise out of a context. For example the Pharisees disdain for Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners prompts Jesus to tell a parable about how God loves a lost sinner who repents (Luke 15). Second, understand the story’s natural meaning which is often taken from real life situations in first century Palestine. Third, ascertain the main point or truth the parable is trying to give and focus on this. Only interpret the details of the parables if they can be validated from the passage. Many details are there only for the setting of the story. For example, what is the main point of the mustard seed parable? Jesus stated: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest garden plant and becomes a tree, so that the wild birds come and nest in its branches” (Matt 13:31-32). The parable is an illustration of the kingdom of heaven which starts small but grows to be very large in size. This seems to be the main point. The birds and the branches are probably there only to illustrate how large the tree has become.
Acts. Recognize that Acts is a theologized history of the early church. Acts tells what the church was doing from the human side of things and what God was doing from the divine side of things. For example, consider these passages on the early growth of the church which refer to the same event but from two different perspectives. “So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added”. . . . (Acts 2:41) “And the Lord was adding to their number everyday those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Here we see what God is doing in and through the church. Also, we need to recognize that the church starts in Acts 2 with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Spirit, the filling of the Spirit, church planting and gospel outreach characterize the events of the book. In addition, some events in Acts are descriptive of what happened not proscriptive of what is necessarily expected in the modern church. For example, Samaritan believers did not receive the Holy Spirit in Acts 8 upon faith in Jesus. They had to wait for Peter and John to get there. When Paul was bitten by a viper in Malta, yet he miraculously lived (Acts 28:1-5). These are descriptions of what happened and are not necessarily normative of what happens in the church today. So it probably would not be a good idea to start snake handling services!
The book of Acts is also a book of transitions. First there are key transitions in biography. This is especially true as the book focuses more on the ministry of Peter in the first portions of the book then shifts to Paul. There is also a transition in ministry focus from the Jews to the Samaritans and to the Gentiles. Lastly there is a geographical transition starting in Jerusalem taking the gospel outward into Samaria, Asia Minor, Europe and eventually Rome. In Acts 1:8 Luke gives us a rough outline of the progression emphasizing the progress of the gospel. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth."
Epistles. Since the New Testament epistles are directed to churches and individuals in the church, they most directly apply to us today. Most commands given in the epistles are general enough in nature that we need to obey them, or in the case of promises we can claim them. For example in 1 Corinthians 15 there is a promise given for immortal bodies and eventual victory over death. These promises are not just for those in the local Corinthian church but the universal church of God.
In the epistles, pay special attention to logical connectors/conjunctions to explore relationships of clauses and sentences. Look for these types of words: “for, “therefore,” “but,” etc. For example Hebrews 12:1 reads, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us.” The word therefore points back to the previous chapter in which Old Testament saints were held up as people who had given a good testimony or witness of faith. The phrase “cloud of witnesses” then would naturally refer back to the people of the preceding chapter. In another example the author of Hebrews writes, “So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. For our God is indeed a devouring fire” (Heb 12:28-29). Here the word for sets up a subordinate idea giving the reason we as Christians should offer worship in devotion and awe to God.
Revelation. Revelation is the one book in the New Testament that is one of the hardest to interpret. There are several reasons for this. First, there are substantially different interpretative approaches on the overall timing of the book. Some see most of it as purely historical. Some see most of it as yet future. Second, there are many Old Testament allusions in Revelation. Allusions are phrases and references to the Old Testament without an explicit statement by John that he is quoting the Old Testament. So when John refers to the Old Testament he generally does not tell you he is doing so. Third, there is a greater use of symbolic language in Revelation than in other parts of the Bible. Revelation is in a form of literature known as apocalyptic.6
How can one get started? First, the book of Revelation promises a blessing to the one who reads it (Rev 1:3). So we should read it even if we do not completely understand everything. The basic thrust of Revelation’s message is clear. Jesus is coming again and will defeat the forces of evil. We can be assured of this. Other interpretative helps that can be given would be to interpret the seven churches as seven historical churches in existence in the first century A.D (Rev 2-3). Interpret chapter 4 onward as primarily future events from our perspective (Rev 1:18-19).7 Follow a generally chronological view of the book from chapter 4 sequencing the bowls, trumpets and seals, second coming of Jesus, millennial kingdom and eternal state. Use a study Bible with a good set of notes to help frame common interpretations and Old Testament backgrounds. Lastly, become a student of the book and keep working at it.
Conclusion and Summary
Biblical passages must be interpreted according to the intention of the author and in the context in which the statement is made. Interpretation must be distinguished from application. One must be sensitive to what type of literature one is in and how this may or may not apply to a believer in the church age. Interpreting the Bible is sometimes hard work but it’s always worth the cost. David reminds us of the value of God’s word, “They are of greater value than gold, than even a great amount of pure gold; they bring greater delight than honey, than even the sweetest honey from a honeycomb” (Ps 19:10).
- What types of interpretations have you heard where you questioned the method of interpretation?
- What would happen to interpretation if the church used reader centered interpretations as opposed to an author centered interpretations?
- How does the Holy Spirit help us in interpreting the Bible (1 Cor 2)?
- If the Holy Spirit is guiding us in interpretation why do godly Christians have differing interpretations on various passages?
- What is our relationship, if any, to the Old Testament Commandments/Law?
- Why are only 9 of the 10 commandments repeated in the New Testament? The Sabbath command is the one of the ten commandments that is not there.
- How does the distinction between the church and Israel affect application of the Old Testament?
- How do you know if something is symbolic or not?
1 The NET Bible gives a translation rendering that helps to alleviate this confusion. “Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).
2 “For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, 6 and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt (Heb 6:4-6 NET).
3 An oxgoad is simply a long stick with a pointed end that was used to prod animals into walking.
4 He [Jesus] said to them, "Are you so foolish? Don't you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? 19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer." (This means all foods are clean.)(Mark 7:18-19 NET).
5 Adapted from Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs: Victor, 1991) 194-226.
6 A scholarly definition of Apocalyptic: “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another supernatural world” J.J. Collins “Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre,” Semeia 14 (1979), 9. Revelation focuses on the future and spiritual world to a much greater degree than other portions of the New Testament and it is communicated in visions and symbolic language.
7 Revelation 1:19 gives a basic chronological outline of the book. “Therefore write what you saw, what is, and what will be after these things” (Rev 1:19 NET). (past: what you saw (Chapter 1:9-20); present: what is (Chapters 2-3); and future: what will take place after these things (Chapters 4-22:5).
Lesson 7: The Study of ChristRelated Media
I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires, and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and whatever other religions the distance of infinity. ―Napolean Bonaparte
Who is Jesus?
Jesus once asked the question of his disciples, “Who do people say that I am” and after some answers he quickly followed with a second more important question, “But who do you say that I am.” (Matt 16:13-15). This is life’s greatest question and our whole eternity is hinging on the correct response. C.S. Lewis once stated: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”1
The study of who Jesus Christ is and what he did is something that deserves our lifelong pursuit until as Paul says we see him face to face (1 Cor 13:12). The study of Christ is referred to as Christology. This lesson will survey the study of Christ from his preexistence to his future return and earthly reign. Did Jesus exist prior to his birth? How did the Old Testament point to Jesus? What is the incarnation? What is the biblical evidence that Jesus was both God and man? What is Jesus doing right now? What will his future reign look like? These are some of the questions that this lesson is designed to answer.
The Eternality and Preexistence of Christ
The eternality of the Messiah was stated as early as in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Isaiah 9:6 reads: “For a child has been born to us a son has been given to us. He shoulders responsibility and is called: . . ., Everlasting Father (cf. Micah 5:2). Here the “son” to be born is described as the “Everlasting Father.” But how can a son be “everlasting” and how can he be father? Clearly, something unique is being said about this promised son. This son is identified in the New Testament as Jesus Christ (Is 7:14; Matt 1:23). Also, John points to the preexistence of the Word who became flesh at the outset of his gospel where he states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning . . . The Word became flesh (John 1:1-2, 14). The Word clearly refers to Jesus Christ. John the Baptist also gives testimony about Jesus’ preexistence: “On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me’ (John 1:29-30). Even though John the Baptist was older than Jesus, John states that he existed before him. Lastly, in a conversation with his fellow Jews Jesus gave testimony himself about his preexistence prior to His birth. “The Judeans replied, “You are not yet fifty years old! Have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (John 8:57-58). That sums it up pretty well. In summary, Jesus not only existed prior to his birth, but he also existed from all eternity past. This means that Jesus was not a created being but rather eternal God.
