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Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Light to the Gentiles

As most of you know, I've had a health issue this week, so I'm a bit behind.  For that reason, I'd like to share with you an old post from Christmas 2010:
In Luke 2:22-38, we read of Joseph and Mary bringing Jesus to the temple to present Him to the Lord, as the Law required for every firstborn male.  A man named Simeon, who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Christ, was moved to go to the temple, as well.  When Simeon saw the baby, “he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel’” (Luke 2:28-32).
Prior to this, the birth of Christ appeared to be a gift to the Jews alone.  Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, prophesied in Luke 1:68-79, speaking of salvation “in the house of His servant David,” “to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant.”  Mary, in her song of praise in 1:46-55, sings of God helping “His servant Israel.” When Gabriel is foretelling of the Lord’s birth, he reveals “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.” 
And yet, Simeon reveals that He will be a light for revelation to the Gentiles, as well.  It is important to note that this was God’s plan all along.  There are some who view the offering of the gospel to the Gentiles as God’s “plan B” – the Jews rejected Christ, so God had to call for the evangelizing of the Gentiles in order to salvage His plan for salvation.  But this text in Luke 2 shows that God intended to save Gentiles long before the Jews rejected Him.
We’ve seen hints of this in our short study in Matthew the last few weeks.  The genealogy of Matt 1 includes both Jews and Gentiles, demonstrating that Christ’s family tree was not strictly Jewish.  Later in the chapter, when it is revealed to Joseph the significance of Mary’s pregnancy, the angel reveals of the baby, “He will save His people from their sins.”  This calls the readers attention back to the genealogy, hinting that this Savior will be a redeemer of all kinds of people. 
Chapter 2 supports this notion.  We saw last Sunday morning that there were three groups confronted with the Christ, all of whom responded to Him in one of two ways, rejection or worship.  Who was it that received the special revelation of the star and understood its significance?  The Gentile wise men.  Who were the only ones to worship the baby King?  The Gentile wise men.
We also find in the epistles evidence that it was always God’s intention to bring salvation to the Gentiles.  In Gal 3:8, Paul writes, And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed."  In Eph 3, we read about “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (vv4-5).  What is this mystery?  “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v6).
But was this really God’s plan all along?  Yes.  V11, reads “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
How then do we explain Jesus’ statement to the Canaanite woman in Matt 15:24, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"? This is a matter of chronology, not intention.  It was always God’s intention to save “the nations” (Gal 3:8), yet in the accomplishment of His plan, it pleased God to proclaim the gospel to the Jew first, then to the Gentile (Acts 1:8; Rom1:16; 2:9-11). 
We have further evidence that this was God’s eternal plan in that Scripture teaches that God blinded the Jews, that He might bring the gospel to the Gentiles.  Romans 11:7-8: What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day."  V11 adds that “through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles.”  In His providence, God has brought about this chain of events “in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory – even us whom He has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.”
This is why it is appropriate for us to consider that the Christ was sent to us, as a matter of God’s eternal elective purpose, rather than as an afterthought.  God is not like a man whose plans don’t always pan out.  Salvation history is not the story of how God’s hopes were riding on the Jews, yet against His intention, they rejected Christ, forcing Him to seek an alternative so that the incarnation would not go to waste.  No, it was all His plan from eternity past, and it has all, is all, and will all come to pass exactly as He desires. 
It is this magnificent tapestry of salvation that moves Paul to exclaim, Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?  Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom 11:33-36)
There is so much meaning, history, prophecy, and providence present in the manger scene.  Just a small Jewish child asleep on the hay – and yet the singular hope for the eternal reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in one body to God. 
I’m looking forward to worshiping Him with you on Christmas Eve.  Oh, come let us adore Him.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

"My prayer life is feeling very dry and lifeless..."

While studying for this Sunday’s message on Phil 1:9-11, I was reminded what a great resource the Bible is when it comes to filling our prayers with Scriptural ideas and words.  Many of us struggle in our prayer life.  The reasons may vary, but some of us find that our prayers sound stale and lifeless, mainly because we say the same things all the time.
Monday: “Lord, please help my wife to manage her busy schedule well.  Please help my kids to come to know you.  Please help us to be faithful with the things you’ve given us.  Please improve my relationship with so-and-so.  Please help me to desire the Bible more…”
Tuesday: “Lord, please help my wife to manage her busy schedule well.  Please help my kids to come to know you.  Please help us to be faithful with the things you’ve given us.  Please improve my relationship with so-and-so.  Please help me to desire the Bible more…”
Wednesday-Sunday: “Lord, please help my wife to manage her busy schedule well.  Please help my kids to come to know you.  Please help us to be faithful with the things you’ve given us.  Please improve my relationship with so-and-so.  Please help me to desire the Bible more…”
It can quickly turn into a mindless recitation of meaningless words.  No wonder we struggle to desire to pray.
One possible solution to this problem of rote prayers is to derive the content of our prayers from the Bible.  The Bible is filled with prayers.  And not just any prayers, but Holy Spirit-inspired prayers.   
Most of the epistles contain some kind of prayer for the recipients.  For example, our passage for this Sunday is Paul’s prayer for the Philippians: And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the praise and glory of God (Phil 1:9-11).
