The Full Knowledge of the Word of God, by Witness Lee


Understanding the Word of God Literally

When we read the Bible, the first way to understand the Word of God is to comprehend it literally. We must comprehend whatever the Bible says and never be distracted from the main thought. When we read the Bible, we should not interpret arbitrarily a passage that we do not understand, thus departing from the meaning of the Word. Many people study the Bible and spiritualize their interpretation of it. For example, John 3:5 says, “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit…” There is a group of people who feel that “water” here is difficult to interpret, so they take it as a sign, a symbol, and assume that the water refers to God’s word. According to Ephesians 5:26, which refers to “the water in the word,” they say that to be born again one must first hear the word of God. When God’s word comes to us, the Spirit also comes. Therefore, they say that to be born of water and the Spirit is to be born of the Spirit through the word. Although this kind of spiritualizing in the interpretation of the Bible is not bad and seems to be consistent with the Bible, it does have its problems. If this interpretation of John 3:5 were true, why did the Lord Jesus not tell Nicodemus plainly at the beginning that a man must be born of the word, instead of telling him that a man must be born of water? By asking such a question, we can see that the interpretation of “water” as “the word” is unacceptable. Thus, we can see that we need to try our best to understand the Bible literally.

To understand the Word of God literally, however, is not simple, and it also has its problems. For example, there is a group of people in the United States who interpret the new birth in John chapter three to mean that a person must be born twice, the first time from his mother’s womb and the second time of the Spirit. This is the reason that the Lord Jesus spoke of these two things, the water and the Spirit. According to their interpretation, the water refers to the fluid that bathes the fetus in the mother’s womb. A man, therefore, must be born first of the fluid in his mother’s womb and then of the Spirit. Through these two births, he is born again. This kind of “literal interpretation” is very poor.

First of all, we must know to whom the Lord was speaking in John 3. He was speaking to Nicodemus. John 3:1 clearly indicates that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. When John the Baptist came to preach and to baptize people in water, he told the Pharisees, “I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance; but He Who is coming after me…shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 3:11). In his speaking John already had put the water and the Spirit together. Therefore, Nicodemus must have understood the word of the Lord Jesus. Because of this, the Lord Jesus spoke to him in a straightforward way. This is to not interpret the Word literally in a natural way but to interpret it according to its right meaning in the context.

As John the Baptist put all the repentant persons into the water, their old man was buried and terminated. The Lord Jesus then followed this to enliven them with the Spirit. The water is for burial, and the Spirit is for resurrection. When the two are put together, we have death and resurrection. This is the meaning of being born again. I have used this example to show you the right way to interpret the Bible. In the next message I will tell you the two criteria for this kind of interpretation of the Bible. The first is to interpret the Bible with the word of the Bible, and the second is to interpret it according to the context. Those who interpret the water in John 3:5 as the fluid from the mother’s womb do so because they have not studied the Bible thoroughly and have not paid attention to the context. They merely interpret the Word according to their natural understanding, and consequently they make a serious mistake.

I am using this opportunity to give you these basic rules, especially for the sake of the young brothers and sisters who still have a long future on this earth. You need to labor on the Word of the Lord. This Bible has been in the hands of Christians for nearly two thousand years. Tens of thousands of scholars have studied this book, but most of them have interpreted it in their own way. If we want to know the Bible, the first thing we must do is to comprehend it literally; then we must pay attention to the context.

(The Full Knowledge of the Word of God, Chapter 2, by Witness Lee)