Christianity 201

November 19, 2016

Do the Proverbs Come with an Iron-Clad Guarantee

Yesterday’s reading took us briefly into the book of Proverbs which we said weren’t hard and firm promises but statements of general principles. We quoted Paul Tautges and said we’d return to all six of the interpretive guidelines he gives for this book. This is his tenth time quoted here at C201; click the link below to read this (and more) at the website Counseling One Another.

Are Proverbs Sure-Fire Promises?

Last week, a church member emailed me this question:

I was having a discussion about a couple of Proverbs that I was reading with a friend and it came about in the discussion that he believed that Proverbs are promises. I had asked what his basis for believing that was. He told me because of the defined word “will’ which means it “will” happen if you do this or do that. Are the Proverbs indeed promises?

One of the ways I answered was to direct him to one of my top-three favorite commentaries on Proverbs, the Mentor Commentary, by John Kitchen. Here is how he helps us understand six principles for interpreting the book of Proverbs.

6 Principles for Interpreting Proverbs

“Proverbs can appear overly mechanical in its description of the universe, God’s sovereignty over it, and His dealings with man in it. Its observations are often stated in absolute terms, apparently leaving little room for variance. For example, consider the sequence in Proverbs 3, which demands that if one fears the Lord he will experience great health (v. 8), material prosperity (v. 10), peaceful sleep (v. 24), and protection from calamity (v. 26). How should we view such sweeping statements? Are these guarantees? Is any lesser experience a sign of moral and spiritual failure? To arrive at God’s intention, several observations should be kept in mind as one interprets and applies Proverbs.

First, the proverbs are consistent observations, not categorical absolutes. The proverbs are not always intended as promises, but only as observations of repeated phenomena. Take Proverbs 22:6: ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.’ Many a parent has been told that, in this verse, God guarantees their wayward child will return to the fold. But, like so many other proverbs, its author is making an observation of consistent behavior and outcomes (i.e. normally children raised in godly homes end up walking with God themselves), not issuing an inviolable law.

It will take discernment to carefully draw the line between divine guarantee and divinely inspired observation. A helpful path to such wisdom is the balancing of individual proverbs with the fuller witness of Scripture. This leads to a second principle of interpretation.

Second, the proverbs must be read in context. Many view the aphorisms as individual nuggets of gold scattered randomly along the path of wisdom. There is, they assert, little help to be found in the context. However, each proverbial saying does reside within the whole of Proverbs and its teaching. They must be read against the balancing treatment of wisdom in Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as the fuller span of the poetic books. Then, too, the inspired Scriptural circle must be drawn to include the whole of the Old Testament and, ultimately, the entire Bible.

Third, we must understand that, by their very nature, the proverbs are truth stripped to the essentials. They are seldom qualified, balanced by surrounding statements, or extensively defined. They are stripped down, stated, and left to stand – all with the goal of arresting our attention and engaging our minds.

A proverb is truth in its most concentrated form, and thus expects us to add Spirit-illuminated reflection to come to full understanding. A proverb is designed to be ‘unpacked’ through much meditation, comparison with life, and with other Scriptures. Murphy well says:  ‘The proverb’s declaratory nature catches our attention, but it also conceals, for it achieves only a slice of realty…. The truth of a saying – call it a partial truth – usually needs another saying to counterbalance it.’

Fourth, though Proverbs can appear simplistic to the uninformed reader, we must realize that Proverbs does not intend to present life as void of ambiguities. Consider the juxtaposition of the seemingly contradictory words of Proverbs 26:4-5:  ‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes.’ The one who comes to Proverbs for simple answers requiring little thought will leave disappointed. We want to know, ‘Which is it!?  Do I answer him? Or do I not?’ Proverbs was written not merely to tell us what to do, but also to make us think. Pure pragmatists may find themselves frustrated, if unwilling to pursue reflective, Spirit-guided meditation.

Fifth, we do well to unearth the assumptions inherent to a proverb. Because a proverb is truth stripped to its irreducible minimum, all helpful qualifying and clarifying statements are implicit rather than explicit. Bullock helpfully observes: ‘The first hermeneutical principle is that the theological assumptions of the book are often more important than the textual context.’ For example, until we have carefully absorbed the instructions of Proverbs 1-9, we are not well positioned to rightly interpret the aphorisms of Proverbs 10ff. The theology of Proverbs 1-9 sets the stage for understanding the wisdom of the later sentence literature.  We must ask ourselves not only what is stated, but what is assumed about God, His relationship to, and role in, the world around us, and His purposes.

Sixth, while Proverbs is not highly prophetic in nature (though see Prov. 30:4 and the commentary there), it ultimately finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who is the wisdom of God (Isa. 11:2; 1 Cor. 1:24, 30). ‘Lady wisdom’ in Proverbs 8 is probably best understood as a personification of a divine attribute for didactic purposes, rather than a reference to the second Person of the Trinity specifically (see the commentary at 8:1, 22). Yet, it is only as we embrace Christ through faith that we are then able to enter into the wisdom that His Spirit sets forth here. When Christ becomes our very life (Col. 3:4), we find Him to be the One ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col. 2:3). We should, therefore, look to the New Testament not only for clarification and balance, but for fulfillment of the wisdom so gloriously set forth in Proverbs.”

 

June 17, 2016

Clear as Mud

It’s three verses that critics of the King James Version frequently use to show why we needed — and continue to need — new Bible translations.

For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. But we will not boast of things without our measure, but according to the measure of the rule which God hath distributed to us, a measure to reach even unto you. For we stretch not ourselves beyond our measure, as though we reached not unto you: for we are come as far as to you also in preaching the gospel of Christ.  2 Corinthians 10:12-14 KJV

Did you get all that? Not the stuff of a great Bible study for today, but hopefully it leaves you with some empathy for those who struggle with Bible understanding, even if this is a rather extreme example. Can any of us say that our scriptures are “easily understood?”

All of this leads us to your word for today: “Perspicuity.” Say that ten times!

Instead, you might actually find the Latin easier, Claritas Scripturae means what you think it does, the clarity of scripture.

A bit of context is needed. The doctrine of Claritas Scripturae is a Protestant idea which stands in contrast to the Catholic view that the scriptures are not clear. Rather, the holy writings belong to the realm of mystery and the average person cannot fathom it; the lay-reader can never fully understand it. Instead, someone needs to be the broker of it, the arbiter of it for the rest of us. This could be the clergy class in general, or in a Catholic sense, it refers The Magisterium or what some simply call The Vatican.

The Protestant perspective stands in opposition to this. The gospel is so simple that a little child can understand it, and in fact, that is the only way you can experience salvation:

Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

There is a sense in which this is true. But we also realize that on a personal level, we are extremely grateful for the sermons, the podcasts, the commentaries, the Study Bible notes. Paul appeals to the idea that we need set apart ones or sent ones.

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14)

In 2008, blogger Ben Johnson, then a Masters student at Western Seminary, put this far more succinctly than I can in this short blog post:

One of the things that becomes evident when you begin formal Bible study is that you begin to question the protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. Here is what I mean by this. As you begin your ‘formal training’ you begin to acquire what can only be called ‘special knowledge’ (sounds very gnostic). You now know Greek and Hebrew (and for those select few, Aramaic). You know more of the historical backgrounds of the texts (or at least what current scholarship thinks it knows about those backgrounds). You begin to exercise, what your professor tells you is a ‘sound hermeneutic.’ All this is ‘special knowledge’ that the average person in the pew does not have.