Christ in the Old Testament
Since Jesus Christ did exist prior to his birth and is the promised Messiah, then a question one could ask is how and where he is seen in the Old Testament. A very important testimony regarding Christ in the Old Testament can be found spoken by Jesus himself in the gospel of Luke. “Then he [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). The reference to the Law, Prophets and Psalms is a reference to the threefold division of the Old Testament canon sometimes referred to as the Tanakh.2 We should expect to find Christ in all the sections of the Old Testament. Besides general designations for God, there are three primary ways that Christ can be seen in the Old Testament: direct prophecy, typological prophecy, and what is called theophanies or christophanies.
Direct prophecy refers Old Testament passages that give explicit predictions of the coming Messiah. These predictions then are fulfilled in Jesus Christ some of them at the first advent. A good example of this is the prophecy of the virgin birth: “For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel” (Is 7:14; cf. Matt 1:23).3 Other direct prophecies will be fulfilled at the second advent when Jesus returns to earth. A good example of this is found in Zechariah 14. “Then the Lord will go to battle and fight against those nations, just as he fought battles in ancient days. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives which lies to the east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in half from east to west, leaving a great valley. Half the mountain will move northward and the other half southward” (Zech 14:3-4).
Typological prophecy refers to Old Testament people, places and events that are intended by God to illustrate and point forward to Jesus’ Christ’s person or his work. Sometimes these prophecies are explicitly validated in the New Testament and other times they are not. A good example of this was the Passover Lamb sacrifice instituted by God in Exodus 12. The Lamb had to be male and perfect. Its blood had to be applied to the house for the angel of death to pass over it. This sacrifice would then point forward to the ultimate Passover sacrifice that God would accept. Paul makes this explicit tie when he states, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7).
Various manifestations or appearances of God himself in the Old Testament are referred to as theophanies. These are sometimes called christophanies if one makes an explicit connection by later revelation to the second member of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. One example of this, in my view, is the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament who is equated with God in Exodus 3:1-6. This Angel followed Israel as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exod 13:21; 14:19). The New Testament makes an allusion to this which appears to specify this Angel as Christ. Paul writes, “For they [the Israelites in the wilderness] were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4 cf. Exod 17:6).
The Incarnation of Christ
What does the incarnation refer to? In short the word means “in flesh” and it refers to God, who is spirit, taking the form of human flesh. A more precise theological definition would be that the incarnation “defines the act wherein the eternal God, the Son took to Himself an additional nature, humanity, through the virgin birth.”4 One of the main biblical passages on the incarnation is from John 1:14: “Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us” (John 1:14). Another important passage is from Paul, “Christ Jesus . . . who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature (Phil 2:6-7). This emptying was not emptying Jesus of his deity, rather it was the adding of his human nature into a humble situation to even death on a cross. C. S. Lewis well articulated, “The Son of God became the Son of Man so that the sons of men might become the sons of God.”
The Humanity of Christ
The result of the incarnation was that the preexistent Christ became a man, and as such Jesus experienced the realm of humanity. Luke emphasizes this when he says, “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). Jesus had the title of Son of Man (Matt 8:20) which was the most common way he referred to himself. He had the human lineage of son of Abraham and David (Matt 1:1). As a man Jesus was: hungry (Matt 4:2); thirsty (John 19:28); grew tired (John 4:6); grieved to the point of tears (John 11:35); tempted (Matt 4:1); experienced physical death (Luke 23:46). In short he was a man and he experienced humanity to the full. He was one of us. The only qualification one would have to make regarding Jesus’ humanity is that while he came in the “flesh” he came only in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3), and that while he was tempted in all things as we are, he was without sin (Heb 4:15). At the same time, sin is not an essential part of humanity the way God created man. After God created Adam and Eve, they were perfectly and fully human and God declared it good. God even stated it was very good prior to the sin that led to man’s fall (Gen 1:31; Gen 3). In the first and second century A.D., there was a heretical movement known as Gnosticism which denied that God who is good could take on an actual human body which they thought was sinful. In essence, they were deniers of the doctrine of the incarnation (cf. 1 John 4:2).5
The Deity of Christ
Jesus is not only presented in the Bible as a man but he is also presented as having the nature of God. He has a unique identity with the Father. Jesus stated, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “the person who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Also, Jesus had the titles of Son of God (John 10:36) as well as Lord and God (Matt 8:20). He is equated with Yahweh in the Old Testament (1 Cor 2:16; Is 40:13). As God Jesus is creator (Col 1:15-16), had power over nature (Matt 8:26), had power over death (John 11), forgave sin (Mark 2:1-12) and rules as God (Heb 1:8). He was and is the exact representation of God inwardly and outwardly (Heb 1:1-4). Martin Luther stated, “If Christ does not remain the true natural God . . . then we are lost. For what good would be the suffering and death of the Lord Christ do me if He were merely a man such as you and I are? Then He would not have been able to overcome the Devil, death and sin. He would have been far too weak for them and could not have helped us.”6
The theological term used to describe the teaching of the two natures of Christ, divine and human, is called the hypostatic union and was articulated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D7. A simple definition of the hypostatic union is this. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man (= two natures) united in one person.8 In other words, Jesus is the God-Man.
The Roles of Jesus
While this is most certainly too simplistic, it is nonetheless helpful that Jesus is sometimes described as prophet (first advent ministry), priest (death on the cross and current ministry) and king (his rule now from heaven and in the future on earth). The earthly ministry of Jesus can be divided into two major activities, his words and his works. He called people to repentance and associated with sinners (Matt 4:17; Mark 2:16); he identified with humanity (Matt 1:23); he rebuked hypocritical religion (Matt 23); he gave sermons (like the Sermon on the Mount; cf. Matt 5-7); he drew lessons from life (such as parables)(cf. Matt 13), he gave prophecies about the future (Matt 24); he selected, trained and commissioned the 12 (Matt 4:18-22), he did miracles (Matt 8-9); he revealed the Father (John 17) and so much more.
The Passion of Christ
About one third of the gospels cover the last week of Jesus’ life. This shows the importance of these final events in Jesus’ earthly life to the gospel writers. Jesus clearly stated the reason for his coming: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:25).
The following is a short chronology of the last week of Jesus’ life: On Saturday, Jesus arrives at Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 11:55-12:11). This town is near the Mount of Olives a short walk to Jerusalem. Here Jesus is anointed for burial with the expensive oil (John 12:1-7). On Sunday, there is what is termed the triumphal entry as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matt 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-44; John 12:12-19). Here the people shout out, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” which can be understood as save now, the promised Messiah. On Monday, Jesus drives out the money changers in the Temple and later curses an unfruitful fig free symbolizing the dire state of Israel’s condition (Matt 21:12-19; Mark 11:12:18; Luke 19:45-48). In the temple he rebukes them saying, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are turning it into a den of robbers!” (Matt 21:13). On Tuesday, Jesus’ authority is debated with the Jewish leadership, the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees (Matt 21:23-23; Mark 11:27-12:40; Luke 20:1-47). The story of the widow who out of her poverty gives a very small amount (a mite = less than a penny) happens in the midst of this turmoil (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). The Olivet Discourse explains the fact of the Temple’s future destruction and circumstances surrounding the second coming of Jesus (Matt 24-25; Mark 13:1-37; Luke 21:5-36). The main point is to “be ready” for the coming of the Son of Man. On Thursday, events really start to pick up. First Jesus is betrayed by Judas one of the twelve. (Matt 26:17-25; Mark 14: 12-21; Luke 22: 7-13, 21-23). Washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20), the Last Supper (Matt 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20) and the Upper Room Discourse (John 14-17) give Jesus the opportunity to give some final teaching to the disciples. After Jesus’ prayer in a garden called Gethsemane (Matt 26:30, 36-46; Mark 14: 26, 32-42; Luke 22: 39-46; John 18:1) the arrest occurs (Matt 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-12) and the trials of Jesus start. On Friday, the trials continue when Jesus appears before the Sanhedrin, the Roman Governor Pilate and Herod Antipas (Matt 26:57-27:31; Mark 14:53-15:15; Luke 22:54-23:25; John 18:12-19:6). At the verdict and scourging Pilate tries to release Jesus but the crowd wants death. Pilate asks “Why? What wrong has he done?” They shouted more insistently, “Crucify him!” Jesus then is placed on the cross (Matt 27:31-34; Mark 15:20-23; Luke 23:26-33; John 19:16-17).
