Having made the case that our view of Jesus needs to be based on the reliably true Scriptural record, not the re-imaging of those who want to shape Jesus in the mold of our current cultural trend, I now must admit, it’s not always easy to understand Jesus.
Sometimes He said things that weren’t easy to understand—things Bible scholars still wrestle with. At other times, He said something, then apparently acted in a contradictory way. I think, for example, of Him telling His brothers He wasn’t going up to the feast (Passover?) one year. They headed out for Jerusalem, and some time later, Jesus followed. So . . . why did He say He wasn’t going? He didn’t sin, so I know He didn’t lie, but I can’t explain how it isn’t a lie, either.
Then there’s the “racist” remark equating the Syrophoenicians with dogs and all His oxymorons—the last shall be first, if you lose your life for my sake you’ll save it—and the inexplicable stories. You know, the one about the unjust judge, or the land manager who was dishonest.
I kind of chuckle when I read in Scripture the times that Jesus’s own disciples totally didn’t get what He was saying. I mean, they were having the same problem we have! They didn’t always understand what He was saying.
Take the account in the book of John about Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. At one point He announces to his disciples His decision to go into Judea to Lazarus’s home. His men express concern because the Jewish leaders had just tried to kill Him. Don’t turn around and go back, they say. He explains that nevertheless, He must go because Lazarus has fallen asleep.
Oh, the disciples say, then he’s already on the road to recovery. They were thinking literally, Lazarus was sleeping, but Jesus was speaking metaphorically, Lazarus had died.
They did that misunderstanding thing a lot. On a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus told them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The guys immediately started talking about how they’d forgotten to bring bread. They missed that Jesus was painting a word picture referring to the Jewish leaders’ teaching.
The disciples, like the others listening to Jesus, missed the point of some of His parables, too, and needed Him to spell things out later.
It’s easy today, having had the benefit of any number of sermons about Jesus raising Lazarus or about parables Jesus explained, to think that the disciples weren’t the quickest fish in the sea.
The fact is, however, any number of problems people have with the Bible come from trying to understand something literally that was written metaphorically, or trying to mythologize that which happened in fact.
Part of the problem comes from our static way of looking at the world. Things have “always been this way,” people will think, so of course when the Bible speaks about things being different, well, it must be speaking metaphorically.
Take the ages of the people in Genesis, for example. According to the Biblical genealogical record any number of people lived into their 800’s (yes, 800‘s). Poppycock, people will say. Everyone knows that’s not possible. Why, look at history (just not Biblical history), and you don’t see any record of people living beyond 120 or so. Therefore the Bible must be understood metaphorically in those places that talk about living to such old ages.
Notice the weak leg upon which that argument stands—people today don’t live that long, therefore no one ever lived that long.
In fact, the Bible itself records the change from long life to shorter and shorter and shorter, until the recorded life spans more nearly match ours. If the Bible was simply relating fictitious stories about imaginary people, why not have King David live for a thousand years or Joseph live long enough to lead Israel out of Egypt?
I don’t fault anyone for misunderstanding, though. After all, the disciples sat down with Jesus regularly, and they still got things wrong. I think perhaps the biggest blunder they made was hearing Jesus say He was going to Jerusalem to die and thinking He didn’t really mean it. Did they think that He was speaking in some kind of metaphor? It’s possible, given their history of misunderstanding what was literal and what was figurative.
All this to say, perhaps today we need to tread softly on some of the hard lines we take regarding Biblical things, in case perhaps the Bible is speaking metaphorically rather than literally . . . or literally rather than metaphorically.
I think particularly we should be cautious about the beginning of time and the end. In the first, no one was there, so we need to rely on what God says, and in the latter, it hasn’t happened yet, so we need to rely on what God says. But is He speaking literally or metaphorically or a little of both? Of course, some things are clear because the Bible interprets the Bible. Hence, when Jesus and Paul and the writer to the Hebrews refer to Adam and Eve or Jonah or Abraham or David, it’s clear they understood those Old Testament people to be historical individuals that did the things recorded about them in Scripture.
And still, I suspect one day Peter and the gang will have a full belly laugh at a good many of us for getting it wrong. Not as easy as you thought, I can hear them say, figuring out when Jesus was painting pictures and when He was telling it straight.
The body of this post first appeared here in an article with this same title in June 2011)