Do you ever read a passage of scripture and get a mental image in your head? Maybe you think of an image from a Bible picture book from your childhood. Maybe it brings back a vivid real life memory. Or maybe you’ve developed your own mental image.
This can be great to help with remembering some minor details of a passage. However, there is also a danger that can come with this. What if the mental image you have created (even one you’ve had since a child) isn’t right? A good example is the Garden of Eden. When you think about Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit of the tree, what kind of fruit do you think of? Is it round, red, and kind of sweet? If you don’t picture an apple in your head, you are in the minority. Why do we think of Adam and Eve eating an apple? It’s likely because every picture book we saw as a child showed them eating an apple. Would you be surprised if I told you the Bible never says they were eating an apple? In fact, the Bible never said what kind of fruit or tree it was. It simply calls it the “fruit of the tree” (Genesis 2:9,17; 3:3,6,11).
Is it really a problem if we think of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as an apple tree? Probably not. But it’s a very simplistic example that teaches a very critical lesson. We can’t get too comfortable with the mental images we create without ensuring that image perfectly corresponds with scripture. Otherwise, it could lead us to believe something that isn’t true.
This very thing has happened to me, and it just recently dawned on me that I was thinking of it wrong. It stems from a very common passage that we all likely know by heart:
“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” [Matthew 7:13-14, KJV]
When I think about the way that leads to heaven, I’ve always envisioned a brick pathway that leads through some woods. It has vines and moss hanging from the trees, with beams of light streaming through the branches. The path is straight as an arrow and it leads off into the distance, ultimately ending at a small pristine gate. It’s like Wizard of Oz meets Savannah, Georgia. I don’t know why that’s the image that comes to my mind, but it is, and that’s what I’ve pictured for as long as I can remember.
But is that a correct picture of what Jesus is describing in the Sermon on the Mount? Is a very peaceful, easy walk down a path in a romantic setting accurate? As much as we want to imagine the Christian life being like that, it’s really not. We are called to live a life that can be down-right tough at times. But then why does Jesus say that the way is straight?
Go back and re-read that passage? Did Jesus say the path would be straight? That’s right…He didn’t. He said it would be strait. As long as I can remember, I’ve pictured a path without the slightest bend in it, but that is not what Jesus said at all. The words strait and straight have two very different meanings. What Jesus described is a path that is very narrow, and at times very difficult. Other translations besides the KJV give a better description.
“…narrow is the gate and difficult is the way…” (NKJV)
“…the gate is narrow and the way is hard…” (ESV)
“…the gate is small and the way is narrow…” (NASB)
“…small is the gate and narrow is the road…” (NIV)
“…the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult…” (NLT)
Each of those translations puts a very different image in my mind than the KJV does. Maybe it’s because I heard the passage as a child using the word strait, and I pictured an image of straight in my head. Once that imaged was burned into my conscious, it stuck. With that false image, I imagined a path that seemed very pleasing and easy. With that false image, I could get a false sense of what the Christian life was really like. With that false image, it might become discouraging for a young Christian who doesn’t experience the nostalgic stroll in the park that they envisioned.
Maybe I’m the only one who has had this image of Matthew 7:13-14. However, it proves that we don’t need to read through passages too quickly and assume that we already know what they mean. We need to read with the goal of gaining a deeper understanding of God’s Word and the truths that it really holds for our lives.