By Gary Amirault
There are over 22,000 thousand denominations of Christianity around the world. Apart from personal power plays which divide people into different groups, another other leading cause of division among Christians is the different ways people interpret the Bible.
How often have you heard a statement something similar to this: "Oh, you spiritualize everything!" or "You can't spiritualize that!" One person takes something literally and the other spiritualizes it and so the story goes . . .division.
But the problem is really much more complicated than the above division of "literal" and "spiritual." If we can be begin to see this, perhaps we can begin to see eye to eye on much more than we have in the past centuries.
We can't just put everything into two categories, literal and spiritual. This is the fundamentalist's approach. It is much too simplistic as the following examples will illustrate.
Question: The transfiguration of Jesus on the Mount, was it a real physical event or was it symbolic, or was it true spiritual reality, or even a combination of the three? (Matt.17:1-13, Mark 9:2-13, Luke 9:28-36) To many of you, this may sound like a stupid question, you would say it was a real physical event. But Jesus told the disciples not to tell the vision to anyone. Now is a vision a real physical literal event? If it isn't, then is it symbolic pointing to something else or is it true spiritual reality? Remember, that which is seen is made of those things which are not seen. The fact of the matter is that the vision of the Transfiguration can convey a literal truth, that being the passing away of the law and the prophets by the coming of the Son of God. Hear Him from now on! This is absolute truth, but it was conveyed through what the Bible called a vision. Those who like to literalize everything and generally find fault with those who look for spiritual meaning are not being true to the word of God. To get true meaning, one must go beyond dividing into "literal" and "spiritual."
The languages of the Bible use many communication techniques that, if taken literal, would totally destroy the true message of the Bible. The Bible contains parables, metaphors, symbols, hyperboles, similes, litotes, repetition, euphemism, apostrophe, anthropomorphism, metonymy, irony, allegory, fables, riddles, typology, synechoche, and I am sure I have not exhausted the list. The literalistic approach to translating and interpreting the Bible will destroy the meaning of the original authors.
The Hebrew language, in particular, is abundant with the above mentioned language expressions. When taking this into consideration, we will discover that we must allow for literal interpretation, allow for symbolism, and allow for the spiritualizing of both the literal and the symbolic! A symbolic vision can express a spiritual reality! A literal physical event can be a symbol of a spiritual reality!
Now the literalist cannot deal in this realm because the fact of the matter is that a literalist is not spiritual. Their literalism gives them away. The natural mind cannot receive the things of the spirit. In its prideful state, the natural mind thinks it is spiritual, but it is not. The plain bottom line is that fundamentalism is a carnal mind thinking it is spiritual. It is not! Plain and simple.
Those who try to literalize just about everything in the Bible will have a difficult time with many passages of scripture, especially in the Old Testament. Perhaps that is why it is so little read by most Christian denominations.
Jesus called the Transfiguration a vision. Peter had a vision of a bunch of animals on a blanket. Were there real animals on the blanket or were the animals symbols of something real, that is, the gentiles, which under his religion, Peter was not allowed to eat with.
Both are visions, according to the literal Word, but do literalists treat both in the same manner? I think not
Now obviously, there is much abuse in the non-literalist camp. There are just as many opportunities for error in the non-literalistic methodologies as in the literalistic approach. But the truth will ultimately be found when seen through the spirit rather than through the carnal literalistic mind. Should I translate "It is raining cats and dogs" into Chinese, the literalistic approach would never convey that what I am really saying is, "It is raining very heavily." The literalistic approach would automatically draw the conclusion that another miracle occurred. One would not be too quick to look for a figure of speech or symbolic language, while the spiritual mind would open the door for God to express Himself in a number of different ways. After all, He created all these ways of expression.
Let us take another example which I believe is very important for us to understand, especially at this time in history. This ties in nicely with the article entitled The Coming of Christ in 70 A.D..
Turn to the 24th chapter of Isaiah. Reading from the New King James it begins "Behold the LORD makes the earth empty and makes it waste, distorts its surface and scatters abroad its inhabitants. And it shall be; as with the people, so with the priest." In verse 4 he proceeds, "The earth mourns and fades away, the world languishes and fades away." In verse verse 5 he tells the reason why this is coming about, "The earth is also defiled under its inhabitants, because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant."