Compare that to the kind of generic thing we pray for our families: “Lord, please help them to grow spiritually.”  The prayer in Phil 1:9-11 is so much richer and more substantive.  It also reminds us even as we pray that the ultimate reason to pray this for someone is so that God will be praised and glorified.  There are similar prayers in Rom 1:8-12, 1 Cor 1:4-9, Eph1:15-23, Eph 3:14-19, Col 1:9-14, and Phm 6.
We can also pray the psalms, which offer material for virtually every circumstance we could face.  What about when we fall into that old familiar sin?  Instead of praying yet again, “Lord, please forgive me and give me the strength to obey,” how much better would Psa 51 be?
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me…Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice….Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me…Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit…
Again, praying a Scripture like this not only provides different words than we normally use, but it reminds us how to think biblically about our sin and circumstances. 
But we don’t have to limit ourselves to only the prayers of the Bible.  We can pray other passages as well.  Men, why not pray for ourselves, “Lord, help me to love my wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…help me to love her as my own body, nourishing and cherishing her…”? (Eph 5:25-33).
When preparing to deal with a conflict at home, in church, or at work, we could pray, “Father, please help me to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, knowing that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas 1:19).
What about when we’re struggling with anxiety? “Father, please help me to focus my thoughts on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, whatever is excellent or worthy of praise…” (Phil 4:8).
Implementing this method can breathe new life into your prayer time, simultaneously turning your mind and heart to the Scriptures.  Give it a try!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Giving Thanks for Difficult Circumstances

Because of our new sermon series in Philippians, much of my thought life is dedicated to considering how to live the Christian life in difficult circumstances.  So naturally, the week of Thanksgiving prompts me to consider the biblical admonition to be thankful not only in all things, but also for all things: Give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ… (Eph 5:20).
If we are to be thankful for everything, that would have to include our trials.  But why would we be thankful for the difficult times in our lives?  Here are just a few reasons:
1. Our trials cause us to grow.
Romans 5:3-4 reads, …we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…  God doesn’t waste our trials and they don’t represent divine, purposeless hazing.  He uses them as tools to make us more like Jesus.  And that should cause us to be thankful…imagine how much better we would handle difficult circumstances if we were just like Jesus!
2. Our trials cause us to rely on God.
Paul the apostle was no stranger to suffering.  We might even say that he suffered more for the kingdom than anyone but Jesus Himself.  Of his own suffering he wrote, For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (2Cor 1:8-9).
Suffering pulls us out of our false notions of self-sufficiency to see that we cannot survive without moment-by-moment infusions of God’s grace.  They teach us to trust in God because we have in order to endure.  This is why it is so often the case that our devotional life is at its strongest when we encounter trials.  They bring us closer to the Lord and for that we should be thankful.
3. Our trials make us more effective tools in other people’s lives.
Last Sunday we noted this element at work in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  His experience with suffering and constant opposition not only conformed him to the image of Christ, but also allowed him to provide an example to those around him.  Without his own trials, he never would have been able to write, Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us (Phil 3:17).
When a young couple has a miscarriage, who is best able to offer words of comfort and hope?  Others who have endured the same thing.  When a marriage is devastated by adultery, who is best able to walk alongside that couple to help navigate the journey of pain and reconciliation?  Others who have walked that road.  Having been through it before, they know what to say and what not to say, what to do and what not to do.  What a blessing that is to those currently suffering.
Typically, when we are suffering we struggle to think about anyone but ourselves, but the mature believer will consider how his or her present struggles will provide equipping to help others in the future.  That is something to be thankful for.
4. Our trials make us value what matters most – the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
How many beatings, shipwrecks, false accusations, and years in prison does it take to cause a servant of Christ to look forward to his or her eternal reward?  Not many, I would think.  Paul had seen it all even as he was writing his letter to the Philippians.  I dare say his attention was not captured by meaningless, temporal things the way so many of us are.  Years of suffering for the cause of Christ, years of growing in dependence upon and affection for Christ brought Paul to the realization that the real prize of this life is the upward call to the next (Phil 3:14). 
I’ve yet to have a season of difficult in my own life that did not prepare me to gladly leave this world in order to gain eternal joy in the presence of Jesus.  With each struggle, my emotional ties to this life are weakened and my desire to depart and be with the Lord is strengthened.  Suffering now will make reunion with Him all the sweeter.  That kind of thing is a blessing and it is something for which we should thank the Lord.
May the Lord lead us to be truly thankful during this season, not merely in all things, but for all things.  For He causes good things to come from the difficult seasons of life, as He is the giver of all good and perfect gifts.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Yes, but Charles Spurgeon didn't agree with that!"

(This is the fifth article in a series addressing various enemies of sound interpretation.  You can find the previous four articles here:  Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4)
So far in this series, we’ve addressed three enemies of sound biblical interpretation – using personal experience as a hermeneutical tool, using overriding presuppositions to rule out obvious interpretations, and isolating a text from the larger context of the Bible.  Now, let’s consider an enemy of sound interpretation to which the vast majority of us are susceptible: following a particular interpreter rather than the Bible.
There are some well-known pastor/theologians that many of us at Providence respect, men like John MacArthur, John Piper, Tim Keller, D. A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, etc.  We can add to that list the names of great theologians from history like Augustine, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards.  These are godly men who have devoted a lifetime to the study of the Bible and we are wise to consult their writings and teaching when considering a passage of Scripture.  I personally believe that it is foolish to arrive at a final interpretation of a passage of Scripture without seeking the counsel of seasoned interpreters in the form of commentaries, articles, and other resources. 
