Hard Sayings in the Bible
One of the Savior’s notable miracles was the feeding of a large crowd (more than five thousand people) by the miraculous multiplication of only five small loaves and two tiny fish (cf. John 6:1-14). On the following day, after Jesus had adjourned to the western side of the Sea of Galilee, the masses pursued him, seeking additional food to satisfy their appetites.
The Lord knew they needed more than physical food, hence, he gave a discourse on the “bread of life” (6:35). During that presentation, Christ declared that eating his flesh and drinking his blood was requisite to the reception of eternal life (6:53-56). Due to the fact that many did not understand the symbolic nature of the instruction, some exclaimed, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” (6:60).
Are there hard sayings in the Bible? Indeed there are, and it is a challenge to explore them.
The hard sayings of the Scriptures fall into two general categories.
First, there are those passages which, for a variety of reasons, are simply difficult to understand. In one of his epistles, Peter declared that “our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood” (2 Peter 3:15, 16).
Second, there are contexts which are relatively easy to comprehend; however, they are hard in the sense that they go against the human grain in some fashion. Or, they make demands upon us which we find difficult to accept.
The writer of the book of Hebrews alludes to such matters when he chastises his readers by suggesting that there are many issues which he would like to address, but he refrained from doing so because the recipients of his letter would find them “hard of interpretation” (5:11, ASV). They had become dull of hearing and had not matured spiritually as they should have. After years in the kingdom, they still were babes. Let us consider each of these areas in somewhat greater detail.
Sayings Hard to Understand
It is obvious that some portions of the Scriptures are more difficult to understand than others. In Mark 16:16, Jesus said, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Surely that passage is easier to fathom than is Revelation 13:18: “Here is wisdom, he that hath understanding, let him count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man: and his number is six hundred and sixty and six.”
Why are some contexts easier to apprehend than others? There are several factors which may explain the differences. Let us study several examples which illustrate these points.
Some biblical passages are harder of interpretation due to the fact that they are couched in cultural idioms which are foreign to modern methods of expression. It is imperative that we realize that though the message of the Scriptures is ultimately divine truth, the Holy Spirit guided the inspired authors of Holy Writ to employ linguistical devices appropriate to the historical setting and culture in which they lived. If we would extract the meaning from certain sacred texts, we must familiarize ourselves with those antique modes of communication.
Note this example: when the beggar Lazarus died, his spirit was carried away by the angels into “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). Truly, this text is made hard by the reference to Lazarus residing in “Abraham’s bosom.”
What is the significance of the expression? Well, it is a Hebrew idiom. A shepherd might carry a lamb “in his bosom,” suggesting a sense of safety (Isaiah 40:11). Jesus was “in the bosom” of God, indicating the Lord’s intimate relationship with his Father (John 1:18). At the last supper, the apostle John reclined “in Jesus’ bosom,” which represented a place of great honor (John 13:23).
With these background passages in view, Luke 16:22 becomes much clearer. When Lazarus died, his spirit was ushered into a place of protection, intimacy, and honor. A hard passage becomes simpler when one understands the language motif employed.
A context may be difficult as a result of something lost in the translation of the original language into a modern tongue. The Bible was initially composed in three languages—Hebrew and Aramaic (the Old Testament) and Greek (the New Testament). As hard as translators try to bring the meaning of the original into our modern vernacular, sometimes nuances of meaning are lost in the transition.
Here is a good example: John the Baptizer and Jesus were kinsmen. Accordingly, John must have known something of the divine identity of Christ from his earliest days. John declared to the Jews who heard his preaching that the coming one was mightier than he; indeed, the baptizer claimed that he was unworthy to bear the sandals of the Lord (Matthew 3:11). When Jesus came to the Jordan to be immersed of John, that rugged preacher confessed his unworthiness to perform the deed (3:13, 14).
In view of the esteem in which John held Jesus, how does one explain the baptizer’s statements (recorded in John 1:31, 33), wherein he says of Christ (as the Savior approached him for immersion), “I knew him not”? This appears to be in direct conflict with the passages cited from Matthew’s account.
