What did Jesus mean, in Mark 9:43, 45, 47, when He said that if the hand, foot, or eye causes you to sin, to cut off the hand or foot or pluck out the eye? I have heard sermons where it was said that Jesus did not mean that literally. I could accept this, if it were not for the fact that He goes on to say that it would be better to enter life with one hand, foot, or eye than to have them both and be cast into hell.
The language used by Christ in this context employs a figure of speech that is common to all languages. It is called hyperbole. The term is derived from two Greek components, hyper (over, above) and bole (from ballein, to throw), hence “to throw above.” It is a specially designed exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis. My mother, with somewhat of a twinkle in her eye, used to say, “Son, if you do that again, I’m gonna skin you alive.” I knew she was speaking figuratively; nonetheless, I got the point!
Thus, Christ, in this context, was emphasizing the supreme value of pursuing the kingdom of God above all else. To stress this principle, He chose, for illustration purposes, items that are very precious to us—such as the eye, hand, or foot. The obvious meaning is this: Recognize the value of eternal things; do not be derailed by temporal and physical distractions.
Moreover, the language in the latter portion of the passage in no way negates the symbolism employed in the warning.
That this is the fair meaning of the passage is obvious from the fact that a mere amputation of a hand or a foot or the removal of an eye does not alter the condition of the heart. Therefore, such actions, drastic though they are, would not provide sufficient motive for a transformed heart.
It was the heart that Jesus was trying to reach, as is seen in the passages of Mark 7:1, 18–23. The surgery that Jesus talked about, in Mark 9, is spiritual, not physical. The point is this: The value of being eternally with the Creator makes all of earth’s circumstances seem trivial.
A comprehension of at least some of the basic figures of speech utilized by the Bible writers is absolutely essential for a correct interpretation of Scripture in many cases. A lack of such understanding has resulted in a variety of errors—some of which were painfully experienced.
Origen, a theologian of the early third century a.d., misinterpreted Jesus’ admonition about becoming a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. (See Matthew 19:12.) As a consequence of his misguided exegesis, he emasculated himself. Eusebius, a fourth century historian, noted that Origen’s method of interpretation was “too literal and puerile in a sense.” (Ecclesiastical History, vi.viii.) The historian paid a rather high price for failing to understand a significant biblical figure of speech.
The Saviour’s teaching in the context cited in Mark, therefore, is to be viewed figuratively—not literally.
This is why we are told, in 11 Timothy 2:15, to study the Scripture: “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Study brings with it a putting together in such a way that truth is made known from a heavenly perspective. I hope that this helps with your study of this matter.
Pastor Mike Baugher is Associate Speaker for Steps to Life. If you have a question you would like Pastor Mike to answer, e-mail it to: email@example.com, or mail it to: LandMarks, Steps to Life, P. O. Box 782828, Wichita, KS 67278.