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.