Applying the Bible, Part 4: How It Could Be Done

This is the fourth part of a series.  The other articles can be found here:

As I’ve thought about this final post in this series, I’m not sure how much different it will be than the General Principles article, but it might be helpful all the same to arrange things into something looking like a process.

As usual, this isn’t meant to be the “right” way to do this.  It’s a way.  It preserves some things I think are important and may be helpful to you as you think about applying the Bible to today.

1) Determine What the Text Originally Meant

This is probably the hardest part for all kinds of reasons.  We don’t really teach people to understand the Bible this way, and from very early on in church history, our forefathers decided to pass down theological statements rather than a story.  We’re not used to thinking about those people at that time; we’re used to discerning universal and timeless truths.

Since this hasn’t been a huge priority for much of the church, we have to learn.  We have to learn things about the history and geography of the original audience.  We have to learn things about the civilizations that surrounded them at the time of the biblical writing we’re looking at.  This can sound very daunting and perhaps even inaccessible to your typical Christian.

The good news is that 1) we now know more about the world of the Bible than any other time in church history (I mean, other than the original audiences, themselves) and 2) there has been some effort to make this accessible to people in the evangelical tradition who are not historians or academics.

If you’re looking for some accessible gateways into this world, many books by people like N.T. Wright or Scot McKnight can help get you pointed in the right direction and get the gears turning.  McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel is a great way to get going.  If you’re wanting something a little more intensive (and disruptive), Andrew Perriman’s blog is a good read.  Pick the topics that are most interesting to you.  I would wait on reading his books, though, until you get kind of the basic hang of his thought from his blog.

Or you can find your own way in.  There are many, many books out there that will get you closer to the Bible’s world.

But you don’t have to become an expert in ancient history.  Often just asking the question, “Who is the original audience and what would this passage have meant to them?” is plenty disruptive enough and gets you facing in the right direction.

It’s important to note that getting at the original meaning is not so we can limit ourselves to it, but it gets us pointed in the right direction as we set out on our journey.  If you’re coming up with all kinds of stuff that would have been utterly alien to the original audience, you may be having thoughts that are useful for you, but you probably aren’t using a given passage in the manner it was intended to be valuable for later readers.

2) Is This Used Elsewhere?

There are two main ways we can get insight into how later generations in touch with the biblical story used texts outside of the immediate context of those texts.

One way is to read rabbis – the further back the better.  This isn’t a very accessible path to everyone and not every passage has a ton of rabbinical commentary tied to it, but if you can take the time to find it, this commentary often has helpful examples of how people with direct connections to the audience of the text interpreted and used those texts, later.  That doesn’t automatically make them right, but it can help us gauge if we’re on the right track.

Also, you’ll be exposed to a decent degree of diversity.  Not every rabbi agrees with every other rabbi, and you’ll see differences in preference and style that sort of gives you permission to think of a text in different ways.  The use of symbolism and allegory, for example, is very prominent in many rabbis.

The other way, which is a lot more accessible, is to see how the New Testament uses the Old Testament.  The overall patterns can be helpful, here, but it’s especially nice when the specific passage you’re reading through is used in the New Testament.  It’s also interesting when the New Testament doesn’t use a passage that it seems would settle the issue, especially when we read some of the Pauline ethical passages.

There are two things to keep in mind when we’re using New Testament usage as guidance:

  1. The author is using the original meaning to explain something in their present circumstances; they usually do not exegete the original meaning in front of you.  They don’t “show their work” as we ask math students to do, sometimes.  We don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that an NT use of an OT passage is the “real” meaning and the original (or later) understandings of the passage are somehow less real.  They are not saying, “This is what that Scripture intended to say all along.”  They are saying, “Now that we’re experiencing this thing, we can see how the meanings of the past help us understand what these events mean to us and how we might navigate them.”
  2. The way an NT author applies a passage is not meant to be where the train stops.  It provides us even more guidance and insight as we think about understanding our current context in light of the Bible, but it’s not meant to provide us with the final word (no pun intended) in how those texts should be understood.  Rabbis continued to find new referents and guidance for Old Testament passages as the people of God encountered new, significant historical events, and you can see this in the Bible, itself.  To go back to the analogy of a voyage, these represent more points on the line we can use to see if we’re heading the right direction.  They’re not meant to be the X that marks the spot.  As we move forward in history, so does the X.

3) What Are Our Present Circumstances?

In order to apply the past to our present, we have to understand the situation we face in the present.

It’s here that some methods of application fall short.  They see our present circumstances as more or less extensions of the New Testament situation with minor adaptations.  So, what it meant for, say, Paul, is also what it needs to mean to us in as identical a manner as we can reconstruct.