When we study God’s Word, we should start with the Word.  We should do all the hard work of pulling the passage apart and formulating a preliminary interpretation.  Then we should consult the thoughts of other interpreters to see if their work has turned up anything we missed.  If I consult four or five commentators on a given passage and none of them interpreted the passage the way I did, what are the odds that they are all wrong and I’m right?  At the very least, I need to go back and do more digging in the Bible, looking for where I might have gone wrong.  Good commentaries have saved me from wrong conclusions many times.
So godly commentators are essential partners as we study the Bible.  However, we should be careful not to follow any one commentator/pastor/theologian so closely that his interpretation on any given text is the final word for us.  There is no one on the planet who is an infallible interpreter of Scripture.  We all make mistakes.  We all have certain biases that find their way into our thought processes. 
For that reason, I should never rule out a certain interpretation simply because my favorite theologian doesn’t concur with it.  If I am willing to follow without deviation all the interpretations of a particular man, not only am I going to be prone to holding mistaken positions, but I may be guilty of making that man my final authority rather than holding the Word as my final authority.
I had a professor (with whom I disagreed on occasion!) who once quipped, “There are a lot of people out there who refuse to think a thought unless it has been authorized by D. A. Carson.”  His point was that we should follow the Bible wherever it goes, not any one interpreter wherever he goes.  It’s not sinful to disagree with D. A. Carson or John MacArthur or whoever. 
If I find myself discounting an interpretation for the simple reason that Tim Keller disagrees, I’m in dangerous territory.  Likewise, if I approach a passage thinking, "whatever John Piper thinks about this is good enough for me," I must recognize that I have just stepped over the line between following a man and following the Bible.  (Now, if all the interpreters I respect disagree with a given interpretation, that should give me pause.  Again, what are the odds that I’m right and all of these more seasoned and learned students of the Bible are wrong?)
On Wednesday night, we watched a video of a conversation of bright, godly pastors/scholars regarding the different millennial positions.  I was tremendously encouraged to hear one of these men admit that he holds a different position on the millennium than his favorite historical theologian.  For him, the Bible is the final authority, even though this historical theologian was a huge influence in his life.
We too must strive to keep things in balance.  We must value and consider the thoughts and counsel of wise interpreters of the Bible without following them blindly.  Let’s be thankful for the insights of Bible interpreters who faithfully and skillfully handle the Word, while maintaining the Word itself as our final authority.  This balance is essential to sound biblical interpretation.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

How can I interpret one passage without contradicting others?

(This is the fourth article in a series.  You can find the previous three articles here: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3)
Thus far in this series we have tackled a couple of enemies of sound interpretation – (1) using personal experience as a hermeneutical tool and (2) using overriding presuppositions to rule out obvious interpretations.  Today, I’d like to discuss a third enemy – isolating a text from the larger context of the Bible.
You’ve heard it a million times: context is king.  Most of us are aware of the near context when studying the Bible.  We know that we are supposed to consider a text in light of the book around it.  We’ve done this habitually as we’ve studied Matthew together on Sunday mornings for the last several years. 
But some folks allow their consideration of the context to end at the borders of a particular biblical book.  In other words, when interpreting Ephesians, they are very careful to make sure that their interpretation fits with the rest of Ephesians.  When interpreting Acts, they make sure that their interpretation makes sense in light of the rest of Acts.  Yet they do not consider whether or not their interpretation fits with the rest of Scripture.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve gotten myself into trouble by making this mistake…well, I’d have a whole lot of nickels!  I would study a single canonical book, making sure that my interpretations and insights were faithful to that book, but then very comfortably and confidently made definitive statements about different areas of theology, unaware that those definitive statements contradicted passages in other parts of the Bible. 
For example, while studying Luke as a kid, I came across Luke 11:23: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.  I began to immediately draw a line in the sand between me and everyone else in my world.  Not longer after that, I was reading Mark and found Mark 9:40: For the one who is not against us is for us.  I knew that there are no contradictions in the Bible, so my definitive statement needed to take both passages into account.  I needed to be more careful.  I should have learned my lesson right there, but I continued to make the same mistake for years.
Because we’re studying eschatology on Wednesday nights, I have eschatology on the brain most of the time these days.  So here’s an eschatological example.  Based upon 2 Samuel 7 (cf Psa 132), I believed confidently that God’s promise to David to seat one of his sons on his throne would not be fulfilled until Jesus was literally sitting on the throne in Jerusalem during the millennial kingdom.  “God made a promise…it hasn’t been fulfilled yet…so it has to be fulfilled some time in the future…simple.”  But then while reading Acts I happened upon Peter’s words in Acts 2:30-31, where he says of David, “Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ…”  The apostle Peter taught that 2 Samuel 7 was fulfilled at the resurrection.  Cross-references confirmed this, showing that Jesus reigns now from heaven (Eph 1:18ff). 
After making this kind of mistake a jillion times, I decided to get serious about being careful.  I found a number of tools that could help me not to isolate a text, but to consider other passages that deal with the same topic or doctrine so that my insights were informed not by a single passage but hopefully by the whole counsel of God.