Now, imagine yourself in church and people begin asking you questions (they know you’re in seminary after all). You begin to rattle off what you heard in last week’s lecture on the book of Romans, talking about historical background and the Greek root of verbs, and the average person begins to doubt in their own ability to read the Bible themselves.

Here is my problem. The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture came about (at least the Protestant formulation of it) in rebellion against the medieval catholic view that only the church (i.e., non lay-people) could interpret Scripture. When I look at the church today, it seems to me that we have replaced the ‘church’ with the ‘academy.’ If you haven’t written a critical commentary on the Gospel of Mark who are you to interpret it? As I begin to be a true (whatever that means) student of Scripture I find myself utilizing my recently acquired ‘special knowledge’ and finding great insight from it. However, as a Christian and a churchman I have to maintain that the basics of the message are accessible to the average person in the pew given the illumination of the Spirit and the proper amount of study. All that is to stay, I think I still need to confirm the basic idea of the perspicuity of Scripture (to say nothing of post-modern, or reader-oriented hermeneutics) but I’m still working out how.

I really need to repeat Ben’s second-to-last sentence:

I have to maintain that the basics of the message are accessible to the average person in the pew given the illumination of the Spirit and the proper amount of study.

But in his final sentence, he affirms that it’s complicated.

Do you think the average person can process the basics of the gospel, or do they need the help of those better-trained in theology?


Here are some verses from the cutting room floor today!

The LORD our God has secrets known to no one. We are not accountable for them, but we and our children are accountable forever for all that he has revealed to us, so that we may obey all the terms of these instructions. (Deuteronomy 29:29 NLT)

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith– (Romans 16:26-27)

For who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.  (1 Corinthians 2:16 HCSB)

All scriptures NIV unless otherwise stated, I think!


Go Deeper: Here’s a scholarly article by D.A. Carson where I first began today’s thoughts.

Note: The title of today’s article was deliberately provocative.

 

 

 

 

 

October 15, 2015

Territorial Gods and Spirits

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm
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Today we introduce Richard Beck at the blog Experimental Theology. I saw this article earlier in the week and it occurred to me that this touches on a subject that some have not studied, so today represents something a little different for you! It’s important to know that the context of much of the Old Testament involves interactions with neighboring nations who believed in various gods that were only applicable to their local territory. So there would be a god of agriculture in one area, but that god might not be influential to another nation.

Israel itself had this mentality, and it may have limited their faith in a God who is all-powerful and omnipresent.

Click the link in the title below to read at source and look around the rest of his blog.

Regional Demons and Territorial Spirits

A few weeks ago Jana and I were talking with our friend Jonathan McRay who was in town for some presentations and consulting work at ACU.

Jonathan was sharing about the importance of land and place in indigenous spirituality. For indigenous peoples spirituality is rooted in a very specific ecosystem. And in the Bible you see this with Israel, how their relationship with YHWH was rooted in a specific land and place.

Moreover, in indigenous spirituality when you fall out of step with the land the spiritual equilibrium gets out of whack. Some bad mojo starts to happen. People and land are out of sync. And again, you see this in the life of Israel where famine in the land was punishment for spiritual wickedness.

Ecosystem and spirituality go hand in hand. If the people are spiritually healthy the land is healthy. But if the people are sick the land becomes sick.

The thermometer of our spiritual fever is the quality of our soil and air.

This conversation with Jonathan got us talking about the spirituality at work in a given place or land, how the “gods” of a people are regional and territorial. There is the land and there is the spirituality at work in the land.

You can see this connection between land and spirit in Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy 32:8-9
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.

But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

God divides up the land and the peoples assigning to each a “son of God,” a regional deity. From among the nations God keeps Israel for Himself.

Later in the book of Psalms we see a connection between oppression and injustice in the land and the misrule of these regional deities. In Psalm 82 God convenes a “divine counsel” with the regional deities to rebuke them for their misrule:

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Later in the book of Daniel we see these wicked regional gods morphing into something we’d call demons. But even in Daniel the demon described is still tied to a land and place. In Chapter 10 we find Daniel praying and after a few days the angelic messenger appears to answer. The angel apologizes for his delay by saying that he was intercepted by “the prince of Persia.” The angel was only able to get away from this demonic interference after Michael the archangel came to the rescue.

What we have in Daniel 10 is a vision of angelic and demonic combat, but note how the demon is still tied to land and place. The spirit is territorial and regional: The prince of Persia.

The point of all this is that I think there are some biblical intersections with indigenous spiritualities, ways to look at the spirits that govern the land and how those spirits are variously aligned or misaligned with the Kingdom of God at work in a particular place and land.

How the regional and territorial spirits are either healthy or sick.

October 12, 2015

Reading Biblical Literature

Passage One:

John 13:3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

Passage Two:

Mark 10:17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone…”

In the first passage, Jesus knows who he is, where he has come from and where he is going. He then performs an act of great humility.

In the second passage, it could be seen by some that Jesus is distancing himself from God. The Reformation Study Bible notes:

Jesus’ reply does not mean that He does not consider Himself good. He rather wants to show the man that “No one is good except God alone,” so that the man may realize that all his works do not make him good, and that he is not capable of earning eternal life.

The question is meant to challenge the rich young man in the story, but if people are looking for Biblical contradictions — and many are — they might seize on this one.  It is for that reason I titled today’s thoughts “Reading Biblical Literature.” One needs to know what they are reading at the time.

Passage one shows the servant heart of Jesus, but it places that in direct contrast to his divinity. Again, the Reformation Study Bible is helpful here:

Jesus’ humble conduct was not because He forgot His rank as incarnate God the Son. His act demonstrates that rank and privilege are not occasions for arrogance, but are higher credentials for service.

I am always drawn back to the passage in Philippians 2, which I personally render as “…although he was God, he did not think his divinity was something to be leveraged.”

There’s a simple saying in real estate that the top three things in selling a house are “Location, location, location.” Similarly in Bible interpretation, the top three things are context, context, context.

But as easy at is to resolve Passage Two above by saying, “He was simply asking a rhetorical question” or “He was simply challenging the young man” (Some simply shrug their shoulders and say, “We cannot understand it; it is mystery.”) Those are good starts, and I don’t want to eliminate the element of mystery, but I think we can also resolve this by looking at the issue of interpretation through knowing the character of Christ.

Don’t you love the fact that he knew who he was and where he was from and where he was going, but can also look into the eyes of someone and almost playfully, humorously ask, “Why do you call me good; there is no one good except God?”

When we engage in the academic, somewhat dry process of “reading Biblical literature,” we do it best when we are reading Christ.

 

March 8, 2015

The Lord That Heals

…I am the LORD, your healer – Exodus 15:26

As I write this, I am recovering from one of the worst night’s sleep — or lack of sleep — ever. Whether or not I was food poisoning we might never know, but 24 hours ago I was feeling fine and now I feel like I survived a massive physical ambush.

I have experienced longer, more sustained illness, but this type of thing has been rare for me in the last 20 years. Nevertheless, I am always amazed at systemic healing; how the body has created in such a way that it want to right itself when things go wrong. You see this most in a cut finger; clotting begins almost immediately and in successive days, as long as you properly care for it, the gash begins to disappear. Thankfully, our modern medicines allow us to give the body’s natural tendencies a hand and speed the healing of infections, or reset broken bones.

