Monday, February 23, 2009

Studying the Bible: Interpretation - Proverbs

Robert Stein gives a great definition of “proverb” in his book A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible. He writes, “A proverb is a short pithy saying, frequently using metaphorical language, which expresses a general truth.” This definition is very accurate and if you can remember it, it will be a huge help in remembering how to interpret (and not interpret) proverbs.

Some folks may not know that proverbs are found throughout the Bible, not just in the one book that bears that name. Large portions of Job, Ecclesiastes, and James are made up of proverbs, and we also find Jesus using proverbs as teaching tools in the Gospels. So, it is important to know how to handle this genre of Scripture, even when you are studying something other than the book of Proverbs.

The most important word in Stein’s definition is general. Proverbs teach a general truth. That is, they make statements that will generally, but not always, be the case. For example, one widely known proverb is found in Proverbs 22:6, Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. This is generally true. In fact, in most cases we can expect that when a child is raised up in a God-honoring way, he will continue to live a God-honoring life even when he is old. However, this will not always be the case.

I’m sure most of us know of real life exceptions to this very proverb. My best friend growing up was raised in a wonderful Christian home. His parents are two of the most Godly people I have ever known, and I will always love them dearly. My friend is now a perfect example of the general truth of Proverbs 22:6. His parents raised him up in the way he should go, and now he is a Godly man raising his own young family in the fear of the Lord. However, his brother has proven to be the exception to this proverb. Although raised in the same home by the same parents and in the same way, his adult life has been characterized by consistent dishonesty and adultery.

Does this mean that the Bible isn’t true? Absolutely not. Proverbs are not universal laws. They are not to be taken as promises. They simply state general truths. In the case of Proverbs 22:6, a young couple can expect that if they train their children in the way they should go, they will most likely stay on that course throughout their lives. Still, parents should understand that this isn’t a formula and that they should faithfully pray for the grace of God to be displayed in the lives of their children.

If we were to read straight through the book of Proverbs, we would find many instances of general truths to which we could find exceptions in our own experiences. Consider Proverbs 3:9-10: Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. Certainly, this proverb is generally true, but I can name two families off the top of my head that have honored the Lord in this way all their lives and are still quite poor.

The book of Job shows the grave error in treating proverbs as laws or as promises. Job’s buddies are very familiar with the proverbial literature of their time, and over and over they make the mistake of taking these proverbs as universal truths. They believe that all the pain and heartache Job is enduring must be because of his own sin, and they repeatedly toss these proverbs out at him, such as this one: “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:7-8). But in Job’s case such proverbs do not fit. He is the exception. His suffering is not a result of his sin.

There is one caveat to this principle of interpreting proverbs, though. Whenever a proverb expresses something about the nature or character of God, it is universally true – there are no exceptions (Prov 3:19-20, 15:3). The attributes of God cannot be generally true - He is always the same (Ps 102:25-27; Mal 3:6).

Proverbs express general truths. They aren’t to be claimed as promises or thought of as law. They are intended to be principles to live by. Remember that, and interpreting proverbs will be as easy as reading them.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

What's the Big Deal about Pride?

This morning I heard a talk radio personality say the following: “…and that’s one of the things I hate about organized religion – the idea that pride is a sin. According to that view, if you ever do something worthwhile in your life, God forbid that you should ever feel good about it. Apparently, there’s a special gate into hell for those guilty of pride.” (That may not be verbatim, but it’s close.)

This talk show host brings up a good point. When we talk about the sin of pride, I suppose we typically think of conceit. We think of someone who is puffed up with an over-inflated opinion of himself. But what about the scenario above? What is wrong with being proud of a job well done? What is wrong with being proud of your kids or your spouse? What about being proud to be an American? Is there a difference between conceit and this kind of seemingly innocuous pride?