But the Bible itself fights this tendency.

Take, for instance, the laws about where Israel should make sacrifices (credit to Pete Enns for pointing this out to me).

You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.

Exodus 20:24-26 (NRSV)

So, here, the law is that, wherever the Israelites happen to be, they can make an altar of earth and God will come to them and bless them.  If they use stone for the altar, it has to be raw stone and not stone they’ve carved.  And don’t make stairs, either, otherwise someone might look up your robe.

But look at Deuteronomy.

Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see. But only at the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes—there you shall offer your burnt offerings and there you shall do everything I command you.

Deuteronomy 12:13-14 (NRSV)

So, here, Israel can’t just set up an altar wherever.  They have to offer sacrifices at a specific place that God will choose.

If we assume that the role of Exodus 20 is to give us a fixed situation for all of Israel’s history, Deuteronomy 12 is kind of jarring.  But when we look at the historical circumstances being described, they make sense.  Exodus 20 is describing a scenario where Israel is somewhat nomadic.  Deuteronomy 12 is describing a scenario where they are about to claim Canaanite territory for themselves – a land where they will dwell permanently and is already dotted with shrines to Canaanite gods.

So, sacrifices are still important to God, but the change in historical circumstances necessitated a change in the Law.

When we get to the construction of the Temple, we find that the altar is not made of earth or stone but of bronze (2 Chronicles 4:1).  They did use a ramp instead of steps, though, because the robe thing was still an issue.

In this circumstance, Israel is building a stationary place of worship, and its grandness is meant to reflect the glory of God.  The ad hoc earth altar just isn’t going to cut it.

In all of these scenarios, you can see a basic continuity of meaning, but you can also see that nobody assumed the Scriptures they were given under one set of historical circumstances still applied in the same way under different historical circumstances.

We can see similar trends in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  We can see this at work as the early church figures out how Gentiles fit into all of this, especially with regard to the regulations laid out in God’s Law.  In all of these circumstances, you see a principle of, “Yes, that Scripture was good and holy and authoritative, but we’re in a different situation, now, and we have to figure out what this means for us.”

There is no indicator that we were ever supposed to stop doing that.

But in order to do that responsibly, we have to have a good handle on what a given Scripture is saying to its own context and world and a good handle on what our context and world is.

What is the state of the church, today?  What are our obstacles?  What are our day to day concerns?  What are our big historical events?  What things potentially threaten our future?  What are the political and spiritual powers of our present age?  What are our current social taboos and what meaning does our society place on these things?  What do families look like?  What does a life look like?

The church is so widespread now in comparison to the Bible’s perspective that it gets even trickier, because there’s a global level to these issues and more local levels.  Being a Christian in America isn’t very much the same as being a Christian in China or in Haiti.  Just as Paul conditioned his responses to various churches in Asia Minor, how much more should we be mindful of those differences as well?

Understanding our present circumstances wouldn’t normally be too hard except for the fact that our perceptions are also heavily influenced by our present circumstances.  We don’t really get how thoroughly individualistic and egocentric and wealthy American culture is until we visit a rural village in South Korea.  To us, it’s just “normal.”  We are not prone to think of the historical significance of the events in our lives (or we overinflate them) and what it might mean for the church’s behavior, message, and the shape of her hope.  To us, it’s just life.  It’s just events.

Jesus warned about this tendency in his own day:

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.

Matthew 16:1-4 (NRSV)

So, just as we might be amateur historians and anthropologists of the world of the Bible, we need to be amateur historians and anthropologists of our world as well.  If we don’t have a good understanding of our present circumstances, how we got here, and what is no longer the case, we’ll have a very hard time usefully applying the Bible.  We’ll end up constructing applications that might have been great in the first century but not so much in the twenty-first century.

4) Bring These Worlds Together

So, we know what a given passage meant to its circumstances.  We may also have some insight into how later generations of believers used that passage to speak to their circumstances.  We have a decent understanding of our own circumstances.

This begins the work of “transposition.”

Transposing is what you do in music when the key that a piece of music was written in does not fit what you’ve got.  This song was written in E flat, but our singers can’t hit those notes.  So, we transpose the song to the key of C.  It’s the same song, but now it fits our range.

This analogy is flawed in a few ways.  I don’t want to give the impression that applying the Bible is simply taking the exact same meanings and bringing it into our context.  When you transpose a sheet of music, you pretty much get the exact same song in a different tonal range.

