"How can you tell if a passage is to be understood figuratively or if it means just what it says on the surface?"
The way to tell this is by the context or setting of the passage. What is being discussed? Is it impossible for the statement to be literally understood in that context? Does it make good sense literally in that context? Are the wordsor is the expressionused in such a way that it makes better sense if understood figuratively? These are some questions that may help us determine how to interpret accurately, and they all deal with the context.
Take the example of the meaning of head in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. In verse 3, head means "has authority over" God has authority over Christ; Christ has authority over man; man has authority over woman. However, verse 4 begins a discussion in which both the figurative and literal meanings of head are involved. Paul obviously refers to one's cranium or literal head when he refers to hair as a covering, and to shaving one's head. It would not make sense to understand head as meaning one who has authority over another when he talks about hair, veils, and shaving. At the same time, it is difficult to see how one would be dishonoring his pate or cranium by having on a veil, or how a woman could dishonor her skull by failing to wear a veil. Therefore we conclude that Paul means a man dishonors his figurative or spiritual head (Christ) when he wears a veil on his physical head or cranium in the public worship assembly in the cultural setting of ancient Greece (Corinth). A woman in that culture would dishonor her figurative head (husband) by failing to wear a veil on her literal head or cranium or by shaving her physical head. This was true because of the customs of that area and time, which held that it was a sign of immorality for a woman to appear in public without a veil, while a man would be seen viewed unfavorably if he did wear a veil.
Another example is found in Ephesians 3:8, where Paul declares himself to be "less than the least of all saints," which is literally an impossibility. Paul is using hyperbole, a figure of speech in which gross exaggeration is used to make a point (like, "If I've told you once, I've told you a million times.") Paul's purpose was to emphasize his feeling of humility, and we would surely not think him the "least," let alone "less than the least" of any group, but that's the way he felt, perhaps because of the fact that he had formerly persecuted Christians.
Jesus said, "I am the vine, you are the branches" (John 15:4), and he said God was "the vinedresser" or "husbandman" (vs. 1). Since we know Jesus was not actually a grapevine and his disciples were not literally grapevine branches, we know He was speaking figuratively to describe the relationship He had with God and with His disciples.
It is important to use common sense in interpreting Scripture as well as in understanding any writing or speech. The most logical approach to the context is the simplest approach, or the most direct approach to the context is the best in most cases. When the simple, direct approach does not appear meaningful in a given context, look at the possibility of a figurative meaning that appears logical in that setting. 2660 Layman Rd., Vincent OH 45784 email@example.com
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