Thursday, January 28, 2016

Biblical Meaning Stems from the Book, Not the Verse

As a runner I see Philippians 4:13 at almost every race. This is because somebody invariably has "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" printed on the back of their T-shirt. A Christian outreach organization to runners even exists based upon this verse. While the organization seems fine, their use of Philippians 4:13 yanks the verse completely out of context.

This brings me to the topic for today's post. Far too many Christians fail to interpret scripture correctly because they look at individual verses for meaning. When
this happens, even with well-intentioned believers who respect the Bible, they often arrive at erroneous conclusions. For example, Philippians 4:13 has nothing to do with running. Rather, the context of the passage is Paul's God-granted ability to handle both having plenty of physical goods/money and not having enough. God strengthened the apostle to be content regardless of his particular situation.

If Christians who cherish Philippians 4:13 would keep it in the context of book, chapter, and paragraph, they would not even consider using it to refer to running. That application would seem silly to them in the context of Paul's purpose for the letter. One of Paul's primary reasons for writing to his friends in Philippi was to thank them for their financial support. He wasn't planning on running in any 5Ks or marathons (at least I don't think so).

When the Bible was originally penned, no chapter, paragraph, or verse divisions existed. In fact, they were not added until hundreds of years later. They were inserted not to assist with interpretation, but to help readers find specific sections more easily. That is key: the chapter, paragraph, and verse divisions are not inspired.

Where does the primary meaning lie? It lies in the book itself. When determining the meaning of any part of scripture, the reader must take into account everything the author has said prior to that particular sentence he is reading. This can be difficult, especially with long books. This is one reason it is so important to read all the way through Biblical books instead of sifting for favorite passages.

The author(s) of each book had a train of thought and built an argument. The individual books build upon themselves as they progress from beginning to end. For example, it is folly to try to understand Romans 12:1-2 in a vacuum. These familiar verses say:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans chapters 12-16 focus a great deal on how Christians should live in light of what God has done. But how do the Roman believers know what God has done? They already know by reading chapters 1-11. Romans 12-16 only make sense in the context of 1-11.

Another truth to keep in mind during interpretation is that each book is part of the Bible as a whole. When reading, for example, from the prophets or writings in the Old Testament, the reader must keep them in context of the Pentateuch (Genesis - Deuteronomy). When reading the New Testament, we absolutely have to remember all of the O.T. To ignore what has come before a particular passage is to risk poor interpretation.

Many sincere followers of Jesus Christ have great respect for the Bible. Many also come to faulty conclusions about what the Bible means. We have all done this, myself included. One way we can avoid this error is by keeping verses in context. It is the book that provides the meaning God intends.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Biblical Text Has Meaning; We Do Not Bring Our Own Meaning To It

This is the third post in my blog series entitled Church, Bible, and Interpretation - It's Not So Simple.

Postmodernism has swept through our society over the past half-century leaving a trail of destruction in its path. Postmodern thought is essentially a rejection of modern thought. Objectivity has given way to subjectivity. Absolute truth has been rejected as old-fashioned. Postmodernists scoff at the idea of meta-narratives. Instead of the focus being outside of self, postmodernity emphasizes personal feelings and opinions.

One critical aspect of postmodernism is the idea that the reader of a book brings meaning to the text. In essence, this allows the reader to determine what any book means based upon the reader's own background, presuppositions, political leanings, beliefs, etc. This doesn't really matter if someone is reading something of little significance like this. However, it's fairly obvious how troublesome postmodernism is when it comes to Biblical interpretation.

Many churches and denominations have happily embraced the idea of the reader bringing their own meaning to the scriptures. This allows them to say that the Bible means whatever they want it to mean. In this way folks who claim to be followers of Christ can reject straightforward scriptural teachings on issues such as the atonement, homosexuality, women's roles, etc.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it reduces the Bible, or any other book for that matter, to meaninglessness.

The Bible is not a postmodern book. The Bible is also not a modern book. The Bible is an ancient book. It is an ancient one that remains meaningful and relevant for today. Its meaning and relevance stem from the fact that the text has objective meaning. A basic reading of the scriptures shows that The Biblical Writers Meant What They Said and The Bible is a Book That is Meant to be Understood. The writers meant certain things that had meaning then and have meaning now.

