Plain Speech

  • By Pastor Boffey
  • on Saturday, March 26, 2011
John 11:11-14 (11) These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. (12) Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. (13) Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. (14) Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. Have you ever said something to somebody only to find out later that he had concluded something entirely different from what you had intended? Have you ever had occasion to say to someone that you thought should have “gotten it,” “Look, do I have to spell it out for you?" or “...Are ye also yet without understanding” (MAT 15:16)? That's kind of what happened in today's text. In their defense, Christ's disciples here essentially followed a fundamental rule of Bible study: they took Jesus' words in v. 11 in their ordinary, primary sense (c/w NEH 8:8), except in this case Christ was purposely using the words, “sleepeth” and “sleep” in a figurative sense to describe the natural death of Lazarus' body. The figure was a good one inasmuch as the death of the body is not the end of the story for the body: all shall one day be resurrected (JOH 5:28-29) even as Christ was resurrected to become for His elect “...the firstfruits of them that slept” (1CO 15:20). Furthermore, Christ was using the same kind of language as was used in the Old Testament scriptures to describe the temporary nature of bodily death (JOB 14:12; ISA 26:19; DAN 12:2). Jesus was therefore quite justified in using this metaphor for death. One of the characteristics of metaphorical language is that whereas it can be a powerful literary device to enhance the detail of the thing under consideration, it can also allow for ambiguity. For example, a perusal of Oxford English Dictionary shows that sleep can figuratively mean, “dormant, inert, inactive, act as a sleeping partner or as a sleeper.” Perhaps Lazarus was a secret agent. Sleep can also figuratively mean, “careless, remiss, or idle; to live thoughtlessly or carelessly.” Perhaps Lazarus was like some indifferent believers at Corinth who needed to “Awake to righteousness...” (1CO 15:34). Sleep can also refer to numbness in a limb. Perhaps Lazarus needed a massage. The point here is that figurative language is very useful but that which best facilitates understanding is plain (“open, clear to the senses or mind....obvious”) language. The Old Testament is full of types, shadows, patterns, dark sayings and figures. For example, Hosea said that God “...used similitudes, by the ministry of the prophets” (HOS 12:10). A similitude is, “A person or thing resembling, or having the likeness of, some other person or thing; counterpart or equal; a similarity.” The sometimes curious elements of the O.T. Tabernacle service, while satisfying God's purposes for that season, were nonetheless designed to “...serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things...” (HEB 8:5); they were “...figures of the true...” (HEB 9:24). Moses having a vail upon his face when he delivered the Law (EXO 34:29-35) typified the very nature of that testament: its ultimate truth is shrouded, so that the church was then “...shut up unto the faith that should afterwards be revealed” (GAL 3:23). Paul builds upon this in emphasizing the superiority of the New Testament ministry which is characterized by plain language: “Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: And not as Moses, which put a vail over his face...” (2CO 3:12-13). And until one sees Jesus Christ in the Old Testament, he has a vail upon his heart (2CO 3:14-16). Suffice it to say that the Old Testament was chock full of pictures: word pictures, ceremonial pictures, conceptual pictures, etc. And appropriately so. The church under the Law is likened to a child under tutors and governors (GAL 4:1-3) and the Law was “...our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ...” (GAL 3:24). What reasonable parent does not know that pictures are appropriate to the instruction of little children? But remember that pictures are not the reality and they are open to inventive interpretation. When a child has reached maturity, intelligent plain language which facilitates unambiguous understanding is the order of the day. Understanding is of greater value than many things, including feelings, gifts and pictures. Feelings can frustrate rational faith, as when Christ's disciples “...believed not for joy...” (LUK 24:41). Gifts such as tongues were even during their heyday meant to be subordinate to understanding: “...except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air” (1CO 14:9). And as for pictures, who really knows what Picasso meant? The Spirit's ministry through the Old Testament was essentially “...the words of the wise, and their dark sayings” (PRO 1:6). Christ, in speaking to the multitudes in parables (MAT 13:34-35), fulfilled PSA 78:2, “I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:.” Jesus even said to His own disciples, “These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs: but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall shew you plainly of the Father” (JOH 16:25). Christ would shortly after His death, burial and resurrection send the Holy Spirit to end the veiled era of proverbs and parables which would give way to “...a more sure word of prophecy...a light that shineth in a dark place” (2PE 1:19). We can say to our Savior, in appreciation of His New Testament revelation, the same thing the apostles said to Him when He spoke unambiguously to them, “... Lo, now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no proverb” (JOH 16:29).

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