Well, the only way to tell is by looking to the Scriptures. And to the radio personality aforementioned, I would say that pride is a sin, not because organized religion has deemed it so, but because God has deemed it so. Scripture repeatedly speaks of pride as an offense against the supremacy of God. In the New Testament, pride is listed alongside other grievous sins (Mk 7:21-22; Rom 1:29-31; 2 Tim 3:2-5). There are numerous places in Scripture where it is said that a prideful person or persons will be brought low or destroyed (Is 2:12; Jer 13:9, 50:32; Ez 7:24, 32:12; Dan 4:37; Zec 10:11; Lk 1:51-52). Perhaps the strongest words against pride are found in James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 (both of which are quoting the Greek version of Prov 3:34): God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

Why is it that pride is so offensive to God? We find repeatedly in the Bible the idea that pride sets itself specifically in opposition to God. Pride doesn’t simply cause a man to elevate himself above others – it causes him to elevate himself above God. Pride tells a man that he does not need the Lord. Indeed, it can even lead a man to consider himself to be his own god. We see this in Ezekiel 28:2: "Son of man, say to the prince of Tyre, Thus says the Lord GOD: "Because your heart is proud, and you have said, 'I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas,' yet you are but a man, and no god, though you make your heart like the heart of a god.” Pride can lead to the sinful assertion that God does not exist: In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, "There is no God" (Ps 10:4).

Pride essentially is self-love. It is to this self-love that all temptation appeals. What was behind the first temptation in the garden of Eden? “…you will be like God…” (Gen 3:5). Every sin finds its genesis in the valuing of self over God. Listen to how Paul describes for Timothy the hearts of men in the last days: For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim 3:2-5).

This is why the self-esteem movement is so dangerous. James Dobson, Larry Crabb, Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen, and others like them have written voluminously that man’s biggest problem is a lack of self-esteem. This idea comes from Neo-Freudian psychology, not from Scripture. In fact, Scripture tells us that man’s fundamental problem is that he esteems himself too much and God not at all. His greatest need is to be reconciled to God through the blood of Jesus Christ and to be sanctified in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that he becomes thoroughly God-centered, not self-centered.

But what about being proud of a job well done? Doesn’t Paul speak of being proud of his work for God (Rom 15:17)? Yes, he does. In fact, there are at least three references to Paul’s pride in which pride is not spoken of as a fault – Romans 15:17, 1 Cor 15:31, and 2 Cor 7:2-4. However, Paul never refers to pride in his own work done in his own strength, as each context makes clear. For example, Romans 15:17-19 says, In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience--by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God--so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ…

Paul understood that whatever accomplishments he had made were done by the power of the Spirit of God. That should be the attitude of all who are in Christ. What the talk show host doesn’t understand is that nothing worthwhile finds its origin in man. Rather every good thing finds it origin in God. (Ps 16:2; Jn 3:27; Jas 1:17).

Rather than saying that we are proud of a job well done or proud of our kids, perhaps we should say we are thankful. Anything good I do, I do because of the grace of God. Therefore, I should be thankful to God rather than proud of myself. If my children do something good, I have no reason to be proud – they are not a product of my goodness. Rather, I should say that I am thankful – thankful for God’s working His own goodness in and through their lives. This simple change in terminology helps us to remember Who is worthy of all praise and to give glory where glory is due.

God alone is the source of every good thing. We must be on the alert for everything in the world’s influence and in our own hearts that would raise itself up against God and deprive Him of the glory that only He deserves.

Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord (1 Cor 1:31; 2 Cor 10:17).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Studying the Bible: Interpretation - Epistles, Part 2

Last time we looked at how to determine the meaning of words in Scripture. Understanding the meanings of words in isolation, however, will not get us to a proper understanding of the text. We must understand how the author strings these words along to make clauses and sentences, and how the author strings along sentences to make an argument.

How sentences and clauses relate to one another has everything to do with the message the author is intending to communicate. Consider these two parts of a sentence: 1) all men die, and 2) sin. A sentence using these two parts will take on radically different meanings based on the words used to connect them, such as “because of”, “to”, “regardless of”, “apart from”, “after”, or “for.”