The last words of Jesus on the cross give us a glimpse of Jesus’ concern and mindset in his final hours. Seven of these sayings are recorded in the gospels and while a lot can be said about each one perhaps just a reading of them without comment has a powerful impact when they are seen together: “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). “He said to his mother, ‘Woman, look, here is your son!’ He then said to his disciple, ‘Look, here is your mother!’”(John 19:26-27). “‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matt 27:46). “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). “It is completed" (John 19:30). “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).
The Resurrection of and Ascension of Christ
Jesus predicted his resurrection (Matt 16:21). If he would not have been raised from the dead he would have been considered a false prophet. After Jesus died, his tomb was guarded by a Roman guard and sealed with the Roman seal (Matt 27:62-66). Yet the tomb was opened, Jesus came out in a resurrected physical body and it became empty. The empty tomb that was guarded and sealed continues to be one of the strongest proofs of Jesus’ resurrection. There is also the eyewitness testimony of the disciples that they were willing to die for. He was seen by the disciples and over 500 brethren (1 Cor 15:1-7). He talked with them and ate with them (Luke 24:39-43). After 40 days of being with the disciples, Jesus was taken up into heaven from the Mount of Olives. This is referred to as the ascension. Luke records, “After he [Jesus] had said this, while they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).
The Current Ministry of Christ and the Second Advent
While many studies about Jesus focus on what he did at his first advent or even what he will do at his second advent, Jesus is not inactive in the present age. He has a current role and ministry. Christ is the head of the body directing the activities of the church. Paul teaches, “He [Jesus] is the head of the body, the church” (Col 1:18). Also, Christ as High Priest intercedes in prayer on our behalf. The author of Hebrews states, “So he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Heb 7:25). What a wonderful proclamation about Jesus praying for us which keeps us and our salvation in God’s omnipotent grip. Robert Murray McCheyne once stated, “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet the distance makes no difference; He is praying for me.”9
The second coming of Jesus Christ can be divided into two major parts. The first is the coming in blessing for the church, which is referred to as the rapture. The word rapture means “caught up.” The primary passage on it occurs in 1 Thess 4:16-17.10 There Paul writes, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:16-17).
The second phase is the coming in judgment for the world and the rule of Jesus on the earth. John writes, “Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called ‘Faithful’ and ‘True,’ and with justice he judges and goes to war” (Rev 19:11). After Jesus comes back to earth he will set up his rule. Jesus himself said in Matthew: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matt 25:31).
Amazing! Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord, the Savior, the Alpha and Omega, the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Son of David, the Word, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the Bread of Life, the light of the World, Judge, Prophet, Priest, King, Kings of Kings and Lord of Lords and much more. As John states if everything that Jesus said and did were recorded there would not be enough books in the world to contain it (John 21:25). In closing, contemplate Jesus as described in the hymn “I Saw One Hanging on the Tree” by John Newton.
I saw One hanging on a tree,
In agony and blood;
He fixed His loving eyes on me,
As near His cross I stood.
Sure, never to my latest breath,
Can I forget that look;
It seemed to charge me with His death,
Though not a word He spoke.
My conscience felt and owned the guilt,
And plunged me in despair:
I saw my sins His blood had spilt
And helped to nail Him there.
A second look He gave, which said,
“I freely all forgive:
This blood is for your ransom paid,
I die that you may live.”
- How does preexistence differ from the eternality of Christ?
- What objections have you heard in regards to the deity of Jesus?
- How do the Jehovah witnesses, Mormons or Muslims view Jesus?
- Why do you think Jesus did miracles?
- Why didn’t the Jewish leadership accept Jesus as Messiah?
- Who was responsible for Jesus’ death?
- Why was the sacrifice of Jesus necessary for God to forgive our sin?
- What is the evidence for the resurrection and what would the consequences be if Jesus was not raised from the dead?
- How should Jesus as head of the church affect us in our local churches? Do people in the church understand this concept?
- Why do you think the Bible tells us that Jesus is coming back?
- Where is Jesus coming back to and what will he do when he gets there?
1 C. S. Lewis, (New York: The McMillian Company, 1952), 58.
2 The Tanakh refers to the Torah = Law, the Nebiim = Prophets, and the Kethubiim = the Writings.
3 Matthew 1:23 reads, “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” Note that the Hebrew word translated “young woman” in Is 7:14 in the context of Old Testament Israel would normally refer to young woman who was a virgin and the Greek translation of the Old Testament specifically translates it as virgin as well as the fulfillment of the passage in the Greek New Testament regarding the virgin birth of Jesus.
4 Peter Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology – Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 713.
5 John seems to write against Gnosticism in 1 John 1:5–8; 4:1–3. One major form of Gnosticism was called “Docetism” = the Christ only appeared to be human (cf. 1 John 1:1–4; 4:2; John 1:14). Also, “Cerinthianism” taught that the divine Christ descended on the human Jesus at his baptism and left before his death (cf. 1 John 5:6).
6 Roy Zuck, The Speakers Quote Book (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009), 74.
7 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1987), 534.
8 A longer definition of the Hypostatic Union is, “A theological expression that refers to the dual nature of Christ. God the Son took to Himself a human nature and He remains forever true God and true man—two natures in one person forever. The two natures remain distinct without any intermingling, but they nevertheless compose one person, Christ the God-man.” Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, 713.
9 Zuck, The Speakers Quote Book, 78.
10 The other major passage on the Rapture is, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:51-53).
This four part study of the book of Ruth was preached at Trinity Bible Church in Richardson Texas in 2012.
The book of Ruth is a timeless drama of God's faithfulness in a time of loss and how He uses His people to restore one another. Naomi and her family fled to the country of Moab to escape a famine in their hometown of Bethlehem, but the land that was to be a place of refuge became a graveyard. Death robbed Naomi of her family. Broken and ruined, she returned home but did not go back alone. Her ever faithful daughter-in-law, Ruth, returned with her to face an uncertain future. But the God of Israel had not abandoned them. He brought one of their kinsman, the noble Boaz, into their lives and began unfolding a grand plan of restoration. God demonstrated His loyal love, and in turn the three of them demonstrated loyal love to one another. Their simple faithfulness led to events that changed the world.
Taking the Bible “Literally”Related Media
I never like the question, “Do you take the Bible literally?” It comes up with some frequency, and it deserves a response. But I think it’s an ambiguous—and, therefore, confusing—question, making it awkward to answer.
Clearly, even those of us with a high view of Scripture don’t take everything literally. Jesus is the “door,” but He’s not made of wood. We are the “branches,” but we’re not sprouting leaves.
On the other hand, we do take seriously accounts others find fanciful and far-fetched: a man made from mud (Adam), loaves and fishes miraculously multiplied, vivified corpses rising from graves, etc.
A short “yes” or “no” response to the “Do you take the Bible literally?” question, then, would not be helpful. Neither answer gives the full picture. In fact, I think it’s the wrong question since frequently something else is driving the query.
Taking “Literally” Literally
Let’s start with a definition. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word “literal” means “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory, free from exaggeration or distortion.” Why do people balk at this common-sense notion when it comes to the Bible or, more precisely, certain passages in the Bible?
Let’s face it, even non-Christians read the Bible in its “usual or most basic sense” most of the time on points that are not controversial. They readily take statements like “love your neighbor as yourself” or “remember the poor” at face value. When citing Jesus’ directive, “Do not judge,” they’re not deterred by the challenge, “You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”
No, when critics agree with the point of a passage, they take the words in their ordinary and customary sense. They naturally understand that language works a certain way in everyday communication, and it never occurs to them to think otherwise.
Unless, of course, the details of the text trouble them for some reason.
What of the opening chapters of Genesis? Is this a straightforward account describing historical events the way they actually happened? Were Adam and Eve real people, the first human beings? Was Adam created from dust? Did Eve really come from Adam’s rib? Did Jonah actually survive three days in the belly of a great fish? Did a virgin really have a baby? Such claims seem so fanciful to many people it’s hard for them to take the statements at face value.
Other times, the critic simply does not like what he reads. He abandons the “literal” approach when he comes across something in the text that offends his own philosophical, theological, or moral sensibilities. Jesus the only way of salvation? No way. Homosexuality a sin? Please. A “loving” God sending anyone to the eternal torture of Hell? Not a chance.
Notice the objection with these teachings is not based on some ambiguity making alternate interpretations plausible, since the Scripture affirms these truths with the same clarity as “love your neighbor.” No, these verses simply offend. Suddenly, the critic becomes a skeptic and sniffs, “You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”
This subtle double standard, I think, is usually at the heart of the taking-the-Bible-literally challenge. Sometimes the ruse is hard to unravel.
An example might be helpful here.
Literal vs. Lateral
In the Law of Moses, homosexual activity was punishable by death (Lev. 18:22-23 and 20:13). Therefore (the charge goes), any Christian who takes the Bible literally must advocate the execution of homosexuals.
