What if I were to say that we should not read the Bible literally? How would you react? What would you say to me? I would hope you’d immediately be on alarm and asking some probing questions. If I was indeed saying we don’t have to read the Bible literally—taking it at face-value, seeking to receive what it says as true, good, and authoritative—from there you should see to it to have me removed from being a pastor!
On the other hand, if I meant that we should not read the Bible literally when the context of a specific passage demands a figurative reading, hopefully then you’d say, “Ok, I get it. Yes, that’s right.” After all, if the person writing or speaking in the Bible wrote or spoke using a metaphor, they’d scratch their head if we took it literally.
Let me give an example: In John chapter 10:9, Jesus says, “I am the door.” Is Jesus a door literally or figuratively? The context makes clear that what he means is that he is the entrance point for His sheep (another metaphor referring to His people) to enter His pasture (another metaphor for salvation). Jesus was not literally a door anymore than he was literally a shepherd or Christ’s followers are literally sheep. We may act like sheep, Jesus may have characteristics like a good shepherd, but that’s the extent of it.
Another example (with far reaching-implications) comes from the famous “bread of life” discourse found in John chapter six. In this provocative encounter with some grumbling Jews, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” It is the context of this passage that I would like to explore in detail, with the concept of literal vs. figurative reading in mind.
Could Jesus literally have meant that his “flesh” is the bread that we must eat to live forever? Really? What are you saying, Jesus? The Jews who heard Him at the time got hung up on this statement and could not get over it. Why? Because they took Jesus’ words literally. They said, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” The question is: shall we take it this way? Let’s think about what happens if we do, because the Catholic Church has. They use this passage to justify their view that the Lord’s supper literally transforms the physical bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. And in addition to John six, they also look to what Jesus said as recorded in the gospels and 1 Corinthians 11, “This ismy body broken for you.”
But again, is that what Jesus is intending? Was He to be literally eaten? Absolutely not. The whole context of John six has to do with believing in Jesus. As He called Himself the bread of life, Jesus also said this, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (6:35).
The issue at hand for Jesus is if these people (and you and I, for that matter) will find their spiritual satisfaction in Him. He is the provision from God to meet their need for salvation. The bread was a metaphor which was to take them beyond their stomach to their soul.
Recently I preached out of 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul quotes Jesus, saying, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” When the disciples who were there that night heard Jesus say this, would they have taken “this is my body” as a literal statement? I don’t see how they could have. Of course with what happened the next day, they would have clearly seen that what “this is my body” actually meant was something along the lines of “This bread will serve as a reminder of what I’m about to have happen to me on the cross. I will suffer the wrath of God in this body. I will be broken. I will shed my blood to earn your salvation.”
As Christians today, this is what we must continually “nourish” our souls on (and I mean that figuratively, don’t I?). It’s Christ’s work on the cross which provided our right standing with God. Without this provision, we would be like a man on a boat in the middle of an ocean who’s just run out of food—hopeless. But since we have this “bread of life” we have a rich feast that will satisfy us for all eternity. Praise the Lord!
I say again that we must read the Bible literally… but this doesn’t mean that we do so blind to the context of what we read. As we have seen, our salvation is not found in eating literal bread, but in the person and work of Jesus Christ, to whom the bread points us. Let us “eat” of Him and be satisfied.
” Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” ~Isaiah 55:1-2