Seriously, Not Literally

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The church’s big mistakes were failing to understand the relationship between science and the Bible, judging a scientific theory based upon a literal reading of Scripture, and believing that it was the church’s role to judge and approve or disapprove of scientific theories. To ask the Bible to function as a scientific textbook is to fundamentally misunderstand the intention of the Scriptures.
~Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, Adam Hamilton

This past Sunday, I spent some time in Revelation 21. Revelation is one of those books of the Bible that too many people just don’t understand. And this is, in large part, due to one of two reasons.

One, they think it is so difficult to understand that they never take the time to read it in the first place, which simply means they will continue to not understand it.

Or, two, they think it is an end times prophecy that is talking about the end of the world, which also means they will continue to not understand it.

Truthfully, Revelation is neither of these.

Revelation is not prophecy. It is not a roadmap laid out for us to figure out the end of the world. In fact, in Revelation 21, we discover that there isn’t going to be an end of the world. There is going to be a great redemption and transformation of the world.

Biblical prophecy is not the foretelling of the future. When we read the prophets, we see messages that tell the people what will happen if they continue down their current path. It is a call to repentance.

As far as literary genre goes, Revelation is something called apocalyptic literature. The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to provide comfort and reassurance for those facing difficult times that better things are coming.

Revelation is a vision that comes in the midst of the first century persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. It was written by someone who knew a bit about persecution. The Apostle John was exiled to the island of Patmos when this vision came to him. He was an old man by this point, who had seen a lot in his years. He was most likely the last of the original disciples of Jesus. But he had hope.

As I was doing some commentary reading to prepare for my message on Revelation 21, I came across one commentator who approached Revelation much more literally than it was intended to be. In doing so, this person missed out on a key part of the message. Because that’s what happens when we take the message literally.

I don’t believe all of the Bible is intended to be taken literally, but it is intended to be taken seriously. There is a difference.

For us to argue that all of the Bible is to be taken literally, then we have to reconcile with passages that are clearly allegorical. Things like the trees clapping their hands (Isaiah 55). Tree don’t have hands. Unless there are weird hand trees, which are only found in fantasy and horror novels. (Is that a thing? I don’t know; I may have just made it up. You get the point, though.)

Do you really think you should cut out your eyes because you saw a pretty woman/handsome man, and your mind drifted a little bit, or do you think that Jesus was maybe speaking hyperbolically there? Do you have an actual plank sticking out of your eye that needs to be removed?

No, we don’t take the entire Bible literally. But we do take it seriously. We try to discover what the key points are, and how we can apply them to our lives in practical ways. This includes things like literary genre, allegorical language, metaphors and hyperbole.

The sooner we move away from a dogmatic, literal reading of Scripture, the sooner we will be able to really understand what’s going on, and how it can profoundly affect our lives.

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