In interpreting epistles it is important to go through the passage looking at how the clauses and sentences relate to one another. The following are some of the relationships that we can find through this kind of analysis.

1. Cause – in this kind of relationship, part 1 is because of part 2. Or said another way, part 2 is the cause of part 1. “All men die (1) because of sin (2).” The sentence has the same meaning even if the parts are in reverse order: “Because of sin, all men die.” Some words that are used to convey cause are because, for, since, on account of, and as a result of. Some examples of this kind of relationship include Rom 6:15, Rom 11:20, and 1 Thess 5:8.

2. Result – in this kind of relationship, part 2 is the result of part 1. “They struck him (1), so that he fell (2). Words used to convey result include so that, that, as a result, therefore, and so as to. Some biblical examples are found in Rom 1:20, 6:12, and 15:9.

3. Purpose – in this relationship part 2 is the purpose of part1. “He studied diligently (1), in order to get a passing grade (2).” It is very easy to get purpose and result mixed up. If we what we have purposed comes to fruition, the purpose is the result. The question is, is the author meaning to convey the outcome of an action (result) or the intent for the action (purpose)? Words used to convey purpose include in order that, so that, that, lest, to plus an infinitive (“to live”), and rather. Examples of this kind of relationship can be found in Rom 7:4, Gal 1:4, and Phil 3:10.

4. Condition – Part 1 is the condition of part 2. “If you keep my commandments (1), you will abide in my love (2).” Some terms used to signal this kind of relationship are if, if…then, except, and unless. You can find examples in Rom 8:13, 1 Cor 7:11, and Gal 5:25.

5. Concession – In this kind of relationship, part 2 took place, despite part 1. “He found no chance to repent (2), though he sought it with tears (1). Some of the terms used for this relationship include despite, even though, although, though, yet, apart, and even if. For biblical examples, see Romans 3:21, Gal 6:1, and Heb 5:8.

6. Means – This relationship shows that part 1 is the means by which part 2 is accomplished. “You have been saved (2) through faith (1).” Be careful not to confuse means with cause. Faith is not the cause of salvation, it is the means. If one possessed all the faith in the world, it would not save if Jesus had not paid the penalty for sin. The means through which salvation is given is through faith. Terms used to express means include by, with, by means of, through, and in. Examples of this relationship can be found in Rom 12:2, 1Cor 2:13, and James 2:18.

7. Manner – Here, part 1 is done in the manner of part 2. “Let them do this (1) with joy (2). In other words, part 2 describes the manner, emotion, or attitude with which part 1 is done. Terms used for this relationship are by, with, in, by means of, and from. You can find examples in 1Cor 10:30, 1 Thess 1:5, and Phil 1:18.

Notice that a given term may be capable of expressing a number of different relationships. For example, “so that” can be used to introduce purpose or result. Therefore you shouldn’t conclude that every time you see “so that” that it is expressing result. The context should be your guide as to which relationship is being expressed.

To understand the concepts intended by the biblical authors, we must pay close attention to how they relate the words, clauses, and sentences they are using. After analyzing your passage to determine all of these relationships, the next step is to restate the passage in your own words, making sure to express explicitly these relationships wherever they occur.

Once you have arrived at an understanding of the text, then you should check cross-references to see if your interpretation contradicts what is clearly taught elsewhere in the Bible. Your commentaries will usually do this for you, but you can also use cross-reference tools such as the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, Nave’s Topical Bible, and Torrey’s Topical Textbook, each of which are used by searching for the keywords in your passage.

Next time, interpreting proverbs.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bible Reading Plans

I wanted to share with you a few Bible reading plans. I have already mentioned the Psalms of the Day in another post. Here are a few more.

If you would like to simply read all the way through the Bible, there are a plethora of “read through the Bible in a year" plans on the internet. There are several here on EWord Today and on the ESV website.

One problem that many people have with some of the year-long bible reading plans is that if you miss a day or several days or a week, that calendar just keeps on moving and before you know it, to catch up you’ll have to read for a whole weekend. Most people who get to that point end up saying, “I’ll never catch up now. I’ll just start over again next year.” Consequently, there are a lot of people who know Genesis and Matthew like the back of their hands, but very little about what is in the rest of the Bible.

