Things to Consider When Studying Scripture

(In preparation, there are two other blog articles that it would be helpful to review before reading this article:  Which Authority? and Doctrine of the Bible – The What?)

The Bible should be allowed to speak for itself.  After all it claims to be God breathed as to source.  Either it is or it isn’t.  For those of us who believe it is God’s word, we must pay careful attention to what it says and how it says it.  We must not handle it deceitfully.

The Bible employs many literary devices such as similes, parables, allegories, hyperbole, metaphors, symbolism, etc.  The student of Scripture should be able to determine which device is being used, either by context, by direct statement or by grammatical rule.  To accurately interpret Scripture, the student of the Word must be aware of the use of these devices and honor their use.

Similes are indicated by the words like or as.  The Lord taught that to enter the kingdom we must humble ourselves and become like or as little children.  Interpreters of the passage in Matthew 18 often focus on little children entering the kingdom which is not the point  Christ said, you (the listeners) must become like or as little children to enter the kingdom, even as the little child which He set in their midst was humble and trusting.  This passage is about baby Christians.  They are the little ones.  In verse six Christ warns against offending one of these little ones (baby Christians) which believe in Him.[1]

A parable is a simple story illustrating a moral or religious lesson.[2]  It is generally used of………..a narrative drawn from nature or human circumstances, the object of which is to set forth a spiritual lesson.  It is the lesson that is of value; the hearer must catch the analogy if he is to be instructed.  Such a narrative or saying, dealing with earthly things with a spiritual meaning, is distinct from a fable, which attributes to things what does not belong to them in nature.[3]

Parables are recognizable in Scripture because they are not specific as to proper names and places.  They are a simple story given to illustrate a lesson.  A parable would say a man did thus and so.  A literal historical account would say a certain man did thus and so, and give his name and/or a specific location.

Jesus explains the meaning of His parables to His followers after presenting each parable.  He taught with parables to hide the truth from those who would not believe.[4]  It was an act of mercy for Christ to teach with parables, because the unbelieving are held accountable for the truth they reject.

In an allegory, facts stated are applied to illustrate principles.  The allegorical meaning does not do away with the literal meaning of the narrative.  There may be more than one allegorical meaning though, of course, only one literal meaning.  Scripture histories represent or embody spiritual principles, and these are ascertained not by the play of the imagination, but by the rightful doctrines of Scripture.[5]  Scripture tells us on more than one occasion that the historical event described is indeed an allegory.  See the accounts of Abraham’s two sons in Galatians 4:22-31.

Hyperbole is defined as an exaggeration or extravagant statement used as a figure of speech: for example; “I could sleep for a year” or “this book weighs a ton”.  Hyperbole from the Greek means excess.[6]

 Matthew 5:29&30 is an example of hyperbole; if thy right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; if thy right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you.  These are statements not intended to be taken literally, but to graphically warn of the horror of hell.

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing is spoken of as if it were another (the curtain of night).[7]. Night is not actually a curtain but it shuts out the light of day as a drawn curtain.  Metaphor from the Greek means transfer.[8]

The Bible contains metaphors.  Christ is the subject of many of them.  He is called the Lamb of God, the Light of the World, the True Vine, the Door, the Bread of Life, Our Passover, the Alpha and the Omega, along with many others to illustrate who and what He is to us.  The Lord Jesus called His followers “salt” and He called Herod “that fox”.  At the Last Supper He called the bread His body and the cup His blood.  These descriptions are metaphors or figures of speech in which one thing is spoken of as if it were another.

Some in professing Christianity would object to calling the elements of the Last Supper metaphorical.  They would refer to John 6:53 & 54 where Christ told the Jews; “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.  Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life.”  We must remember that the entire context must be considered to determine exactly what He meant.