(As an aside, I think this is why various cancers are so dreaded, they don’t follow this pattern; almost by definition things get worse.)

It’s easy to place this systemic healing in a category of “all things work together for good;” not the misquoted and mis-applied version of the verse, but the idea that the body is naturally pointed toward healing, and in this God deserves equal credit as he would in a situation where his intervention is more sudden and more apparent, as in the case of a condition that has been lingering.

I believe that God is positively disposed and favorably inclined to hear and answer our petitions, including those for our physical bodies. I wrote about that phrase in this article.

But like the Romans 8:28 reference there is more to be said about God’s healing power in Exodus 15:26 than what I quoted above. See the three dots (ellipses) before the verse begins “…” ? You have to be very careful when people quote verses that way.  The full verse reads:

[The Lord tested them] saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.”

This immediately tells the verse is

God affirms his position as “healer” but even there, the promise is preventative. Does this mean God’s can’t heal you of the physical need you face right now? Of course not. But I believe it means we should ask not claim.

Physical healing is part of the hesed or grace of God. Our faith should be such that we ask; asking for even the greatest miracles. Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. But do this in faith in God’s limitless ability, not his obligation that is based on a verse that may be out of context or have conditions you are required to meet.

Ask expecting not a miracle of healing, but an undeserved administration of grace. A lyric that often runs through my head — part of a song I wrote myself — in times like this is

Touch me, heal me
You’re a God of mercy
Touch me, heal me
You’re a God of grace
Touch me, heal me,
Lord I cry out to you
Won’t you touch me and heal me I pray.


Speaking of song lyrics reminded me of this song by Don Moen, I am the God that Healeth Thee.

 

 

February 27, 2015

The Eagle in Your Living Room

As I scan various online writers, a recurring theme in the last few months has been making a mid-course adjustment to our simplistic understanding of key Bible verses. Author and blogger K.W. Leslie addressed this recently at his blog More Christ. In visiting his blog I was reminded of the wealth of material he has. Some of the pieces are longer than what we do here, or I would consider stealing more of them! To read this at source, click the link contained in the title below.

“Those who wait on the Lord…”

But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings as eagles;
they shall run, and not be weary;
and they shall walk, and not faint.

Isaiah 40.31 KJV

When I visit fellow Christians’ homes, a lot of ’em have a painting of an eagle hanging somewhere. Some of ’em are of an American bald eagle, and meant to express their patriotism. Others were purchased at the local Family Christian Stores, and are meant to express their trust in God, and are universally captioned with the Isaiah verse about mounting up with wings as eagles. And some try to blend the two sentiments—a patriotic American eagle, plus the Isaiah verse. God ’n country.

The eagle picture appeals to a lot of Christians because of the idea Isaiah expressed: The LORD, our creator, has inexhaustible strength, Is 40.28 and empowers the weak. Is 40.29 Even the strongest of us may fail, Is 40.30 but God can renew our strength. Indefinitely. Is 40.31

It’s great encouragement for those of us who have energy-draining jobs or lives. When our own batteries are dead, God can recharge ’em. When our resources are taxed, God always has more. Many’s the time I’ve told the kids, “I ran out of patience with you long ago. I’m drawing on God’s patience now.” Tapping God’s dýnamis power,” his dynamo of endless cosmic supply, is possible for every Christian.

Possible. Not promised. That’s where Christians wind up taking this verse out of context.

“Isn’t this a prophecy?”

True, Isaiah was a prophet, and Isaiah is a prophetic book. But Christians—mostly because they don’t read their bibles, and are unfamiliar with prophetic literature—don’t always understand what prophetic literature means.

Prophecy is anything God tells his people secondhand—though his prophets, like Isaiah or Moses or Elijah or John. He can, and does, speak directly to us. But sometimes we’re not listening, or too dense to understand him. Or sometimes we understand him quite well, but in order to be sure it’s really him, he’s gotta say the same thing to somebody else as confirmation.

But let me reiterate: Prophecy is anything God tells his people. Not just predictions of the future. Not just promises. Not just commands and declarations and instructions. Sometimes—as is the case of this scripture—it’s wisdom. Morsels of God’s profound understanding of the human psyche, or statements about life which, all things being equal, tend to be true.

Those who don’t read their bibles, tend to claim everything God says in the bible is a promise, is a “yes” and “amen.” As if God can’t speak in any other genre but wish-granting, foretelling, and thunderous divine decrees. Sometimes all he’s doing is telling us what he likes. How to behave. How to love one another. How to love him.

And that’s what a lot of prophetic literature consists of. It’s not just rants and threats for the wicked, and glories evermore for the righteous. It’s God talking to his people, about whatever’s on his mind. Treating it all like promises means we’re not trying to understand the mind of God… we’re just looking for things we can hold God to, like a contract we wish to manipulate in our favor. It means our relationship with God doesn’t have a whole lot of trust to it.

This particular part of Isaiah falls into the category of wisdom literature. They’re not commands; they’re not guarantees. (No matter how often people misquote them as if they are.) They’re situational. All things being equal, they’re true. Sometimes things aren’t equal, and there are exceptions.

“…They shall renew their strength.”

People read that word “shall” in the King James Version, and leap to the conclusion this passage isn’t just generically describing God’s followers. It’s not that when we trust in God, he tends to renew our strength when we’ve run low. It’s that he shall renew our strength. Isaiah says so. “Shall” turns it into a guarantee.

It’s really not. The verb yakhlífu/“changing,” which the KJV renders “shall renew,” isn’t a future-tense verb. Biblical Hebrew actually doesn’t have future-tense verbs. This is what we call a hifíl verb, which means the subject didn’t do the action so much as make it happen. Those who wait on the LORD haven’t changed their own strength from empty to full—they didn’t achieve it. But waiting on the LORD is what contributed to it happening. If we depend on God, he’ll strengthen us.

Usually. Like I said, wisdom literature is situational.

I point you to Samson. (He’s always a good example of what not to do.) Dude took God for granted, figuring God would always come through for him, no matter what. No matter how many commands and vows he broke. He trusted God to always provide him with supernatural strength to smite his enemies, and God did… till he didn’t, and let Samson’s enemies take him. Jg 16.20-21 Renewing Samson’s strength didn’t suit God’s purposes.

And sometimes renewing our strength doesn’t renew God’s purposes either. It just encourages us to take him for granted, and expect him to keep us away from burnout. Even though our lifestyles have no time management, no limits, and take no sabbaths. God commanded his people to rest, remember? Ex 20.8-11

Yet Christian ministers are regularly guilty of working seven days a week, with no breaks—and no surprise, we burn out. We figure we do wait on the LORD—we take little breaks for prayer, like Jesus did, Mk 1.35-37 and we’re doing the LORD’s work; shouldn’t he come through for us in return? Doesn’t he owe us one?

That’s why so many Christians like to reinterpret this verse to mean God will strengthen his followers. It justifies all the exhaustion, all the overwork, all the stress: “God will replenish me. He promised he would.” Worse, it justifies all the commitments we demand of those under us. Many a church has burned out its volunteers by promising them, “God promises to reward you for your dedication”—and he promised no such thing. (He did promise stress, though. Jn 16.33)

Fact is, if we’re not wise with our strength, if we’re depending on God to make up for the lack of self-control (which he wants us to practice), he may renew nothing. We’ll burn out. We’ll learn our lesson the hard way.