Another problem with some of these plans is that they have you reading one OT passage and one NT passage per day, so that you end up reading straight through the OT in the mornings and the NT in the evenings, or whenever. Raise your hand if you’ve read all the way through Numbers? Leviticus? If you have, you are most likely in the minority. Reading a chapter a day out of the Pentateuch can be very laborious and some people will just give up after muscling their way through half of Numbers. This is unfortunate because these books have so much rich content. But when you read them straight through with no variety, the pages start to run together and you end up reading mindlessly.

There is one reading plan that I feel eliminates these two problems. It is not based on a calendar, so there is no such thing as getting behind. It is not based on one reading of the OT per day and one reading of the NT per day, so it doesn’t feel quite so difficult in some of the heavier books.

This plan simply divides the Bible into five sections: Law (Gen-Deut), History (Josh-Esth), Poetry (Job-Song), Prophets (Isa-Mal), and New Testament. Each day, you read one chapter in each section. If you have to miss a day, just pick up where you left off and don’t sweat it. Boredom will not be as much of a problem because you will be reading such a wide variety of biblical literature everyday. You will also benefit from seeing the unity of the Bible. You’ll be amazed how often something that you read in the Law ties into the day’s chapter in History, or how the day’s Poetry reading foreshadows the day’s material in the NT.

You may be thinking, “Five chapters a day?!” I know it seems like a lot, but it shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes each day. You can split it up throughout the day if you like. The great thing is that if you are relatively consistent, you will most likely read through the whole Bible in way less than a year. You will finish each section of the Bible at different times, though not much different. Whenever you finish a section, just start it over the next day. This is well worth the effort and you’ll find that within the year, you have a much better idea of what is in your Bible.

If you have already read through the Bible several times and would like to become even more familiar with the Word, I recommend that you continue to read through the OT as mentioned above. But the material in the NT is more dense. The best way to breed an intimate familiarity with this testament is through the repetitive reading of smaller sections. For example, you could start with Philippians, which has four chapters. Read all four chapters every day for 14 days. At the end of those two weeks, you will have an intimate knowledge of Philippians.

If you wanted to start with Matthew, which has 28 chapters, you could split it up into 7 groups of 4 chapters, or four groups of 7 chapters. If you decided on the latter, you would read chs 1-7 everyday for 14 days. Two weeks later, you would have a solid idea of the content in Matthew 1-7. Then move on to chs8-14, and so on. Reading an average of five chapters a day for each 2 week period, you could have a very broad knowledge of the entire NT in just 2 years!

“Two years?!” you say. What else are you going to do with those two years? I guarantee you will not get to the end of this plan and think, “I wish I hadn’t wasted all that time reading God’s Word.” Rather, you will be amazed at the wonder and majesty of the God who created you and so graciously revealed Himself to you in His Word.

Whatever you do, make the most of your time. Don’t wait another day to begin feeding on God’s Word.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Studying the Bible: Interpretation - Epistles

WORD STUDIES

In studying epistles, one encounters a broader vocabulary than in narratives. Frequently, a passage can have two or more very different interpretations, depending on what definition you assume for just one word. For this reason, it is important to be able to do responsible word studies.

What is a word study? A word study is when you study a word. Shocking. But it’s just that simple. You take one word from a passage and study its usage elsewhere in Scripture (and even in extra-biblical literature) in an effort to determine its most likely meaning in the passage at hand.

Why do I say responsible word studies? Because some of the most common errors in biblical interpretation are the result of irresponsible word studies. As I explain how to do a word study, I’ll explain what makes a word study responsible or irresponsible. I’ll confess to you, before I learned how to do this responsibly, I was like a bull in an interpretive china shop. I shutter when I think of some of the things I have taught with great conviction based on reckless word studies. It really makes me nervous to even teach someone how to do word studies, but it is an important part of studying, especially studying epistles.

