Actual Question: Which parts of the New Testament scripture are we to take literally and which parts are to be considered applicable to Bible times only?
Great question. In order to gain a more complete understanding of where we as Christ followers should land on this question I think it’s important to first ask the question of “Why?” Why are we concerned with the answer to this question? I don’t intend to offend. I think this is a great question and is certainly worth investigating to ensure that we are as closely following in the steps of Jesus as possible.
But let’s pause for a heart check. Are we concerned with the answer to this question because there are portions of Scripture that make us uncomfortable and we’re secretly hoping these are the sections we don’t have to take literally? Is the asking of this question rooted in our attempts to not stick out too much in our schools, workplaces or neighborhoods?
Jesus Himself said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matthew 7:13-14 (NASB)
As we study Scripture we will surely come across countless passages that make us uncomfortable and push us onto the narrow path. If we’re asking these types of questions in an effort to widen the road, shame on us. We should examine Scripture at a deep level in an effort to continue developing as Christ followers but let’s be cautious and honest regarding our motivations.
With that out of the way let’s talk a few logistics. The New Testament is made up of 27 books broken into, by my count, 3 categories:
Even with a broader understanding of the breakdown of the New Testament and the various types of literature included we are still left wondering, “What should be taken literally and what should be considered applicable to “Bible times only”?
Let’s begin with the “History” section. The four Gospels and the book of Acts are written as history and as such, it is my belief that they should be taken literally. These are recordings of actual events that truly took place in the history of the world. Jesus was real and even though some of what is recorded seems difficult to believe (virgin birth, walking on water, healings, miracles, resurrection, etc.) I choose to take what’s recorded as literal. I have to ask myself the question, “Why would I not believe?”
Allow me to suggest a few reasons we may choose not to believe and take these passages literally:
They’re difficult to believe. It’s difficult to wrap my limited understanding of the way the world works around the God’s unlimited and all powerful knowledge of how the world, matter, space and time really work. We dismiss real-life miracles and seek “logical” ways to explain them because the alternative is that God is indeed supremely powerful and if He’s supremely powerful then that power could also extend over our lives and that makes those of us that are control freaks a little uncomfortable. We’re more comfortable going our own way so it’s easier to keep the power of Jesus to a minimum.
Secondly, perhaps we seek to dismiss the reality of the record of God’s Word because we struggle with how to explain it to those around us. We seek logical explanations to diffuse any potential awkwardness between ourselves and friends who just “don’t get it”. The thought of having to explain the “ins and outs” of walking on water or rising from the dead are a little over our spiritual heads so it becomes easier to chalk them up as symbolism or figurative language or perhaps stories that were made up to prove a point.
If I begin to pick and choose from this section as to what I believe and what I think is “not so real” the whole of the Gospel begins to unravel.
Next let’s tackle the “Letters” section. This is perhaps the section that this question centers around most. As we read through many of the letters, written by Paul or others, we run across passages dealing marriage/family, conflict, how to deal with enemies, neighbors, widows, orphans and a whole host of other topics that we struggle to correctly apply and wonder if we even need to apply. Here’s my take on this struggle.
Scriptures dealing with the Christians responsibility in relationships (marriage, forgiveness, conflict, etc.) should be taken literally. While these letters were written to specific people groups addressing specific struggles, God’s expectations on the lives of His children hasn’t changed. God honoring relationships then are God honoring relationships now.
Scriptures dealing with God’s expectation on the believer’s character (Fruits of the Spirit, godliness, moral living, etc) should be taken literally. Righteous living then is righteous living now.
Scriptures dealing with external customs, traditions, practices (women’s dress, jewelry, hair style, etc.) I believe can be applied today or as for their original audience only. In the vein of 1 Samuel 16:7 (NASB), “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Scripture makes clear that God is far less concerned with our outward appearance and much more focused on the condition of our hearts. I would suggest that those who would adopt a literal application of these types of verses are not any more intimately following Jesus than those who would not because of their dress, lack of jewelry or particular hairstyle.
I think you can also run these types of verses through another filter which is, “Do these types of external customs, traditions and practices enhance my personal relationship with Jesus Christ? If so, more power to you. Why would a believer not do something that created more intimacy with Jesus? However to add external customs, traditions and practices as essential to salvation would cross the line and cheapen the the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. In other words, if you feel like wearing certain outfits, keeping your hair a certain length or with a certain style or refusing to adorn yourself with jewelry brings you closer to Jesus, do it. But it’s not essential to salvation.