Really wait on the Lord.

Qoye/“one waiting for,” which describes those who wait on God, describes those of us who “trust in the LORD” (NLT), who wait for his help (NET), who put their hope in him (NJB). They’re following God. They’re not running ahead of him, and looking back to him once they get tired and are wondering why the guy with the water bottles hasn’t kept up. They’re running alongside. They’re stopping when he stops. They start when he says go.

It’s about closeness, intimacy, relationship. It’s not about working our hardest, then turning to God once our motor runs down. It’s about following him as far as he goes. And when we feel we can’t go any further, his strength (yeah, it’s another hifíl verb) causes us to rise up, like the wing of an eagle—it’s not about gliding or soaring, but about the way eagles raise their wings when they’re about to take off—and off we fly. When we’re doing the Lord’s work, we’d better be doing it with the Lord. It’s not the Lord’s work any other way.

January 30, 2015

Jerusalem, Judea and the Uttermost Places on Earth

John 4:9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

A few years ago I had an interesting conversation after church.

The pastor had quoted the verse we commonly refer to as “The Great Commission;” the verse which reads,

Acts 1:8 NLT But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The person who spoke to me has a huge compassion for Israel and is willing to share this passion with any who want to know more about the various facets of how modern Israel fits into Old Testament history, New Testament studies, evangelism and missions, eschatology, etc. We’ve had some great interactions, and I’ve learned much about The Holy Land from our conversations and various items she’s given me to read.

She suggested to me that perhaps the passage in Acts 1:8 might actually be taken most literally. That we should be evangelists in Jerusalem.

I told her that neither those we call the “church fathers” nor modern commentators have interpreted this passage that way. I mean, it’s an interesting take on the passage, and certainly in first century context it is correct; but we tend to read their commission into our commission and when we do so, we tend to think of Jerusalem as the place where we’re standing or sitting right now. The place we call home. My Jerusalem is the close family, co-workers, immediate neighbors, etc. who in a sense, only I can reach.

Perhaps you grew up in a church where it was diagrammed something like this:

Jerusalem Judea Samaria traditional interpretation

But people do read scripture differently, and many passages that seem straight-forward are subject to different understandings. So in Acts and Paul’s epistles, my friend at church sees Paul’s consuming drive to bring the Gospel to the Jews; whereas I read Acts and am struck by how Paul was compelled to go to Rome against all odds. (To be fair, both elements are present; “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”)

Driving home, my wife pointed out that a most-literal reading of the passage would be difficult since Samaria no longer exists and the “end of the earth” (ESV and NKJV) or the even more archaic “ends of the earth” (HCSB and strangely, NLT, above) no longer applies to an earth we know is round and has no ends. (I like the NASB here, “the remotest parts of the earth.” Good translation and very missional.)

I’m not sure I agreed with the pastor’s take on Samaria, however. He chose Toronto, a city about an hour from where we live, as our “modern Samaria” because of its cosmopolitan nature; because it’s a gateway to so many cultures impacting the rest of the world. Truly when Jesus met the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4, it was a clash of cultures in several ways at once.

But Samaria would not be seen that way by those receiving the great commission. In Judea they will like me and receive but in Samaria we have a mutual distrust and dislike for each other. Samaria is the place you don’t want to go to. Your Samaria may be geographically intertwined in your Jerusalem or your Judea. Your Samaria may be at the remotest part the earth and it’s your Samaria because it’s at the ends of the earth.

Your Samaria may be the guy in the next cubicle that you just don’t want to talk to about your faith, but feel a strong conviction both that you need to and he needs you to. Your Samaria may be the next door neighbor whose dogs run all over your lawn doing things that dogs do. Your Samaria may be the family that runs the convenience store where you rent DVDs who are of a faith background that you associate with hatred and violence. Your Samaria may be atheists, abortionists, gays, or just simply people who are on the opposite side of the fence politically. Your Samaritan might just be someone who was sitting across the aisle in Church this weekend.

And perhaps, just to make things interesting, with its heat, humidity and propensity toward violence, perhaps your Samaria actually is modern-day Jerusalem.


  • Some of today’s article appeared previously in October, 2014 incorporated in a look at how this view of Samaria would have influenced the original hearers of The Parable of the Good Samaritan story.  The full article was originally published in January 2011 at Thinking Out Loud.

October 9, 2014

Problems in Old Testament Interpretation

Today we want to introduce you to the writing of former missionary and pastor Eric Carpenter.  This is actually the first in a series on the subject of Old Testament interpretation and you’ll have to click through to find some newer ones.  When you’ve finished, hit the “home” button in the top left corner and then read more recent entries. Click the title below to link directly:

Poor Interpretation of the Old Testament Always Leads to a Multitude of Church Problems

Bible 4The Old Testament is wonderful. It is as much a part of the bible as the New Testament is. In fact, it makes up about 2/3 of the scriptures. From its pages we learn much about who God is, who we are, how the world began, what our problems are, how God plans to save us, who the suffering servant is, etc. Above all else, the Old Testament reveals to us who our wonderful, majestic Creator is and what He is like. It is God’s revelation of Himself to us. We can learn much from the Old Testament and do well to spend much time in it.

That being said, the Old Testament is not a manual for how to live church life. If we treat it as such, we run the risk of the same poor interpretation that has plagued much of the church for centuries. Poor O.T. interpretation always leads to a multitude of church problems. The reason for this is that most of the O.T. focuses on God’s relationship with Israel. The majority of this information deals with the Old Covenant. It no longer applies to those of us who are part of the New Covenant.

The O.T. itself points ahead to the New Covenant as something being far different from what was going on at that time. Jeremiah 31:31-34 tells us:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

We see in these verses the New Covenant contrasted with the Old Covenant. It is something far different.

Please let me be clear about one thing: the Old Testament is not the same thing as the Old Covenant. However, much of the information contained in the Old Testament focuses on the Old Covenant. Therefore, when Christians today make direct application from O.T. passages to church life, they frequently do so incorrectly.

Frankly, much of what has been going on for hundreds of years is a form of reverse interpretation. This occurs when Christians enjoy a church practice that is, in fact, based more in tradition than anything else. These Christians look in the New Testament to find support for this practice but cannot find any. Therefore, they then turn back to the Old Testament to find something to base their current practices upon. This is when the problem rears its ugly head. These believers use things found in O.T. Israel as a way to support what they are doing today.  This happens again and again despite the fact that they are pointing back to the Old Covenant.

Let me point out one stark example of this: the large, expensive church building. The New Testament provides no support for this idea whatsoever. Therefore, those who want something to base today’s buildings upon point back to the O.T. temple for support. This is incredibly bad interpretation. It is using the Old Covenant to support the New Covenant even though Jeremiah has told us that they are two completely different things.

I’m deeply concerned about the church today. Even though it is a wonderful thing, it has many problems. Some of these problems stem directly from exceedingly poor interpretation of the Old Testament.

This is the first post in a blog series I’m writing on O.T. interpretive problems. These are problems that still directly impact the church today.