Of course, the strategy with this move is obvious: If we don’t promote executing homosexuals, we can’t legitimately condemn their behavior, since both details are in the Bible. If we don’t take the Bible literally in the first case, we shouldn’t in the second case, either. That’s being inconsistent.
How do we escape the horns of this dilemma? By using care and precision with our definitions, that’s how.
Here’s our first question: When Moses wrote the Law, did he expect the Jewish people to take those regulations literally? If you’re not sure how to answer, let me ask it another way. When an ordinance is passed in your local state (California, in my case), do you think the legislators intend its citizens to understand the words of the regulations “in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory, free from exaggeration or distortion”?
Of course they do. Legal codes are not written in figurative language allowing each citizen to get creative with the meaning. The same would be true for the Mosaic Law. Moses meant it the way he wrote it.
But now, it seems, we’re stuck on the other horn of the dilemma. To be consistent, shouldn’t we currently campaign for the death penalty for homosexuals? For that matter, aren’t we obliged to promote execution for disobedient children and Sabbath-breakers, both capital crimes under the Law?
The simple answer is no. Here’s why. Just because a biblical command is intended to be understood literally, does not mean it is intended to be applied laterally, that is, universally across the board to all peoples at all times in all places.
Consider this situation. Jesus told Peter to cast his net in deep water (Luke 5:4). That’s exactly what Peter did because he took Jesus’ command literally, in its ordinary sense. He had no reason to think otherwise. However, because Jesus’ command to Peter was literal does not mean the same command applies laterally to everyone else. We’re not obliged to cast nets into deep water just because Peter was.
Here’s another way of looking at it. No matter what state you live in, the California legal codes are to be read literally, but don’t have lateral application to all states. They only apply to those in California.
In the same way, the words of the Mosaic Law, like those of all laws, are to be taken at face value by anyone who reads them. Yet only those under its jurisdiction are obliged to obey its precepts.
The Jews in the theocracy were expected to obey the legal code God gave them, including the prohibition of and punishment for homosexuality. It was not the legal code God gave to gentiles, however. Therefore, even if the words of the Mosaic Law are to be taken literally by those under the jurisdiction of that code, this does not mean that in our current circumstances we are governed by the details of the provisions of that Law.
A clarification is necessary here. Am I saying that nothing written in the Mosaic Law is ever applicable to Christians or other gentiles or that there are no universal moral obligations that humanity shares with the Jews of Moses’ time. No, I’m not saying that.
Though Moses gave legal statutes for Jews under the theocracy, that Law in some cases still reflects moral universals that have application for those outside the nation of Israel. Yes, we can glean wisdom and moral guidance from the Law of Moses for our own legal codes, but there are limits. Working out those details is a different discussion, however. 1
The question here is not whether we take the Mosaic Law literally, but whether we are now under that legal code. We are not. That law was meant for Jews living under a theocracy defined by their unique covenant with God. Simply because a directive appears in the Mosaic Law does not, by that fact alone, make it obligatory for those living outside of Israel’s commonwealth.
Americans are a mixture of peoples in a representative republic governed by a different set of decrees than the Jews under Moses. We are not obliged to obey everything that came down from Sinai. Just because it was commanded of the Nation of Israel does not necessarily mean it is commanded of us. If anyone thinks otherwise, he is duty-bound to take his net and cast it into deep water.
That confusion aside, we’re still faced with our original question: When do we take the Bible literally?
Reading the Ordinary Way
Here’s how I would lay the groundwork for an answer. If I’m asked if I take the Bible literally, I would say I think that’s the wrong question. I’d say instead that I take the Bible in its ordinary sense, that is, I try to take the things recorded there with the precision I think the writer intended.
I realize this reply might also be a bit ambiguous, but here, I think, that’s a strength. Hopefully, my comment will prompt a request for clarification. This is exactly what I want. I’d clarify by countering with a question: “Do you read the sports page literally?”
If I asked you this question, I think you’d pause because there is a sense in which everyone reads the sports page in a straightforward way. Certain factual information is part of every story in that section. However, you wouldn’t take everything written in a woodenly literal way that ignores the conventions of the craft.
“Literally?” you might respond. “That depends. If the writer seems to be stating a fact—like a score, a location, a player’s name, a description of the plays leading to a touchdown—then I’d take that as literal. If he seems to be using a figure of speech, then I’d read his statement that way, figuratively, not literally.”
Exactly. Sportswriters use a particular style to communicate the details of athletic contests clearly. They choose precise (and sometimes imaginative) words and phrases to convey a solid sense of the particulars in an entertaining way.
Sportswriters routinely use words like “annihilated,” “crushed,” “mangled,” “mutilated,” “stomped,” and “pounded,” yet no one speculates about literal meanings. Readers don’t scratch their heads wondering if cannibalism was involved when they read “the Anaheim Angels devoured the St. Louis Cardinals.”
We recognize such constructions as figures of speech used to communicate in colorful ways events that actually (“literally”) took place. In fact, we never give those details a second thought because we understand how language works.
When a writer seems to be communicating facts in a straightforward fashion, we read them as such. When we encounter obvious figures of speech, we take them that way, too.
That’s the normal way to read the sports page. It’s also the normal—and responsible—way to read any work, including the Bible. Always ask, “What is this writer trying to communicate?” This is exactly what I’m after when I say, “I take the Bible in its ordinary sense.”
Of course, someone may differ with the clear point the Bible is making. Fair enough. There’s nothing dishonest about disagreement. Or they might think some Christian is mistaken on its meaning. Misinterpretation is always possible. Conjuring up some meaning that has little to do with the words the writer used, though, is not a legitimate alternative.
If someone disagrees with the obvious sense of a passage, ask them for the reasons they think the text should be an exception to the otherwise sound “ordinary sense” rule. Their answer will tell you if their challenge is intellectually honest, or if they’re just trying to dismiss biblical claims they simply don’t like.
Two Thoughts on Metaphor
Reading any writing the ordinary way requires we understand two points about figurative speech, both implicit in the concept of metaphor.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable…a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else.” So, metaphors take one meaning of a word and then creatively leverage it into another meaning to make an impact on a reader.
Here is the first point to be clear on: All metaphors (or other forms of figurative writing) rely first on literal definitions before they can be of any use as figures of speech.
All words must first be understood in their “usual or most basic sense” before they can be used metaphorically. We find, for example, the word “shepherd” prominently featured in the 23rd Psalm. Do you see that we must first understand the literal meaning of “shepherd” before the phrase “the Lord is my shepherd” has any figurative power?
This point is critical for accurate biblical interpretation. Here’s why.
Sometimes we attempt to solve interpretive problems by digging through a Bible dictionary. This can be a helpful place to start, but since all figurative language trades in some way on dictionary definitions, the dictionary is not the final word. It can never tell you what use a specific writer is making of any particular word or phrase.
Strictly speaking, since no word is a metaphor in itself, words cannot be used metaphorically unless they’re embedded in a context. Therefore, it makes no sense to ask of a solitary word, “Is the word meant literally?” because the word standing on its own gives no indication.
Dictionaries by definition can only deal with words in isolation. Other things—context, genre, flow of thought, etc.—determine if the word’s literal sense is being applied in a non-literal way, symbolically “regarded as representative” of something else.
Take two sentences, “The sunshine streamed through my window,” and, “Sweetheart, you’re a ray of sunshine to me this morning.” Sunshine’s literal meaning is the same in each case. However, it is used literally in the first sentence, but metaphorically in the second. Further, unless my wife understands the literal meaning of “sunshine,” she will never understand the compliment I’m offering her in a poetic sort of way.
So first, literal definitions must be in place first before a word can be used figuratively. Second, metaphors are always meant to clarify, not obscure.2
There’s a sense in which figurative speech drives an author’s meaning home in ways that words taken in the ordinary way could never do. “All good allegory,” C.S. Lewis notes, “exists not to hide, but to reveal, to make the inner world more palpable by giving it an (imagined) concrete embodiment.”3
Figurative speech communicates literal truth in a more precise and powerful way than ordinary language can on its own. The strictly literal comment, “Honey, your presence makes me feel good today” doesn’t pack the punch that the “sunshine” figure provides. The metaphor makes my precise point more powerfully than “words in their usual or most basic sense” could accomplish.
Remember, even when metaphor is in play, some literal message is always intended. Hell may not have literal flames,4 but the reality is at least as gruesome, ergo the figure.
Once again, it’s always right to ask, “What is the precise meaning the writer is trying to communicate with his colorful language?” But how do we do that? Here I have a suggestion.