When you do a word study, you are not studying the English word that you see in your bible. You are actually studying the Hebrew (OT) or Greek (NT) word underlying the English word. I tell you in all seriousness, this can be intoxicating. We all know how exciting it can be to see something or understand something in Scripture that you’ve never seen before. I refer to this as the “wow, I’ve never seen that before” factor. Word studies can be dangerous because every time you do a word study, there is the possibility of seeing something totally new. If you’re not careful, you can end up creating new things that you’ve never seen before. When we dig a nugget out of Scripture, we need to make sure that we didn’t plant it there in the first place.

Back when I first started to do word studies, there was no internet so the task involved flipping through the pages of a lot of very big books with very tiny print. But now, you can find all the resources you need right on the internet. There are also some very good software packages, but if you’re just learning, you might as well do it for free.

A very good website to use for word studies is www.biblestudytools.net. I’m only going to explain how to do a study on this site. If you learn there, you should be able to figure out how to use another online tool if you find one you like better. The first link you want to click on the home page is Interlinear Bible. When that page loads, you’ll find a “search for” box in the center of your screen. Simply type in the English word you want to study. Before clicking the “find” button, you may want to change the search version. The default is the King James Version. If you prefer the King’s English, don’t be ashamed – just click “find”. If you prefer a more modern translation, use the pull-down box to change the KJV Strong’s Version to the NAS Strong’s Version. Then click find.

What you see next may look a bit weird. Don’t worry about the nonsense words under the English translation. Those are simply the underlying Greek words spelled phonetically using English characters. You don’t need to pay attention to them. Just scroll down until you find the Scripture reference for the verse you are studying. Once you locate your verse, click on your study word within that verse. You will then be taken to a page that gives all the information for the underlying Greek word. Scan down to the definition section, and there you will find one or more definitions. This is where things start to become dangerous.

Every word in the Bible has a specific meaning in the context in which it is found. It does not have several meanings in that one context. For example, if we are studying the word “light”, each use of that word can only have one meaning. One single use cannot simultaneously mean “not heavy” and “illumination”. Our objective is to determine which meaning is used in the particular verse we are studying. One danger when looking at a number of definitions for one word is that we may be tempted to pick the definition that gives us that wow factor I mentioned earlier. But we don’t have the liberty of picking the coolest answer. The biblical author meant something specific and we are bound to that meaning. Another danger is when rather than picking one definition, we take all of them and force them into one hole, so that we end up reading multiple scenarios into one word. Obviously, that won’t work. The word can only mean one thing per use.

So how do we find the one correct meaning? Two things: context and cross-references. Remember, context is king. So once we have our list of possible definitions, we then take each one back to our passage to see if the context excludes any of them. We ask the question, “Does this definition fit this context? Does it make sense?” You may have to read through the passage several times with that definition in mind before you can tell whether or not that definition makes sense. Hopefully, you’ll be able to exclude all the definitions but one. If you still have more than one, move on to cross-references.

On your word study screen on www.biblestudytools.net, you already have the cross-references you need right there at your finger tips. On the right side of the screen, there is a column “NAS Verse Count” (or "KJV Verse Count".) This is a tally of all the times that word is used in the Bible, with the number of uses shown in each individual book. If you click the book names, you will be taken to each use in that book. And here again, context is king. If you are studying a book written by Paul, you’ll want to look at all the uses of your word in Paul’s writing. Don’t look at books written by other writers, yet. You want to find out how Paul has used this word elsewhere in his writings. If the contexts are similar, he may be using the same definition in both passages. This will help you narrow down your definitions. However, be careful. Just because Paul used a certain definition for a word in one place, does not mean he used the same definition elsewhere. At the end of the day, the immediate context is the deciding factor.

At this point, if you still are not sure, you can look at the usage of the word by other Biblical authors. But honestly, I would encourage you to just take your list of possible definitions and check them against any commentaries you may be using. Sometimes a commentator will make a case for a specific definition that will help you make a careful decision.