I believe that if the church will stop pointing back to Old Covenant forms and practices it will become a much healthier church. My hope is not simply to discuss problems but also solutions. In order to be a healthy church, we need to look to the correct place. That place is the New Covenant, which is largely found in the N.T. as opposed to the O.T.

Good interpretation is a necessity for a healthy, thriving church. I have no doubt that this is what God desires.


Here is one of the more recent articles in the series which I also appreciated: Genre, Genre, Genre

July 2, 2014

About That Mansion Over the Hilltop

John 14:3 (Phillips) It is true that I am going away to prepare a place for you, but it is just as true that I am coming again to welcome you into my own home, so that you may be where I am.

John 14:3 (The Voice) I will be there to greet you personally and welcome you home, where we will be together.

John 14:3 (NASB) If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.

Today’s thoughts are from Matt Appling at the always interesting blog, The Church of No People where it appeared under the title Heaven is not a Timeshare: How a Generation of Christians Have Been Tricked About Heaven.

What is the point of being a Christian anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because it seems like we need a sales pitch to get people in the door. What will I get if I agree to this thing called Christianity?

Will Jesus make my life better?

Will I be a better person?

Will I get to go to heaven?

There are a myriad of promises that were made to us when we first accepted Jesus as our “personal” savior, a bunch of guarantees that we could be certain of. I don’t usually do this, but I love Micah Murray’s blog so much, if you haven’t read his Four Reasons I’m Not Going to Heavenyou should (right after you’re done here.) He’s done a great job and I’m not going to retread his points.

There are a lot of bait-and-switch jobs we do to get people to accept Jesus. They are the little Easter Eggs that we scatter around in the hopes of making Jesus more appealing. But I’ve got to think that the greatest trick that we have perpetrated, the biggest bait-and-switch of all time has got to be the certainty that if you accept Jesus, you get to go to heaven when you die.

Here’s what I mean.

 

The Sales Pitch for Christianity

I have never heard a sales pitch for heaven that was not absolutely glowing. I mean, come on, it’s heaven.

The streets are lined with gold and the seas are crystal clear. It’s a beautiful place.

We get to be reunited with all of our lost loved ones.

What do we do in heaven? There’s always something about whatever we like to do, we get to do it all the time. We get to eat constantly and never gain weight. We get to party all day. Heaven is a super duper fun place. I think the heaven sales pitch has been revamped over the years. These days, we want people to know that they will not be spending eternity floating on a boring old cloud playing a harp. 

Oh and church, that place that we endure our entire lives in order to get to heaven? Yeah don’t worry, heaven won’t be like that either. Heaven will be flipping sweet. All your best buddies will be there and none of the bad people. That girl who insulted you in high school? Yeah, you’ll be able to gloat as she burns in hell, which will also be flipping sweet.

Oh and we’ll probably get to fly too. And we’re going to have totally ripped abs.

You know, stuff like that.

The Money Back Guarantee

Of course, none of that sales pitch comes from the Bible. We just made them up, because that’s what we do when God is silent about stuff like this.

If you press people, they have to say that we really don’t know what heaven is like. But they counter with “But whatever you can think of, it’s BETTER than that!” It’s like a money-back guarantee.

Tricky, tricky. You know, this is starting to sound like a timeshare presentation. It doesn’t make things any better that there are now scores of books, full of testimonies from people who “visited” heaven. They can tell us just how amazing the place is! Now who wants to make a commitment right now?

Yes, heaven is a magical place where we become angels (we don’t) and fly around and look down on the people of Earth (we won’t do that either, the rich man and Lazarus was a parable).

The Fine Print of Heaven

Okay, so what’s the harm of everyone believing all the heaven hocus-pocus?

Because it takes away the reason Jesus died for us. Jesus did not die so that we could go live in a gold mansion. He died so that we could be with God.

Jesus did not promise heaven. He promised himself. He promised to be present with us, Immanuel.

The point of heaven is not all of the stuff we get to do and have. The point of heaven (whatever it is) is that we will be with God. God is what makes heaven heaven. And the point of being with God is that we have to want God more than we want everything else. We have to despise our lives. We have to despise our stuff. We have to despise even our families. We have to even despise whatever idea we have about what heaven is and just want God for who He is. 

Otherwise, heaven is just another idol, another shiny thing that we want.

And God is just a means for us to get that idol. We turn into the whiny toddler at the store, manipulating mom into buying us that new toy.

It’s almost like we opened the biggest present on Christmas morning, and it turned out to be a big box of underwear. Someone found out that the whole point of this Christianity thing is God himself. And that was a huge disappointment. How could we have gone through all this believing and all this worship and all we get is God?

I know, it’s a scam isn’t it? You sit through the whole presentation, the whole sales pitch, and this is what we get?

God almighty.

What say you? Have we tricked a generation of Christians?

June 19, 2014

Exegesis and Isogesis

Taking Bible Verses Out of Context

Mark 4:22 For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.” 24a “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued.

II Tim. 2:14 Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

While you’re scratching your head wondering what today’s title means, I’ll tell you that today’s article is by Paul Burleson, who we featured here six months ago, and who has been in pastoral ministry for 54 years.  He has some scripture examples in the text of some of the problems in Bible interpretation you or someone you know might encounter.  Click the title below to read at his blog.

FRAGMENTING BIBLE VERSES AND ALTERING THE MEANING OF SCRIPTURE

There is a two-headed coin often used with Bible verses that leave both sides losing. With neither side of this coin, is there a, “Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” as a favorite friend of mine loves to say when the OKC Thunder or OU wins,  [I say it with her, by the way.]

Let me explain the two-sides first.

One side of the coin [heads we’ll call it] is fragmenting a verse. This means taking a PORTION of the verse or taking a verse ALONE, without it’s context, and applying it to situations, or worse, quoting it TO someone as if it’s the answer to whatever is troubling or discouraging them.

A case in point is that Matthew 18:20 verse where Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together, there am I in the midst of them.” This is usually used to assure people, preachers are especially guilty here, that when only a few people show up for church services, be assured God is there, so all is well. I’m sure He is present since He is, in fact, Omnipresent. But that isn’t the meaning of the verse in context. More on the meaning in a moment.

The other side of the coin [tails we’ll call it] is what is called “isogesis” which means to read INTO a verse something not intended, as opposed to “exegesis” which means to take FROM a verse the meaning that is there in language and context. Isogesis is really nothing more than introducing one’s own presuppositions, agendas, or biases into the meaning a verse instead of taking out of the verse what the language and writer are actually saying. In Bible study or knowledge, were you to flip this coin, either side will come up a loser.

Now to the meaning of the Matthew 18:20 verse. The real meaning is found in the context which is where someone as a believer has been willing to personally confront another believer over an issue and they didn’t respond very well. But the problem is so serious they were willing to take someone with them as they go again.  The verse is saying in THAT context God is with you and in a very meaningful way. If you’ve ever been in that situation, and I have, it’s really encouraging to say the least.

No one is saying that God ISN’T where two or three believers have gathered to worship. He really is. It isn’t WRONG to assure the people that HE IS THERE. Just don’t quote the Matthew 18:20 verse as if it’s the Bible PROOF He’s present in a poorly attended meeting. It means something far deeper and grander than that.

Another example

That I can ACHIEVE “anything,” when I’m trusting God as my strength, is taken as an absolute promise by some people. To prove that, they quote Philippians 4:13, which happens to be my life-verse by the way.

