Near the end of his Confessions, Augustine touches on a beautiful truth about the nature of Scripture:
What wonderful profundity there is in your utterances! The surface meaning lies open before us and charms beginners. Yet the depth is amazing, my God, the depth is amazing.
Augustine carried on the interpretive pioneering of the early church (most notable in Origen) by recognizing the four senses of scriptural meaning: literal, allegorical, moral, and eschatological. Or, more simply (reflecting Paul’s maxim, “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life”): the literal and the spiritual. The literal sense of Scripture does not exhaust its interpretive potential, just like describing a person’s body doesn’t disclose who they really are. Being able to accurately sketch a person doesn’t mean you know them. Walt Whitman said we “contain multitudes,” and the same is true of the sacred writings.
The Bible too has a body and a soul—an exterior shape and history, and an interior life and thought. A preoccupation with the first to the neglect of the second has disastrous results for the Christian life. The historical-critical method can only go so far in apprehending the Spirit’s (the ultimate author) intention in inspiring the text. And that intention is aimed primarily at our spiritual formation. Thankfully, interest in other interpretive methods—theological interpretation of scripture, figural reading, pre-modern exegesis, etc.—has been growing recently due to a recognition of the shortages of the historical-critical method as the end-all be-all. In God’s design, exegesis and piety, truth and experience go together and mutually support one another. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.
In a delightful little book on the ancient practice of lectio divina (pray-reading), Mariano Magrassi warns of this danger:
We all know the real risk of Bible study that becomes nothing but philology at the scientific level, and a pedantic exercise in the cold accumulation of facts at the textbook level. The very soul of Scripture perishes in such research. Surely that is not why God has spoken.
The Garments in the Road
I’ve been thinking about all this last week after reading Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the striking reaction of the crowd in paving a road for the Lord with their garments.
They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their garments on it, and He sat on it. And many spread their garments in the road… (Mark 11:7-8)
What does all this mean? This is where differentiating between the literal and spiritual meaning of the text is beneficial.
The Literal Meaning
The literal meaning seeks to discover what the crowd intended in performing this action and what Mark had in mind in recording this action.
S. A. Cummins explains:
“The underlying assumption [of the historical-critical method] is that it enables the recovery of the (single) meaning of the Bible through a careful application of the individual interpreter’s critical reasoning to the text located within its historical context.”
Most of the commentaries I looked at understand this as an act of festive extravagance or royal recognition. Almost all point to an OT parallel: when Jehu is anointed as king, his fellow military officers lay down their garments underneath him on the steps (2 Kings 9:12-13). This is clearly an act of deference to a king. The shouts of the crowd in Mark support this interpretation: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:10).
Here are some comments that represent the standard interpretation:
A “royal salute, or a gesture of profound respect.” (William L Lane)
“A spontaneous expression of respect.” (C. E. B. Cranfield)
“Unnecessary and extravagant… as a ‘red carpet’ for a dignitary.” (R. T. France)
“The modern equivalent of the cloak-and-branch road is the red carpet or the ticker-tape parade.” (Frederick Dale Bruner)
“This action too may have a royal nuance.” (Joel Marcus)
“Suggestive of the ceremonious welcome of a king.” (James R Edwards)
“A festive acknowledgment of Jesus’ kingship.” (David L Turner)
Witness Lee also holds this interpretation and like a good preacher, adds some application:
The people honored the Lord with their clothing, that is, with whatever they had. No matter how poor a man is, he at least has some clothing with which to cover himself. We need to honor the Lord, the meek King, with whatever we are. No matter what our condition may be, we have something with which to honor Him. I do not believe that the garments put on the donkey and on the road were splendid or beautiful. Nevertheless, the people used what they had. Although we are sinful, pitiful, and even evil, the Lord likes to be honored with what we are.
The literal meaning is clear and has a beneficial application—acknowledge Jesus’ kingship and honor Him by laying down what you have.
The Spiritual Meaning
But the spiritual meaning, while not denying the literal meaning, takes things one step further. It asks, “Yes, they honor the king, but why by laying down their garments?”
Origen approaches the text with this fundamental conviction: “The Savior wanted to make the actions reported to us by the evangelists symbolic of His own spiritual operations.”
The spiritual meaning brings the rule of faith and the rest of the canon to bear on a passage in order to understand it in light of God’s economy and spiritual experience. Spiritual interpretation is not arbitrary since it is guided by the parameters I just mentioned. In other words, it can’t just mean anything the interpreter wants it to mean. Any interpretation proposed must align with the great things of the gospel and God’s economy. Like Origen said, the interpretation should illuminate something of the Triune God’s “own spiritual operations.”
