I am a new Christian reading the Bible for the first time. I feel like a whole new world has opened up before me. A friend suggested that it would be good for me to read the New Testament from beginning to end. I am finding some of the commands of Jesus hard to swallow. Like in Matthew 18:8-9 where Jesus says to cut off a hand or a foot or poke out an eye and throw it away if it causes me to sin. I’ve asked some of my friends for help and no one really seems to know what to do with this command. Did Jesus really mean what He said? Is something else going on here?
Sincerely, New Christian
Dear New Christian,
No, Jesus didn’t mean for us to take His words literally. He used a literary device here known as a “hyperbole.” Hyperboles use exaggeration to evoke strong feelings or to engender make a strong impression. For example, today we might say, “That bag weighs a ton.” We all know that the bag doesn’t literally weigh 2,000 pounds. What we do know is that it is really heavy!
By the way, from the number and wide variety of the literary devices employed by Jesus, there is no doubt that He was familiar with them and their use. Every language uses literary devices to make common language more powerful and clear.
When we read the Matthew 18:8-9 passage with hyperboles in mind we easily understand the meaning Christ intended to convey:
If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
The issue here is not cutting off body parts. Jesus was saying, “Sin is really, really bad and awful. If you are not careful, it can send you to Hell—So Don’t Do It!”
Matthew 7:3-5 is another example of Jesus utilizing hyperbole to make His point: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye ,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye , and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Anyone can get sawdust in their eyes. But a giant plank just won’t fit! This is a hyperbole.
Let me give you a couple of other examples of Jesus’ use of literality devices to more emphatically enhance the power of His Words.
He made many comparisons using similes and metaphors. Both devices make comparisons between two things. A simile makes the comparison using the words, “like,” or “as.” A metaphor makes a comparison without the use of “like,” or “as.” For example: “Her eyes were like glistening jewels” is a simile. “Her eyes were glistening jewels” is a metaphor.
In John 10:9 Jesus declared, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” This statement is a metaphor. Jesus is not made out of wood. But the message is clear. Salvation is only found through entering into Kingdom life with Jesus.
In Matthew 13:44 Jesus declared: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” The use of “like” identifies this comparison as a simile.
Occasionally, Jesus used a literary device which was common in His day but seldom if ever used in our day. It is called a “Chiasm” after the Greek letter “Chi” which we translate as “X”. In fact the Greek letter “X” looks like an “X”. It is a double cross.
For example, Jesus taught: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6).
This passage is incomprehensible without understanding Chiasms. This is Hebrew poetical structure has a rhyme scheme of ABBA whereby the first and fourth and second and third phrases rhyme (or go together). The first phrase, “Do not give dogs what is sacred” goes with the last phrase, “and then turn and tear you to pieces.” The second phrase, “Do not throw your pearls to pigs” goes with the third phrase, “If you do, they may trample them under their feet.” As a chiasm this teaching now can make sense. Be careful how you handle truth in the presence of mockers.
Mark used an onomatopoeia to try and capture Jesus’ feelings of deep compassion when the Rich Young Ruler turned his back and walked away. Mark wrote in Mark 10:21: “Jesus looked at him and loved him…”
The Greek word chosen by Mark is not the usual word for love (“agape” or “philos”). When pronounced in Greek, “eegápeesen”, sounds much like what we might imagine deep groaning and perhaps even deep pain in our intestines to sound like. Jesus had the deepest sense of compassion possible for this young man who broke His heart just a few minutes later.
An onomatopoeia is using a word that sounds like the word itself. Think of words like “zip,” “splash,” “gush,”” Ker plunk,” “buzz,” “hiss,” squeak,” and “hush.” Onomatopoeia brings out the full flavor of words.
Personification is a device which attributes human characteristics to inanimate objects. Jesus utilized personification when the crowds cheered His triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out’” (Luke 19:39-40). Of course, Jesus may not have intended this statement as a literary device at all. The rocks would have cried out if Jesus had so commanded.
Let me give you just one more example. Symbolism is using one object to stand for something else or to mean something else.
Jesus used symbolism in John 3:14-15when He referred to the Old Testament story of Moses and the bronze serpent. He said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” During the wilderness wanderings a plague of poisonous snakes over ran the Israelite camp mercilessly killing thousands. God was punishing them for their sin of ingratitude. Those unfortunate enough to be bitten died. No antidote existed. The people pleaded with Moses for relief. God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole for all to see. Whoever looked at the uplifted snake would be saved. Jesus was referring to this passage and identifying the serpent as a symbol of Himself. The snake poison is a symbol of sin. As the serpent was uplifted on a cross so Jesus will be lifted up on a cross to die. Any one may look to the uplifted Christ in faith and belief and immediately experience the healing remedy necessary to neutralize the poison of sin coursing through their lives.
I have no intention of overwhelming you with the above material, New Christian. I shared enough material to help you better understand the teachings of the Bible verses. You have a life time ahead of discovering the beauties of the Scriptures.
My advice to you is not to become frustrated or overwhelmed by the passages you may not understand just now. Refuse to be deterred in your reading when you come across something that doesn’t yet make sense to you.
Mark Twain said, “It’s not what I don’t understand about the Bible that bothers me, but what I do understand.” Enjoy you reading and may the Holy Spirit (who inspired the people who wrote the Bible) give you great insight and understanding as you seek out the truths and principles of God’s Word. May you get to know the loving and eternal God more and more as you meet with Him on the pages of the Bible