The problem is this verse is NOT dealing with ACHIEVING anything.

People are usually thinking about scoring touchdowns or making a basket in a championship game. Or worse, charging things on a credit card trusting God for the ability to pay later or making an effort to get someone to change their bad behavior because they desire them to and are helping them. Because God is my strength I can do this, is their thinking, this verse says so!

But that isn’t in the ballpark of what Paul was saying. He had faced hard times, many times, and had found that he could endure being rich or poor, hungry or filled, and in context, in prison or out of prison, and no matter THE CIRCUMSTANCES, he found the wherewithal to face them because of the Lord being his Life. For Paul, the issue wasn’t “I can achieve anything,” but one of “I can endure anything.”

What a difference the context makes. No one is saying the former thought, achieving some good thing, is a WRONG thing. [On second thought maybe it is if you’re thinking you can sow wild oats and NOT reap a harvest.] It just can’t be proven with this verse and be getting the true meaning of what is being said by Paul to the Philippians. For THAT you HAVE to see it in context.

February 27, 2014

Bible Typology

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love–Isaac–and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Gen. 22:2  NIV)

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, (John 3:14  NIV)

There is no record of his* father or mother or any of his ancestors–no beginning or end to his life. He remains a priest forever, resembling the Son of God. (Heb. 7:3 NLT) *Melchizedek

What is typology? The website Theopedia explains:

Typology is a method of biblical interpretation whereby an element found in the Old Testament is seen to prefigure one found in the New Testament. The initial one is called the type and the fulfillment is designated the antitype. Either type or antitype may be a person, thing, or event, but often the type is messianic and frequently related to the idea of salvation.

Later, the same website gives examples:

People in the Old Testament frequently are seen to be types of Christ. For instance, Moses, who led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt and into the rest of the Promised Land, is clearly a type for God‘s Messiah, who leads his people out of slavery to sin and into the rest of the New Earth. A host of Old Testament characters can be seen, in this manner, to act as types of Christ, such as:

  • Adam, whose sin brought death to all. (see Jesus as the second Adam)
  • David, God’s anointed yet unrecognised King;
  • Esther, who saves God’s people even when God seems absent
  • Elisha, God’s prophet who raised the dead and fed the hungry.

Bible TypologyThere’s nothing new about this type of hermeneutic (way of interpretation). A few days ago, I noted that blogger Peter Cockrell had posted this quotation from John Calvin:

“For this is eternal life, to know the one and only true God, and Him who He sent, Jesus Christ, whom he constituted the beginning, the middle, and the end of our salvation. This One is Isaac the well-beloved Son of the Father, who was offered in sacrifice, and yet did not succumb to the power of death. This is the vigilant Shepherd Jacob, taking such great care of the sheep He has charge over. This is the good and pitiable Brother Joseph, who in His glory was not ashamed to recognize His brothers, however contemptible and abject as they were. This is the great Priest and Bishop Melchizedek, having made eternal sacrifice once for all. This is the sovereign Lawgiver Moses, writing His law on the tables of our hearts by His Spirit. This is the faithful Captain and Guide Joshua to conduct us to the promised land. This is the noble and victorious King David, subduing under His hand every rebellious power. This is the magnificent and triumphant King Solomon, governing His kingdom in peace and prosperity. This is the strong and mighty Samson, who, by His death, overwhelmed all His enemies.”

John Calvin’s essay “Christ Is the End of the Law” is included in Thy Word Is Still Truth, ed. Peter Lillback and Richard B. Gaffin.

There are dangers in overusing this approach. In a piece written to preachers, David Helm and Joel Miles write:

These correspondences may be broad—in which cases we simply call them analogies—or they may be narrower. When a person, event, institution, or object in the Bible narrowly anticipates some aspect of Jesus Christ, we call this typology.[1] There are many complex definitions of types. In simple terms, a type is usually a person (like Moses, or David) or an object (like the ark or sacrificial lamb) that anticipates or prefigures Jesus.

Because there are more types in the Bible than are explicitly named, preachers must be careful in how they approach typology. First, as preachers, it is easy for us to make more of typology than we should. Just because we see an object in the Old Testament that shares something in common with an object in the New Testament, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we have found a type.

For instance, just because Rahab’s cord is described as being scarlet, it doesn’t mean that God intends for us to connect it to the blood of Christ, as though both being red proves that God intended for us to bring them together. This is a fallacy. Ask yourself, if it had been green would you have been right to connect it to new life? Or, what if it had been purple? Would you have argued that God wanted us to tie it to the sign of Christ’s royalty? No, of course not.

Second, preachers often make the mistake of confusing typology for allegory. Gerald Bray explains allegory as “a method of reading a text by assuming that its literal sense conceals a hidden meaning, to be deciphered by using a particular hermeneutical key.”[2] This, also, is easy for preachers to do.

For example, we might suppose: “The five stones David picked up from the river bank are not intended to be stones at all. Rather, they are emblems for spiritual warfare that go by the names of faith, hope, prayer, courage, and fortitude.” Clearly, this is a mistake, yet one we commit all too frequently. And when we do, we actually work against the kind of ballast typology and analogy were intended to provide.

Some other articles repeat much of the above information, but Noah Kelley points out two additional nuances as found in escalating types, and forward-pointing or prophetic types:

Two more characteristics are more debated, and I will mention them in passing. The first is the fact that the typological patterns escalate as they progress, so that the antitype is greater than the type (e.g. Christ is greater than the Passover lamb). While this seems to be a fair enough assumption, Baker says that the escalation from type to antitype has  to do with the escalation that takes place when moving from the Old Testament to the New Testament rather than the essential nature of typology (183).

What is more debated is whether types are forward-pointing like prophecy, or whether they can only be ascertained in hindsight. This is closely related to the question of whether the type is understood by the person recording the event, or if they were unconscious of the typological significance, or if the type was not part of the intended significance of the text but a later interpretation. While I don’t have all of these issues sorted out, I would think that it is important to affirm that the typological significance is part of the original intention of the text from God’s perspective, if not the human author’s.

My own thoughts: I believe that the types of scripture are part of the the Bible’s awesome richness and depth and that the types themselves are part of the intricate complexity of God’s purpose and plan for we, the senior inhabitants of this planet. This part of what is spoken as ‘the beauty of the Bible.’

Take a look now at the three verses I used to introduce today’s readings in the light of what you’ve just learned. Who (or what) is a type of who (or what)?

November 23, 2013

Finding the Divine in the Human Transcripts

The mere suggestion that today’s devotional, yes devotional comes from Rob Bell is enough to cause some eyes to glaze over; and the sound you hear is the sound of some people clicking away at this point. Rob Bell has, in very little time, emerged as a very controversial writer, whose work probably asks more questions than it answers.

But he makes you think. And that’s consistent with my goals here at Christianity 201. He’s started a series on his blog robbell.com titled “What Is the Bible?” (Not to be confused with Phil Vischer’s excellent DVD series for kids, “What’s In The Bible?”)  As I write this, Rob has 14 chapters posted, and I do admit to having no idea where he’s going and what he’s going to say next.

In the very first section, he echoes words being said by other writers that we are putting too much pressure on the Bible to respond to questions it was never intended to answer. That whatever level of inspiration we ascribe to scripture — and there are three or four — we are beginning with words that flowed from some individual’s pen (so to speak), or as Bell puts it, “Someone wrote something down.”