One of these tools is the cross-reference column that can be found in most Bibles.  You know, the tiny Scripture references in that center column on every page of your Bible? (Some Bibles have them along the bottom of the page.  Others along the left or right margins.)  Those are cross-references leading you to other parts of the Bible that pertain to the same phrase or idea noted in the text.  These can be very helpful.  However, due to limited space these cross-references are far from exhaustive.
Other more substantial tools include exhaustive concordances.  These things are like relics now because there are online tools and software that will do the job of a concordance with a single mouse click.  They allow you to search for every occurrence of a particular word in the whole Bible.  Very helpful.
But since the Bible can use a number of different words for a particular concept, other tools can be even more helpful, like The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, a voluminous collection of cross-references based not just upon particular words, but upon ideas.  
But there is one tool for which there is simply no substitute.  It enables a student of the Word to make connections between multiple passages, connections that a concordance or cross-reference simply cannot make.  It is the single most reliable tool to make sure that one does not isolate a passage from the rest of Scripture.  It can’t be bought or borrowed.  It is your own human brain filled with a broad knowledge of the Scriptures via years of repetitive reading of the Bible. 
The absolute best way to become a better interpreter of the Scriptures is to read the Bible, read the Bible, read the Bible.  The longer one studies and reads the Bible, the less he or she will find it necessary to rely on printed or electronic tools.  I know there are a number of brothers and sisters at Providence who are this way.  Pastor Rick and Pastor Ken, for example, are walking concordances, walking cross-references.  They can rattle off numerous passages that speak to any given subject or doctrine, not because they memorized Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance or the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, but because they have spent years repetitively reading the Bible.
You might wonder, “what do I do in the meantime while I’m reading and re-reading the Bible?  Am I doomed to make contextual mistakes until then?”  You can and should use the tools I mentioned above.  But also, I would recommend getting a couple of good commentaries for whatever book you are studying.  Commentaries written by solid, conservative evangelicals will go a long way toward helping you to identify pertinent cross-references that many reference tools will miss.
So use those tools…but read the Bible over and over.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What ideas should I bring with me into my study of the Bible?

This is the third article in a series dealing with enemies of sound biblical interpretation.  You can find the first two articles here and here. 
Today I’d like to address overriding presuppositions.  Sometimes people come to the study of the Bible bringing with them presuppositions that preclude certain interpretations of a given passage.  (A presupposition is something that we believe without it being proven.)  They begin with a conviction that a certain belief is true so that any interpretation that would call that conviction into question is ruled out.
One huge area of overriding presuppositions pertains to the character of God.  I have been guilty of approaching Scripture presupposing what God would and wouldn’t do.  "A God of love wouldn’t do this or that."  I was right to believe that God is loving – the Bible says so.  I was wrong to bring presuppositions about what that looks like into my study of the Bible. 
The first time I remember doing this was in my study of the doctrines of grace.  For many years, I rejected them because they seemed incompatible with my preconceived notions of a “God of love.”  I was convinced that a God of love would not choose certain people to be saved and not others.  A God of love would try to save everyone.  This caused me to massage certain passages of Scripture so that they allowed for unnatural interpretations.
For example, I interpreted Romans 8:29 in a way that is foreign to the text and both the near and larger context.  This verse reads, For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  I presupposed that God would not predestine certain people for salvation and not others, so I ruled out the possibility that foreknowledge and predestination in this verse could refer to God establishing a relationship with a particular person.  Having ruled out this natural reading (which is validated by a myriad of OT and NT texts), I had to find an alternative.  So I read into the text that this foreknowledge referred to God foreseeing faith in particular people.  In other words, I believed that God foresaw those who would choose Him.  (Mind you, this is not in the text nor is it in any way implied.)  God then took that group of people and predestined them not to salvation, but to sanctification.  So in my mind this passage in no way referred to election, but to God foreseeing who would be saved of their own volition and predestining that those who made that choice would eventually be like Jesus.  All of this resulted from a preconceived idea of what a God of love would and would not do.
I’m so thankful that the most important thing my parents taught me is that the Bible is true.  Eventually, that conviction, in conjunction with the text of Romans 9-11 and John 6, would show me that I had a wrong presupposition regarding the love of God.  I then began to allow the Scriptures to dictate to me what God’s love looks like rather than me dictating to the Scriptures what His love looks like. 
The appropriate presupposition with which to approach study of the Bible is that the Bible is true.  That and that alone should be our starting point.  The Bible should mold our other foundational beliefs, including our beliefs about the character of God.  There is a relatively small body of truth about God that can be gleaned from general revelation, that is, from the world around us.  Certain attributes, namely His eternal power and divine nature, are evident through the things that have been made (Rom 1:20), but all other truths about Him must come from the Bible. 
Beyond presuppositions about the character of God, we can bring into Bible study presuppositions regarding a host of other things, including social and political issues like divorce and remarriage, homosexuality and gender issues, abortion, the supposed heavenly endorsement of capitalism and democracy, etc.  It never ceases to amaze me how powerful our presuppositions can be.  They can cause us to completely disregard the natural reading of a given text.  They can cause us to read things into Scripture that simply are not there. They can even cause us to hold that a given text means the exact opposite of what it says!