But the gist is correct.  The song was written for a specific set of circumstances (i.e. singers and instruments that hit that range), and you have a different set.  You have to map between the two worlds.  You don’t get to come up with a wholly different set of notes, but neither can you allow notes to go unchanged.

How might you go about this?

One way is to look for similarities in circumstances.  For instance, the church as it exists in countries under the strong dominion of a political power that espouses another ethos will find close correspondence to the the circumstances of the church under various Near Eastern powers and, ultimately, the Roman Empire.  The closer your circumstances are to the circumstances that produced a biblical text, the more likely the application will be very similar.  The book of Revelation, for example, might provide comfort that God will not allow the oppression of His people to go on forever, even though it might be necessary to endure it for a season.  There is no world power great enough to stand against God, Revelation shows us, no matter how strong the Beast may seem.  The White Rose under the regime of Nazi Germany made a strong identification with the events in Revelation, all the while realizing that Revelation was not “about” Nazi Germany.

Similarly, we might find that our circumstances relate in principle or by analogy even if the particulars are different.

The Gospel of Matthew does this, for instance, when talking about Herod’s order to kill Israelite infants in Bethlehem in Matthew 2:17-18:

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

 

The Jeremiah passage is clearly addressing a different city.  This isn’t a “prophecy” about Bethlehem.  Nor are infants being executed in Ramah.  Ramah is, instead, a processing station for Babylonian captives.  Israel was experiencing their sons being carted off to Ramah before being dispersed through the Babylonian Empire.

The original passage is meant to give hope to Israel at the time, because the prophet goes on to talk about how this situation will be overturned, the weeping will stop, etc.

Matthew sees in this a relationship to what is happening in Bethlehem (probably after the fact).  Israel, under a foreign dominion, is suffering the loss of her children.  But this is a sign that the great overturning of these circumstances is close at hand.  Soon, her weeping will end.  God is about to intervene to rescue her.  This great tragedy is a cue for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear – the salvation of God is nigh.

So, even though the historical circumstances of Jeremiah and Matthew’s author are different, Matthew sees a broader, more principial commonality.  I would say that, in my experience, this is the most common path forward to applying the Bible to today.  We can’t say, “This passage is about us,” but we can say, “In the past when circumstances like these happened, here’s what God wanted people to know.  Although we can’t know for sure what our outcomes will be or when, we have reason to believe that the same God can be trusted for the same reasons and we should be observant and hopeful for the same kinds of things to happen.”

Another cue can be how different our circumstances are.

For example, in some passages, Paul seems to discourage strongly the leadership of women, especially in the church.  At the same time, Paul lived in a society that considered it very shameful when a man did not lead, and this was the case for pretty much the entirety of the Scripture-producing enterprise.

In our day, when at least in Western society, it is not seen as shameful for women to be leaders, should we also follow the same ethics in the same way?  Is Paul’s root concern that women shouldn’t be leaders because this is somehow intrinsically disastrous, or is his root concern that Christians will be unnecessarily slandered in a time when they are already politically controversial, and it behooves us to, insofar as we can without compromising our identity, live at peace with our society?  Perhaps Paul’s instructions about women leadership are more applicable to Christian missionaries in countries with certain cultural taboos we do not share.

“Ah,” but you counter, “Paul also ties these instructions to arguments from the Old Testament!  Like creation!”

True, but Paul also does this for arguing that women should have their head covered when they pray or prophesy, while men should have their head uncovered (including uncovered by long hair – take note Western Jesus!).  Paul is applying these things to his contexts.

“Well, you can’t just go changing a biblical command!”

Also true, in the sense that I can’t just randomly disregard whatever I don’t like or doesn’t conform to modern secular values.  But the process of the church discussing together in the power of the Spirit what ethics still do and don’t apply in our present day is a practice enshrined in the Bible itself.

What was the Jerusalem Council for?  There were no passages that said Gentiles don’t have to keep the Law.  In fact, if a Gentile wanted to convert, they had to be circumcised and keep the Law!  That was the only biblical way for this to happen.  There should have been no need for a Council to decide if they needed to or not.  The Bible settled it.

So what happened?  Changing historical circumstances!  These ham-eating, non-Saturday-observing, uncircumcised Gentiles received the same Holy Spirit as God-fearing Jews who had faith in Jesus.  What did the apostles do in response?  They didn’t insist that somehow their past theology and ethics had to be maintained despite changing circumstances.  They didn’t try to theologize away their current circumstances by saying that these conversions weren’t real and the manifestations of the Spirit were actually demons.  They got together to hash this out, because no matter what your doctrine was, non-lawkeeping Gentiles were clearly receiving the Spirit.  So deal with it and survive, or don’t and don’t.