So the appropriate place to begin is to see what the rest of the Bible has to say about garments and if that leads to any connection with God’s operation in His economy.
What do Garments Signify in the Bible?
Many verses point to the general metaphorical significance of garments.
Col. 3:12 Put on therefore… inward parts of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, long-suffering.
Jude 23 On others have mercy in fear, hating even the inner garment spotted from the flesh.
Rev. 3:4-5 You have a few names in Sardis who have not defiled their garments, and they will walk with Me in white because they are worthy. He who overcomes will be clothed thus, in white garments…
Rev. 3:18 I counsel you to buy from Me… white garments that you may be clothed and that the shame of your nakedness may not be manifested…
Rev. 22:14 Blessed are those who wash their robes that they may have right to the tree of life and may enter by the gates into the city.
Some verses use the metaphor of garments to portray both virtues and vices.
Rev. 19:8 It was given to her that she should be clothed in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteousnesses of the saints.
Job 29:14 I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban.
Isa. 61:10 …He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with the robe of righteousness…
Isa. 64:6 All our righteousnesses are like a soiled garment…
Psa. 73:6 Pride is a necklace for them, violence covers them like a garment.
Isa. 59:17 …He put on the garments of vengeance for clothing and wrapped Himself with zeal as a mantle.
All these verses lead some commentators to conclude that garments signify conduct or the kind of person you are.
Witness Lee is the clearest representative of this interpretation:
Garments signify the human virtues in people’s conduct.
In the Bible our garments signify our outward conduct, our daily living. 
Garments in the Bible signify what we are in our walk and living.
But he is not alone here:
“For Mark, clothing often signifies the person.” (Eugene Boring)
“Garments represent persons and especially a person’s glory. Clothing manifests and represents persons.” (Peter Leithart)
“The theological significance of the relationship of a human being with a garment.” (Jung Hoon Kim)
Spiritual interpretation kind of works like solving a math problem. Now that we know the interpretive value of garments, we plug this information back into the textual equation and see what it yields.
The result is awesome: God moves through man’s person, living, and virtues.
God Moves Through Man
You can see how the spiritual interpretation, though not obvious at first, has a solid scriptural basis and ties into the great theme of God’s economy. In this way, spiritual interpretation turns this text into a window through which we can see not just an isolated truth but a glimpse of the whole truth.
To me, this kind of interpretation has greater spiritual value than the conclusions of the first kind. Of course, we should seek to discover what the text originally meant. Of course, we need to acknowledge Jesus as king and honor Him. But we must become more than a crowd of supporters and we must become more than eschatologically perceptive and joyful proclaimers. We must do more than celebrate the move of the Lord; we must become the move of the Lord.
Here is Lee’s interpretation of this passage in Mark 11:
Their conduct, which was an expression of their human virtues, was a seat on which He could rest and a way that He could pass through. Our deeds and our conduct should pave the way for the Lord and serve as a seat on which He can rest.
Watchman Nee also held this interpretation:
These ones first had to break many branches and take off many garments to cover the way before the Lord could enter the city in His glory… If the gospel is to go out, we have to consecrate ourselves to be the way… Our very person has to be the way… The Lord must have a way through us before the gospel will have a way in the world. We must regard the gospel like chariots, horses, and colts, and we ourselves have to be the way.
In this light, this passage offers a vivid illustration of a characteristic truth about God’s move. In other contexts, both Nee and Lee made the same point, only more strongly.
Throughout the ages, the church has been like stepping stones in a stream. The work of the Holy Spirit on us is to make us stepping stones through which He can move. This is our greatest glory. If He cannot secure a way through us, He will choose another stone to step on… Therefore, we have to be on the path of the Holy Spirit.
For God’s plan in eternity past to become His accomplished goal in eternity future, it must pass through man. Man is the bridge between the two eternities. For God to walk from eternity past to eternity future, He must pass through man… If God can go smoothly on this path and this bridge, God can go on His way quickly, God’s purpose can be accomplished early, and the day of the Lord and the kingdom of God can come soon. Conversely, if God encounters problems and obstacles on this bridge and cannot have His way in man, He will be brought to a halt, will be stopped, and will not be able to go on. God will have to wait. He will have to wait not for Himself to work, not for Himself to move, but for man to answer His call, to be touched, and to agree with Him and open the way for Him.
When we search the plain teaching of the epistles we find some correspondence with this view, that God moves through man’s living.
1 Pet. 3:1-4 …Even if any [husbands] disobey the word, they will be gained without the word through the manner of life of their wives, seeing with their own eyes your pure manner of life in fear. Let your adorning not be the outward plaiting of hair and putting on of gold or clothing with garments, but the hidden man of the heart in the incorruptible adornment of a meek and quiet spirit, which is very costly in the sight of God.
