Should We Take Jesus Literally?


Who hasn't read something in the Bible and wondered, "Doesn't that contradict what Jesus said somewhere else?" It's also quite common for people to claim that Jesus is a liar based on what appears to be contradictions that Jesus makes throughout the first four books of the New Testament in the Bible, the Gospels. This brings up the question, are we supposed to read and take Jesus' words literally?


For believers, the danger in reaching conclusions solely based on what is said in the Gospels by Jesus is that we can believe false things and live based on them. It may sound super religious to say, "I only read the Bible", but I would argue it is irresponsible of us and perhaps even lazy for us to take this position in life. (Sorry if that was too forward. I say it out of love.). For the non-believer, the danger in rejecting belief in Jesus based on a literal interpretation of his words is that you may deceive yourself into thinking that you accurately understand what Jesus is communicating, and falsely accuse him of being a liar.


Let me drive this point a little further. Imagine if we lived this way. Actually, it would be dangerous if we took each other's words literally always and common sense tells us to get clarity, the background or context about what someone else said: the full story. We expect others to do this for the things that we say as well. I can say, "I'm starving" and I won't expect people to come to my rescue and deliver groceries at my door. We know that there are certain things we say that mean something else. Or if we walk into the room and heard something being said, before getting upset or worried, we ask for more information to evaluate how to understand and respond to what was said.


To help us understand our need for further studying what is between the lines of Jesus' words, here's a simple example found in Dr. Craig Keener's "The IVP Bible Background Commentary- New Testament", page 40:


"Jesus' words sometimes differ slightly from Gospel to Gospel. We expect such differences, because paraphrasing sayings in one's own words was a standard school exercise and a common writing technique in ancient times. (Those who conclude that different Gospel writers contradict each other because they quote Jesus differently are thus not paying attention to how works were written in antiquity.)"


Craig further goes on a little down that same page to say: "Jesus used many of the Palestinian Jewish techniques of his day, such as parables and hyperbole (rhetorical exaggeration), to make his points graphically. To grasp them the way his first hearers grasped them, his sayings must be read in this light and then understood in the context of the whole of his teachings."


He provides two Bible verses that at first sight would seem to contradict each other, but in actuality, they are teaching different things, giving us a fuller message overall: "He was also saying to them, 'You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother; and, 'The one who speaks evil of father or mother, is certainly to be put to death; but you say, 'If a person says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is, given to God), you no longer allow him to do anything for his father or his mother; thereby invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.'" (Mark 7:9-13)


"Jesus said, 'Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel's sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.'"


The first Bible verse speaks of loyalty to parents, while the second about the greater demands of the kingdom. These Bible verses can easily be taken literally by any critic, or a well-meaning confused believer, and used and understood wrongly. Let's not be so quick and harden our hearts to build an argument against Jesus simply for a lack of educating ourselves further about the times that Jesus lived in and how they spoke and explained things to their audiences. Craig continues by saying: "Parables must also be read the way Jesus' Jewish hearers would have understood them. They were illustrations meant to convey truth, but some of the details of most parables are included simply to make the story work, so we should be careful not to read too much into such details."


I'm sure this brings to mind many other Bible verses that you may have questions about, and I encourage you to look further into what the answers may be. Don't settle for objections made by critics that haven't studied in depth the topic. Seek truth. Study further. Let's follow Jesus as we seek to better understand his words.


This is the commentary I quoted from that I recommend: The IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament by Dr. Craig Keener