The Most Important Thing
If there was one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one useful tip I could offer to help you solve the riddle of Scriptural meaning, it’s this: Never read a Bible verse. That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph—at least.
On the radio I use this simple rule to help me answer the majority of Bible questions I’m asked, even when I’m not familiar with the particular passage. When I quickly survey the paragraph containing the verse in question, the larger context almost always provides the information I need to help me understand what’s going on.
This works because of a basic rule of all communication: Meaning flows from the top down, from the larger units to the smaller units. The key to the meaning of any verse comes from the paragraph, not just from the individual words.
Here’s how it works. First, get the big picture. Look at the broader context of the book. What type of writing is it—history, poetry, proverb, letter? Different genres have different rules for reading them.
Next, stand back from the verse and look for breaks in the passage that identify major units of thought. Then ask yourself, “What in this paragraph or group of paragraphs gives any clue to the meaning of the verse in question? In general, what idea is being developed? What is the flow of thought?”
With the larger context now in view, you can narrow your focus and speculate on the meaning of the verse itself. When you come up with something that seems right, sum it up in your own words. Finally—and this step is critical— see if your paraphrase—your summary—makes sense when inserted in place of the verse in the passage.
I call this “the paraphrase principle.” Replace the text in question with your paraphrase and see if the passage still makes sense in light of the larger context. Is it intelligible when inserted back into the paragraph? Does it dovetail naturally with the bigger picture? If it doesn’t, you know you’re on the wrong track.
This technique will immediately weed out interpretations that are obviously erroneous. It’s not a foolproof positive test for accuracy since some faulty interpretations could still be coherent in the context. However, it is a reliable negative test, quickly eliminating alternatives that don’t fit the flow of thought.
If you will begin to do these two things—read the context carefully and apply the paraphrase principle—you will radically improve the accuracy of your interpretations. Remember, meaning always flows from the larger units to the smaller units. Without the bigger picture, you’ll likely be lost.
Don’t forget the rule: Never read a Bible verse. Always read a paragraph at least if you want to be confident you’re getting the right meaning of the verse.
Do I take the Bible literally? I try to I take it at its plain meaning unless I have some good reason to do otherwise. This is the basic rule we apply to everything we read: novels, newspapers, periodicals, and poems. I don’t see why the Bible should be any different.
1 For the record, I think the immorality of homosexuality is one of those universals since, among other reasons, it’s identified in the New Testament as wrong irrespective of the Mosaic Law (e.g., Rom. 1:27).
2 The exception to the generalization would be the parables Jesus told His disciples so that they would understand the meaning, but the crowds listening in would not. Mark 4:10
3 C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, “Afterword to Third Edition,” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 208.
4 In more than one instance, Jesus described Hell as “outer darkness” (e.g., Matt. 8:12) and literal flames give light.
1. Ruth and Naomi: Ruin (Ruth 1)Related Media
This week we walk with Naomi as she experiences the terrible loss of her husband and sons. By the end of the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, the situation seems hopeless. Naomi, by her own admission, is “empty.” Like her, we will experience times of suffering that lead to emptiness. Disappointment is guaranteed in this life. What can we learn from Naomi’s example as we deal with our own disappointments?
Related Topics: Suffering, Trials, Persecution
2. Ruth and Naomi: Redemption (Ruth 2)Related Media
When we left Ruth and Naomi last week, they were in the midst of ruin. This week we begin to see a glimmer of hope through a series of apparent coincidences. But the invisible hand of God's Providence is at work. In the same way, God continues to be at work in our lives, though it may not be readily apparent to us. Not only is he at work in us, but he works through us.
Related Topics: Character of God
3. Ruth and Naomi: Reclamation - From Ruin to Restoration (Ruth 3)Related Media
In act three, Ruth is sent on an unusual "mission" by her mother-in-law. The goal is to provide for Ruth's future welfare, but had these actions involved people of lesser character, the results would have been disastrous. This week we observe godly character in action; a character driven by loyal love.
Related Topics: Love
4. Ruth and Naomi: Restoration (Ruth 4)Related Media
In the final act, Ruth is restored as a wife and Naomi becomes a mother again. Though they have still lost their loved ones, they find comfort and consolation in the new people the Lord gives them. But though they don't know it, their story doesn't end here. Their demonstration of faithfulness impacts generations. The faithfulness of two ordinary women played a key role in God's extraordinary plan.
Related Topics: Character of God
Lesson 31: How Christ Meets Needs (John 6:1-15)Related Media
October 20, 2013
Over 36 years ago when I began as a pastor (at age 30), I was extremely unsure about whether I could do the job. I didn’t know whether I could come up with new sermons week after week without running dry. I wasn’t sure about whether I could adequately shepherd God’s flock or fulfill the other demands of the position. So I told the Lord, “I’ll try it for three years and see where I’m at.”
Although many weeks I still feel so overwhelmed with inadequacy that I think about quitting, by God’s grace alone, I’m still serving as a pastor. No text in the New Testament has helped me do what I do as much as the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. It might better be called the feeding of the 20,000, because there were 5,000 men, plus women and children. It’s not just a literal miracle witnessed by thousands of people. It’s also a parable with many lessons about the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ to meet the vast needs of the world through His inadequate disciples. Although they were completely inadequate to meet the needs of this hungry crowd, they gave the little that they had to the Lord, who blessed it and multiplied it so that they could distribute it to the people. That’s been my experience for 36 years now.
This is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels, which shows its significance. C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 37:419) says that it’s in all four gospels so that we won’t forget how much the Lord can do with little things that are yielded to Him. The feeding of the 5.000 precedes Jesus’ discourse on being the living Bread that comes down out of heaven to give His life for the world (6:32-58). So it’s also a miracle that points to salvation. John wrote this sign “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31).
John begins the story (6:1): “After these things Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias).” The last time note in John (5:1) mentioned an unnamed “feast of the Jews.” If it was the Feast of Tabernacles, five to six months have passed. The other gospels inform us that Jesus has sent out the twelve on a ministry tour. They have come back and reported their experiences to Him. Meanwhile, they got word that Herod had beheaded John the Baptist. Jesus and the disciples were so busy with all the needy people that they didn’t even have time to eat. So Jesus invited them to get away to a desolate place for some much needed rest.
So they took a boat across the northern end of the Sea of Galilee to a spot in the country north of Bethsaida (home of Philip, Andrew, and Peter). The problem was, the crowds saw them go, ran around the lake on foot, and greeted them as they disembarked (Mark 6:33). The disciples must have thought, “Oh no! We can’t get away from these needy people!” But Jesus felt compassion for them, taught them, and healed their sick (Mark 6:34; Matt. 14:14).
John (6:2) notes, “A large crowd followed Him, because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick.” These people weren’t following Jesus because they recognized Him as the Son of God who could save them from their sins. Some were fascinated just seeing the miracles. Others needed miraculous healing for themselves or their loved ones. But overall their reasons for following Jesus were misguided and superficial.
John adds (6:3-4): “Then Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat down with His disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near.” I’m not sure why John reports the detail of Jesus going up on the mountain. But coupled with the mention of the Passover, he may want us to draw a parallel with Moses, who led the people out of Egypt after the Passover. Later, he went up on the mountain receive the Ten Commandments. God also used Moses to give manna to the people in the wilderness. So the mention of the Passover being near is probably more than just a time notice. John wants us to see Jesus as the new and better Moses. He fulfilled what the Passover lamb typified. He gave Himself as the permanent manna or bread of life. He is the Prophet of whom Moses wrote (Deut. 18:15; John 6:14).
But in this case, although Jesus could have called for manna to float down from heaven, He didn’t do that. Why not? Jesus used this miracle and those that follow to train the twelve. John shows this by Jesus asking Philip (6:5), “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?” The other gospels report that the disciples had asked Jesus to dismiss the multitude so that they could go buy their own food. But Jesus pointedly told the disciples (Mark 6:37), “You give them something to eat!” Here, John adds (6:6), “This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do.” Jesus was showing Philip and the other disciples their woeful inadequacy to meet this need, along with His all-sufficiency. So this miracle teaches us that …
Christ uses inadequate people who surrender what they have to Him to meet the overwhelming needs of others.
Note four main lessons:
1. People are needy.
There were about 20,000 people out in a remote place (Luke 9:12), with many needing healing. They were hungry and there was no place nearby to buy food. Their physical hunger and their inability to satisfy that hunger pictures the spiritual needs of this sinful world. As Jesus will later tell them (6:26-27), they were following Him because they ate their fill of the bread, but they should have been focused on the food that endures to eternal life.
