Q: What are the good contextual clues that the passage is meant to be read as hyperbole?*
1. People speak Hyperbole, and so does Jesus
Hyperbole is one of the familiar figures of speech people use... It is a rhetorical and literary technique in which speakers intentionally exaggerate to an extreme and inject emphasis into their statements, or “when more is said that literally meant”(Bullinger). The ultimate implication of the Hyperbole is "not meant to be taken literally with the stated consequences."
a. Typical hyperboles people use:
- There is enough food in the cupboard to feed an entire army.
- He is a liar! The whole world knows it!
- I’ve told you to clean your room a million times!
- If I can’t get a smartphone, I will die.
- If I don’t clean up this mess by this evening, my mom says, she would kill me!
The first four examples are plain and commonly used hyperbole. The last one is a little different from the four, because “my Mom says, she would kill me.” Of course, He/she does not mean Mom will literally kill him/her, and we all know that. So, it is still a plain hyperbole, an exaggeration, an empty threat, and there will be NO actual harm!
b. Hyperboles Jesus spoke
“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Mt. 23:24)
“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”(Lk. 18:25)
Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times!”(Mt. 22)
".. do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing"; ".. is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Mt.6:3; Mk. 10:25)
As in the examples above, the words of obvious impossibility with NO stipulated eternal consequences can be the contextual clues for "hyperbole."
To help further of our understanding for identifying hyperbole, let us look at the contextual clues for non-hyperbole.
2. Contextual clues for NOT "Hyperbole"
For example, Jesus' statements - "cut off your hand or foot causes you to sin..." Mathew 18:8-9, and "tear out your right eyes if it causes you to sin..." (Matt. 5:27-30), these are not "Hyperbole."
The structure of the statements are identical to God's command to Adam:
(Genesis 2:17): "but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you
shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
a). The stipulations.
It contains explicit stipulations, the description of offense (the acts not to do), and the consequence -i.e. “your whole- body goes into hell.” These rather signifies it as a divine code of conduct for His people.
b). The "I" emphatic
For example, Jesus begins in 5:28, the parallel verses to the text (also in V 28, 32, 34, 39, 44), with “I say to you” (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν), where the “I” is emphatic and authoritative.
c). The verbs is imperative.
Matthew 18:8-9 (ESV)
8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to
sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life
crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the
eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and
throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than
with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit
adultery.’ 28 But I say to you (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν) that everyone
who looks (βλέπων) at a (πρὸς τὸ) woman with lustful intent has
already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right
eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is
better that you lose one of your members than that your entire body is
thrown into hell. 30 And if your right-hand causes you to sin, cut
it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your
members than that your whole body goes into hell.”
v.9, ἐξαιρέω (pluck out) & βάλε (cast) which signifies it is a command, **not a suggestion or recommendation.
In the texts, Jesus speaks not about being born again, but is addressing to His own people, the Jews (and believers) who commit “ongoing, continuous, habitual offenses”, dominated by fleshly desires,** that they need to take drastic measures to avert the dire consequences, “be thrown into hell" as a surgeon sees the need and warns the patient of the irreparable consequences if not taken a drastic measure of amputation of a limb:
( “looks” (= looking βλέπων), denotes the act of continued looking to lust after (=with a view to);
“at a (πρὸς τὸ)” denotes to “with a view to”; “causes” (σκανδαλίζει) is indicative, present, active; “hand” (χεὶρ), refers to harming others with hands, as in Isa. 58:4; 59:3; Gen. 4:11.)
d). It is a “prescriptive” statement with explicit stipulations.
Jesus is the Savior and Deliverer who came in flesh to save us from eternal damnation and suffering. He does not want any of His sheep to be lost. His prescriptive words such as the text in question are NOT an exaggeration, just as a good doctor would not write a hyperbole prescription ( as defined in 2 -a) for the patients under his care.
Other statements of Jesus that are NOT hyperbole:
If say Raca! to your brother, or say you fool, or angry with his brother are in danger of the judgment (Matt. 5:22);
“anyone causes one of little better hung millstone” (Mk 9:43-47),
Hate your father, mother, and carry your cross (Mt. 10:37-39; Lk. 14:26)
For every idle word men speak.. by your words you will be condemned (Mt. 12:34-37)
If you do not forgive, I will not forgive (Mt.6:15)
And, Matt. 16:25-26!
Words of caution
a The first attempt to reduce the Word of God (a command) occurred in the garden of Eden** when the serpent said to the woman (Genesis 3:1, 4),
“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the
“You will not surely die.”
In effect, the serpent was saying, "God spoke a hyperbole, exaggeration, and God didn't mean it. Oh, silly things! You don't believe it, do you?
That one act of reducing to hyperbole changed the destiny of the human race, and cost God dearly - His only-begotten Son! The same "hyperbole spirit of deception" is still lurking around us! Jesus Himself said:
“not an iota, not a dot will pass” (Matt. 5:18); “my word will not
pass away” (24:35), and Peter said the Word of the Lord remains
forever (1 Peter 1:25)
Then, do we have to mutilate body parts for each and every time that do wrongs?**
No! We need not mutilate our bodies because there is forgiveness available. For, Jesus was tortured, maimed, and hung on the cross for all our sins.**
Isaiah 53:5 - But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed
for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us
peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
Scripture says, only repent and confess your sins - the way out from the dire eternal consequences:
1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to
forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
(Eph. 1:7; Isa. 1:18; Matt. 18:22; 6:12)
And, Jesus is interceding for us (Heb. 7:25) at the right of God.
PS: For further reading on the subject (here)