So how can we spot these overriding presuppositions?  A telltale sign is when we find ourselves trying to argue that a text does not mean what it says.  Let's go back to one of the examples from the last two articles.  1 Tim 2:12 clearly reads, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.”  The context supports the natural reading of this verse.  Yet often, people approach this text presupposing that there are not different but complimentary roles for the different genders.  Those who hold this presupposition are forced to find a way for this passage to not mean what it so clearly says.  When we find ourselves doing this, it is likely that an overriding presupposition is at work and we need to identify what it is and allow the Scriptures to override it. 
God’s Word is true and it should shape our thinking on every issue of life.  We should never do the opposite – allow our thinking on any issue of life to shape our view of God’s Word.  If we do, we’ll often find ourselves at odds with sound interpretation.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Should I use personal experience to interpret the Bible? Part 2

In last week’s article, I began a short series on enemies of sound interpretation.  We considered whether or not personal experience is a valid hermeneutical tool.  Before I move on to the next “enemy,” I’d like to go back to one of the examples I used in the last article.
One theological issue on which people tend to use personal experience to trump sound interpretation is the issue of women teaching and/or exercising authority over men.  It would seem that Paul clearly rules out women teaching men, yet some people object that many men have been blessed by the teaching of women.  Some have even come to know the Lord through the teaching of women.  How could it be the case that God is against women teaching men if He seems to be blessing it?
I explained why we shouldn’t use personal experience to overrule a given interpretation, but now I’d like to actually give an answer to this specific objection.  To begin, let’s look at the text itself:
11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (1 Tim 2:11-14)
First, let’s bolster the correct interpretation by noting that this is not a cultural command, that is, Paul is not communicating something that was unique to his culture that is not appropriate for our modern culture.  Notice that he does not ground this command in the culture, but in both the order of creation and the Fall.  Adam was created first.  This is true no matter what culture you live in.  Eve was deceived first.  This is true no matter what culture you live in.  So this is a timeless, non-cultural command.
Second, to deal with the original objection, let’s consider that God often uses the disobedience of humans to accomplish His ends.  This happens all over the Old and New Testaments.  The golden example is God using the evil of Joseph’s brother's sin to save the descendants of Abraham (Gen 50:15-21).  There are many other examples, and on the basis of those alone we should not be surprised that the Lord would lead people to salvation through the disobedience of others.
But there is another example in the NT that is very closely related to the issue at hand.  In the first chapter of Philippians, Paul informed the recipients that his imprisonment had led to the advancement of the gospel in a number of ways.  All of the imperial guards knew that his imprisonment was for the gospel.  Also, many believers became much more bold to speak the word without fear because of his imprisonment.  And then he added this:
 15 ¶ Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
(Phil 1:15-18)
This is huge.  Paul rejoiced that the gospel was being preached even though some that were preaching it were doing so with sinful motives.  Paul rejoiced not because of the sinful motive, but because the gospel was being advanced in spite of those motives.  Did the fact that the gospel was being advanced negate the sinful motives?  Did the spread of the gospel through the selfishly ambitious validate their actions?  By no means.  It was sinful for them to preach the gospel for ungodly reasons.  It was sinful for them to want to afflict Paul in his imprisonment.  Envy and rivalry are not virtues.  According to 1 Cor 3:10-15 and 4:5 indicate that those people will suffer loss on the day of judgment rather than receiving commendation.  Here we have an example of God using the sinful actions of some to achieve His ends.  (We have a sermon on our website about why motive matters.  You can find it here.)
We should regard women teaching men in the same way.  The Scriptures do not allow women to teach men or to exercise authority over men.  It is sinful.  1Tim 2:11-14 is as clear as it can be.  That God uses such teaching to bless men or to lead them to salvation should not be seen as a validation of women teaching men but rather as an example of God using sinful acts to accomplish His own ends.  Those who violate this command should not expect to receive a commendation on the day of judgment, but rather to suffer loss. 
Once again, we must interpret Scripture with Scripture.  We must also interpret our personal experience with Scripture.  We must never interpret Scripture by our personal experience. 
Next time we’ll consider another enemy of sound interpretation: conflicting pressupositions.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Should I use personal experience to interpret the Bible?

In our Wednesday night eschatology study, we spent a couple of weeks talking about hermeneutics, or the principles of biblical interpretation.  It’s critical that we understand which tools or principles are valid aids to interpretation and which ones are not.  There are a number of “tools” that can actually end up sabotaging sound interpretation.  I’d like to do a short series of articles exposing some of these enemies of sound interpretation.

One tool that is very common and very difficult to identify in our own thinking is the tool of personal experience.  Frequently, students of the Bible rule-out or rule-in interpretations of a given text based upon whether or not their personal experience validates that interpretation.  Let me give a few examples.
A number of years ago I had a discussion with someone regarding the famous “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” passage in Romans 7.  He was adamant that the passage described the normative extreme difficulty that Christians have living a godly life.  That is, it is normal for Christians to want to do good but to be unable to do so.  I asked him what made him so certain of this interpretation, especially when it seems diametrically opposed to the context.  He said, “That’s just always been my experience.”  I’ve heard similar comments regarding this passage at least a couple of other times.  People gravitate toward that interpretation because it resonates with their own personal experience.  For them, personal experience is an overriding consideration in their interpretation.