1 Pet. 2:12 Having your manner of life excellent among the Gentiles, so that… they may, by your good works, as they see them with their own eyes, glorify God in the day of His visitation.
Phil. 1:27 Only, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…
1 Thes. 1:5 For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, even as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake.
The point in these verses is clear and corroborates the spiritual interpretation of Mark 11. God moves not through words only, but through the manner of life of His people. Our conduct is the gospel’s adornment, the garments which pave the Lord’s move. These inner garments are very costly in God’s sight because of their connection with His move to accomplish His good pleasure. Lee sums it up well when, in connection with the faces of the four living creatures, he says, “Their expression of God is for the move of God.”
How do our garments become God’s way?
Once we’ve established the principle of this passage and connected it to how God moves to accomplish His purpose, we must apply it to our situation in relation to God’s salvation and dispensing.
The question is: how can I, a sinner, whose best behavior God considers to be filthy garments, become a pathway for the King? I think the answer is embedded within the Gospel of Mark in the different ways Mark mentions garments. Mark mentions garments (ἱμάτιον, himation) 12 times. Rearranged and put together, these verses create a mosaic of God’s saving way to heal and transform our living so that it becomes suitable for His move.
As you read these points, remember that every instance of the word “garment” can be replace by the words “living and conduct.”
1. We need give up hope in patching up our old garment—2:21
2. We need need to see that the Lord’s garments are full of the divine glory (sparkling) and are completely justified by God (white)—9:3
3. We need to see that on the cross the Lord was stripped of His garments so that we could be clothed anew—15:17-25
4. We need to touch the Lord’s garments by faith to experience His saving power—5:25-34
5. We need to throw off our old, beggarly garment and follow the Lord on the road—10:46-52; Gal. 3:27
6. At this point, we have been saved, healed, and clothed with Christ. We have put off the old man and put on the new. In other words, our garments have been changed. Now all that’s needed is to offer ourselves to the Lord for His move, by spreading out our garments in the roads of this world—11:7-8
Mark’s use of “garments” hints at the application of God’s full salvation to renew us and clothe us with Christ as our “garments of salvation.” Clothed in Christ (Gal. 3:27), we are positioned to live out Christ as our subjective righteousness. These are the garments that become the means of God’s move.
In this way, our living and conduct is connected to His final move to build up the church, prepare the bride, and bring in the kingdom in its manifestation. And Mark 11 gives us a vivid and impressive story as memorable way to grasp that profound and abstract truth.
1. Augustine, Confessions, 12.16.17
2. Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Part 51
3. Watchman Nee, CWWN, Vol. 54, Ch. 2. “In writing the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit had His own purpose and thoughts.”
4. S.A. Cummins, “The Theological Interpretation Of Scripture: Recent Contributions By Stephen E. Fowl, Christopher R. Seitz And Francis Watson,” Currents in Biblical Research, 2.2 (2004): 181-182. “A major impetus towards theological interpretation has been a collective dissatisfaction with what is deemed to be impoverished and inadequate historical approaches to biblical interpretation… It must be deployed in a more chastened and ad hoc fashion, recognizing that by itself it cannot do justice to all that the biblical text is and has to offer and to all that its interpretation entails.”
5. Mariano Magrassi, Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, p. 72
6. Cummins, 181
7. William L Lane, Mark (NICNT), p. 396
8. C. E. B. Cranfield, Mark (Cambridge Greek Testament Commentaries) , p. 350
9. R. T. France, Matthew (NICNT), p. 433
10. Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew Vol 2, p. 356
11. Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16 (Anchor Yale), p. 779
12. James R Edwards, Mark (PNTC), p. 336
13. David L Turner, Matthew (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the NT), p. 266
14. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Matthew, Ch. 56
15. Origen, Matthew Vol 16, 20; quoted by Henri de Lubac in History and Spirit, p. 235
16. Recovery Version, Matt. 21:7, note 1
17. Lee, Life-Study of Leviticus, Ch. 41
18. Recovery Version, Rev. 3:4, note 1
19. Eugene Boring, Mark (NT Library), p. 261
20. Peter Leithart, online
21. Jung Hoon Kim, The Significance of Clothing Imagery in the Pauline Corpus, p. 2
22. Recovery Version, Mark 11:7, note 2
23. Nee, CWWN, Vol. 61, Ch 9
24. Nee, CWWN , Vol. 55, Ch. 8
25. Lee, The Bridge and Channel of God, Ch. 6
26. Lee, Life-Study of Ezekiel, Ch. 8