They are typical of so many in this world who are living for material things that will shortly perish, but they don’t see their need for the food that endures to eternal life. While it is right for Christians to engage in ministries of mercy to meet the physical needs of the poor, our ultimate goal should be to introduce them to the Lord, who can save them for eternity. So we need to pray that the Holy Spirit will convict them of their sin so that they will see their true need for Christ to rescue them from judgment before they die.
Evangelist Ray Comfort helps people see their need for Christ by walking them through some of God’s commandments that they have broken. He asks, “Have you ever lied or stolen anything?” “Yes.” “What do you call someone who lies and steals?” “A liar and a thief.” “Have you ever taken God’s name in vain?” “Yes.” “The Bible calls that blasphemy. So you’re saying that you’re a liar, a thief, and a blasphemer!”
“Have you ever been angry with anyone?” “Yes, many times.” “Jesus said that God views such anger as murder.” “Have you ever looked on someone with lust?” “Yes, of course.” “Jesus said that to do so is to commit adultery in God’s sight. So you’re saying that you’re a liar, a thief, a blasphemer, a murderer, and a multiple adulterer! How do you think it will go when you stand before the holy God at the judgment?” It’s only when people see how spiritually needy they are that they will cry out to Jesus to save them.
2. The Lord’s people are inadequate in themselves to meet people’s needs.
As I said, the other gospels report that the disciples’ easy solution to this multitude’s need for food was to send them away so that they could buy their own food (Mark 6:36). Problem solved! Well, at least it was solved as far as the disciples were concerned! But Jesus told them (Mark 6:37), “You give them something to eat!” Specifically, the Lord asked Philip (John 6:5), “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?”
It would have been great if Philip had responded, “Lord, I’ve seen You turn water into wine. I watched You heal the royal official’s son from a distance. I saw you heal the man who had been unable to walk for 38 years. I’ve watched You perform dozens of miracles. Surely, You can provide bread for this hungry multitude, even as God provided manna in the wilderness!” I’d like to think that that’s how I would have responded. Ha!
No, I would have responded just as Philip did. He started calculating, but he calculated without Christ. He did the numbers without considering the Lord’s power and concluded with businesslike efficiency, “Eight months’ salary of a working man (200 denarii) is not sufficient for each one to receive a little.” The problem was, they didn’t have 200 denarii and even if they did, it wasn’t enough. And even if they had more, there weren’t supermarkets just down the road that had enough bread on hand to feed 20,000 hungry people. But how often we throw up our hands and conclude that we can’t do something for the Lord because we calculate based on our inadequate resources!
Then, along comes Andrew who says (6:9), “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish ….” So far so good. But then he adds, “But what are these for so many people?” I’m not sure why Andrew even bothered to bring this boy and his little lunch to Jesus. Maybe the boy had offered and Andrew felt obligated to acknowledge the boy’s good intentions. But his comment, “But what are these for so many people?” seems to reflect his embarrassment to bring this pitiful lunch to Jesus. The loaves were not the size of our loaves of bread. They were small, flat barley cakes, probably about the size of a small pancake. Barley was the food of poor people and animals. The two fish were either pickled or dried small fish, like sardines. But Andrew’s comment accentuates the obvious inadequacy: “What are these for so many people?” So people are needy, but the Lord’s people are inadequate to meet those needs.
3. Jesus Christ is all-sufficient to meet people’s overwhelming needs.
Jeremiah prayed (32:17), “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You.” If Jesus is the Lord God in human flesh, Creator of heaven and earth, then nothing is too difficult for Him! John brings out Christ’s all-sufficiency in at least five ways:
A. Christ is in control of every situation.
John 6:6: “This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do.” Jesus never tested anyone in the sense of tempting them to do wrong. But He does test His servants so that they can learn to trust Him more. As someone has observed, “It was not bread that He was seeking from Philip, but faith.” John’s comment, “for He Himself knew what He was intending to do,” shows that Jesus wasn’t stumped and asking the disciples to brainstorm on how they could solve this perplexing problem. Rather, Jesus was in complete control. No problem that you or I ever face takes Him by surprise or causes Him to wonder, “How in the world am I going to solve this one?”
B. Christ is more concerned for needy people than we are.
The disciples wanted to solve this problem by sending the multitude away to buy their own bread. They were more focused on their own need for a break than they were with the multitude’s need for food. They viewed the hungry multitude as a bother. But Christ was concerned for them. He wants us to learn to look at needy people through His eyes. He has compassion for them and delights to meet their needs.
C. Christ is not limited by our inadequate resources.
When Philip came up with his 200 denarii estimate (that he didn’t have), Jesus didn’t say, “Go take a collection from the crowd and see how much we can get.” When Andrew offered his apology, “But what are these for so many people?” Jesus didn’t say, “I’ll bet there’s more food in this crowd. Let’s get everyone to share!” Jesus wasn’t limited in any way by this meager lunch. And, He isn’t limited today by the fact that we don’t have enough money or time or talent to get the gospel to the whole world. As Watchman Nee put it (Twelve Baskets Full [Hong Kong Church Book Room], 2:48), “The meeting of need is not dependent on the supply in hand, but on the blessing of the Lord resting on the supply.”
D. Christ doesn’t just barely meet needs; He abundantly supplies all that we want.
John draws a contrast between Philip’s “for everyone to receive a little” (6:7), Andrew’s “but what are these for so many people?” (6:9), and Jesus’ distributing to the people “as much as they wanted” (6:11). It reminds us of when God sent manna to the Israelites in the desert and we read (Exod. 16:18), “Every man gathered as much as he should eat.” To emphasize the sufficiency of the manna, the text repeats (16:21), “They gathered it morning by morning, every man as much as he should eat.” Nobody went hungry. When Jesus fed the 20,000, everyone was satisfied and there were 12 baskets full of leftovers. Paul wrote (Phil. 4:19), “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
E. Christ is sufficient not only for physical needs, but especially for spiritual needs.
This isn’t just a story about feeding hungry stomachs. This is about the spiritual satisfaction that Jesus brings to all who feed on Him as the bread of life. As He says (John 6:35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” As Paul put it (Eph. 1:3), God “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” Are you satisfied with Jesus as your living Bread?
When Jesus was dealing with the Samaritan woman at the well, the disciples were focused on the physical: “Rabbi, eat the lunch that we brought to You!” But Jesus was focused on the spiritual food of doing His Father’s will. Here, the disciples are still looking at things on the physical plane: How much money will it take to buy bread for this many people? The multitude was also focused on the physical. After this miracle, they wanted to take Jesus by force and make Him king (6:15). “This man can solve our economic problems!” But later (6:26-27), Jesus rebukes them because they were only interested in filling their stomachs. They had no concern about the food that endures to eternal life.
Even so, today people come to Jesus because they need physical healing or they need a job or they need Him to solve some pressing problem. He can meet those needs and He often does. But He wants us to see that we all have a deeper need: We need to be reconciled to the holy God. Jesus provided the only way for that to happen by giving Himself on the cross (6:51). No matter how great your sin may be, Jesus is more than sufficient to forgive your sin and save you from God’s judgment.
So this miracle shows us that people are needy and the Lord’s people are inadequate to meet those needs. But Jesus Christ is powerfully sufficient to meet the needs of all people, especially their need to be reconciled to God. How does He do it?
4. Christ meets the needs of people through His inadequate people who yield their inadequate resources to Him.
Briefly, here are four ways that Christ meets needs:
A. Christ uses people to meet the needs of people.
John does not specifically state what the other gospels state, that Jesus used the disciples to distribute the bread and fish to the people. But he does show how Jesus involved Philip and Andrew and it’s only from John that we learn that the five loaves and two fish came from a boy’s lunch. As I said, Jesus easily could have prayed and called down bread from heaven without involving anyone else. But He used people, including a boy and his lunch, to meet the needs of other people. If you know Him, He wants to use you to meet others’ needs.
B. Christ uses inadequate people to meet the needs of people.
Jesus could have looked around the crowd for the obviously rich and appealed to them for the funds to feed the crowd. He could have asked those with plenty of food to share. But instead, He used people who were painfully inadequate to meet this overwhelming need. If you think that you’re adequate or competent to serve the Lord, you’re not ready to serve Him.
Someone asked Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China, “Do you really expect to make an impact on that great land?” “No, sir,” Morrison replied, “but I expect God to.” Hudson Taylor, who followed in Morrison’s footsteps, said, “All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on God being with them.” God only uses inadequate people.