Another example involves a common objection to the postmillennial view of eschatology.  Postmillennialism holds that the gospel will increasingly succeed in converting the world so that eventually Christianity will permeate every government and social institution.  In a sense, the world will be Christianized.  A common objection is “that just does not look like what is happening in the world.  It looks like things are getting worse, not better.”  Because it seems like the vast majority of the world is unbelieving and there seems to be no movement of the world toward Christ, many people reject this view of eschatology, which otherwise is quite faithful to the Scriptures.  That is, their personal experience determines whether the interpretation is valid.
Another example pertains to women teaching and/or exercising authority over men in the church.  1 Tim 2:11-13 is quite clear that it is unbiblical for a woman to teach men or to exercise authority over men.  Yet, a common objection is that many men have been blessed by the teaching of women, have been saved through the teaching of women, etc.  So some deduce that it can’t be the case that God would object to women teaching men, otherwise He wouldn’t use their teaching to bless men.  Thus, personal experience is used to rule out a seemingly obvious interpretation.
We must keep in mind, however, that experience is not a valid hermeneutical tool.  We must never interpret Scripture by our experiences.  Rather we must interpret our experiences by Scripture.  
There are at least a couple of reasons to remove personal experience from our hermeneutical tool box.  The first is that experience is an inherently subjective thing.  Isn’t it obvious that we all approach the Scriptures with different experiences?  What if my experience contradicts the Scriptures, but yours affirms it?  Whose experience is “right”?  Experience is a wholly subjective thing and therefore unreliable as a tool for interpreting Scripture.
Second, it seems that the apostles held Scripture above experience, not vice versa.  Consider the apostle Peter.  He had certain experiences that would seem to trump anything that we could appeal to.  He spent three years with Jesus.  Even among the twelve disciples, he was in the inner circle of three.  He saw the risen Christ with his own eyes.  He even draws our attention to one of his more amazing experiences, the Transfiguration of Christ, in 2 Peter 1:17-18: For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.
We might expect Peter to then appeal to this experience to say, “Look, people, you can trust me when I tell you about Jesus Christ – I saw his transfiguration with my own eyes and heard the voice of the Father with my own ears.  Pay close attention to my experience!”  But he does no such thing.  Instead he shows that Scripture is a surer conduit of truth than his experience.  Immediately following the above two verses, he writes, “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention…”  The word is more fully confirmed than what?  Peter’s experience, according to the context.  If Peter didn’t rely upon his own experience, nor did he call others to rely upon his experience, why should we rely upon our own? 
There are many truths in Scripture that my limited life experience has not validated, but that does not make them any less true.  When we are considering a passage, we must remember that the original author infused his words with a particular meaning. The historical, grammatical, and cultural context can help me find what that particular meaning is.  My 21st century life experience can be found nowhere in that context and should not be considered when seeking the author’s meaning. 
Often my experience will affirm the truth of the Scriptures.  I know from experience that God is gracious, wise, and generous.  I know from experience that my sin will find me out.  Yet, my experience is not what makes those things true.  My experience is not necessary to confirm that they are true.  And if my experience contradicts what Scripture teaches, it is not the Scriptures that must be reinterpreted, but my experiences should be reinterpreted.  If my experience tells me that God is not gracious, that He is unwise, and that He is miserly, I’m not interpreting my experience rightly.  The Bible is unfallibly true, not my interpretation of my experience.
If I put experience in my hermeneutical toolbox, I can be assured that it will lead me astray.  It’s best to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture and allow Scripture to interpret my experience, but not the other way around.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Eschatology Hermeneutics: Literal or Genre-Sensitive?

Last night in the eschatology class, we considered two important hermeneutical questions that we must ask prior to studying eschatological passages.  We spent the vast majority of our time on one of those questions: Are there two peoples of God or one?  (Check the website in the next couple of days for the audio and video.)  The other question, which I’d like to address here, is this: will we employ a literal hermeneutic or a genre-sensitive hermeneutic?
Some folks would advocate approaching all Scripture with the same principles of interpretation regardless of the genre.  Whether the text is narrative, law, poetry, or prophecy, they would interpret the text literally, unless the context requires a figurative interpretation. 
I won’t rehash all that I said regarding genres of biblical literature in the first part of the hermeneutics section, but I will say that approaching the text literally unless the context requires a figurative interpretation is exactly backward when we are studying prophetic/apocalyptic literature.  Literal-unless-the-context-requires-otherwise is a great approach for narrative and epistles, but for genres that are characterized by highly figurative language, like poetry and prophecy/apocalyptic, the better approach is figurative-unless-the-context-requires-otherwise. 
Remember that this is how the apostles interpreted Old Testament prophecy.  Peter in Acts 2 interpreted Joel 2 figuratively.  That is, he understood Joel to be referring not to the sun literally turning dark and the moon literally turning to blood, but that these images spoke metaphorically of God powerfully working among men.  In our sermon series on Matthew 24 we noted that the OT frequently uses cosmic and cataclysmic language to speak of God bringing about changes in nations, governments, social structures, etc.
Similary, in Luke 3 the Gospel writer interpreted Isaiah 40 figuratively.  Isaiah wrote, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”  Luke did not record these events (valleys being lifted, mountains being lowered, etc) taking place in a literal sense.  If they had happened literally, that would certainly warrant inclusion in his Gospel!  Rather he recorded John the Baptist preaching the gospel and notes that this preaching fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy.  Luke understood Isaiah to be speaking metaphorically of the preaching of the gospel humbling the proud and exalting the lowly.
