Interpreting the Bible

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I had a friend some time ago who loved to argue the Bible, and whenever we got to a certain point, he would say Well, the Bible says what it means and it means what it says. Of course, he usually fell back on that statement when his point was weak. And he didn’t really believe it—not the way he intended it to be taken—because he was kind of suggesting that when it suited him the Bible was to be taken literally, and when it didn’t suit him then it didn’t necessarily have to be. But in fact we all interpret the Bible as we read it, and that is exactly what God intends for us to do. Now I will admit it is not always that simple, but you are allowed to bring common sense to the table and ask yourself how Jesus intended us to take his meaning? I will give you an example.

I used to teach Bible in college, and I often enjoyed dropping a pop quiz on the students. One of my questions, which was related to the assignment that was to be read that particular day was Cite the scripture from today’s reading that shows Jesus did not always intend us to take him literally. Now, you don’t have the reading assignment they did. But if you have read the New Testament, can you think of something Jesus said that should easily demonstrate that he doesn’t always intend you to take him literally? Well, here’s the answer I was looking for from the class, and you might be surprised how many of them missed it, even though they had just read it, theoretically, in the past few days.

And if your right eye causes you to offend, pluck it out, and cast it from you: for it is better for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to offend, cut it off, and cast it from you: for it is better for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell.

Matthew 5:29–30 KJ2000

Now most sound-minded people reading that passage will know immediately that if my right hand does something wrong, it was not at the volition of the hand. My hand does not have its own brain. If you got caught shoplifting there’s no point in blaming your hand. Everybody knows that it was your brain that gave you the instructions and it is your head that should be cut off (but of course not). And here is a useful lesson to take with you: Anytime a passage of scripture seems to turn off into the absurd, it is figurative and not be taken literally. The absurdity illustrates it. Now, did Jesus say what he meant and did he mean what he said? Well, yes, but maybe he didn’t say what you thought he said.


Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart (1934–2016) — People around the world have come to appreciate his easy style, non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

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