All means all and that’s all all means but not always

I confess I was never familiar with the phrase “All means all and that’s all all means” until the last couple of years and while it certainly sounds good, especially as it is related to the Bible, is it an accurate statement?  You might need to go back and read the phrase again.  It’s simply stating that the word all means all and doesn’t mean anything else.  But is that always true? (pun intended)  Here’s what I mean.  Take the following examples:

  • “I got home late last night to find that someone had eaten all the cookies.”
  • “The mother told her child that she expected all the dishes to be washed.”
  • “There’s a guy in my office that talks about politics all the time.”

Each of these statements are true in their usage of the word all, however, even in our English language we know that there is an applied context in each example.  For instance, taken in a wooden literal sense that “all means all and that’s all all means”, we would be left to assume that in example 1, someone ate all the cookies that are in existence.  In the second example, every dish including those clean and shelved, the fine china, and the holiday ware should all be washed, in every person’s house, everywhere.  And finally, this statement, using all in the wooden literal sense, implies that the office person is incapable of talking about anything other than politics.

These might sound like far fetched examples, but that’s really what the statement “all means all and that’s all all means” is implying.  Instead, we know that the context of the statement in example one limits or confines “all the cookies” to either a particular package or all the cookies within possession at the home.  Secondly, the confining context of example two is that the mother is clearly implying that all the dirty dishes, or all of the dishes in the sink, are the ones to be washed.  Finally, in our third example, the context simply means that the office person excessively talks about politics, not exclusively, but rather in abundance.

So what does this have to do with the Bible?  Well, if we are not careful, a wooden reading of Scripture will leave us with a faulty interpretation, unless we let context define what is being said.  Let’s examine some usage of the word “all” to see if this common phrase “all means all…” is really true.

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Luke 2:1 KJV Now, a wooden meaning of the word all here would lead us to believe that every single person in the world was to be taxed based on the decree from Caesar.  The problem with this reading is that every person was not under Roman rule.  Rome’s empire during the first century extended to much of the area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, so it would be unreasonable to expect that Caesar would tax the Far East, a region over whom he had no control.  Instead, context allows us to realize that this tax sent out from Caesar was for all the Roman world.

“And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Mark 1:5 Here we are given a picture of the ministry of John (the Baptist).  John was preparing the way for the Messiah by baptizing people as a symbol of their hearts preparation for the Gospel.  But again, if we were to take the word all here to mean literally every single individual man, woman, and child, then we would be led to believe that John was baptizing over 500,000 people, the conservative estimate of Judea alone during the first century.  Is that possible?  Certainly, all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26, pun again), but was it likely?  Well, just a few short verses later we are informed that John is arrested (Mark 1:14).  Are we then to assume that the very same people who were repentant of their sins and who were publicly denouncing their association with Judaism for their desire to accept the coming Messiah had now arrested John?  Did this all include the Pharisees and Sadducees who would trouble and harass Jesus throughout His ministry, even to the point of His crucifiction?  Not likely. Instead, through the use of all, Mark is conveying a significantly large number of people who were going out to be baptized by John.

For similar usage of the word all, see: Mark 1:33, Mark 7:14, John 8:2, John 11:48, Acts 19:27 and all the rest.

These examples might seem basic and straightforward, but what about those where the wooden reading of all would significantly impact one’s view of what Scripture is saying.

“who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:4  This is a much debated passage on the true desire of God to have all people saved.  Some argue, “if this is God’s genuine desire, then why doesn’t He do it since He’s all powerful?”  Others say, “this passage shows that God has a genuine desire for all men to be saved, but He leaves the choice to them and eagerly waits their decision.”  In other words, leaving God powerless.  This debate aside, let’s look at this passage in context to see what it is saying.  In context, all is often defined by it’s nearest antecedent.  Or if we think back to our English grammar days, antecedent would simply be that word (noun) referenced later, often by a pronoun. (Example: I have not seen John. He is not here. – He is referring to the antecedent John).  When we apply this to  all in this passage, we run into some difficulty, but let’s see if we can trace it out.

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 7 For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Note here in verse 1, Paul uses the same phrase, “all people” as the group to whom he is urging prayer.  Now, if we were to take our wooden use of the word all again, we might get started obeying Paul’s plea by picking up our local phone book and start praying for “all people”.  But that isn’t the case because Paul is going to define this for us in the following verse, “for kings and all who are in high positions”.  Paul has defined his group, “all people” as leadership, i.e. kings and those in high positions.”  In other words, he is instructing Timothy (and us) to pray for our leaders.  Keeping this in mind, we move to our verse, verse 4, and see the phrase “all people” again.  Having just seen this exact phrase first mentioned in verse 1 and defined in verse 2, we can surmise that Paul is stating God desires “all [kinds of] people” to be saved, which is not limited to those who aren’t in leadership.  God desires kings to be saved too.  Again, in this context we can conclude it’s saying God desires all people without distinction (kings, leaders, paupers, slaves, etc.) to be saved, but not necessarily all people without exception (i.e., every single individual person).  Does God desire all (every, single, individual) people to be saved? The argument cannot be made conclusively from this particular passage and maintain the context.  (However, for more on this debate see John Murray’s The Free Offer of the Gospel)

Finally, let’s look at a positive use of the word all, where it actually does mean all.  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28  How can Christians be sure that this means all things?  What if we applied the same reading here as earlier and discovered that not everything is included in the all?  Surely that we leave us open to discouragement and despair, but is that the case?

“29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Here, in verses 29-30 Paul grounds the assurance of “those who love God” and “those who are called according to his purpose” (this refers to the same group), in God’s foreknowing, predestining, calling, justifying, and glorifying of them.  In this “golden chain of redemption”, God is certainly showing that He has worked all things in relation to each of those links for the good of those who love Him.  But that is not all.  God continues to unfold this good in verse 31 (Romans 8:31- 39) and following and it looks something like this:

  • God is for us – who can be against us
  • He did not spare His own Son – But gave Him up for us all (the group defined as those who love God)
  • Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect – It is God who justifies
  • Who is to condemn – Christ Jesus died
    • More than that: raised and interceding for us (same group as earlier)
  • Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? – not tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword.
  • He adds, not death/life, angels/rulers, things present/to come, powers, height/depth, nor anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Does this sound like a comprehensive all here?  Yes, I think so.  But again, context determined it.

So does “all mean all and that’s all all means”?  We’ll yes and no, depending on how the context defines all.   But rarely does all mean every single individual person without exception.  Perhaps this popular phrase would be more accurately represented by, “All means all when that’s all all means.”  Lord willing, I hope to write-up a post on an extremely surprising result when I applied this to a popular verse read in context.

Grace and peace!

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Christian saved by grace through faith.


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