When a modern interpreter interprets other prophetic passages in the same way, those who pride themselves on always interpreting the Scriptures literally will characterize this kind of genre-sensitive interpretation as “spiritualizing” the text, or removing it of its significance.  This is an unfair characterization.  Understanding figurative language in a figurative sense does not “spiritualize” the text or empty it of meaning.  Rather it understands that language in the sense in which the biblical authors intended and in the sense in which the apostles themselves understood it.  If the apostles interpreted prophecy this way, certain we can and should do the same!
Why is this an important issue?  It’s going to greatly impact how we interpret eschatological texts, like those in Daniel, Revelation, and elsewhere.  If we insist on a literal-unless-the-context-demands-otherwise interpretation, we’ll end up with a very different picture than if we interpret these texts in accordance with their respective genres. 
As with the question of two peoples of God or one, we may disagree and that is fine.  These are not questions that should divide us.  We simply need to understand that our answers to these preliminary questions will largely determine our answers to the big questions of eschatology.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Harmonizing the Birth Narratives of the Gospels

Last night in our eschatology study, we briefly considered the existence of supposed contradictions in the Bible.  This morning I found two very good articles explaining how to understand and deal with these “contradictions” – you can find them here and here.
After class, a particular difficulty was brought to my attention and I offered to look into it before next Wednesday.  Having taken a look at it today, I decided to share it with all of you. 
The issue is what seems to be not necessarily a contradiction but a difficulty harmonizing elements of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.  Matthew 2 depicts the wise men searching for Jesus by coming to Jerusalem and inquiring, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?  For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  Herod learned from the chief priests that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, so Herod sent the wise men there and instructed them to report to him after they found the child (Matt 2:3-8).  The wise men found the child, offered him gifts, and departed.  Then in 2:13 we read,
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod.
Vv19-23 tell us that when Herod died, an angel instructed Joseph in a dream to take the child back to Israel, and so Joseph, Mary, and Jesus went home to Nazareth. 
However, Luke’s (2:22-40) account depicts Mary and Joseph taking the baby to Jerusalem to be presented at the temple, where Jesus was seen by Simeon and Anna.  Then v39 reads, And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 
The fairly obvious question is, how does the trip to Egypt fit into the narrative timeline of Luke?  Luke makes it sound like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned to Nazareth fairly shortly after His birth, but Matthew describes a lengthy time in Egypt prior to going back to Nazareth.  How do we deal with this?
First, we must remember that the Gospel writers used different episodes in the life of Christ to make a certain theological point to their respective audiences. None of them set out to write an exhaustive account of every major event in the life of Christ.  Consider last night’s Republican Presidential debate.  If I wanted to make a summary video to convince people that the candidates hate each other, I would choose very specific clips to make that point.  I might even put those clips in a non-chronological order that shows an escalation in the intensity of their interactions, so that by the end of the video viewers would say, “Wow.  They really hate each other.”  Someone else could make a summary video to persuade people that Planned Parenthood should be completely defunded.  That person would likely selectively choose clips that highlight the candidates who spoke out stridently against Planned Parenthood while leaving out clips of candidates who did not.  These two videos would be very different but both accurate depictions of aspects of the debate.  Neither one would show everything that happened.  Neither one would necessarily show things in the exact chronological order in which they happened. 
The Gospel writers did the same thing.  So it should not surprise us to find one writer including a detail or story not mentioned by another writer.  It should also not surprise us to find them presenting stories in different orders.  They each had a certain theological point to make and they chose and arranged material to make those points.  We must keep this in mind and not read the Gospels as if they are items from a newspaper or history book, as if they were merely conveying raw facts.  The Gospels are theological books.  They do present events that are historical, that is, they really happened, but the Gospels are not merely history books.  Each was designed to make a point.  So all of the events presented in Matthew and Luke actually took place.  They all fit together in some way. 
Second, in these narratives from early in Jesus’ life, there are clues to help us determine the timeline.  First, in Luke 2:22 we read, “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…”  This would have taken place 40 days after Jesus’ birth, since Lev 12:3-4 required circumcision on the eighth day (cf Luke 2:21) after which the mother was to continue in her impurity for 33 days.  So these events took place in Jesus’ early infancy.
Matthew on the other hand contains evidence that the events of Matt 2 took place a bit later.  In 2:16, he writes: Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.  According to the wise men, based upon the timing of the appearance of the star (2:2), Jesus could have been born up to two years prior to Herod’s killing all the boys in Bethlehem and Joseph’s fleeing with Mary and Jesus to Egypt.  Also, if the star appeared when Christ was born and the wise men began traveling as soon as possible, it would have taken weeks to arrive at the earliest.  (For example, if coming from Babylon and traveling at a normal pace, it would have taken at least 40 days.)  All of this means that the events of Matthew 2 most likely took place later than the events of Luke 2. 