The solution lies, I believe, in understanding the meaning of the Greek term translated “knew” in John’s account. The Greek Testament has several words which express, in some form or another, the concept of knowing. The term
ginosko, for example, denoted to “know by experience,” whereas another word,
oida, suggested the idea of “knowing intuitively, absolutely.” It is
oida that is used in John 1:31, 33.
Though the baptizer had known (by reputation, etc.) for many years that Jesus was chosen of God, it was only after the miraculous manifestation at the baptismal scene that John had the full, absolute knowledge that Jesus was the Messiah (cf. Wuest 1946, 75, 76). Thus, a saying that is hard, as it appears in the English version, is cleared up by an appreciation for what the Greek text actually indicates.
Literal versus Figurative
Some passages appear hard because they are viewed in a crassly literalistic way, when actually they are highly symbolic. Take, for instance, the verse alluded to earlier from John 6, where the Lord announced, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” The statement almost seems to sanction cannibalism, and yet we know this could not be the case. How shall we interpret Christ’s teaching in this instance?
We must remember that any meaning placed upon a text, which would force it to imply an absurdity or which would suggest a conflict with other clear instruction, is wrong. In this case, the language must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. The Lord cannot be suggesting that disciples actually eat his flesh and drink his blood, for the following reasons:
- The participles are present tense forms, literally rendered: “He who is eating [and continues to eat] my flesh and who is drinking [continues to drink] my blood has eternal life.” Surely no one will contend that there were those present on that occasion who were literally in the process of gnawing on the Lord’s flesh and sucking out his blood! The language is clearly symbolic.
- Elsewhere the New Testament forbids the drinking of blood (Acts 15:20, 29).
- The context of John 6, along with related material, makes it clear that Christ was talking about the reception of his teaching, not the actual consumption of his flesh and blood (see 6:63; cf. 6:56 with 1 John 3:24). A proper view of the nature of the language in John 6, therefore, removes the seeming hardness from Jesus’ teaching.
Sayings Hard to Receive
As we mentioned earlier, there are some biblical statements that are easy enough to understand, they are just hard to take! Material of this sort is difficult to digest for a variety of reasons. As sinful human beings, we do not appreciate the plane of perfection upon which God operates; hence, from our jaundiced position, we misjudge the Creator. We feel that a good God ought to act fairly (cf. Genesis 18:25), and sometimes it appears that he does not. Due to our limited knowledge and wisdom, we do not fathom what Jehovah is doing in his world. Men sometimes feel that his methods are harsh. In reality, if we knew the entire story, our viewpoint would be radically different. Let us look as some examples.
The Destruction of the Canaanites
When the Israelites entered Canaan, they were to utterly destroy those heathen cities, including the women and children (Numbers 21:2, 3; Joshua 6:21). To many, this seems excessively cruel. It is hard to take. Perhaps, though, the following factors will help to focus the matter with a clearer perspective.
- The destruction of the pagan tribes of Canaan must be viewed in light of their utter abandonment of moral restraint. They practiced child sacrifice, sodomy, religious prostitution, etc. They became unfit to live (see Jackson 1982, 57ff).
- Their punishment had not been rendered impetuously. Jehovah had been patient with them for centuries; finally, however, their cup of iniquity ran over (Gen. 15:16), and the time for judgment came.
- This type of destruction was implemented on a rather limited basis—principally upon the tribes within Palestine. This was in view of the fact that God chose Canaan as the place where the Hebrew nation was to be cultivated. And this, of course, related to the coming of the Messiah, the Savior of the world (cf. Jackson 1998, 1). It was an example of moral surgery for the ultimate benefit of all mankind.
- It is still true, though, that these Old Testament narratives illustrate the fact that innocent people frequently have to suffer the consequences of evil acts which others perpetrate, due to the kind of world in which we live. This should motivate us to desire a better state wherein wickedness does not exist.
Yes, these examples of divine justice are hard sayings, but not beyond our ability to appreciate. Certainly they should not present a faith problem.
