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What Did Jesus Mean?


Certainly the young man meant well. And although the medical staff in the emergency room questioned his sanity, his commitment and sacrifice were undeniable. He arrived at the hospital with a bloody stump where his hand had been. In response to questions he explained that he was following the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, . . .”(Matt. 5:30).[1]

The man with the severed hand knew the words of Jesus. But did he know their meaning? Sincere Christians may be at risk today because they want to follow the teachings of Jesus but are confused about their intended meaning. What did Jesus mean when He said, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matt. 10:38)? What is the lesson behind His words, “Do not throw your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6)? Was Jesus offering Christians instant gratification when He said, “Ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7).

Some of Jesus’ words and teachings seem puzzling, at best, and nearly impossible for us to obey. Yet he came to reveal the truth (John 8:32). And we know that He wanted to be understood and followed. God gave us the Bible so that we would understand spiritual truth and apply it to our lives (Psalm 119:130, 1 Timothy 3:15).

The biblical writers clearly assumed that their readers would understand what they had written. This is the basis for the doctrine of “the clarity of Scripture.” Christians believe that “the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and willing to follow it.”[2]

Yet Peter himself acknowledged that there are some things in Scripture that are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). So how can we go about making those “hard” sayings more readily understandable? Here are some practical suggestions:

1.  Identify the problem. Is it textual, theological, ethical or practical? It is sometimes helpful to put the problem in the form of a question. For example, “Did Jesus endorse an attitude of self-depreciation when He announced, “Many who are first will be last” (Matthew 19:30). “Should we denigrate ourselves on earth to gain honor in heaven?”

2.  Carefully examine the text. Sometimes a problem can be resolved by a closer reading of the text, as in the case of the supposed execution of Achan’s children (Joshua 7:22-26). The Hebrew text indicates that they stoned Achan (“him”) and then apparently burned the stolen goods (“them”).

3. Compare Scripture with Scripture. Many difficulties can be resolved when we consider the clearer and more direct teachings of other biblical texts. Does God punish children for the sins of their parents? Reading Exodus 20:5 may lead to this conclusion unless you compare the statement in Jeremiah 31:29-30 where such a viewpoint is strongly refuted. Comparing the two texts suggests that Exodus 20:5 refers to the natural consequences of a parent’s sinful actions rather than divine punishment falling on children.

4. Consult the authorities. Often a commentary can assist in clarifying the problem and offering and reasonable solution. My book, Answers to Tough Questions is an example of the kind of resources available to help interpret the difficult teachings of Scripture.

5. Rely upon the Spirit. As believers, we rely upon the ministry of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the text (John 16:13, 1 John 2:27). Our reliance upon the Spirit is expressed through an attitude of love, obedience and submission. God’s Spirit will clarify God’s truth to those who are ready and willing to obey (John 14:23).

6. Select a solution. The best solutions are those that reflect a straightforward interpretation of the text. But don’t close your mind to further study. You never know when you will discover an additional insight that will shed new light on the “hard” saying.


[1]This story was reported several years ago in a local newscast without revealing the identity of the man involved or further details. 

[2]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 108.

Dr. J. Carl Laney is Professor of Biblical Literature at Western Seminary in Portland, OR. For more biblical resources by Dr. Laney, please visit www.carllaney.com.