I have chosen to hone in on these three categories within the “Letters” section, with an awareness that many more could be defined.
Our final category is that of “Prophecy”. How does one go about deciphering what to do with and how to apply the book of Revelation? Is it for the modern reader? Is it all symbolism or are they bits of literal translation sprinkled in that the reader must learn to discern? If you read this far and were hoping for a definitive answer regarding Revelation allow me to let you down gently, “I’m not sure”. Here’s what I know:
The Scripture itself makes clear that all Scripture is profitable. 2 Timothy 3:16 (NASB) says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;…” So to dismiss any part of God’s Word as pointless or “not for me” would be wrong.
I’ll leave the debate of how that’s all going to go down to another time but suffice it to say, “The world is going to end.” Jesus is coming back to claim us as His own and put an end to Satan and death once and for all. Be ready.
Be encouraged and keep moving forward.
If you have a pulse then you have likely experienced some level of hopelessness in your life. Perhaps it’s your marriage that seems to be headed for a dead end. Perhaps your kids are completely out of control and seem lost to the saving work of Jesus Christ. Perhaps your relationship with your extended family is tenuous and seems like it will never bear any fruit. Perhaps you personally feel like you can’t be restored in God’s eyes. You’ve done too much. You’ve strayed too far.
Broken relationships seem to define our lives.
Internal hopelessness wells within you.
The continual lump in your throat reminds you that the end is near or worse, has already arrived. Hopelessness abounds.
One of the most appealing aspects of Scripture is that it offers hope. The sick are healed, the dead are raised, life is renewed, forgiveness is granted, relationships are restored. Situations that appear to be hopeless are suddenly flooded with a renewed hope. What was thought to be lost, is suddenly and inexplicably found. What was previously determined to be a dead end suddenly opens up to reveal a new beginning. The story of God sending Jesus to restore humanity is one of hope. Jesus’ miracles while He walked the earth are full of life giving, hope restoring acts.
I am reminded of the account recorded for us in Luke 7.
Luke 7:11-17 says, “Soon afterward Jesus went with his disciples to the village of Nain, and a large crowd followed him. A funeral procession was coming out as he approached the village gate. The young man who had died was a widow’s only son, and a large crowd from the village was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart overflowed with compassion. “Don’t cry!” he said. Then he walked over to the coffin and touched it, and the bearers stopped. “Young man,” he said, “I tell you, get up.” Then the dead boy sat up and began to talk! And Jesus gave him back to his mother. Great fear swept the crowd, and they praised God, saying, “A mighty prophet has risen among us,” and “God has visited his people today.” And the news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding countryside.”
Setting aside the obvious, there is something amazing that jumped out to me in this account.
"There is no such thing as a window of opportunity
when it comes to Jesus and His miracles."
This wasn’t Jesus swooping in at the last minute to save the day. This wasn’t Jesus coming to the rescue when hope had almost run out. This wasn’t a mother’s desperate plea for Jesus to save her long lost son at the last moment. This was already over. The deed was done. The funeral was underway. The processional had already assembled and they were headed to the burial grounds. Hope of another outcome had come and gone and the boy’s mother had already resigned to the fact that she would spend the rest of her days alone and perhaps unprotected.
From the outside looking in, the window of opportunity was closed. All hope for a miracle to occur had passed when her son breathed his last. Then comes Jesus. He steps on to the scene and filled with compassion He looks to the grieving mother and says, “Don’t cry”. Can you imagine her confusion. How could she be expected to not cry at a time like this? Was this man Jesus unaware of what was happening? Did He not realize that she was grieving?
Perhaps she assumed that His words were designed to encourage her. As in, “Don’t cry it’s going to be okay.” or “Don’t cry, you’ll get through this.” What followed next not only baffled the grieving mother but it terrified the crowd that had gathered as well.
“Young man, I tell you, get up.”
In an instant, Jesus snatched back what death had claimed. There is no window of opportunity when it comes to the power of Jesus and His miracles.
Think for a moment of that person or situation that you feel is lost. See that face, imagine that situation in your mind’s eye. Review the details of that broken relationship that you are convinced is over. Rehash that poor choice or series of poor choices in your own life that you are sure Jesus can’t forgive.
Say these words out loud: “Young man, I tell you, get up.”
When we see hopelessness, Jesus sees hope.
When we see a closed door, Jesus sees an open door.
When we see a dead end, Jesus sees a new beginning.
The window is wide open and Jesus is more than capable of performing a miracle in your life today. Be encouraged and keep moving forward.