C. Christ uses inadequate people who yield their inadequate resources to Him.
The boy had to give up his lunch, not knowing for sure whether he would go hungry or not. He ended up eating more than he gave up! But we can only give to others what we have first received from God ourselves. We can’t give and the Lord won’t use the 200 denarii that we don’t have. But He will use the inadequate resources that we do have if we yield them to Him. What has the Lord given you? Remember, it was the slave who only had one talent who buried it and didn’t use it for his master. If you think that you’re just a “one-talent” Christian, make sure that you yield it to Christ and use it for His purpose.
D. When Christ uses you to meet the needs of others, He always provides a basketful of leftovers for your needs.
Unlike the manna, which spoiled if they gathered too much, in this miracle the Lord directed the disciples to gather the leftovers, so that nothing would be wasted. We should learn from this to be frugal with what the Lord supplies. Even though He can provide far more than we need, we shouldn’t waste it. But this also shows how the Lord provides for those who serve Him. There were 12 disciples and there were 12 baskets full of leftovers.
We hear a lot about “burnout” today, especially among pastors and missionaries. While we all need adequate rest and time off, if we’re feeling burned out in serving the Lord, it’s likely that we’ve been trying to meet others’ needs in our own strength. We’re trying to feed the multitude with the 200 denarii that we don’t have, and it isn’t sufficient even for everyone to have a little. But if we come away tired, yes, but with the satisfaction of the fullness of Christ in our souls, then the Lord’s blessing was on us. Remember, the bread is a picture of Christ. When we yield to Him our inadequate abilities and gifts to use as He pleases, He will satisfy us with a full measure of Himself. We’ll have food to eat that others know nothing about (John 4:32).
I have two concerns in this message. First, if you’ve never tasted Christ as the living bread to give you eternal life, then that is your main need. Your main need is not for Jesus to heal you or give you a job or provide you with a mate. Your main need is to come to Jesus for eternal life. Just as you eat bread to sustain your physical life even though you don’t understand exactly how it works, so you need to trust in Christ for eternal life. He promises (John 6:35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and He who believes in Me will never thirst.”
Second, if you have trusted in Christ, my concern is that you offer yourself to Him to use to meet the needs of others. We always have many ministry needs in the church. Some are behind the scenes, servant-type jobs. But also, the Lord wants to use you to give out the bread of life to others, whether to fellow believers or to those who don’t know the Savior. Don’t live for yourself. Live to be used of God and you’ll be satisfied with a basket full of the Living Bread for yourself.
- Since there are so many needs in the world, how do you know where to devote your time, effort, and money?
- When is it right to say “no” to the demands of needy people?
- How do spiritual gifts fit in with service? How do you know if God wants to use you in an area you aren’t gifted in?
- Are there conditions that we must meet in order to experience God’s blessing? What are they?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 32: Growing to Know the Lord for Who He Is (John 6:14-21)Related Media
October 27, 2013
Many people come to Christ in the hopes that He will make them happy. They struggle with personal problems and they hear that Jesus can help, so they trust in Him to gain the peace and joy that they long for. Or, they’re in an unhappy marriage or having problems with their kids and they heard that Christ can help, so they decided to “try Christ.” Whatever the need, they want Christ to make them happy.
But after they come to Christ, they find that the problems get worse, not better. Things aren’t exactly like the salesman—I mean evangelist—promised! They feel like when you sign up for some offer, only to find that it was a bait and switch. If you had known what you were in for, you never would have signed up.
As I’ve often said, the crucial question in life to answer is Jesus’ question to the disciples (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?” If Jesus is who He claimed to be and who the Scriptures show Him to be, then we must follow Him as Savior and Lord, even if it results in being tortured and killed. The Bible is quite clear that many godly saints have suffered terribly because of their faith. In fact, Paul promises (2 Tim. 3:12), “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The main reason for following Christ is not because He can make you happy—although He can, even in your suffering—but because He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is the eternal Son of God, sent from the Father to provide the only way to heaven through His death and resurrection.
Thus, as we’ve seen, John wrote his Gospel, and especially the miracles or signs that Jesus did (20:31), “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” It’s important that we believe in Jesus for the right reasons and that we grow to know Him as He is, not as we might wish for Him to be.
John (and Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52) follows the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 with the miracle of Jesus walking on the water, but he gives a compressed version of the story. For example, John doesn’t tell us that Jesus compelled the disciples to get into the boat. He doesn’t tell us that Jesus sent the multitude away or that He was praying on the mountain. He omits Mark’s comment (6:48) that Jesus saw the disciples straining at the oars or that He intended to pass them by when He came to them on the water. He doesn’t say that the disciples thought that they were seeing a ghost (although he does say that they were frightened). He doesn’t mention Peter’s walking on the water (Matt. 14:28-31). He doesn’t tell us that the storm was instantly stilled when Jesus got into the boat. And it’s puzzling why John, who wants us to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, omits the disciples’ worshipful response, “You are certainly God’s Son!” (Matt. 14:33).
Also, John doesn’t offer any comment on why he includes this story. He just gives it in this compressed form and then the following narrative goes back to the feeding of the 5,000, as Jesus expounds on His being the bread of life. So you have to ask, “Why did John include this sign in his Gospel? What does he want us to take away from meditating on it?”
One clue to these questions is what John told us back in 1:14, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John reports this miracle so that we, too, will see Jesus’ glory and trust Him in life’s storms. Also, this miracle was private; only the disciples saw it. Thus it was for their training (and ours).
We’re not reading too much into this story to say that the disciples were confused and disappointed with Jesus’ response to the multitude after He fed them with the loaves and fish. (R. C. Trench, Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord [Baker], p. 173, and G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John [Revell], pp. 102-103, point this out.) The crowd proclaimed Him to be the prophet of whom Moses spoke and they wanted to take Him by force and make Him king (John 6:14-15). The disciples had placed all of their hopes in this Galilean carpenter-prophet as the promised Messiah-King, who would deliver His people. They had given up their livelihoods to follow Him. Jesus has sent them out on a mission to proclaim that the kingdom of God was at hand. They were expecting Him to establish that kingdom at any moment.
And now, after Jesus has shown Himself to be the new Moses by providing bread for this crowd in the wilderness, the people want to make Him king. This was what the disciples had been waiting for!
But rather than capitalizing on the mood of the crowd and moving ahead with their desire to see Him enthroned, Jesus forced the disciples to get into the boat and head back toward Capernaum, while He sent the multitude away and went up on the mountain by Himself. What was He thinking? And then, to make matters worse, after Jesus forced them to get in the boat and put out on the lake without Him, a strong wind came up against them. They had already been in one storm on that lake when Jesus had been asleep in the boat with them. He woke up, rebuked the storm, and the sea was instantly calm. But now He wasn’t even with them!
So it’s reasonable to assume that the disciples were confused and disappointed as they were trying to row against this storm. Here they were, trying to help bring in God’s promised kingdom and to help people see that Jesus is the promised Messiah-king. In obedience to Jesus, they had set out across the lake without Him. But now, they were caught in this storm. In that setting, Jesus came to them walking on the water to teach them that even though He wasn’t the kind of Messiah-king they may have hoped for, He still is the Lord of all creation. They needed to get to know Him as He is, not as they had hoped that He would be. The lesson for us is:
Jesus does not want followers who use Him for their own purposes, but followers who grow to know Him and trust Him for who He is.
1. Jesus does not want followers who have misconceptions about who He is, who use Him for their own purposes (6:14-15).
John 6:14-15: “Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, ‘This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.”
Moses was the revered leader who had led Israel out of bondage in Egypt. Through him, God gave the law and provided manna in the wilderness. If Jesus was the prophet of whom Moses had prophesied (Deut. 18:15), then maybe He could deliver Israel from Roman domination! Maybe He could usher in God’s kingdom where Israel would enjoy peace and prosperity. So they wanted to make Him their political king.
But they didn’t want to repent of their sin and submit to Him as Lord. Rather, they wanted a king who would improve their living situation. They wanted a king who would usher in peace and prosperity. In short, they had misconceptions about who Jesus is and they wanted to use Him for their own purposes.
Even the disciples fell into this wrong way of thinking about Jesus, as you know. Right after Jesus asked them that crucial question (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus told them that He had to go to Jerusalem, where He would suffer many things, be killed, and be raised up on the third day. But (Matt. 16:22), “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” But Jesus rebuked Peter (16:23), “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Peter had a wrong conception of Jesus that didn’t include the cross.