The Lord’s disciples heard Him and said among themselves; “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?”  Jesus knew their thoughts and He asked; “Does this offend you?”  Yes, they were offended!  What He said troubled them because eating human flesh is only mentioned in Scripture in relation to God’s judgment.  However, we cannot stop here and reach conclusions that are inconsistent with the rest of Scripture.  We must continue reading because in verse 63 Jesus explained the meaning to His disciples; It is the Spirit that quickeneth (makes alive); the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.[8]

While believers take the Scriptures literally, it is not commendable or being spiritual to take something literally in the Bible that is meant to be metaphorical or symbolic.

Is Jesus literally a candle or lamp?  No! He is not, but He is light to those who sit in darkness!  Is He literally a door?  No! He is not,  but He is our only access to the Father!   ls He literally a four legged animal (a lamb)?  No!  He is not, but He is the substitutionary sacrifice that paid the penalty of our sin once for all to the satisfaction of the Father!  Is He literally the Greek letters, Alpha and Omega?  No!  He is not, but He is the beginning (our Creator) and the end (our Judge)!  Is He literal bread?  No, He is not, but He is the sustainer of life, both physical and spiritual!  

We have just discussed the Last Supper in reference to metaphors, in which the bread represents Christ’s body and the cup represents His blood.  The metaphors of the Last Supper also fit well under the definition of things that are symbolic.

Symbolic refers to something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention (agreement); especially a material object used to represent something invisible.[9]

Water baptism is symbolic, however it is ironic that most of those who believe that water baptism regenerates (saves the soul), abandon it’s symbolism by using the mode of sprinkling instead of immersing.  The primary meaning of the word baptize is to dip or immerse.  Those believers who are immersed in water are buried in the likeness of His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection.[10]

Caution must be exercised however, concerning symbolism.  Some are quick to make all of Scripture symbolic.  How are we to determine whether or not an account in Scripture is historical or symbolic?

A starting point would be to see if any of the literary devices defined above[11] are employed in or around the account in question.  If so, we must give consideration as to how those devices affect the account.  Is it an allegory, a parable, or metaphor?

One should always consider what Christ has to say about the passage in question.  Many Old Testament accounts that are often pronounced symbolic are actually referred to by the Lord as historical accounts.[12]  Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Flood with Noah and the Ark, and Jonah swallowed by a great fish are accounts that are often spiritualized and treated as symbolic.  These are accounts that the Lord Jesus acknowledged as historical events.  Funny that the words of Messiah Jesus can be so readily overlooked or dismissed, considering that He is God and that God cannot lie.

If it is not clear whether or not the account in question is one or the other, we must take it literally unless it can be proven otherwise.  God is the author of Scripture.  God chose every word, down to the last jot and tittle.  He breathed it out.  Ask Him to show you the meaning and continue to study the Bible patiently and with a submissive spirit.

There is only one correct interpretation of Scripture, but many applications.   We cannot apply the Scripture properly if we do not get the meaning right.  The correct interpretation is not up to a vote or a consensus of opinion.  What we think it says is not important.   We must find out honestly what God meant by what He said and obey it if we are believers.  And while we do that, we must stay within the boundaries established by sound doctrine. [13]

…let the word of Christ dwell (take up its life) in you richly…

……the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14).

[1] Matthew 18:1-10

[2,6,8&9] American Heritage Dictionary – copyright 1969, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1975 by American Heritage Publishing Co., NY, NY.

[3&5]  W.E. Vines Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Copyright 1984, 1996, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, TN, pgs 457 & 22 respectively.

[4] Matthew 13:10-17

[7] Websters New World Dictionary – copyright 1976, 1979 by Simon & Schuster.

[8] See Ephesians 5:25-26 & I Peter 1:23-25

[10] See blog article – “Baptism is for Believers”

[11] The listings given above for literary devices are by no means exhaustive.  The devices listed are the most common and are intended to provide boundaries/guidelines for studying Scripture.

 [12] See blog article – “Doctrine of the Bible – The What?”

[13] See blog article – “My Doctrinal Statement”.

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