Many Christians say they believe that everything that is recorded in the Bible must be interpreted literally (i.e., exactly as stated). Many other Christians assert that intelligent reasoning and discernment are necessary to determine which statements in the Bible should be interpreted literally and which should be interpreted figuratively. Our discussion in this regard to this matter will focus on certain statements made by Jesus Christ. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible.]
Specifically, we will address the following matters:
- Did Christ teach that we should mutilate ourselves to keep from sinning?
- Do we actually eat Christ’s body and drink His blood when we take the Lord’s Supper?
- Does Christ really want us to hate members of our own family?
- Why did Christ refer to Himself as a door, a vine, etc.?
Did Christ Teach That We Should Mutilate Ourselves to Keep from Sinning?
In Matthew 5:29-30, Jesus Christ says,
[I]f your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. [Similar accounts are found in Matthew 18:8-9 and Mark 9:43, 45, 47.]
Interpretation of this passage should take into consideration the prior verse (i.e., Matthew 5:28), in which Jesus Christ declared, “I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Thus, Christ had just indicated that, if a person harbors a desire to do something that is wrong, rather than putting that desire out of their mind, it is the same as if he or she actually does what they are thinking about doing. It is a person’s improper attitude or impure thoughts (i.e., their mind), not their eyes or hands, thatis responsible for their sins.
Christ was trying to get His audience to comprehend the serious consequences of sin. For them to do so, they needed to understand that it would be better for them to lose an eye or a hand than to be condemned for eternity to hell. Apparently, Christ was confident that His listeners would be able to discern that He was using hyperbole (i.e., extravagant exaggeration) in this teaching. A study of all of Christ’s teachings and the teachings of the Old Testament makes it clear that Christ would not have advocated self-mutilation, for any reason.
Do We Actually Eat Christ’s Body and Drink His Blood When We Take the Lord’s Supper?
Mark 14:22-24 states,
And as they [Jesus Christ’s apostles] were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took the cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And He said to them, “This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many.” [Similar accounts are found in Luke 22:19-20 and John 6:53-56.]
A number of Christians (particularly, Roman Catholics) believe that when a Christian partakes of the Lord’s Supper he is literally eating Christ’s body and drinking His blood. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (sections 1374-1376),
In the . . . sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.”
It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament.
“[B]y the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has . . . called transubstantiation.”
But, should Christ’s statements that the bread is His body and the wine is His blood be interpreted literally? James G. McCarthy, a former Catholic, states on page 136 of his book entitled The Gospel According to Rome, says,
The disciples were accustomed to the Lord using figurative language in His teaching. On different occasions, Christ referred to His body as a temple (John 2:19), new life as living water (John 4:10), His disciples as salt (Matthew 5:13), and the Pharisees’ teaching as leaven (Matthew 16:6).
In other words, Christ often used metaphors. Webster’s Dictionary defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”
All empirical evidence (taste, smell, etc.) and our common sense tell us that when we are partaking of the Lord’s Supper, the substances we are consuming are bread and grape juice (or wine), not actual flesh and blood. The bread and grape juice (or wine) are only symbolic of the body and blood of Christ.
In this regard, McCarthy says on page 134 of his book,
“The Roman Catholic Church is undisturbed by all arguments against transubstantiation drawn from observation or common sense. This change, says the Church, is a supernatural phenomenon, part of the “mystery of the Eucharist.” . . . The faithful are expected to accept this explanation regardless of how “repugnant it may appear to the senses.”
But faith must rest upon divine revelation, and the alleged miraculous change explained by transubstantiation is not in the Bible. Neither is there a biblical precedent for a miracle in which God expects the faithful to believe that something supernatural has occurred when in fact all outward evidence indicates that nothing at all has occurred. God has never dealt with people in that way.
Does Christ Really Want Us to Hate Members of Our Own Family?
In Luke 14:26, Jesus Christ asserts, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.”
With regard to this biblical passage, John W. Haley, M.A., on page 286 of his book entitled Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, says, “The word ‘hate’ is sometimes used in the Bible in the sense of to love less.” And, he adds, “When the Hebrews compared a stronger affection with a weaker one, they call the first love, and the other hatred.” Haley goes on to say, “The very fact that, in [Luke 14:26], the man is spoken of as hating ‘his own life,’ indicates the figurative or relative sense in which the term is there employed.”
Allen Bowman, Ph.D., expresses a similar viewpoint. On page 139 of his book entitled Is the Bible True?, he notes that the word “hate” is used in a comparative sense. Thus, those who want to be disciples of Jesus Christ must love Him more than those nearest and dearest to them.
Why Did Christ Refer to Himself As a Door, a Vine, etc.?
John 10:7, 9 states, “Then Jesus said to them again, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. . . . I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.’”
And, John 15:1-2, 5 quotes Christ as saying, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. . . . I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”
In addition, the Gospel of John contains a number of other analogies that Jesus Christ made in reference to Himself, including the following:
- “I am the bread of life” (6:48)
- “I am the light of the world” (8:12)
- “I am the good shepherd” (10:11)
- “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25)
- “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6)
In this regard, McCarthy states on page 137 of his book,
All of these statements are meant to be understood in their figurative sense. . . . A study of Christ’s teaching . . . reveals several figures of speech. For example, Jesus referred to the new covenant figuratively, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood (1 Corinthians 11:25). The cup was obviously not the covenant itself but the symbol of the covenant.
Thus, in the passages in the Gospel of John that we have noted above, Christ was again using metaphors in His teaching. Support for the belief that Christ was speaking in figurative language in these passages is found in John 16:25a, which follows all of the previously-cited passages in John. In this verse, Christ says, “These things I have spoken to you in figurative language. . . .”
It light of the foregoing discussion, it is evident that some of the things that Jesus Christ said should be interpreted figuratively, not literally. The following criteria ought to be helpful in determining which statements made by Jesus should be interpreted literally and which should be interpreted figuratively:
- Read several widely-accepted Bible commentaries regarding the biblical passage in question. Your pastor should be able to provide you with the names of reliable commentaries and, perhaps, also provide the names of other helpful resources, such as textbooks that deal with passages whose meaning you are trying to understand.
- Determine if there are related passages of Scripture that help to explain the meaning of the biblical passage in question. Christ often explained the meaning of various things about which He previously had spoken, especially His parables.
- Humbly ask God to give you the ability to discern if the biblical passage in question should be interpreted literally or figuratively. James 1:5 states that God will give wisdom to those who ask Him for it.