Limited Negatives: Making Sense of How Jesus Speaks

Limited Negatives: Making Sense of How Jesus Speaks August 7, 2018


Quite often in the Gospels, Jesus – and other Gospel writers – will use a common Hebraic figure of speech called a “Limited Negative” to emphasize a point.

A limited negative is often constructed like this:

“Not A, but B”.

For example: “…children who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” [John 1:13]

What the writer actually means is: “Not only A…but also B” or, sometimes: “Not merely A…but primarily B”

Such an idiom becomes recognizable when it would be absurd or contradictory to take an absolute-sounding statement in its absolute sense.

In the example above, it would be foolish to try to use this verse to teach that the children of God are NOT born of blood or flesh. That would be ridiculous. Of course, Christians are “born..of blood” and “of the will of the flesh”, but the phrase is meant to illustrate that we are not merely born of the flesh, but primarily – in a greater way – born of the Spirit.

Once you recognize this as a common idiom and figure of speech, you can easily understand many other verses of scripture from this same perspective.

Here are a few more examples of limited negatives:

“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life.” (John 6:27)

Meaning: “Do not work ONLY for natural sustenance, but MAINLY for your spiritual sustenance”

“He who believes in me believes not in me, but in him who sent me” (John 12:44)

Meaning: “He who believes in me, believes NOT ONLY in me, but ALSO in him who sent me.”

“…for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.” (Matthew 10:20)

Meaning: “It is not ONLY you speaking, but it is MAINLY the Spirit of God speaking through you.”

“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

Meaning: “I did not come ONLY to bring peace, but ALSO to bring a sword.”

And what sort of “sword” did Jesus intend to bring? The context of the verse tells us that he is referring to division between father and son and brother and sister, etc. as some may accept Christ and others may reject Him as Messiah.

This verse is not about war. It’s about how a decision to follow Christ may cost you relationships, and this is why He also tells us to “count the cost” of being His disciple.

Hopefully, this helps you to better understand Jesus and the other New Testament writers when they use language like this and not get confused as if they are making absolute statements about literal truth.


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