One last thing. Be very careful with verbs. If there is the potential for false “wow factors” in Greek nouns, Greek verbs are like crack cocaine. Greek verbs are very easily abused in word studies because they hold so much more information than do English verbs. While English verbs will typically tell you tense (past, present, or future), person (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), and number (singular or plural), Greek verbs tell tense, voice, mood, person, and number. And participles tell even more. (This information is referred to collectively as the verb’s parsing.) This makes Greek verbs very expressive, but also very complex and therefore very easy to mishandle. It is very easy to read a booklet on Greek verb tenses and begin to think you are an expert. Just stick with the definition of the word and don’t worry about the parsings.

Never, ever, ever base any interpretation on a Greek verb parsing. If fact, if you have a study tool that gives you the parsing of a verb, but you don’t know Greek, forget that you have that tool. Danger, danger, danger. It may sound extreme, but you can really butcher the Word this way. It is best to trust a good commentary. If you are not satisfied with that, learn Greek. You won’t regret it.

If you are too intimidated to try a word study, that is fine. Don’t think you’ve wimped out. Quality commentaries will deal with any word issues for you and as you gain experience studying the Bible you may feel more comfortable trying a word study at a later date.

Next time, Interpreting Epistles – Proposition Analysis.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Few Misconceptions About Biblical Counseling

Biblical counseling is going to be a huge component of the ministry of Providence Bible Fellowship, both within the body and in our outreach to the lost around us. This form of counseling is founded on belief in the sufficiency of Scripture to guide us in all matters of salvation and sanctification (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:3). Also known as nouthetic counseling, biblical counseling has been caricatured by some within the church due to a limited understanding of what it actually is.

I’d like respond to a few of the most common misunderstandings about biblical counseling.

“Biblical counseling is simplistic.” Biblical counseling is simple, but it is not simplistic. It does not minimize the seriousness of heart issues and it does not minimize the difficulty of dealing with heart issues. God has given us in His Word His understanding of man’s problem and His understanding of how to address it. He knows what He is talking about. And often His solution will be far simpler than a man-centered approach. That God’s method of counseling is less complicated than methods created by man does not mean that God’s way is simplistic. Rather, it shows that man, in his effort to make his own way, has missed the real issues of the heart and has complicated things.

“Biblical counseling is against science and medicine.” Biblical counseling does not seek to address problems that are legitimately physical issues. In fact, a biblical counselor would be foolish to not encourage a counselee to not seek medical attention for proven diseases. Biblical counseling does not set itself against hard science – that is, science based on the empirical method. We do differentiate psychology from hard science, though. Psychology is a discipline, not a science. Some consider psychology to be a soft science since it is not based on the empirical method.

“Biblical counseling is harsh and confrontational.” Of course, there will always be bad apples in any bunch. But a biblical counselor should seek to be like Jesus, full of grace and truth (John 1:17). It is possible to err by being all grace and it is possible to err by being all truth. There must be a balance. We see the ideal heart of a biblical counselor in the words of Paul to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:31: Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. Biblical counseling seeks to speak the truth in love out of a heart that truly cares. Certainly, there are occasions where confrontation is necessary and is the most loving thing to do. In those instances, even confrontation should be done with sensitivity and care.

“Biblical counseling is based on the idea that every problem is a sin issue.” It cannot be denied that a great deal of the problems that we face are the result of sin, whether that sin be our own or someone else’s. However, it is not true that biblical counseling sees a sin under every rock. Sometimes a person may come for counseling who just needs encouragement during a difficult trial. In such a case, the counselor will open God’s Word and seek to encourage. A person may come for counseling who is having a difficult time dealing with the loss of a loved one. The counselor will open God’s word and seek to speak words of comfort, as well as to show the path toward God-honoring grief. Sometimes there is a legitimate medical issue that is causing the problem. So there are a host of issues in which the biblical counselor would not be addressing a sin issue. On the other hand, much psychological theory is based on the assumption that there is no sin, there is only disease, which runs counter to biblical teaching.

“Biblical counseling is just for smaller things like worry. It won’t help people with real mental illness.” There are some organic problems affecting the brain such as genetic disorders, brain damage, chemical/glandular disorders, and tumors that are accurately termed
mental illness. However, much of what is called mental illness today are issues for which there is no evidence that they are caused by disease or illness. Scripture recognizes organically based problems as well as problems that result from sinful behavior and attitudes. However, there is no Scriptural support for a third source of problems that comparable to what some call mental illness today. Rather, 2 Pet 1:3 tells us that in the knowledge of Christ, we have been given everything pertaining to life and godliness.

Providence Bible Fellowship is committed to biblical counseling. In the coming weeks, we will have more blog posts about what it is and the theological foundations for it.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Have Humility

"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4).

Take a Look at verse 4: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” The word "interests" is not in the original languages, it is open-ended. All that is specified is “your own (something)” or “the other’s (something).” So it could be, “Let each of you look not only to your own financial affairs, or your own property, or your own family, or your own health, or your own reputation, or your own education, or your own success, or your own happiness—don’t just think about that, don’t just have desires about that, don’t just strategize about that, don’t just work toward that; but look to the financial affairs and property and family and health, and reputation, and education, and success, and happiness of others.”

In other words, verse 4 is a way of saying the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:39). That is, make the good of others the focus of your interest and strategy and work. Find your joy in making others joyful. If you are watching television and your child says, Will you play with me? Don’t just think about how tired you are. By an act of gospel-fashioned, Christ-exalting will, put the child’s interests before the pleasures of your relaxation. One of the keys to this radical way of living is in the second half of verse 3: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

But where does that other-oriented commitment come from? Verse 3 says, “In humility count others more significant than yourselves.” It comes from humility. Literally: “lowliness.” This is the great opposite of a sense of entitlement. Humility is the opposite of “You owe me.” Paul said, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (Romans 1:14). In other words, they didn’t owe him. He owed them.

Why do Christians walk through life feeling a humble sense that we owe service to people, rather than them owing us? The answer is that Christ loved us and died for us and forgave us and accepted us and justified us and gave us eternal life and made us heirs of the world when he owed us nothing. He treated us as worthy of his service, when we were not worthy of his service. He took thought not only for his own interests but for ours. He counted us as greater than himself: “Who is the greater,” he said, “one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27).
That is where our humility comes from. We feel overwhelmed by God’s grace: bygone grace in the cross and moment-by-moment arriving grace promised for our everlasting future. Christians are stunned into lowliness. Freely you have been served, freely serve.

Adapted from a sermon preached by John Piper on August 31, 2008.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Studying the Bible: Interpretation - Parables

What is a parable? A parable is a figure of speech in which there is a brief or extended comparison. Approximately one-third of all of Jesus’ teaching is in the form of parables, so it is important that we know how to handle these.

There are a couple of big pitfalls in interpreting parables, which account for the myriad of very different interpretations you will hear for the same parable. We want to be aware of these pitfalls before we outline the proper principles for interpreting this genre of literature.

The first pitfall is to confuse the genre of parable with that of biblical narrative. In a biblical narrative it is appropriate to ask such questions as, “why was the woman at the well coming to draw water in the middle of the afternoon rather than in the morning?” Or “why did David decide not to use Saul’s armor in his battle with Goliath?” Or “what is the significance of Jesus’ initial reluctance to turn the water into wine at the wedding at Cana?” These kinds of questions, while they may not be answered by the text, are appropriate questions because they deal with details of actual historical events.

On the other hand, parables are not actual historical events. A parable is a pretend story created by an author. The story exists only for the purpose of making the author’s point. Therefore, we shouldn’t ask questions such as, “why did the father of the prodigal son divide his property at the prodigal’s request?” There is no historical answer to that question because the neither the father nor the prodigal son literally existed. The only answer to that question can be, “because Jesus wanted him to so that He could make the point He desired to make.” Parables cannot be interpreted in the same way as biblical narrative.

