Context is king. Take Jesus' words from Matthew 10:
* “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles."
From these two verses, it would seem that we should allow ourselves to be persecuted for Christ's sake rather than to flee persecution, but this would not be the correct interpretation. A few verses later, we read:
* "When they persecute you in one town, FLEE to the next.” (Matthew 10:17-18, 23 ESV)
There verse show that in order to understand Jesus' teaching, we must understand them in context. For another example:
* And Jesus cried out and said, "Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me."
From this verse in John 12, it seems that we shouldn't believe in Jesus but in the Father alone. However, two verses later, Jesus makes it clear that we should believe in Him:
* "I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” (John 12:44, 46)
How then should we interpret the first verse? It seems likely, by observing the rest of Jesus' teachings, that when we trust in Jesus, we do not trust in Jesus ALONE, but also in the Father.
VERY OFTEN, WE CANNOT TAKE HIS TEACHINGS LITERALLY.
Once again, we find that understanding Jesus requires us to understand the entire context. Sometimes, we have to take into account the entire context of ALL of His teachings:
* "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)
To just read the immediate context, it would seem that Jesus means to prohibit all public prayer. However, when we observe Jesus' entire ministry, we find that He often prayed publicly.
How then are we to understand His admonition to pray in secret? We need to understand the immediate context where we find that Jesus' concern is our motivation to be seen by men rather than God.
Well, how are we to serve God? In this regard, Jesus said many perplexing things:
* “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:3)
How can we prevent one hand from knowing what the other is doing? We can't! Instead, once again, we have to interpret this verse in light of the principle of performing our righteous deeds to please God and not to impress man.
It's primarily about our motives not our actions. Are we able to give secretly without seeking the approval of others. If we find that we are not, we need to humble ourselves by confessing our sin. In fact, we find that human pride is often Jesus' main concern.
EXAGGERATION (HYPERBOLE) TO MAKE A POINT
Likewise, Jesus commands us to cut off our hands and to pluck out our eyes rather than sin and enter hell:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30)
Can we stop sinning if we pluck out our eyes (or even pray only in private)? No! Sin arises out of the heart not out of our hands or our eyes, as Jesus taught elsewhere (Matthew 15:19). Then why pluck out our eyes? I think that Jesus was teaching that, because of the overriding worth of going to heaven, instead of hell, if plucking out our eyes would insure heaven, such a sacrifice would be well worth it.
AWARENESS OF PARALLEL VERSES
Some verses are very perplexing until we take into account how Jesus expressed the same thought elsewhere, for example:
* "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
Of course, this verse seems to contradict a lot of biblical principles like honoring our parents. However, this problem is easily resolved when we observe a parallel teaching from Matthew:
* “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)
It is a matter of our priorities. Jesus must be our highest priority, even above ourselves and our family.
UNDERSTANDING JESUS FROM THE CONTEXT OF THE ENTIRE BIBLE
Some Christians believe in absolute pacifism and non-violence based upon a literal reading of His Sermon on the Mount. Often in support of this position they cite:
* "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)
I had wrestled with these verses for a long time, especially as a substitute teacher. Should I allow my students to insult and even lay their hands on me? Was this Jesus' intention? I didn't want to violate His will but allowing these violent students to have their way seemed so unreasonable. It would also be a betrayal of those who hired me and would bring disrepute upon my faith.
However, I also became convinced that such an interpretation would also violate Jesus' intent. I first had to decide whether or not Jesus' teaching was meant to correct the Mosaic Covenant or the current understanding of this Covenant.
I found that the principle of an "eye for an eye" wasn't at all barbaric. Instead, this judicial principle required that penalties had to match the crimes:
* “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. "When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.” (Exodus 21:24-27)
Besides, I eventually perceived that Jesus never criticized the Old Testament (Matthew 5:16-19). Instead, He always quoted it affirmatively. Consequently, it became obvious that the Sermon on the Mount was not an indictment of the Mosaic legal system but of our personal behaviors.
It seems likely that Jesus was taking aim at those who invoked an "eye for an eye" to justify taking personal revenge. If this is so, then Jesus was teaching:
* It is better to allow yourself to be defrauded and insulted rather than to take revenge.
Actually Jesus endorsed self-defense in cases where legal recourse wasn't possible (Matthew 24:43-44).
Interpretation is complex but vital work. I cannot hope to do justice to this subject in a brief essay. Consequently, we are instructed to meditate on His Word day and night. There is no substitute for this. Nor is there any greater blessing (Psalm 1; Joshua 1:8).