On Literally Interpreting the Words of Jesus

For Christians and non-Christians alike, the teachings of Jesus are very important. Christians believe his teachings—saturated with forgiveness and love—provide guidelines for kingdom ethics that all his followers should follow. Some Bibles even print the words of Jesus in red ink, so they stand out more than any other text in Scripture1. And for those who view Jesus as a great moral teacher, the description of him found in the four Gospel accounts are exemplary of a compassionate person.

But how are we to read the teachings of Jesus? Can we take them all literally?

Literally Reading the Bible

In conservative Christian circles, much emphasis is put on reading the Bible literally. It has become a rallying cry against any threat—perceived or real—against inerrancy and the theological views of the holder. But this cry is too simplistic; it often reminds me of Chris Traeger from Parks and Recreation:

Not everything in the Bible can be read literally, because not everything in the Bible is meant to be read literally. Similes, metaphors, poetry, and figurative language are all types of genres or literary devices that don’t work if you interpret them literally; you must interpret them differently. As one Biblical scholar responded to a question of genre and interpretation: “We interpret the literal parts of the Bible literally.”

Figurative Interpretation and the Words of Jesus

A great example of when we cannot literally interpret the Bible is in the Gospel of John. In this book, the author records seven “I Am” statements by Jesus, in which Jesus uses metaphor to describe a characteristic or attribute he has. These statements—such as “I am the door” or “I am the bread”—have given cross-cultural missionaries and Bible translators fits, as they are difficult to accurately render in other cultures and languages. Often times, translators must resort to changing the metaphor into a simile—saying Jesus is like a door.

When we read Jesus saying he is a door, we instinctively know that this is a metaphor; we know we must interpret this statement figuratively. But this leads to a new challenge for the reader: In what way is Jesus like a door?  What are the characteristics of a door that Jesus is claiming as his own?

Over the next few Sundays at church we will be looking at these I Am statements, in order to see how Jesus uses them to describe himself. This Sunday we will look at John 10 and see how Jesus is the Good Shepherd.

  1. A practice started in 1899 as a marketing scheme.  

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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