I Take the Bible In Its Ordinary Sense

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/26/2014

The real question we face is not whether or not to take the Mosaic Law literally, but whether we are now under that same legal code.

In a past letter to you, I warned about the liability of simply answering yes to the question “Do you take the Bible literally?” Rather, I suggested, you could avoid confusion by saying, “I take the Bible in its ordinary sense,” or, “I take the Bible at face value.” Then I explained what I meant.

Since then, I have encountered another challenge along the same lines. Maybe you’ve heard it, too. It goes like this: In the Bible, homosexual activity was punishable by death (Leviticus 18:22–23 and 20:13). Therefore, any Christian who takes the Bible literally must advocate execution for homosexuals. If you don’t, then you are not taking the Bible literally, and no one else should, either.

Let’s start with a definition. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word “literal” means, “Taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory, free from exaggeration or distortion.”

Now here’s our question: When Moses wrote the Law, did he expect the Jewish people to take those regulations literally?

Let me ask the same question another way. When an ordinance is passed in your local state (California, in my case), do you think the legislators intend you to understand the words of the regulation “in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory, free from exaggeration or distortion?”

Of course they do. Legal codes are not written in figurative language allowing each citizen to get creative with the meaning. Moses meant it the way he wrote it.

But now, it seems, we’re stuck on the other horn of our dilemma. To be consistent, shouldn’t we currently campaign for the death penalty for homosexuals? Aren’t we obliged to promote execution for disobedient children and Sabbath-breakers, for that matter, both capital crimes under the Law?

The simple answer is, “No.” Just because God intends a biblical command to be taken literally, does not mean He intends it to be applied universally.

Consider this. Jesus told Peter to cast his net in deep water (Luke 5:4). That’s exactly what Peter did because he took Jesus’ command literally, at face value. However, because Jesus’ command to Peter was literal does not mean the same command applies to us. We’re not commanded to cast nets into deep water.

Here’s another way of looking at it. No matter what state you live in, the California legal codes are to be taken literally. But they don’t apply to you unless you live in California. In the same way, the words of the Mosaic Law, like those of all laws, are to be taken at face value by anyone who reads it. Yet only those under its jurisdiction are obliged to obey it.

The Jews in the theocracy were expected to obey the legal code God gave them. It is not the legal code God gave to gentiles, however. Therefore, even if the words are to be taken literally, this does not necessarily mean we must obey them now.

The real question we face is not whether or not to take the Mosaic Law literally, but whether we are now under that same legal code. We are not. Americans are not the nation of Israel living under the legal code the Mosaic Covenant. We are a mixture of peoples governed by a representative republic.

Though we may glean wisdom from the Law of Moses for our own legal codes, we are not obliged by Sinai since it was meant to organize the Jewish government. To suggest we are is a mistake. If anyone thinks otherwise, he is duty-bound to buy a net and throw it into deep water.

By the way, the reason Jesus wanted Peter to cast his net again after a day of fruitless fishing was to demonstrate His power by bringing in a miraculous catch that filled the boat. He then invited Peter to abandon his nets and become a fisher of men.

Just recently STR celebrated 20 years of training others to “fish” for men. As our team gathered together at our office to celebrate and reminisce, we had a chance to reflect on God’s faithfulness to us. We especially focused on the people who have served us so well over the years, generous people like you who have helped us get to where we are today.

The scope and magnitude of our work has increased over the years far beyond our expectations and in ways we never imagined. And our monthly financial challenges have increased at the same time.

If STR has touched your life in any way over this past decade and a half, would you let us know by sending us a gift today? It will help us launch the next 20-year stretch as we seek to extend God’s Kingdom for His glory.

In Christ,

Greg Koukl