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September 8, 2011 / Daniel

Greg Beale on “Recognizing Hyperbole in the Teachings of Jesus”

This summer I taught a Sunday School class on the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7).    Throughout this passage, Jesus often uses hyperbole to shock his audience into understanding the radical nature of his kingdom and its righteousness.  The use of these exaggerations makes the Sermon a challenge to interpret.

Dr. Beale gave us this handout in class for detecting the use of exaggeration in Jesus’ teaching. I’m not sure if the handout was original with Beale, or if it was original with Scott Hafemann.   However, I thought that I would share it with you since it provides helpful guidelines for the hermeneutical process.

The statement is hyperbole if…

1.  It is literally impossible.

Matt 7:3-5  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

2.  The statement conflicts with what Jesus says elsewhere.

Matt 23:2-3  “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”

Compare this with Matthew 16: 12 where Jesus says to be guard against the teachings of the Pharisees.

3.  The statement conflicts with the behavior and actions of Jesus elsewhere.

Matt 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Compare this with Mark 5:34; Matt. 5:9; 10:12-13; Luke 19:42.

4.  The statement conflicts with the teachings of the OT.

Luke 14:26    “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

Compare Deut. 5:16.  “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”  Compare also Mark 7:9-13.

5.  The statement conflicts with the teachings of the NT.

Matt 5:42 “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Compare 2 Thess. 3:10 where Paul says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

6.  The statement is interpreted by the evangelist in a non-literal way.

Consider Matt 10:34 again.  Matthew gives this interpretation in Matt 10:35-36.  “For I have come to turn‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’”

7. The statement is not always literally fulfilled in practice.

Matt. 13:2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Some stones still remain.

8.  The statement’s literal fulfillment would not achieve the desired goal.

Matt 5:29 “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

You could still lust with the other eye.

9.  The statement uses a particular literary form prone to exaggeration.

  • A proverb.  Matt 7:6 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”
  • A prophecy.   Matt. 24:29  “Immediately after the distress of those days  the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky,and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”    I disagree with this example.  Beale thinks that Matthew 24:29 was fulfilled in 70 AD.  I think its fulfillment is still in the future.

10.  The statement uses idiomatic language that no longer bears its literal meaning.

Beale cites the use of the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:42, 50).  I’m not sure that I agree with this example. 

11.  The statement uses all-inclusive and universal language.

Mark 9:23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”


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