The second big pitfall is to treat the parable as an allegory. This was the predominant method of interpreting parables until the late 19th century. In an allegory, every detail of the story has a corresponding meaning in the real world. In other words, everything means something. There are no detail for details' sake. One example of this kind of interpretation is Augustine’s interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Augustine took every detail of the parable and found a corresponding point of comparison in the real world. For example, the man going down to Jericho represented Adam. Jerusalem represented the City of Heavenly Peace. Jericho represented the moon, which symbolizes our morality. Robbers were the devil and his demons. Their stripping of him represented taking away his immortality. Beating him represented persuading him to sin. Leaving him half-dead represented his spiritual death. The priest represented the Law. The Levite represented the Prophets. The Good Samaritan represented Christ. Augustine went on to assign significance to the oil, the wine, the beast, the inn, the two denarii, the innkeeper, and the return of the Good Samaritan.

The problem with this type of allegorization of a parable is that it tends to dismiss the context of the passage. In this particular parable, is Jesus intending to give a word picture of all of salvation history? No. He is answering a question posed to him by the lawyer in Luke 10:29. Having acknowledged that the Law requires a man to love God and to love his neighbor as himself, the lawyer, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem…” Jesus was answering a question and the whole point of the entire parable is to answer that question. He was not providing an allegory.

When treating a parable as an allegory, it is virtually impossible for two people to arrive at the same interpretation, which should give us great pause. This is evidenced by the fact that none of the allegorical interpretations of this parable by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, Luther, and Bishop Trench arrived at the same place.

Parables generally teach one main point and that main point is much easier to discern if we have a very good understanding of the context. We shouldn’t seek allegorical significance in all the details of the parable. The only times we should attach significance to multiple details in a parable is when Jesus does. For example, when Jesus interprets the parable of the sower (Matt 13:1-9), He explicitly attaches significance to the details of the story (Matt 13:18-23). In such cases, of course, such an interpretation is warranted.

Here are a few main rules for arriving at the main point of a parable:

1. Who are the main characters? Sometimes there will be one. Sometimes there will be three. When there are three or more, it is good to try to narrow it down to the two most important characters. What these characters do and say will be very important for the point being made.

2. What comes at the end? The meaning of a parable is typically stressed by what happens at the end of the story. Is the main point of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) that the father was forgiving? Not likely. The end of the story, the part of the tale to which the whole things leads, concentrates on the older son’s negative reaction to his father’s celebration at the prodigal son's return. This makes perfect sense in light of the fact that Jesus tells this parable, among others, in response to the Pharisees’ and scribes’ protest in 15:1, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

3. What occurs in direct discourse? If there are conversations held by the main characters of the parable, what happens in those conversations? Pay close attention to what is being said. The importance of this rule is illustrated in the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matt 20:1-16. There is no conversation between the landowner and the eleventh hour workers, yet there is a long conversation between the landowner and the first hour workers. The point of the parable can be found in that conversation. In the same way, in the parable of the prodigal son, there is no conversation between the father and the prodigal. Indeed, the prodigal son recites his rehearsed speech, but the father does not respond. However, there is a lengthy conversation between the father and the older son. Again, this conversation holds the key to a proper interpretation.

4. Who or what is talked about the most? Minor characters receive little attention, while major characters receive much attention. Don’t get caught up with the minor things. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, very little is said about the eleventh hour workers, while much is said about the first hour workers. This should tell us that the point of the parable is more likely related to the first hour workers’ response to the landowner.

5. What happened in the narrative prior to the telling of the parable? Once again, context is king. Often, when a parable is told it is directly related to the narrative that preceded it. It may be an answer to a question as in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), it may be a response to a challenge by Jesus’ opponents as in all the parables in Luke 15, and it may be an illustration of Jesus’ teaching as in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16).

Parables are a beautiful form of teaching. If you use these questions, you’ll find them to be far less enigmatic than they used to be. Keep up the hard work.

Next time: interpreting epistles.

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