The Marriage Law of Christ
When certain Pharisees sought to test Christ by inquiring concerning divorce privileges (which were rather relaxed under the Mosaic system), Jesus got their immediate attention by affirming that anyone who divorced his or her companion, unless the divorce was upon the basis of fornication, and then remarried, was living in a state of adultery (Matthew 19:9; cf. 5:32).
Some of the Lord’s disciples were stunned by the strictness of the declaration; they reflected that if such was the case, i.e., if the marriage relationship under the new covenant was going to be that tight, it would be better to remain single. Jesus acknowledged that it was a hard saying: “Not all men can receive this saying, but they to whom it is given” (19:11).
Christ seems to be suggesting that the responsibilities of marital life are demanding, and that if one feels that he cannot accept them, let him or her
remain celibate (so the word “eunuch” symbolizes in verse twelve).
Why is God’s marital law so rigorous? Why can’t men and women drift in and out of multiple marriages as they desire? It is a failure to understand the basis of marriage that makes the Lord’s teaching seem so difficult. Think about this:
- Marriage is the most intimate of all human relationships. Because of this, an atmosphere is created which accommodates emotional vulnerability. When marital unions are treated casually, the victims of psychological trauma become numerous.
- Children have the right to grow up in a stable family relationship; they do not need to be shuttled from one home environment to another. A strict marriage code is doubtless designed to protect our little ones.
- The family relationship is the cement that contributes to the cohesiveness of society. In this connection, it helps to create the kind of tranquil atmosphere which facilitates the propagation of the gospel of Christ. A firm marriage law is a significant contributor to heaven’s redemptive plan!
When one reflects upon several matters of this nature, it is not so difficult to perceive why the Lord gave a marriage regulation which initially appears hard, but which, upon closer examination, really makes sense!
Few Will Be Saved
In light of the biblical emphasis upon the universal love of God, several passages which suggest that only a limited number will be saved appear to be rather harsh. Many will seek to enter but will not be able (Luke 13:24). Few there be that find the way unto life (Matthew 7:14). We must remember, however, that the terms employed in these passages are relative, and they do not tell the entire story. The following facts give a more balanced picture.
- The entire human race of spiritually accountable people has sinned (Romans 3:23), hence, is under just condemnation (3:19).
- The whole of sinful humanity deserves to be forever lost; it is only because of God’s grace that any are saved (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
- In spite of the fact that man does not merit redemption, Christ came and died that all (potentially) might be saved (1 Timothy 2:4, 5); and all who will may enjoy eternal life (John 5:40; Revelation 22:17).
- The truth is, there are many who simply do not want communion with God (Luke 19:14; John 6:66), and Jehovah will not force eternal bliss upon them.
- There are, however, clear Bible passages which affirm that many will be saved (cf. Isaiah 2:2, 3; 11:9; Revelation 7:9), and there have been times and places where the gospel has been much more productive than what we commonly observe.
- There are doubtless multiplied thousands of souls across the centuries and around the world who have obeyed the truth but of whom we have no personal knowledge. However, the Lord knows them who are his (2 Timothy 2:19).
But is it not true that vast numbers have never even heard the message of Christ, without which no one can be saved? (Romans 10:13-15). Actually, no one can prove that those who have sincerely desired to please the Creator have been denied access to the gospel.
God, who knows man’s heart (Acts 15:8), promised that those who hunger and thirst for the truth shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). Moreover, the New Testament gives evidence that the Lord, through his providential ways, has directed the truth to those who wanted it and withheld it from those who were disinterested (cf. Acts 16:6-10).
Finally, we must observe that since we are assessing this entire matter through sinful eyes, we are hardly in a position to pronounce judgment upon what Jehovah is doing. One needs to be extremely cautious about characterizing the Lord as hard (cf. “austere” [Luke 19:20ff]), lest out of his own mouth the critic pronounces judgment upon himself!
Let us, therefore, not complain that the demands of our Maker are hard (cf. Matthew 11:30); rather, let us allow the power of the Holy Scriptures to break the hardness of our lives.
- Jackson, Wayne. 1982. Biblical Studies in the Light of Archaeology. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
- Jackson, Wayne. 1998. Background Bible Study. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
- Wuest, Kenneth. 1946. The Practical Use of the Greek New Testament. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.