Christianity 201

August 13, 2021

‘I’ve Never Heard That Interpretation Before’

Three days ago, I looked at a detail of The Good Samaritan story that I had not noticed before. I am constantly amazed at the depth of the parables, how many different lessons there are to be gained from what is always just a few short verses.

But we need to be careful when we hear something new that it conforms to everything else we have been taught. Someone has said, “If it’s new it’s not true.” I am not comfortable with such a sweeping generalization, but obviously in the course of Christian history, there have been many people who have come along with new ideas; some helpful and instructive; others rather off base.

In 2 Corinthians 3-4 Paul writes,

I am afraid, however, that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may be led astray from your simple and pure devotion to Christ.  For if someone comes and proclaims a Jesus other than the One we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit than the One you received, or a different gospel than the one you accepted, you put up with it way too easily.

Paul says this twice in the same paragraph in Galatians 1:7b-8

Evidently some people are troubling you and trying to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be under a divine curse! As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you embraced, let him be under a divine curse!

Years ago, I had the responsibility of coordinating two completely different Sunday morning services at our church. The first service was meant for believers, and I asked a friend, who specializes in cult research to do a message for which I gave him the title, “How Does a Rocket Go Off-Course?” In other words, I wanted him to share not so much how groups come along with something completely out of left field (i.e. The Book of Mormon) but rather how orthodox groups suddenly seem to take a turn down a road of questionable theology.

I suspect it starts out with one small particular point of doctrine. Perhaps it’s something a reader wishes was in the text. Perhaps it’s a word that has been less than perfectly rendered in one of our translations. Perhaps it’s a lack of attention to the context of a particular verse. Perhaps it’s just a lack of sleep the night before due to bad pizza!

The problem is once you start undoing a working systematic theology, because of the inter-relatedness of the parts, you can end up undermining its foundation as to the very nature of God, or the essential plan of salvation. Some may find the study of theology boring, but there is a real beauty in how the various doctrines can fit together, if the theology makes sense.

I also want to point out what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:2

By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  (NIV)

It is this Good News that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you–unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place. (NLT)

The second rendering, in the NLT suggests something that is true far too often, and that is many people have come into the faith family believing things that “were never true in the first place.” Again, using the analogy of a rocket that has gone off course, we need to apply what rocket scientists call “a mid-course correction.” We need to gently steer that person away from the false understanding which, left unchecked, will lead to other errors or perhaps lead to great frustration in their Christian growth and life.

However, in the case of The Good Samaritan story, the “new” insight added a greater depth of detail, or if you prefer, offered a slightly different way of seeing the cleric who stepped aside an opportunity to help the man injured on the road; a man who not only failed to help because of what he felt the law required, but one who in fact may have been going beyond what the law demanded of him.

But it doesn’t change the thrust of the story. It does not impinge on any major tenet of the church, any major doctrine, or any element of orthodox theology. Furthermore, the “new” teaching may simply represent an element of the narrative we’ve simply skipped over in the past.

If the premise makes sense to us, we can accept it, but if not, we can choose to dismiss it. The parable, and its applications to our lives, is unharmed.

May 17, 2012

Receiving a Double Portion Isn’t Twice as Much

Sometimes, churches build a ‘culture’ around an interpretation of certain words and phrases which come to mean something to them that it never meant in the original text. K.W. Leslie, whose writing has been seen on this blog a couple of times before deals with this in an article entitled Out of Context: The Double Portion. To support the writers quoted here, please click the link and read the day’s thoughts at the source blogs.

Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.”

2 Kings 2.9 ESV

Years ago I listened to a youth pastor quote this verse as he spoke about how each generation of young people should ideally receive a “double portion” of their parents’ spirit. I’ve heard other pastors teach likewise. By “spirit” they don’t usually mean the Holy Spirit—though sometimes they do, and the preaching starts to turn mighty weird. Most commonly they mean a person’s enthusiasm, their devotion to God, their spiritual activity, and so forth. Ideally, parents should pass this “double portion” to their children, who would in turn pass this “double portion” to their kids, and so on till Jesus returns.

Here’s the thing. By “double portion,” the pastor meant twice as much. The kids would have twice as much spirit as their parents. Their kids would have twice as much spirit as they. Their grandkids would have twice as much spirit as their kids—and, if you do the math, that’d be 16 times as much spirit as the first generation.

In fact, let’s do even more math. Assume the very first generation of Christians, namely the 120-some people who originally received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in the year 33, were following this “double portion principle,” so to speak. Assume there’ve been 100 generations of Christians since—a really conservative estimate. After 100 generations, the “double portion” we should receive would be 2100 times the original amount of spirit. That’s more than 633 octillion (i.e. followed by 27 zeroes) times the spirit. More spirit than there are atoms in the universe.

So: Why aren’t we Christians walking around with so much spirit that, frankly, whenever we make a new convert, their chest explodes from the amount of spirit suddenly whooshing into them?