The following is some of the first section of What Is The Bible?, however, as we do here at Christianity 201, I’ve taken the liberty of formatting obvious scripture citations in green and indented:

Rob Bell 2013Many of the stories in the Bible began as oral traditions, handed down from generation to generation until someone collected them, edited them, and actually wrote them down, sometimes hundreds of years later. That’s years and years of people sitting around fires and walking along hot dusty roads and gathering together to hear and discuss and debate and wrestle with these stories.

The people who wrote these books had lots of material to choose from. There were lots of stories floating around, lots of accounts being handed down, lots of material to include. Or not include.

(There’s a line in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings 11 where the author writes

As for the other events of Solomon’s reign-all he did and the wisdom he displayed-are they not written in the book of the annals of Solomon?

Well, yes, I guess they are…it’s just that we have no idea what the author is referring to. Interesting the assumption on the author’s part that not only do we know this, but that we have access to these annals. Which we don’t.

We see something similar in the gospel of John where it’s written

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of disciples, which are not recorded in this book

and then the book ends with this line:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

It’s as if the writer, just to wrap things up, adds Oh yeah, I left a ton of stuff out.)

The authors of the books of the Bible, then, weren’t just writing, they were selecting and editing and making a multitude of decisions about what material and content furthered their purposes in writing and what didn’t.

These writers had agendas.

Luke: I too decided to write an orderly account for you…
The Book of Esther: This is what happened…
John: These are written that you may believe…

There were points they wanted to make, things they wanted their readers to see, insights they wanted to share. These writers, it’s important to point out, were real people living in real places at real times. And their purposes and intents and agendas were shaped by their times and places and contexts and economies and politics and religion and technology and countless other factors.

What does it tell us about the world Abraham lived in that when he’s told to offer his son as a sacrifice he sets out to do it as if it’s a natural thing for a god to ask…?

The David and Goliath story starts with technology-the Philistines had a new kind of metal, the Israelites didn’t. The story is under-girded by the primal fear that comes when your neighbor has weapons that you don’t have-like spears. Or guns. Or bombs.

Why does the Apostle Peter use the phrase there is no other name under heaven…? Where did he get this phrase and what images from military propaganda would it have brought to mind for his listeners?

Real people,
writing in real places,
at real times,
with agendas,
choosing to include some material,
choosing to leave out other material,
all because they had stories to tell.

Of course, in the broader world of hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation) this might be just one of many approaches. But I offer it today as refreshing way of rethinking scripture. Later in the section Bell writes:

When people charge in with great insistence that this is God’s word all the while neglecting the very real humanity of these books, they can inadvertently rob these writings of their sacred power.

All because of starting in the wrong place.

You start with the human. You ask those questions, you enter there, you direct your energies to understanding why these people wrote these books.

Because whatever divine you find in it, you find that divine through the human, not around it.

Each section of What Is The Bible? links to the following section, and new sections are currently being added almost daily.  Here again is the link to part one.

Related:

October 23, 2013

Where are “The Gates of Hell” Located?

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock[b] I will build my church, and the gates of hell[c] shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[d] in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

  1. Matthew 16:18 The Greek words for Peter and rock sound similar
  2. Matthew 16:18 Greek the gates of Hades
  3. Matthew 16:19 Or shall have been bound… shall have been loosed

The question is rhetorical. The Gates of Hell are located at the gates of Hell, or the gates to Hell. Our focus here today is not on the translation of Hell, though we’ll pause for a minute to compare translations:

  • And the gates of hell will not overpower it  (God’s Word translation)
  • and the forces of Hades will not overpower it (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
  • and hades’ gates shall not prevail against it (Darby)
  • and all the powers of hell will not conquer it  (NLT)
  • and not even death will ever be able to overcome it (Good News/TEV)
  • The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it (CEB)

You can check out other translations here.

Instead I want to look at the visual picture that we create when we read the word “gates.”

There is both a literal meaning and a generally accepted interpretation. If you use Strong’s Concordance at BibleHub.com you read:

4439 pýlē (a feminine noun) – a large door; an entrance-gate to a city or fortress; a door-gate. 4439 /pýlē (“a door-gate“) typically refers to the exit people go out, i.e. focusing on what proceeds out of it.

[“Gates” in antiquity generally represent authority/power.]

The part in brackets at the bottom is important. Hell will have no authority or power over the church (“…build my church”) that Jesus is instituting here. However, the visual image is the entrance to Hell, not to the church.

In other words, in this picture the powers of Hell are not amassing at the ‘front door’ of The Church in general, or your local church or denomination in particular. The visual image is of The Church amassing at the ‘front door’ of Hell, as expressed in the phrase, ‘storming the gates of Hell.’

Again, to repeat, the church is not in a defensive posture in the imagery of this verse, rather, the church is in an offensive posture.

On that basis, I have to say that I think newly-release The Voice Bible translation is the only one that expresses this:

The church will reign triumphant even at the gates of hell

Again, the visual distinctive here is the word ‘at’ as in ‘at the gates of hell.’

I believe part of the reason we don’t read this verse this way is that we tend to map on other verses’ contexts. For example, this writer assumes the link between Matthew 16 and Revelation 9:

The commentary on the Gospel of Matthew written by W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (vol. 2, pp. 630-32) lists a dozen various interpretations of this phrase “gates of Hades” expressed over the past 2000 years of Christian history.  Davies and Allison suggest that the view I argue for in this post is probably the one held by “most contemporary expositors” (p. 632), but it is not the one they prefer.  They prefer the idea that Hades is not used here as a term to refer to the realm of the dead, inhabited both by the righteous and the wicked, but a term referring to the location of demonic powers who will assault the church in the last days.  They argue, relying upon illustrations from Rev. 9:1-11, that,

  • “One should probably think of the end-time scenario, when the powers of the underworld will be unleashed from below, from the abyss, and rage against the saints. . . . even the full fury of the underworld’s demonic forces” (p. 633).

However, regardless of the visual image, the verse is unmistakably clear in its assurance of victory over the powers of darkness.  I just think we should try to avoid creating mental imagery of the church always in a defensive posture.

Video is static-image, audio-only.

  • Yesterday we marked 1,300 posts here at Christianity 201.  If you’re enjoying this resource, please let us know!

October 13, 2013

Eyeing the Bible with a Secular Lens

Today we introduce you to the writing of Katherine Harms, who blogs at Living on Tilt.  You know the drill: Please encourage authors presented here by reading their work on their own website or blog. This article originally appeared as Are You Interpreting the Bible with a Secular Worldview?

Bible in FocusIn the book of 2 Corinthians, Paul writes to the church at Corinth about an offering. He is collecting the offering for Jerusalem, and he invites the Corinthians to give the way Christ has given to all humankind. He shares the example of other churches, who gave more than expected, because they gave “beyond their ability.” Paul challenges the Corinthians to give in the same spirit. Close reading of the two letters to the Corinthian church suggests that the Corinthians actually suggested that Paul collect this offering, but at the time of this letter, they had not themselves contributed as expected. Paul writes:

8:1   And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 5 And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. 6 So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

10 And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. 12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.  2 Corinthians 8:1-12 NIV84

I do not ordinarily expect my readers to wade through such a long passage, but in this case, it is important that you read the whole thing in order to see the way Paul prepares the church for his request. Paul is explaining what wealth is. He distinguishes between wealth in the eternal and infinite sense and wealth in the time/space sense. Christ was wealthy in the eternal and infinite sense, yet he gave it all up and accepted the poverty of time and space in order to pass on eternal and infinite riches. Paul holds up these two contrasting forms of wealth in order that his readers not confuse the two. Paul intends for the church at Corinth to see clearly that time/space wealth is not something to cling to.

In case they still have any concerns about the request, Paul elaborates on the way God uses time/space wealth:

13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15 As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 NIV84

Paul is talking about the means by which God provides for our needs in time and space. He has already pointed out that earthly wealth is nothing to compare with the riches of eternity. He has held up the example of Christ who did not cling to the riches of eternity in order that he might share them human beings. Then he clinches his argument, still appealing to the importance of our trust in God’s provision, by looking back to the experience of Israel in the wilderness. The wandering Israelites were totally dependent on God to provide for their every need. God taught them to trust his daily provision by enforcing the experience that if people gathered too much manna for their needs, nothing was left over, while those who misjudged and gathered too little nevertheless had enough. They might attempt to override their need to trust God, but it was to no avail; they had to trust him, because he simply did not allow them to pre-empt his work.

Paul says that this is the way things will work out if the Corinthians are willing to share what God has given to them. They have more than enough at the time of this letter. Instead of saying, “We need to keep this surplus, because some day we will need it,” Paul encourages them to give it to the Jerusalem church, which is seriously in need. The implication is that God has provided the Corinthians a surplus precisely because Jerusalem needs it. Like the ancient Israelite who did not gather enough for himself, the Jerusalem church is falling short. Just as God graciously made up the difference for the ancient Israelite, God is making up the difference for the church in Jerusalem, and the overage in Corinth is the way he has chosen to do it. Both churches are asked to remember that God is the one who provides for all of us.

Secular thinkers have infiltrated Christian thinking to such a degree that there are actually Christian professors and scholars who interpret this text as an example of the socialist mantra of the redistribution of wealth. In 2009, the Barna Group surveyed American adults asking questions designed to reveal those who had a Christian world view; only 9% of all American adults gave answers that expressed a Christian world view. Extracting from the total number surveyed the subset that self-identified as born-again Christians, only 19% of them expressed a Christian world view. (You can read the survey here.) It should, therefore, not be surprising that even among biblical scholars, there are those who do not interpret the Bible according to a biblical worldview.

For example, in the Lutheran Study Bible (Augsburg, 2009), David E. Frederickson explains in his notes on 2 Corinthians 8:13-14, “Paul sought to create unity among diverse and geographically separated congregations through the redistribution of wealth.” Marx’s birth was 1800 years in the future when Paul wrote his letter, and twentieth century socialism had not even been thought of. No Christian of that day, especially not Paul, would have entertained the idea of the “redistribution of wealth” for one second. If such an idea had been proposed to the first Christian missionary, he would almost certainly have reacted to it the same way Peter reacted to the attempt of Simon Magus to buy the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:9-24). Paul constantly wrote about the way God provided for him and for all Christians, and Paul was adamant that the riches of knowing Christ are not to be confused with the wealth that exists only in time and space. When he called on the Corinthians to get their priorities in order, he was not trying to assure that each church had the same amount of money as all the other churches. To reach such a conclusion requires twisting Paul’s words severely.

This is a good example of what not to do when reading the Bible. It is important that readers not project onto biblical text contemporary political and social issues that did not even exist in biblical times. It is important to read the full context of every idea expressed. It is important to look at the text from a Christian world view. (If you don’t know what a Christian world view is, you can read the report of the 2009 Barna Survey.)

Read in the context of the entire 8th chapter of 2 Corinthians, it is clear that it does not make sense to read these verses as an advance revelation of the gospel of socialism. Where or when have you heard a pastor or other Christian leader declare that the Bible teaches some philosophy or political agenda that is fundamentally unbiblical?

July 22, 2013

New Insights into Zacchaeus

Encounters With JesusThrough the Willow Creek “Midweek Experience” teaching videos, I’ve gotten to hear a number of messages by Wheaton College professor Gary M. Burge. So I was due to read one of his books, especially when I stumbled over a sale-priced copy of Encounters with Jesus: Uncover the Ancient Culture, Discover Hidden Meanings; published in 2010 by Zondervan. Clocking in at only 128 pages — and filled with pictures — finishing this book on Sunday afternoon was no major feat.

With Gary Burge’s voice audibly sounding in my head as I read the book — an advantage to having watched him teach on video — I thoroughly enjoyed his take on five specific encounters Jesus has with:

  1. The woman who was hemorrhaging
  2. Zacchaeus the tax collector
  3. The centurion with a slave who is ill
  4. The thirsty woman at the Samaritan well
  5. The Gentile woman with a sick daughter

In the case of Zacchaeus, I once again found myself in the position of having to potentially un-learn something I had been taught from infancy in Sunday School. Surely anyone who has an encounter is immediately changed, right? Maybe not so much in this case. If the interpretation here is to be considered, then Zacchaeus doesn’t have so much of a before-and-after transformation; rather, Jesus is affirming the person who Zacchaeus has always been, and the “salvation” that has come to “this house” refers more to the saving of Zacchaeus’ reputation in the wider community.

I always thought that Zacchaeus’ speech is a pledge or promise of something he is about to do to make things right, however…

…This is not what Zacchaeus says. His comment to Jesus is in the present tense. “Look! I give half of my possessions, Lord to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone, I repay them fourfold.” Greek has what we call the “future use” of the present tense and interpreters sometimes apply it here. But this is not demanded. Generally these uses imply some immediacy or certainty…

…But many scholars refuse to use it here in Luke 19. We have no suggestion that Zacchaeus needs to repent, nor does the story imply any conversion on his part. He even refers to Jesus as “Lord,” a mark of high honor and discipleship in Luke. As Joel Green remarks, “On this reading Zacchaeus does not resolve to undertake new practices but presents for Jesus’ evaluation his current behaviors regarding money.”

This would be a great revelation to the electrified audience standing on the street in Jericho. Zacchaeus is not what everyone has assumed. He has been honest; he is collecting what is demanded without corruption and abuse, and he is generously giving away large portions of his wealth. The law required that if there was financial fraud, the original amount had to be returned plus 20 percent. (Lev. 6:5)  Here Zacchaeus practices fourfold reimbursement…

When word of this emerges outside, the crowd that thought it had seen one shocking scene for the day now witnesses another. Their notorious tax farmer, who has colluded with Romans, is a man of principle. Rumors of his corruption are evaporating like a mist… (pp. 67-68)

This approach is entirely new to me. And the above excerpt is just a small portion of the insights into this story. He then goes on to discuss the implications of both “Salvation has come to this house;” and that Zacchaeus is a “son of Abraham.”

I’m not saying that this interpretation precludes anything else that you’ve been able to derive from the story. The scriptures are rich in depth. I simply offer this to you as a possibility that may be outside how you originally heard and processed this story.

Other books in this series include: The Bible and the Land, Finding the Lost Images of the Desert, Jesus and the Jewish Festivals, Jesus the Middle Eastern Storyteller, and Finding the Lost Images of God.

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