I hope that that doesn’t describe you, but it would not be uncommon if it describes some of you. One Sunday several years ago a woman who was visiting here for the first time came up for prayer after the service. She and her husband had moved here for a good job that she had been offered. But after a short while on the job, she had been terminated. She was very angry at God for leading them here, only to lose her job. I wasn’t able to help her see that this trial was from God’s loving hand for their good, but that she needed to trust Him, submit to Him, and even give Him thanks for this opportunity to grow in her faith. She had misconceptions about who Christ is and she wanted to use Him for her own happiness. When that didn’t work out as she envisioned, she grew angry and bitter.
2. Jesus wants followers who grow to know Him and trust Him for who He is.
In Isaiah 55:8-9, the Lord says, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Part of growing to know the Lord is growing to know His ways and to submit thankfully to His ways when they run counter to my ways. One test of whether I am truly submitting to God’s ways with me is whether I am grumbling or giving thanks when things don’t go the way that I wanted them to go. If I’m trying to use Him then I’m acting as lord and He’s just my servant. Biblical Christianity means that I submit joyfully to Him as Lord and I’m His servant. John’s account of Christ’s walking on the water brings out five ways that we grow to know and trust Jesus for who He is:
A. We grow to know and trust Jesus’ person through the trials that He puts us through.
John tells us that Jesus withdrew to the mountain by Himself alone. The disciples got into the boat and started to cross the sea without Him. John adds the puzzling statement (6:17), “It had already become dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.” Not all agree, but I take it to mean that John anticipates the rest of the story: Jesus would shortly come, but He hadn’t yet come. So the disciples were on the lake in the dark in this storm, without Jesus.
Not only was Jesus not with them, He also let them struggle against this storm for many hours. John says that they had rowed “25 or 30 stadia,” which was about three and a half miles. The other gospels say that it was in the fourth watch of the night (between 3-6 a.m.) that Jesus came to them. They were probably exhausted and perhaps wondering whether they should turn around and let the wind blow them back to their starting point. At that point of great need, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea.
If we could interview John as he recalled this event, he would probably say, “It was an awful thing to be on the lake in the dark in a storm for that long without Jesus in the boat. But if He had not sent us into that situation, we would not have seen His glory and power when He came to us, walking on the water. The fresh vision of who Jesus is made it worth all the toil and anxiety.”
Although such trials are never enjoyable at the moment, as the author of Hebrews tells us (12:11), “Yet to those who have been trained by it [the trials of God’s discipline], afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” The late Malcolm Muggeridge wrote (A Twentieth Century Testimony [Thomas Nelson], cited in Reader’s Digest, Jan. 1991, p. 158):
Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, everything I have learned, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness.
Also, that storm kept them from joining the crowd in their error of wanting to make Jesus a political king. I think that when we’re in heaven, we’ll look back and see many instances in our lives where some trial or situation that didn’t go as we had wished actually kept us from some temptation that we would have fallen into. If I may use a rather homely personal example, when I was a teenager, I had a bad case of acne. Also, like most teenage boys, I struggled a lot with lust. I’ve thought that maybe the Lord used my bad complexion to keep me from getting involved immorally with girls at that vulnerable time of my life.
So one result of this miracle was that through it, the disciples grew to know Jesus’ person in a way that they never would have if they had not been in this storm. Jesus often sends us into storms so that we will grow in our understanding of who He is when He comes to us in a powerful way in the midst of the storm.
B. We grow to know and trust Jesus’ purpose in the trials He puts us through.
A. W. Pink (Exposition of the Gospel of John, on monergism.com) points out that these people proclaimed Jesus as their prophet and were willing to make Him their king. But they were omitting the other office that must come before He is crowned as king: He is the priest, who offered Himself as the final sacrifice for our sins. The disciples did not learn that lesson until after the cross and resurrection. But this miracle was one of the many times that Jesus had to repeat this lesson before it finally sank in.
One of the main lessons of the Christian life is that God’s purpose is not centered on me and my glory. It’s about Jesus and His glory! God’s purpose is to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). To that end, He is working all things in our lives for His glory. Maybe you’re thinking, “I thought he was working all things together for my good, as Romans 8:28 says.” He is, but your greatest good is bound up with Jesus’ glory. Your greatest good and your ultimate glory is to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29-30). When we’re perfectly conformed to His image in heaven, it will be to the praise of His glory (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14).
C. We grow to know and trust Jesus’ providence in the trials He puts us through.
The disciples here went from the mountaintop experience of the feeding of the 5,000 to the valley of the violent storm as they struggled to cross the sea without Jesus being with them. Just as Jesus knew what He would do with the feeding of the 5,000 (6:6), so He knew that He was sending the disciples into a storm and that He would come to them to calm their fears and to increase their understanding of who He is. Mark 6:48 says that Jesus saw them as they rowed against the winds. They were at least 3-4 miles away, so Mark is referring to Jesus’ omniscience. Also, Jesus had to know exactly where they were on the stormy sea to walk to them. They thought that they were alone, but they were really not alone. They learned that even though they didn’t know it, Jesus was fully aware of their circumstances and He would come to them in His time. And, as the other gospels state, He was praying for them while He was on the mountain. But they didn’t know that until later.
God’s providence means that nothing happens to us apart from His sovereign, loving will. Jesus isn’t asleep in heaven; He is there praying for us, even as He was praying for the disciples while they were fighting against this storm. In His perfect time, He will come to us. But we’ve got to trust Him when we can’t see Him or figure out any reason for why we’re in the storm.
D. We grow to know and trust Jesus’ power in the trials He puts us through.
The disciples had just seen Jesus create bread and fish to feed the large crowd. Now they saw Him as the Lord over His creation, as He walked on the water. Our trials cannot prevent Him from coming to us, even if we can’t imagine how He will do it.
At the same time, it is not always His will to use His power to deliver us from trials. Here, He stilled the storm and the disciples got safely to the shore. But He didn’t deliver John the Baptist from Herod’s sword. He didn’t call legions of angels to spare Himself from the cross. He later delivered Peter from prison, but not James. As Hebrews 11:33-37 shows, by faith many experienced powerful deliverances from their trials, but also by faith others were tortured and suffered martyr’s deaths. But whether it’s God’s will to deliver us or to take us to glory through death, we should know and trust His mighty power in the trials He puts us through.
E. We grow to know and trust Jesus’ presence in the trials He puts us through.
One of John’s main emphases in recounting this miracle is that Jesus’ presence with them in the boat got them immediately to their destination (6:21). This may have been another miracle or John may mean that with Jesus in the boat, they quickly got to their destination (solid commentators hold to both views). But at any rate, Jesus’ presence with the disciples calmed their fears in this storm. As Jesus says (6:20), “It is I; do not be afraid.” When we experience Jesus’ presence in the middle of life’s storms, it calms our fears.
“It is I” is literally, in Greek, “I am.” Some commentators say that this is the only way that a person could identify himself in Greek, so Jesus is not claiming to be Yahweh, who identified Himself to Moses as “I am” (Exod. 3:14). But perhaps John, in light of his overall purpose, wants his readers to at least see a hint of this here. It is obviously Jesus’ point in John 8:58, where He says, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” Because of who He is, Jesus’ presence with us gives us comfort.
When the Lord gave the Great Commission, He also gave the reassuring promise (Matt. 28:20), “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” That was David Livingstone’s verse as he endured countless hardships in the 19th century, trying to open the interior of Africa to the gospel. He said (A Frank Boreham Treasury, compiled by Peter Gunther [Moody Press], p. 107), “On those words I staked everything, and they never failed! … It is the word of a gentleman of the most strict and sacred honor, so there’s an end of it!”
So, why do you follow Jesus? Is it so that you can use Him to make you happy? Or, is it because He is the sovereign Lord of creation, who demands your submission and loyalty, even if His ways are not what you expected?
Another underlying current of this story is Christ’s patience and grace toward the disciples. Mark (6:51-52) reports that they had not gained any insight from the feeding of the 5,000. Later, they were still clueless about how to feed the 4,000 (Mark 8:4, 16-21). But the Lord did not give up on them. Even though we’re slow to learn, He is gracious with us as we struggle to know Him and trust Him for who He is. Even when things do not go as you expected or hoped, you can know that Jesus is still the Lord over all. Through your trials you can grow to know His person, His purpose, His providence, His power, and His presence. You will look back and say, “The storm was worth it because I grew to know more of who Jesus really is!”
- How can we keep our prayers from turning into idolatry, where we use “God” to get what we want?
- Since it is not always God’s will to deliver us from trials, is it wrong to pray for deliverance? What else should we pray for?
- Why doesn’t the Lord protect those who are seeking to serve Him from difficult trials?
- How can we grow to experience God’s presence with us in all situations? How would this affect our behavior and emotions?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation