Making Sense of the Bible
When somebody says, “That doesn't make sense,” it means they are unable to figure out the meaning of the spoken or written words. Sense is the meaning words have by themselves and when placed in context with other words to form phrases and sentences. It is presumed that every word someone writes is intended to make sense–to convey an idea or message. Having accurate translations from original languages is, therefore, indispensable.
The Hebrew language uses hyperbole to express the superlative. Jesus uses a figure of speech in Matthew 5:29 when He says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.” The obvious exaggeration of physically removing your own eyeball is meant to make a point, and not promote an act of self-mutilation.
This is the most necessary step to correctly interpret the Bible. The literal sense is namely the meaning of the word(s). When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11), no one interprets that literally to mean Jesus is actually a shepherd tending to his flock of sheep on green pastures. Yet, the literal sense of the words “shepherd” and “sheep” is still necessary to understand what is meant by the author. Jesus still wants the literal sense of “shepherd” and “sheep” to be understood, so that in turn, the figurative meaning of the word or phrase becomes clear.
Figures of Speech
Literal sense can be further divided into figurative and proper speech. Again, the literal meaning of the word is essential to understand a figure of speech, such as, “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5). You need to know what is a “vine” and what is a “branch” just to know it is a figure of speech.
The various figures of speech are: metaphors, ironies, idioms, hyperboles, euphemisms, allegory, analogy, metonymy, synecdoche, and so on. When someone says, “He's pulling my leg,” you would most likely infer that he means someone is playing a joke on him unless you never heard that expression (idiom). If that's the case, you would logically presume he means someone is physically tugging on his limb. Proper speech is always meant to be understood literally, as in the case of, “My name is John.”
Literal Versus Figurative
A figure of speech is often quite obvious to recognize, such as in the case of “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). When Jesus says that His followers must “hate his [their] father and mother, his [their] wife and children, his [their] brothers and sisters” in Luke 14:26, this figure of speech means that a believer must love God more than even his own family. The literal interpretation, on the other hand, would be to despise and hate family, which would make no sense since one of the Ten Commandments is to love and honor one's parents.
Some biblical passages are difficult to interpret. For example, Catholics and Orthodox Christians literally interpret the passage “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53), whereas Protestants consider it figuratively.
This is the deeper meaning that words and phrases have in the Bible because they are the inspired Word of God. Genesis 14 speaks of Melchizedek, a king and a priest who offers up bread and wine. This is used in the typical sense (also called typology) when connecting that same passage with Jesus Christ in Hebrews 7, describing Him as a king and priest who also offered up bread and wine.