The so-called hard sayings of Jesus entered Christian vernacular in 1983 with the publication of F.F. Bruce’s book of the same name. But individuals have been grappling with the teachings of Jesus long before the don of twentieth century British evangelical biblical scholarship wrote his now-famous work.
After Jesus’ bread of life discourse in John 6, several professed followers of Christ abandoned His band of disciples because they were offended by what they dubbed His “hard sayings” (vv. 60–65). Not everyone was as put off by the words of Christ. The Apostle Peter responded to the very same “offensive” words with confidence, exclaiming, “You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68). How shall we respond to the hard sayings of Jesus?
Even a cursory reading of John 6:22–71 will reveal a host of interpretative challenges. Jesus’ sermon touches on doctrines as wide-ranging as the Trinity, election and reprobation, the purpose of His mission, the nature of faith, the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, the place of Israel within redemptive history, and the work of the Holy Spirit. As this list illustrates, difficulties in biblical interpretation are not limited to the hard sayings of Jesus but are present throughout the entire Bible.
One of the reasons why we sweat over getting the hard sayings of the Bible right is because we believe, like Peter, that they hold the words of eternal life. In many ways, wrestling with these hard sayings is a quintessentially evangelical occupation. Since we believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, we scrutinize over how every “jot and tittle” is interpreted. The most basic vocation for every Christian is to be a sound exegete of God’s Word. The reason why we care so much about the task of hermeneutics is that we believe correct interpretation of Sacred Writ is essential for faith and practice. Our commitment to the inspiration and authority of the Bible necessitates the careful study, explanation, defense, and application of biblical revelation.
The link between biblical authority and interpretation is a hallmark of Protestant thought. A byproduct of the Reformation’s doctrine of sola Scriptura, with its insistence on a literal reading of the Bible, was the development of resources, such as concordances and study guides, to help readers become more proficient in expounding Scripture. Drawing upon the Reformers’ insights, here are four handy hermeneutical tools to help you “rightly divide” the hard sayings of the Bible (2 Tim. 2:15).
First, know the context. The most fundamental rule in biblical interpretation is the analogy of Scripture. Let Scripture interpret Scripture. Every biblical text is situated in a biblical context. Take time to define difficult words, locate unknown places, and summarize the main point of the passage. Ask how the verse in question contributes to the logic of the chapter and the plotline of the book. Compare unclear passages with clearer portions of the Bible that refer to the same teaching or event. Returning to John 6, Jesus’ comments about the bread of life should not only be read against the backdrop of the feeding of the five thousand but also in reference to God’s providing manna for Israel in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11.
Second, check your theology. The Reformers also emphasized the analogy of faith. No interpretation should contradict the overall theology of Scripture. Although your grammatical-historical analysis may be complete, if your interpretation compromises the truths of the Christian faith, you can be sure that you have interpreted the text incorrectly. A solid confession of faith and a trusty systematic theology are invaluable resources for outlining the orthodox boundaries within which biblical exegesis flourishes.
Third, listen to the saints. While church history and current biblical scholarship are not inherently authoritative and can at times reflect minimal doctrinal consensus, exegesis does not occur in a historical vacuum. The best exegetes learn from the communion of the saints. The ascended Christ has given teachers and preachers for the purpose of helping His people understand His Word better. Commentaries, study Bibles, and sermons are among the exegete’s best friends. Check your interpretations against the findings of the very best biblical interpreters both in the past and present.
Finally, rely on the Spirit. Biblical interpretation is a spiritual exercise. We must depend upon the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit to avoid error and interpret the Word of God correctly. As Jesus states, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63). Jesus’ words are hard not because they are obscure but because they are impossible to believe without the Holy Spirit.