The Grace of God

That Brings Salvation Has Appeared to All Men (Titus 2:11)

Literal, Real, Natural & Spiritual Interpretation

In Scripture interpretation, people often stress that the Bible must be taken literally. For the most part, I agree. For example, if Scripture says that God created the world in six days, I have no problem accepting that He did it in six days. If Scripture says a fish swallowed a man named Jonah, I assume a real fish swallowed a real man.

I take the Scripture very seriously, and for the most part, literally. Yet I have found that God, as the greatest communicator, often says things that must be spiritually discerned in order to digest their true significance. The most obvious example of this is the way He taught spiritual truth in parables. When asked by His disciples why He did this, Jesus answered, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matt. 13:11-13)

God chooses not to share “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” with the person who is careless with truth. Jesus came to save the lost, heal the sick, and fill the hungry. He did not come to entertain the bored (which may explain why He answered Herod not a single word–Lk. 23:8-9.) Thus He used REAL natural things to explain REAL spiritual things to those who really wanted to learn. Those who did not have a spiritual mind backed by an obedient will were quick to reason in the natural only, and reject Him. For example, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?”…”From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” (Jn. 6:52, 66) Another example was when murderous witnesses accused Jesus of saying He was able to destroy the temple of God and raise it again in three days (Matt. 26:60-61). Did He not say that? He did, but He was referring to His body. He was, in reality, the truest temple of God, for He was filled with the very Spirit of God. He would literally destroy the temple of His body and raise it again (greater than before), but He was speaking of spiritual things, not natural things. And He did exactly what He said He would do.

Confusion sets in when people think that spiritual interpretation is the opposite of literal, and therefore promotes fantasy. It is not and does not. The ancient Hebrews were fed manna from heaven, yet Jesus said, “I am the TRUE Bread.” Both things are literally true, but Jesus is spiritual bread, not natural bread. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.” (Jn. 3:5) There is a natural bread and there is a spiritual Bread. Both are real. Both literally give life–one gives physical life and one gives spiritual life. We must not think that the spiritual Bread is less real than physical bread. We must not think that the spiritual language of Jesus is “non-literal” as if the “True Bread” is only an ethereal idea. This Bread is an eternal spiritual reality, more real than the passing shadows of this earthly life. It must be eaten if we are to live, and those who refuse to eat it will die.

The assumption is made that if a spiritual–rather than a natural–reality is seen in Scripture, the interpreter has left the safe literal approach and taken up allegorizing about things that aren’t quite real. But this assumes spiritual things aren’t real things. While there are people who allegorize wrongly and wind up at sinful conclusions (for example: Word of Faith teachers use the Scripture’s “sowing and reaping” language to promise wealth to their followers), true spiritual interpretation compares spiritual with spiritual (I Cor. 2:13), and draws conclusions about spiritual realities. (What the Word of Faith teachers do is line their natural pockets with natural money, proving that they do not even see the kingdom of God let alone have its values.)

Do we deny the reality of what is spiritual? Do we lack faith in that which is unseen?

Some Scriptures should be interpreted spiritually rather than naturally.

Let’s consider a few examples:

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4-6)

Were we literally dead before being saved? Were we literally raised up? Were we literally made to sit in heavenly places in Christ? How can we define those “heavenly places” where we are said to sit?

Many would say Paul is speaking figuratively rather than literally. What they really mean is that this passage cannot be understood naturally, but must be understood spiritually.

You see, these things are true and real, but they apply to the spiritual realm rather than the natural realm. Our natural bodies were not dead; we were dead spiritually. We were brought to life spiritually with Christ, and we are now sitting together in heavenly, spiritual places in Him. These things have literally happened to us in the spirit realm. If we deny that these things have truly happened, we deny that there is a real spiritual realm, and demonstrate our lack of faith. If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is (Col. 3:1). The reason why many professing believers are not seeking those things which are above is because they have not been truly raised with Christ. The spiritual reality has not occurred in their lives.

Let’s look at another example:

For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people.” (2 Cor. 6:16)

Are we literal temples? Are we real temples? Is it dangerously allegorizing to insist we are real temples? We are real temples, but we are not natural temples made with cement and stone. We are spiritual temples, the habitation of God’s Spirit. If I am a spiritual temple, I am a real temple. When the world looks at me, it doesn’t see a temple filled with God, because the world does not have faith and cannot see the Kingdom of God. Yet the Spirit bears witness with my spirit that I am His, and by faith, I affirm the reality that I am indeed His temple.

One more example should serve to make my point.

Then Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have taken no bread.” But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread? Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up? Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up? How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?—but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matt. 16:6-12)

The disciples interpreted Jesus naturally. They assumed the reference to leaven must be about natural bread. But Jesus said they had “little faith” in that they did not understand His spiritual meaning. Bread referred to doctrine, and they were to beware of the leavened doctrine of Israel’s teachers. Jesus was warning against spiritual leaven, not natural leaven. And spiritual leaven is a very real thing!

But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (I Cor. 2:14)

To conclude this section, there are natural things and spiritual things. Both are real. If we are to be people of faith, we must learn to see the spiritual things as reality, not just clever literary ideas. Do not be confused by those who accuse you of not being “literal” enough when you begin to see and believe in the spiritual realities as they are expressed in Scripture.

A Partial Application

If we are born again, we now see and belong to a real Kingdom (Jn. 3:3). It has areal King (Jn. 18:36-37). There is a real Mount Zion that we have come to (Heb. 12:22-23). We have become really and truly free in a real place called Jerusalem (Jn. 8:36; Gal. 4:26). There is a real temple that is being erected stone by stone, and there are real sacrifices being made in this temple (I Pet. 2:4-6). Our High Priest is real, and our priestly function in His temple is real in the “greater and more perfect tabernacle” (Heb. 9:11; I Pet. 2:9). This city has real enemies (all nations) that surround her to wage war against her (Matt. 24:9). God is a real Man of War, who defends His people and leads His armies; out of His mouth goes a sharp sword with which He strikes the nations (Jn. 16:33; Rev. 19:14-16). His people are also men of war, armed with a real and glorious Sword, with which they pull down real strongholds and battle real enemies (Eph. 6:11-18). Our warfare is no less real, although it is spiritual rather than natural (2 Cor. 10:3-5). And our peace (the peace of Jerusalem) is real, although it is not “as the [natural] world gives.” (Jn. 14:27)

The Pharisees insisted upon interpreting the Old Testament prophecies about the coming Kingdom of God in a natural way, because this supported their ungodly desire to rule over others as an elite race. But those who had true faith (like Abraham) looked for a spiritual kingdom which God would build (Heb. 11), and in which the Gentiles would be welcomed. John, as forerunner of the King, came preaching the same kingdom of God which had been presented in shadowy pictures by the prophets. That kingdom was now “at hand.” (Yet somehow dispensationalists have decided that kingdom was postponed. They err with the Pharisees, being unable to receive what is spiritual.)

The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it. (Lk. 16:16)

My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here. (Jn. 18:36)

His kingdom is not from here (earth). It is not a natural kingdom in the natural world, but a spiritual kingdom in the spiritual world. That doesn’t make it any less real!

The prophecies of the glorious kingdom of God, centered in Mt. Zion, are fulfilled in none other than the New Testament Church, the Israel of God–a real nation with real citizens who produce the real fruit God desires.

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