Allow me to let you in on a few areas of my life that I often keep tucked away. From the outside looking in I am a fairly extroverted people person. I thrive in large crowds. When I choose to, I can easily make friends and conversation with complete strangers. I often come across confident in both my words and work. Fairly easily I can balance multiple projects, tasks, initiatives and people. What I post on social media and what many see as I stand in front of crowds are the highlights of carefully selected portions of my life that are chosen not to deceive but because sharing the difficult portions is...well difficult. It's tough to be transparent. It's tough to be vulnerable. It's not easy for anyone to let their guard down and admit what no one assumes could ever be possible. The reality is that I struggle on several fronts.
I live with a fear of the future. The future is unknown and I for one don't enjoy the unknown. I lost my father in January 2014 and while I knew prior to that date that death was inevitable for each of us, it was at that moment that the clock in my head began ticking...ticking towards the unknown future of the loss of every person I hold dear. That scares me. While I know in my heart what lies ahead for my loved ones that have a relationship with Jesus, it's still scary to think about navigating this life without them by my side.
I live with an increasing uneasiness of change. My sons, those two little boys that only yesterday were crawling all over me and longed for camp outs in the family room now both have jobs and commitments of their own. Many days each week my wife and I find ourselves at home alone. I know to parents of young ones that sounds amazing right? Don't get me wrong, it's fun but it's different. Things are changing. New faces are around our table and some of the old faces are gone. Sometimes I find myself longing for the old days when things were familiar.
I live with what at times feels like a rollercoaster of emotion. There are moments that I feel like I could conquer the world and then there are moments where I seem to lack all motivation. The "conquer the world" days way outnumber the "no motivation" days but those "no motivation" days can be scary and they seem to rear their ugly head at the most inconvenient of times.
As I've processed these feelings over the last several months I've come to some conclusions that I'd like to share with you in hopes that if there are some reading who also find themselves with similar thoughts you would know that you are not alone.
1. There is never a time when I am alone. God's Word makes it clear that He is with us in the midst of our struggle. Deuteronomy 31:6 says it on Bible Gateway like this, "Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” It's my belief that one of the devil's greatest tools is to make you and I believe that we are alone. There is no doubt that speaking up is tough to do. Admitting that you struggle in any area of life is difficult but in confession, one to another, we find healing. James 5:16 says, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much." You are not alone. God is with you. You are not the only one who struggles. I struggle too.
2. In the midst of my struggle I'm reminded that not only is God with me but perhaps He's trying to teach me something new. James 1:2-4 says, "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. " God's not finished with you yet. I'm reminded of the song we often sang as a kid growing up in church.
"He's still working on me to make me what I ought to be.
It took Him just a week to make the moon and stars,
The sun and the earth and Jupiter and Mars.
How loving and patient He must be, He's still working on me."
Perhaps the greatest tool at my disposal in the midst of struggle is to realize that my struggle is simply a stepping stone towards something greater.
3. Lastly I'm reminded that the devil doesn't want me to have success. He longs for me to fail at being a husband, father, brother, pastor, teacher, friend, community member, evangelist, neighbor and every other role I'm commissioned to be in the army of the Lord. The same is true for you. When you throw in the towel on what you've been created, called and commissioned to do, the devil wins and God's people suffer.
I invite you claim and speak the following truth over your life right now:
"Satan I rebuke you in the name of Jesus Christ.
I am a son (daughter) of God and with Him on my side I cannot be defeated.
I repeat, I CAN NOT BE DEFEATED!"
You can win. You will win when you allow yourself to remember that you're not alone. God is with you. I am with you. Lift your head and divert your gaze from the mountain in front of you and fix your eyes on the horizon of where God is taking you. Allow God to pick you up and dust you off. Gird yourself with the armor of God and run as fast as you can back into battle with the heavenly army flanking you on every side. Be encouraged and keep moving forward.
January 6th came and went without me posting the 6th memorial to my father who passed away on January 6, 2014. I have used every anniversary of his passing as a moment to not only honor him but to encourage others to think through the legacy they are leaving for their loved ones. I suppose it is fitting that this particular January 6th came and went without me posting, I was busy that day prepping and sharing at a local Christian High School for the start of their Spiritual Life Emphasis Week. Each day this week, I had the opportunity to speak to 250+ middle school and high school students about the importance of their relationship with Jesus Christ. I think that squarely falls into the category of things my father would have loved. It's my hope and prayer that for every January 6th I have left on this earth that I would find myself honoring not only my earthly father but my heavenly Father as well. Be encouraged and keep moving forward.