Now Isaiah was a Jewish prophet writing to the nation of Israel. One can do many things with a passage of scripture like this. Most eschatologists love to grab these kind of scriptures to describe their last days barbecue. The "literalists" take a Jewish writing to a Jewish nation and apply the writing to a gentile world living over 3000 years later. Is that really being "literal?"
The reason for all this coming upon the "earth" was because the inhabitants broke the "everlasting covenant." The Mosaic covenant was called an "everlasting covenant" in Leviticus 24:8 and other places. The Hebrew word "olam" was translated "everlasting" a poor translation which made certain passages in the New Testament look like they contradict passages in the Old Testament. Paul said this covenant was passing away in his day! (2 Cor. 3:7-14) Not too everlasting is it?
Getting back to Isaiah, this "earth" Isaiah was talking about "mourns and fades away" because someone broke this covenant. The literalist has to somehow keep the covenant "everlasting" because the King James Bible says so and he has to picture the literal world being destroyed.
Isaiah 51:6 says, "Lift up your eyes to the sky, then look to earth beneath; for the sky will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment, and its inhabitants will die in the like manner, but my salvation shall be forever, and my righteousness shall not wane." (NASB) The King James has "heavens" (plural) in the place of "sky."
Now if you carefully follow the rest of this, I believe you will be blessed immeasurably. Read this article through 3 or 4 times if you have to, but get an understanding of this, it will open your eyes to many passages of scripture that may have been closed to you.
Turn to Isaiah 51:16. The New American Standard Version brings out best what I want to point out: "And I have put My words in your mouth, and have covered you with the shadow of My hand, to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, 'You are My people.'" Here the LORD connected his given His word and protection with establishing heavens and earth. Are we talking real heavens in the universe and the physical planet called Earth, or are we talking about a covenantal structure that would establish rulers and systems of rulership (heavens) that would establish a people (earth) that would be at peace when the both components maintained their covenantal relationship with the LORD. The nation of Israel as God's mediators in the earth was established on Mount Sinai. This covenant put Israel in a unique position placing them between Him and the gentile nations-a second heavens, if you will. When God talks about heavens and earth being in distress, He is not always talking about physical elements, He is talking about authority and those under authority and their relationship. Often the disruption of these relationships are expressed in very graphic figurative language. Read all of Isaiah chapter 24 and ask yourself, can the moon ever be disgraced, can the sun be ashamed? In the book of Genesis, remember Joseph's dream about the sun, moon, and 11 stars bowing down to him. These stars were people!
Look at Jeremiah 4 the whole chapter but especially verses 19 through 28. Jeremiah is predicting the first destruction of Judah and Jerusalem. Listen to his apocalyptic language: "I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light..." (see Gen. 1:1) "The whole land shall be a desolation, yet I will not execute a complete destruction. For this earth shall mourn, and the heavens above be dark . . ." Mourning moons? Speaking of heavens, they are always dark in half the world every day!
In Isaiah, at the very beginning of this long book, Isaiah had a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem. "Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth . ." These heavens and earth have ears! Unfortunately, they did not hear very well. Sad to say the heavens and earth in the present day do not hear to well either.
When God speaks of rulership and governmental relationships He speaks in terms of "heavens and earth!" He is not talking about physical heavens going up in smoke, He said they would vanish like smoke. Anyone with a high school education should know this is a simile. The earth wearing out like a garment is equally a simile. Many literalists will usually yield that far, but they will not yield to the fact that the "heavens and earth" are metaphors. The word metaphor comes from the Greek and means "to carry from one thing to another. "My car is a lemon" is an example of a metaphor. "She is hot stuff." is another example. When a person needs final approval for something they have to "go to the top." This does not mean you have to climb a mountain. "Heavens and earth" in the language on God often refer to authoritative structures, governmental systems, covenantal relationships. In this kind of language, heavens that have no light are talking about rulership without understanding, or no authority, especially God approved authority.