Obviously because “double portion” doesn’t mean twice as much. The New Living Translation tacks on a few words at the end of the verse to explain the historical context:

Elisha replied, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit and become your successor.”

2 Kings 2.9 NLT

In the ancient Middle East, when a father died, his property was divided into equal portions and given to each of his sons. (If he had no sons, the Hebrews had it given to each of his daughters, Nu 27.8.) The firstborn, or the eldest, would be given two of these portions—the double portion. It wasn’t twice as much as his father had; that’s not mathematically possible. It was simply twice as much as his brothers received—and in those days, with those big families, it wouldn’t have amounted to that much. Even in the richest of families. It definitely wasn’t the eldest-male-takes-all system we find in Western aristocracies.

The firstborn inherited the double portion largely because he had particular responsibilities as his father’s successor. He was now responsible for leading his extended family. He had to care for his father’s wives and minor children. He had to arrange husbands for his sisters. If his father was a tribal leader, that role fell to him. If there were any personal blessings or prophecies (or even curses) attached to the family, they might fall to him too.

The birthright Jacob bought off his twin brother Esau (Ge 25.29-34) didn’t threaten to leave Jacob penniless when their father died. It only meant Esau would inherit twice as much—but have ten times the responsibility. The writers of the bible didn’t rebuke Esau for not caring about the stuff; there’s nothing wrong with rejecting material possessions. It was for dodging his duties. It was for setting aside God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants.

When Elisha asked for a double portion, he wasn’t asking for twice as much Holy Spirit. He was asking to be Elijah’s successor—to be recognized as the LORD’s chief prophet in northern Israel, the recognized leader of the LORD’s other prophets, the go-to prophet for kings and priests and people. Now, he could have asked for this because he wanted the honor—although considering how pagan the kings of Israel were, the constant threat of death didn’t make the job that much of an honor. More likely Elisha asked it because he wanted to serve. He recognized the people, in Elijah’s absence, would want someone to look to, and the prophets needed leadership. He offered to do it.

This is why Elijah’s response was, “You have asked a difficult thing.” (2Ki 2.10 NLT) Elijah wasn’t warning Elisha away from his request, or rebuking him for hubris. True prophets, like both Elijah and Elisha, are humble. They know they’re working for God; that titles don’t matter. It was in humility Elisha asked to succeed Elijah. It was in humility Elijah said the decision wasn’t really up to him, but Elisha would get his request if God permitted him to watch Elijah ascend to heaven. And the other prophets confirmed it when Elisha met with them afterward. (2Ki 2.15)

Some of the reason for this twice-the-spirit teaching is partly because people aren’t aware of the historical context. Some of it is human greed—hey, check this out, we can get twice what some other person got, so let’s seek that!—and how the possibility of a really nice blessing appeals to us. And, as usual, if a person we respect teaches it, we pass along that teaching without investigating it for ourselves, assuming the respected preachers probably know what they’re talking about. And sometimes they do. Sometimes not.

Plus there’s evidence: There are more stories about Elisha’s miracles in 2 Kings than there are stories about Elijah’s. Some pastors have estimated there are precisely twice as many Elisha stories, which conclusively proves their twice-the-spirit theory. (In fact there are actually more than twice as many Elisha stories.) Some have even attempted to teach that Jesus’s disciples performed twice as many miracles as did Jesus. (Which stands to reason: Jesus ministered on earth for maybe three years or so, and his apostles ministered for decades.) Honestly, we should see later generations do more in faith because they’re preceded by so many good examples. But it’s not a matter of doubling the power, doubling the spirit, doubling anything. It’s not math.

Math is actually limiting. If you assume you should do twice as much as your predecessors, you may burn yourself out trying to be (or look) twice as busy. You may spend more time trying to perform mighty deeds, and less time getting closer to God, trying to obey him, trying to reform your character, and worshiping him as he wants. There will be this foolish drive to prove your anointing, instead of obeying the Holy Spirit and letting him prove it for you by working with and through you.

Or, on the other extreme: If the Holy Spirit wants to do ten times as much, but you have a mindset of achieving only twice as much, you’re not going reach your potential. The Spirit may be obligated to use someone else—someone with the faith for it—to achieve his big goals. You’re never gonna have the faith to achieve more than the small tasks. (Or the tasks that only appear small.) In many things, twice as much isn’t anywhere near big enough. Certainly not for an infinite God.

But if you want to follow Elisha’s actual in-context example, do this: Get involved in a ministry like Elijah’s. Doesn’t have to be a prophetic ministry; any ministry will do. Assist the leader. Be helpful. Be useful. Be humble. Be Spirit-led. Develop those gifts and abilities that help the ministry, and the Kingdom, most. When the time comes, and you see your talents can serve the ministry best in administration, then ask for that double portion. If you ask in all humility, he may say yes. Or he may not; it’s entirely up to him, and if you did ask in all humility, you’ll be okay with his answer either way. But Christianity always suffers a shortage of humble leaders, and if you want to take on that role, go for it.

~K. W. Leslie