"As I reflected on the words that I would say in this moment, my mind was filled with the memories of a father who left me no shortage of stories to tell and examples to recall and to pattern my life after. I suppose I could tell some of those stories to you this afternoon and you would walk away with a better picture of who my dad was, but ultimately, the best way to understand who someone really is, is to observe the impact that he or she made on the lives of those around them and my dad impacted the people around him.
My dad was a big believer in discipline. Growing up in my house there were no timeouts or counting to three or questions like, “Was that a wise choice?”. You knew instantly when you did something wrong because you got whipped. And if the offense occurred while dad was at work mom simply said the words, “You just wait until your father gets home”. The day before dad passed away I saw one of those little cartoon blurbs on Facebook that said, “My parents spanked me as a child and I now suffer from a psychological condition known as ‘Respect for Others”. That summed up my dad’s philosophy on parenting. But respect for others wasn’t just something that he told us about, it was something he modeled for us. Dad treated everyone with respect and love.
Although my dad was a man of few words he modeled for his sons what a husband and a father looked like. He modeled for me a life of servanthood as he pampered and catered to my mom. He demonstrated what it meant to be a patient husband. Mom seldom did the dishes, she never shoveled or scraped snow from the sidewalks or car windshields. He always volunteered to clean the bathroom, take out the trash, sweep the carpet, dust the furniture, etc. My dad took care of my mom in every way possible. It’s that example that my wife will attest that I’m still working on but I believe that if I could treat my wife with even a fraction of the respect and love that my dad treated my mom with, I would be an amazing husband.
My dad modeled for me how to be a father. The attention that he paid to us as his sons, the countless school projects that he helped us squeeze out at the last minute, the time he spent showing us how to fix everything from A to Z. He modeled what it meant to not only pay attention to his kids but really focus on them and to pass along his knowledge to us.
The way that my dad treated his mother-in-law, my grandmother, was one of extreme patience. He demonstrated not only patience, but love and respect and dignity to the mother of his wife. Over the last week since dad’s passing, grandma has said on more than one occasion, “I loved him, he loved me and we loved each other.” That certainly summed up their relationship.
I want you to understand this afternoon that my father’s legacy will live on, it will live on in my life and in the lives of my brothers and our sons and daughters. But you also have an opportunity to carry on his legacy because ultimately my dad was patterning his life after the person and teachings of Jesus Christ.
His love and patience and faithfulness that have been highlighted here today are straight out of God’s Word, Paul says in Galatians,“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” That is my father’s legacy.
During the last few moments of my dad’s earthly life as mom, my brothers and I and are wives were gathered around his bedside he modeled one final act of faithfulness for us. He demonstrated for us how we’re to finish the race. He had been motionless for an hour or so and just moments before he took his last breath he simply raised his left hand straight into the air towards Heaven, lowered it back down and then fell asleep.
Church I believe with all my heart that at that moment he was beginning to see the face of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It was at that moment that he heard the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
As Christ followers we long to be "normal" don't we? We say differently when we're at church or gathered with our small group but our actions speak so much more loudly than our words. Deep in our hearts we long to be like everyone else and sometimes that longing rears its ugly head.
The people of Israel dealt with this same type of struggle as they attempted to figure out what it meant to be a nation of people.
1 Samuel 8:4-5 (NASB) says, “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah; and they said to him, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.”
Can you imagine? “Hey God, listen, thanks for the food, water, deliverance, guidance, safety, provision, the free land, the repeated victories in war, etc. But listen, we were talking and we’re thinking we need someone to be our leader.” That doesn’t even make sense. I mean, what were they thinking?
You know from the outside looking in it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. They’re a nation and nations have kings right? But from the inside, if you really knew the history, it was a much different story. I don’t think that the people of Israel doubted God’s leadership and provision in their lives. They knew God had provided for them. They knew God was their king, but they longed to be “normal” according to the world around them. If every other nation around them had an earthly king, then they wanted an earthly king, not because they didn’t feel taken care of but because that was the “normal” thing to do. They wanted to look like everyone else looked.
How about us? What do we secretly long for so that those around us would consider us "normal"? A certain title? A certain degree? A certain pay scale? A certain house in a certain neighborhood? Kids that attend a certain college? A certain gift mix?
As I page through Scripture I don't see "normal" by our standards. What I see are a wide diversity of imperfect people that God chooses to use for His glory. God doesn't call us to normalcy by the world's standards, He calls us to obedience by His standards. Be encouraged and keep moving forward.