When we read the Bible at no point is there any suggestion that we ought to bring our own meaning to the text. Frankly, that idea is just ridiculous. God has spoken through the pages of scripture. He means what He means. It is our duty to responsibly interpret the Bible to comprehend what God means.

God gave meaning to the Bible. We do not bring our own to it.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Biblical Writers Meant What They Said

The Bible contains various types of genre (teaching, poetry, apocalypse, history, prophecy, etc.). Despite these differences, the writers make clear one very basic thing: they mean what they say.

In fact, throughout all sixty-six books of the Bible the writers mean what they say. Go ahead and open to any passage in any book and begin reading. Does it ever seem as if the writers either do not mean what they say or that they are just fooling around? The answer is no. The tone used by all the writers is serious. They write with purpose. They desire that their meaning be understood. What they have to say matters.

At no point do the writers say, "Ignore this if you want. It's up to you." Likewise, they do not write, "I'm joking. Just pretend I didn't say this at all." All the writings, Old Testament and New, convey serious meaning. In fact, every word matters. In Revelation chapter 22, right near the end of the Bible, we read the following in verses 18-19:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.

God takes the Bible seriously. If we doubt this just look at what Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-18, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished." Thankfully for us Jesus fulfilled the Law; because of that we do not have to. The point for the purposes of this post, however, is that none of God's word can be ignored.

God's message to this world is important. Because of that, the Bible is important. The Biblical writers understood this. Their goal was to convey this message clearly to their readers/listeners. Due to the gravity of what they wrote about, they meant what they said. We cannot ignore any of it. It all matters.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Bible is a Book That is Meant to be Understood

This post is the first of a ten-part series on Biblical interpretation.

The Bible is a book. This is painfully obvious. It is a book that is meant to be understood. This should also be painfully obvious.

Throughout the scriptures we read exhortations by writers for the readers and listeners to hear, listen, and pay attention. They are also told to obey. In order for those receiving the instruction to do these things, they must not only understand but be able to understand. This means that the Bible must have been written in such a way that it was/is meant to be comprehended.

In the Old Testament the Israelites are told repeatedly to follow God's law. They are blessed by God for doing so and punished when they disobey. When we look to the New Testament we see Jesus point to the importance of God's law. Christ expects those listening to him to comprehend. He answers their questions when they do not. As we move into the remainder of the New Testament we read writers (Paul, Peter, James, etc.) who have specific instructions and commands. At no point do we sense the writers being purposefully confusing. Their clear goal is to communicate.

The Old Testament originally existed in scroll form (as opposed to codex). The same is true for the New Testament. A few hundred years after Christ scrolls evolved into codices. Regardless of form, the words of the scriptures did not change. They were translated into other languages, especially during the Reformation. Despite this, the meaning did not change.

We ought not treat the Bible as if it is some form of foreign communication that has mysterious meaning. It is a book. We should treat it as such.

Authors write books to be understood. When this does not happen, readers ignore the authors. The writers of the Bible very clearly want to be understood. Their writing conveys this. It was penned in a manner that makes the meaning clear. They intend for those reading and listening to comprehend fully their message.

When we read the Bible we can understand it. We should understand it. The authors meant for this to be the case.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Church, Bible, and Interpretation - It's Not So Simple

If interpreting the Bible correctly was a simple process, then the church would likely have far fewer arguments.

Let me be clear: the problem is not with the scriptures. Rather, the problem lies with Christians not using basic principles of interpretation that make understanding clear. Far too many believers treat the Bible as if it is some sort of exotic book that must be read and understood differently from other books. When they do this they come to all sorts of ridiculous conclusions about what the Bible means.

I have no time or interest in people who reject portions of scripture because they simply do not like them/do not want to obey them. I equally have no time for folks who obviously interpret the Bible in ways that make no sense (these people have usually already decided what the text should mean before they actually analyze it). The people I do have time for are Christians who want to understand the Bible but for some reason struggle to do so. Many times their failures stem from either poor teaching or lack of teaching in the past.

