interpreting literature

HOW we understand a piece of literature is vital to understanding what that literature says. The Bible is a piece of literature like any other, in terms of it being a document written to convey a meaning. And that is what concerns us today.

[The fact that Christians claim divine inspiration for the Bible is another issue, and one which is addressed on a dedicated Page on this site].

When I approach any document I need first to understand it on its own terms. Whether I agree or like what someone has written can only truly be determined if I have first understood what they are attempting to convey.

That may sound obvious, but we live in times when people don’t understand what others say – they are happy with their own particular prejudice.

Personally I like to hear a person speaking live and direct on television or radio; I am not entirely happy with edited reports and comments which invariably reflect the predisposition of the reporter or commentator.

I like to hear the person themselves – all they have to say, and not just the highlights which an editor has selected and filtered according to their agenda.

Which brings  me to the particular passage for consideration this week. The first 14 verses of chapter 18 in Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament of the Bible. Jesus is talking about not leading children astray, and he makes some very striking remarks about those who do.

Woe unto the world because of offences. For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh. Wherefore, if thy hand or they foot offend thee, cut them off and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt [ie lame] or maimed rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. 

Jesus is speaking radically and seriously. And there are three key aspects of interpretation to understand.

Firstly, what is the subject of the passage and why is it written ? It is not written to tell people to start cutting off their limbs ! Cutting off limbs is a powerful image being used to illustrate just how serious offences are.

The offence is against children which believe in me ie Jesus. [verse 6]. And offences are then mentioned in terms of a person’s actions – touching, going places, seeing things. The implication from the overall context of having childlike faith in Jesus Christ, king in the kingdom of heaven, is this. That acting against the rule of the King, ie disobeying his commands has serious, eternal consequences.

If you act against God’s law, the penalty is hell fire. It’s that serious.

Which brings me to the more specific intention of what is being said. The image of limb cutting and the condition associated with that.

If you do something, then hell fire will follow. The offence is that serious ! In that case, it would be better to cut off the limb than burn in hell for eternity !

But the point is not to burn in hell for eternity, nor is it to cut off limbs. The point is to impress on the listener or reader, the fundamental gravity of the offence, and the terrible consequences which will follow.

So we have looked at the theme of the passage in question; and we have looked at a particular image in the text.

Now we must ask how this fits into the entire global context of Jesus teaching. How does this relate to all that he taught ?

What he taught clearly elsewhere, and why he had to come and die on a cross is because sin is in our very nature, in deepest inner being, and only Jesus can clean it up. 

My sin will not be expunged by cutting off my limbs ! My sin will not stop because of losing a physical limb. Because sin is in my heart and mind, not my body. My limbs merely do what my heart and mind direct them to do. And it is there that the problem resides.

Matthew 18 points us to a fundamental principle of Protestant hermeneutics. How does one passage fit with all the other passages in the Bible. The specific must fit in with the overall picture and interpretation. If it does not, then we have a problem.

Likely we end up with a pretext – an excuse to justify oneself.

A text taken out of context becomes a pretext !

Heresy and bad practice abound from the failure to observe this simple but essential principle of interpreting documentation.

Christian Preacher

for a scholastic appreciation, see also the 1982 Chicago Declaration on Biblical Hermeneutics in full at

By Christianity

The personal icon photograph shows God's creation, the world. It reminds us that God is the Creator of all - the almighty, the all knowing and all present - the one who is most important of all. The one to whom we owe all, and the one to whom we will answer for all. The site's header image of the Bible [King James Authorised Version], a map, a light and a compass represent to us that God's word in the Bible is our spiritual map, illumination and guide through this life. Those who obey his teaching will know his presence and power - Gospel of John, chapter 14, verse 23

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