I think we can successfully argue that the inclusion of the Gentiles was a major portion of God keeping His covenant promises to Israel in the first century.

Again, this doesn’t throw everything in the Bible up for grabs to be included or discarded at our whim, nor does it mean we should be pressured by the changes in culture at large to change our ethics to be less “backward” or more socially acceptable.  But it does mean that, while there are constants that are always true for the people of God, very few of the specific implementations are static, and we should never be afraid to at least have the conversation, “Given what the situation looks like for us now, do these ethics still make sense?”

I hope this has helped somewhat.  If you want to see examples of this in action, I recommend you read any of the biblical text based articles on this blog.  They’re all examples of me trying to do this.  I screw it up, yes.  Ten years from now, I may look at some of these entries and cringe.  I know that’s very likely.

But I think the attempt is moving in the right direction, or at least, it mirrors the Bible’s own trajectory.  I offer it for your own consideration.

Applying the Bible, Part 3: General Principles

This is Part 3 of a series:

We’ve talked about why thinking critically about the way we apply the Bible is important, and we’ve looked at some common ways that people do it, appreciating what can be helpful in those methods as well as seeing their shortcomings.

Before launching into some thoughts on how we might apply the Bible to today, I wanted to go over some general principles that I think any method of application should recognize however they decide to engage with them.

1. It’s ok not to have an application

There’s nothing in the Bible that says everything it contains has to be applicable to you in some way.  That’s an extrabiblical assumption people bring to the Bible.

The biblical writings occur in specific contexts to specific people at specific points in history.  Many times, there will be things that you can take away from these writings that apply to your own contexts and point in history.  But there will be times where this isn’t the case, and that’s ok.  Not every verse in the Bible has to have an application for you.

Let’s take, for example, 2 Timothy 4:11-13:

Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. (NRSV)

If you were to ask me how these verses applied to my life, I would tell you, “They don’t.”  They don’t.  Even by implication, there isn’t a changed belief or moral imperative to be found here.  The verse gives specific instructions to specific people at a specific time.  I couldn’t replicate this even if I wanted to.  The cloak just isn’t there.

This example is obvious, but the principle applies even when things aren’t as obvious, and it’s something we always need to keep in mind no matter what passage we’re reading.

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”

Luke 22:35-38 (NRSV)

Here, Jesus is talking specifically to his disciples in the upper room.  He reminds them that there was a time when he sent them out without belongings and they were fine.  He didn’t send you or me out without belongings, but at one point, he sent them out, and they were fine.

Now, however, is a different time.  Now, he’s asking his disciples to buy swords.  Why?  Because, at least as far as Luke’s text is concerned, he has to be associated with criminals (presumably so that he’ll be arrested) and his disciples carrying weapons around will do the trick.  And they scrounge up a couple of swords and that’s good enough to make it work.

How do these instructions apply to your life?  I would argue they don’t.  Jesus is giving specific instructions to a specific group of people that accomplish a specific goal.  In fact, Jesus even contrasts this with a prior set of instructions (which I hope we can agree also don’t apply to you – they don’t even apply to these disciples anymore in the story).

“But wait,” you object, “Jesus is regularly addressing his disciples directly.”

Yes, which is precisely why this principle is so important.  Virtually every passage in the Bible has a greater or lesser amount of “particular circumstance” to it.  It’s always a possibility the passage is not meant to go any further than its own circumstances, and it’s ok.  It’s fine for a Bible passage not to apply to you.

Note, this doesn’t mean the passage has no value or importance.  It just means that it doesn’t have something for you particularly to take away from it to apply to your own life.

2. How Do You Apply History?

Imagine that you’re reading a book on the American Civil War.  The book contains mostly narratives about the war and the events surrounding and following it.  It also contains some letters, some songs, and some formative political documents.

How would you go about applying all that to your life?

If you’re a high school student, you’d probably say, “It doesn’t!  Stop making me learn stuff!  And when will I ever use Calculus, either?”

But aside from that, I think most of us would consider that these things could be useful to us in the present day.

One, it helps us see these things through the eyes of the people who lived them.  We understand these people better.  We empathize with them.  An experience that on the surface seems kind of alien to us all of a sudden becomes a very human, understandable, and relatable thing.  We begin to understand what was important to them, and we begin to think about the things that are important to us, and we find overlap or wonder if there should be some.  What are the things so vital to these people that we have lost, so many generations distant from the Civil War?