The sad fact is that many, many followers of Jesus Christ have come to many, many faulty conclusions about what the scriptures mean on many, many topics. Largely because of this I'm going to be posting a ten part series on Biblical interpretation. I do not intend for the upcoming pieces to be either highly academic or unnecessarily lengthy. Rather, I'll simply be discussing basic techniques for understanding what we need to understand from the Bible.

I am chagrined at the state of the church in this country. However, I also believe it has great potential. One way for the church to be much holier and have greater impact on society is if we have a better comprehension of what God means through the scriptures. My hope is that this upcoming blog series will help a little with that.

The series topics are as follows:

1. The Bible is a book that is meant to be understood.

2. The Biblical writers meant what they said.

3. The Biblical text has meaning; we do not bring our own meaning to it.

4. Biblical meaning stems from the book, chapter, and paragraph (not verse).

5. The Bible is full of eyewitness accounts.

6. The Bible does not read like a myth or fairy tale.

7. Genre must not be ignored.

8. Descriptive differs from prescriptive.

9. The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, but we can trust our good English translations.

10. The Gospel is the key, and Jesus Christ is at the center.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"Anglican Split Is Really About Scriptural Authority, Not Gay Marriage"

Click here to read an excellent article by Eric Metaxas entitled Anglican Split Is Really About Scriptural Authority, Not Gay Marriage. He hits the nail on the head.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

In Case You Missed It...

A few days ago Russell Moore penned an excellent piece entitled 2 Chronicles 7:14 Isn’t About American Politics. It is one of the best articles I've read in quite a while on both American politics and biblical interpretation. This is a must read - especially for all culture warriors.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Best Thing I've Seen on Facebook This Year

A couple of weeks ago I posted The Stupidest Thing I've Seen on Facebook This Year. On the positive side of things, today I came across the best thing I've seen on Facebook in quite a while. It's always good when Batman puts Robin in his place, especially when sound theology is on the line.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

I Attended a Ceremony This Past Weekend

My family and I attended a ceremony a few days ago.

We met with a hundred or so other people in a church building. We all sat in long rows. Most everybody there was quiet the majority of the time. The exception was the couple of hymns we were invited to sing. The pastor did almost all the talking. We followed a specific order of ceremony, outlined for us in a bulletin. The pastor preached/spoke to us in monologue form. It felt like we were watching a show.

What we attended was a wedding.

My family and I enjoyed it very much. We love the folks who were married, which made the wedding a happy occasion. Additionally, we don't usually go to more than one wedding per year. Due to the infrequency, it was special.

You probably see where I'm going with this post. The above ceremony I described could also be an accurate picture of most worship services. This is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, worship services are frequent. Nobody needs to attend frequent ceremonies. Ceremonies by definition are supposed to be special in part because of their infrequency. When they happen weekly (or more) they lose a lot of luster. Second, church meetings should be family get-togethers. These are, almost by definition, informal. Families hang out, simply spending time together. They participate in each others' lives. This cannot happen during ceremonies.

Weddings ought to be ceremonies. Church gatherings not so much. Let's make sure that when we come together we generally do so informally. This is when family life truly happens.

Monday, January 11, 2016

On Misunderstanding God's Sovereignty and the Resulting Loss of Hope

Most Christ-followers believe that God is sovereign. I know I do, and I imagine you do as well.

How we define and understand the sovereignty of God are important. If we make an error in this it can lead to a deep sense of hopelessness.

God is indeed sovereign. The Bible shows us that God controls all things. Nothing happens that is outside his divine omnipotence. This wonderful truth ought to give us both hope and peace. It would be an awful and terrifying thing to think of something beyond God's control. If that could happen, then God would not in fact be God at all.

It is easy to cherish the sovereignty of God when things are generally going well in our lives. However, when the trials come (problems related to family, job, money, etc.) doubts may begin to creep in. This is where the danger exists. If we define God's sovereignty as God answering our prayers in the way we want him to, then we are in trouble. This is because God knows much better than we do what we need. We generally desire for God to take away various unpleasant things in our lives. After all, we like comfort. God, however, often uses discomfort to both train us and draw us closer to him.