When Peter talked about the heavens burning with fervent heat, he used the word "stoicheon" which was used in the Greek language as a word for principles, rudiments, systems of law. These were the heavens that were going to burn up! The priesthood, temple, Jerusalem, and Israel as representatives of Yahweh to the nations all came to an end. The temple was literally burned and literally torn down stone by stone, but this was but the symbol of what the Creator was doing spiritually. The old priesthood after the order of Levi was being replaced with the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek. A new heavens!
We are in a time of New Heavens and New earth already, if you care to believe it.
When we deal with a word like "heaven" especially when used in a vision or prophetic utterance, we cannot just take that word and apply it to the literal sky in what we think is the last day on physical earth.
Think for a moment. The churches in the book of Revelation were seen in John's Revelation as stars. Were they physical stars, symbolized as stars or were they spiritually stars, that is, the very reality of what a star represents symbolically. Jesus declares, "You are the light of the world." Don't trivialize this precious word! Christians so glibly quote scriptures like this without really thinking it through. Do you burn and give off light?
God manifested Himself to Israel as a pillar of fire. Was that really God? The scripture says "No man has seen God." Was it a symbol then? Well if it was a symbol, then it was also physical, but it wasn't spiritual reality. God was not that fire.
When the scriptures talk about God coming on clouds, in clouds, with clouds, an clothed with clouds, is there a difference? Are the clouds real, symbolic, or real spiritual clouds? A literalist would not differentiate. One who can quote large chunks of scripture and give chapter and verse is considered someone who knows the Bible. This kind of scripture learning is next to useless.
When coming to places like the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, a literalist will call the flames literal, the chasm literal, but their own literal interpretation falls apart when we come to Abraham's bosom. Somehow it is difficult to get us all on Abraham's lap. When you ask them why all the reference books call this passage a parable yet don't treat it like a parable, they become silent. When you ask why this parable was introduced by Jesus with a sentence dealing with divorce, they are silent. If taken literally, this parable says rich people go to fire and poor people go to Abraham's breasts. There is nothing here about grace, Christ's sacrifice, "everlasting" burnings, nor anything about being "born again."
The literalist approach will take portions of scripture that are clearly parables and take them literally, while at the same time take clear plain language such as, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all mankind unto myself" and say that it doesn't mean what it plainly says.
People, the Bible is full of parables, metaphors, symbols, hyperboles, etc. The carnal mind, (and I believe the majority of the traditional church system is carnal) cannot receive the things of the spirit for they are foolishness to them. When one constantly accuses others of "spiritualizing" scripture, they really give themselves away. The scriptures constantly declare that one needs to be spiritually minded to have understanding.
On the other hand, there are some who read a portion of scripture through their imagination and produce interpretations they call "spiritual." The power of imagination, while a useful tool, is not the same as receiving revelation. I won't go into some of the teachings I have come across in the Pentecostal Charismatic realms, but some of them are real "doozies," as my mother used to say.
True spiritual discernment and spiritual understanding does not by-pass the "reasonable mind." "Come let us reason together." While the intellect can never bring us into the spiritual realm, once the Holy Spirit opens that realm to us, the intellect is used to gain understanding of this new world. I am afraid much of the so-called "revelation" in the "Holy Spirit baptized" camps is nothing but vain imaginings twisting scriptures into a jungle of confusion just as fundamentalists chop up the unity of the scriptures, again, to their own destruction.
Languages use many methods of illustration which should not be taken literally. I mentioned many of them earlier in the article. The English language is full of these expressions. The Hebrew languages is also an extremely exaggerative, explosive kind of language. If brought into the English language literally, the true meaning will most definitely be lost. It takes great skill to bring the meaning through into English.
The Greek language is a very complex language which contains parts of speech not found in English. It also is a difficult language to bring into English. A person should always maintain an open mind, especially at the present time since our knowledge of these languages is greatly increasing.
In summary then, we must broaden our view of how to read scriptures. The method of dividing things into literal and symbolic will not give true understanding. We must gain understanding literally, symbolically, and spiritually. A past literal event can be a symbol pointing towards a spiritual event that will take place spiritually on the literal physical earth, for example. Our minds and heart must be open to allow the Spirit of Truth to teach us the language of our Father. Then we can begin to "rightly" divide the Word.