Third, we must note that when Matthew writes, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem…”, we should not understand him to necessarily mean “immediately after Jesus was born in Bethlehem.”  Likewise when Luke writes, “And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord…”, we should not read into it, “immediately after performing everything according to the Law of the Lord…”  Rather, we should take both to mean some time after or at some point after.   This is absolutely necessary because both Gospel writers are leaving out certain stories and including others.  This means that there will necessarily be gaps of time, sometimes large ones, between recorded events.  In the vast majority of cases, they do not explicitly reference or mention these gaps, or give us a time frame between events, such as “now four months and 3 days later, this happened…”  If they did explicitly point out all the gaps of time, the Gospels would be terribly cumbersome to read and their respective theological points would be obscured. 
With these things in mind, there could be any number of ways to harmonize these two accounts.  I’m going to present just one:
Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-3).  While they were there, Jesus was born (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:6-7).  An angel declared His birth to the shepherds who then went to visit Him (Luke 2:8-20).  On the eighth day, Jesus was circumcised (Luke 2:21).  They remained in Bethlehem for 40 days, after which they traveled to Jerusalem in accordance with the Law (Luke 2:22-38, cf Lev 12:3-4).  At some point after this they returned to Bethlehem. (Neither Gospel mentions this because it does not serve their respective points.)  While they were in Bethlehem, the wise men who were following the star arrived in Jerusalem, inquired about the child, and then followed the star to where Jesus was (Matt 2:1-12).   Some time after the wise men left, Joseph was told in a dream to take Jesus to Egypt to avoid the danger from Herod (Matt 2:13-15).  Herod had all boys two years and under killed in Bethlehem (Matt 2:16-18).  After Herod’s death, Joseph was told by an angel to return Jesus and Mary to Israel (Matt 2:19-22), where they settled in Nazareth (Matt 2:23; Luke 2:39).  
All other difficulties in the Gospels can be harmonized in a similar fashion.  We simply need to pay close attention to their contexts and time references, and remember that they are not intended to be read like exhaustive accounts, but theological books written to make a particular point.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Theistic Assumptions That Atheists Make, Part 2

Last week we began to consider some of the theisticassumptions that atheists make, using a particular article as a platform.  In the article, the author poses a series of questions that he considers unanswerable from a Christian worldview.  While the questions are indeed answerable, we are taking some time to consider the theistic assumptions behind the questions posed.
The first thing we considered was that the author assumes an objective standard of morality, which cannot be sustained by an atheistic worldview. Today we’re going to drill even a bit deeper and look at the twin assumptions of scientific truth and logic.  Atheists tend to argue against theism by challenging theists to provide scientific evidence for God.  They also frequently appeal to laws of logic.  We should contend that the atheist has no right to appeal to science or logic because his worldview cannot account for them.
At the heart of this issue is a field of philosophy called epistemology.  Epistemology essentially deals with the question of how humans gain knowledge.  How do we know the things we know?  The Bible teaches that the Triune God is the source of all wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3; Rom 11:33-36; Prov 2:1-6).  He is the objective source of knowledge.  Further, the Bible teaches that the unregenerate man knows that God exists, yet he seeks to suppress that truth (Rom 1:18-23).  When he denies God, he denies the only objective source of knowledge.  Therefore, when he uses knowledge about the world around him he cannot account for that knowledge.
Anytime we attempt to verify knowledge we must appeal to something else.  I know A because of B.  How do I know B?  I know B because of C.  This line of questioning can go on and on until we reach an objective Knower who knows all things.  The only way to know anything is to know everything OR to know the One who knows everything.  The Bible presents God as this ultimate Knower, the source of all knowledge.
Atheists have no true ultimate Knower.  They are forced to justify knowledge without an objective standard.  “How do you know that your desk is real?”  “Because I can see it and feel it.”  “But how do you know that your eyes and hands are giving you reliable information?”  “Because my brain tells me so.”  “But how do you know that your brain is giving your reliable information?”  “Uh, because my brain tells me so.”  They have no ultimate Knower to ground their knowledge so they can only appeal to the knowledge itself.
This is why it makes no sense for an atheist to use science and logic.  An appeal to science is an appeal to the senses.  I know the law of gravity because I can see it at work.  I observe it.  Logic is an appeal to reason.  I know the law of non-contradiction because I reason that something cannot be both “A” and “non-A” at the same time and in the same sense.  The atheist assumes the validity of science and logic without justification.  If you ask the atheist, “how do you know that your senses are valid?,” the only thing he can do is respond with some form of “it’s obvious” or ‘it’s self-evident,” which is just another way of saying, “I sense that my senses are valid.”  He is in the same position when it comes to logic: “I reason that my reason is valid.”  They appeal to science to validate science and to reason to validate reason.  This is called a circular argument, and ironically, they are very sensitive to perceived circular argumentation when Christians use it.  They are typically blind to their own use of it. 
Just as an atheist cannot account for objective morality, neither can he account for science and logic.  Yet, because he lives in a theistic world, he cannot live without using his senses and reason.  In other words, he lives as if God, the ultimate Knower, exists while claiming that He doesn’t. 
So when the author of the above-mentioned article asks Christians to think logically about a number of questions or to consider how “unscientific” the Bible is, he assumes the validity of science and logic, which can only exist in a theistic world.  And we might wonder, why would he appeal to science and logic if he believes God doesn’t exist?  He can’t help it.  He lives in the real world, the world where God does exist, and according to the Bible, deep down inside he knows that God exists, and he cannot live otherwise.
“Professing to be wise, they became fools…” (Rom 1:22)