When God answers differently from what we ask for this does not mean that he has failed to be sovereign. He cannot do that because his sovereignty is one of his unchanging attributes. God applies his sovereignty according to his omniscience. He knows all things, including what is best for us. We are the ones who fail to fully understand how God works out his sovereignty in our lives for his glory. While he may apply it one way, we sometimes think that bad things that happen to us mean God failed in his sovereignty. We are incorrect.

In Romans 8:28 we read, "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." God works to bring about what we need, not necessarily what we want. We must not make the mistake of over applying God's sovereignty to areas of our lives in such a way that limits God; we must avoid putting God in a box. More specifically, we have to avoid thinking, "God has to answer my prayer in such-and-such a way or he is not sovereign after all." That simply shows ignorance on our part.

God is fully sovereign. He will act according to his perfect character, will, and goodness. When he responds to our prayers in ways we do not like, let's not fall into hopelessness. God has not abandoned us. Rather, he is helping our sanctification process.

God's sovereignty is a reason for great hope. Let's avoid defining and comprehending that sovereignty in ways that God has not.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Interesting Thoughts on an Interesting Topic

I haven't given a great deal of thought to the issue of head coverings. However, when I have pondered it, I've assumed that the primary reason for it is modesty. Jeremy Gardiner proposes a different reason in the piece entitled Why Headcovering is not about Modesty. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, his short essay is worth the read. As for me, I don't really know what I currently think about head coverings. I'll have to ponder it some more.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Avoid the Tempting Root of Bitterness

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled (Hebrews 12:14-15).

As we enter this new calendar year, I'd like to challenge both myself and my blog readers to fight against bitterness. In particular, let's actively battle against the tempting tendency to be bitter about the state of the church in the West.

Due to its institutional shackles, the church in both the United States and Europe is largely stagnant and ineffective. We know what the problems are. As followers of Christ, we desire to see a vibrant, active, joyful, growing, serving church. Because most of us do not see this (at least for the most part), it is extremely easy to become bitter about the whole situation. I'm guilty of this.

The author of the book of Hebrews warns believers about allowing a root of bitterness to spring up and cause trouble. We must pay attention to this exhortation. We Christians have the responsibility to guard the church against the danger of bitterness. We need to start with ourselves before looking at others.

In Hebrews 12:15 we see the phrase "root of bitterness" in quotes. This is because the author is pointing back to Deuteronomy chapter 29:

Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, 19 one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. 20 The Lord will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the Lord and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven. 21 And the Lord will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law. (Deut. 29:18-21, emphasis mine)

Clearly, God takes bitterness seriously. Not only does it damage the bitter person, but also those around him. The Deuteronomy passage even suggests a relationship between bitterness and turning to other gods. This is no insignificant matter.

I don't generally care for New Year's resolutions. They make people feel good about themselves, but are largely forgotten by the end of January. In this post I'm not offering or hinting at some sort of New Year's resolution. Rather, I'm pointing to something significant that we must war against: the root of bitterness.

Especially for those of us who want and hope to see something drastic change within the body of Christ, we must not fall prey to anger, resentment, and bitterness. We can and should point out problems within the church; a problem cannot be solved without first having a correct diagnosis. It is how we do this that is key. Let's point to a better way for the church, offering both suggestions and solutions.

The root of bitterness will only destroy us. We must avoid it at all costs.

I'll conclude with an appropriate quote from puritan John Owen, "Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you."

Friday, January 1, 2016

2016 Blogging Themes

Each year I focus on a few specific blogging themes. Below are the five that I'm writing about most frequently in 2016.

1. What Is That Supposed to Mean? (Biblical Interpretation)

2. Now That's How It's Done (Proper Church Practice)

3. You've Got to Be Kidding (Institutional Church Nonsense)

4. Man, We Are Messed Up (Cultural issues)

5. Get After It (Physical Fitness)

Some of the above are topics that I've dealt with quite a bit in the past. Because of my deep concern for the state of the church in this country, that will continue to dominate my blogging. The newest focus is one that I just began addressing late last year: physical fitness; this will be on the increase.

If there are issues that you would like me to blog about, please email me or simply mention it in the blog comments. Thanks.

I hope you have an excellent 2016!