The Problem With Interpreting Jesus’ Words Literally

In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” John 3:3-4

You will look for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.” The Jews said to one another, “Where does this man intend to go that we cannot find him? Will he go where our people live scattered among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks? John 7:34-35

When we read through the gospel accounts it’s pretty clear that the major error both the Pharisees and the Disciples made was attempting to interpret what Jesus said literally. Jesus rarely spoke literally. He was almost always talking about a greater truth. An inner reality of the Spirit, and a heavenly reality of God’s love; however, he wrapped this message of these divine truths up in common words, stories and parables.

In today’s world, when people point to the Bible to prove their theological ideas and say, “Look! Jesus said it, right there!” they are quite possibly making the very mistake both the Pharisees and the Disciples made.

When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.” Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Matthew 16:5-9

Just because Jesus talked about yeast, that in a literal sense is used to make bread, doesn’t mean he was talking literally about bread. Just because Jesus talked about being put outside with gnashing of teeth doesn’t mean he was talking about some kind of eternal torture. Just because Jesus talked about eating his flesh doesn’t mean he is talking about cannibalism.

We have to look into his words for the deeper, more divine message he shared if we want to actually understand what he is really talking about. That requires both humility and time, because it will only be revealed to us in God’s timing, not ours. Sometimes, that means walking for months, years or even decades without a full arsenal of definite answers. This is also not a bad thing. We can embrace the part of our faith that is the great unknown to us. If we attempt to fill the holes in our understanding that God has not yet revealed to us (something the religious mind is determined to do) with our own ideas it only pushes us into longer-term problems. Like using a band-aid to cover a leak in a water pipe, those self-made patches will eventually break, sooner or later anyway.

When we feel it is our responsibility to have an answer to every theological doctrine we will only speed into a train wreck of bad theology. But we don’t have to have all the answers, because we are not called to be God, we are called to follow him. It is a journey. It is a forward movement with the Lord into all truth. That ‘into’ takes time. That’s OK. It’s called walking by faith.

Instead of trying to prove our theology is correct, or trying to expose someone else’s theology is wrong, it is in my opinion better to simply let your own heart have permission to ‘not’ know everything, and allow the Spirit in you the time, space and permission to walk you into all truth. It will take time, it will mean accepting you don’t have all the answers yet, but it’s worth it.