This leads to two, how are we a part of this story?  What are some things about our country that are explained by the Civil War?  Is that good?  What are the things that we are glad to have lost, and what things ought we recover, if any?  Are there keys in here as to how we might begin to repair some things that need repairing?  Are there important impacts of these events that we have overlooked and are now coming home to roost?

Modern America is a product of, among other things, the Civil War.  It behooves us to think how these events have shaped our values and practices, and not just as an academic exercise, nor simply a greater relationship with our ancestral past (which is very important), but with an eye toward what we should keep, what we should discard, and what we need to work on.

Which leads us to three, how can we avoid the mistakes shown to us in the Civil War and how can we promote whatever good things we may have seen there?  Can we see things in contemporary society that, based on what we saw in the Civil War, may indicate that we might end up in another one?  Have we truly settled the issues from the Civil War, or did we momentarily beat them down with violence only to have them crop up again?  How will we know them when we see them?

And depending on our life circumstances, there are other things we might take away.  Military commanders might get some good tactical principles (or notice bad ones) from the battles.  Statesmen might learn some things about diplomacy and political force that could hep them in their current efforts.  People visiting their relatives in the deep South might decide that an honest conversation about Robert E. Lee is something best suited for a one on one talk and not the Thanksgiving dinner table.

My point is that history is rarely -directly- applicable to your situation.  We’re not living in the Civil War or even fighting in a second one.  But it’s applicable all the same.  Many of the tools we use to make our knowledge of history useful in the present day are tools we can also use in our reading of the Bible.

3. The original meaning shapes the trajectory of our use of it.

You can hammer nails with screwdrivers, but it’s usually not very effective.  You use hammers to hammer nails, and you use screwdrivers to screw screws.  Or you can use screwdrivers to loosen yourself up at dance clubs.  Wait, loosen up?  Is THAT why they’re called screwdrivers?  Huh.

Anyway, the point is that these things were shaped for an intended purpose.  When you use them for their intended purpose, things usually go well.  The further you get from that intended purpose, the more difficult their use becomes.  If you get too far away, they are totally useless.  I can’t use a screwdriver to bake dough, and no, that isn’t a challenge.

The text we find in the Bible was also formed for a purpose.  If we can determine that purpose, that is the key that unlocks our use of the text as well.

This step is typically where many application approaches go wrong.  One of the problems with the “What does this text mean to me?” or a highly moralistic approach is that you can do it with almost any text at all because the original intent of the text is irrelevant.  I can get a “personal application” or a “moral imperative” out of a passage from a biography of Julius Caesar or a driver’s manual or Goodnight, Moon.

When I used to be a trainer, I was teaching a class how to make tables in HTML, and I suggested sketching the table on paper, beforehand, because that made it clearer what HTML you needed to write.  The next day, one of the students told me how amazing that advice was because, if she could just get her life goals on paper, it became clear what she needed to do to achieve them.  This is not that different from how people are with the Bible.  Although, I was also glad I could help her out with her life goals even though that wasn’t my intention, and I sometimes wonder if this isn’t how the Spirit sees this whole thing, too.

I’ve driven Jeremiah 29:11 up one wall and down the other, so let me pick a different example.  Let’s ruin Psalm 42:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
    and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
    a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
    have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God, my rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
    because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

– Psalm 42 (NRSV)

I’ve often heard this Psalm held up as a model for the passion we’re supposed to have for God.  We need more of it.  We need a passion for God like the psalmist feels, here, like a thirsty deer panting for water.  The moral imperative, here, is to long for God more.  If you aren’t longing for God like this in your life, then you need to address it.

Other times, I’ve heard this Psalm held up as a model for dealing with spiritual discouragement.  In this view, the psalmist represents someone going through a period of spiritual dryness but remaining faithful, knowing the day will come when they are going to feel more spiritually vibrant.  You, too, can face your times of spiritual dryness with faithfulness, knowing that they are just a brief season that will someday be replaced with spiritual joy.

Those may both be things that have meaning for people as they read this passage, but is that David’s intent?

Look at the historical particulars in this Psalm.  David remembers when he led multitudes to the Temple, and he longs for that to happen again.  He no longer can do this.

David remembers God from the land of the Jordan (the mountains also represent that region with Mizar representing the Temple mount).  He is no longer in those locations.

David is oppressed by enemies who taunt him saying that his God cannot help him.

This psalm is not in response to an ebb and flow in someone’s spiritual condition; it’s a response to being oppressed by enemies who have driven him from the holy land and the place of God’s worship.  David, the true king of Israel, has been driven from his land, Jerusalem, and the Ark of the Covenant.  Between him and these things sit oppressors who mock him.

Many commentators believe the background for this Psalm is Absalom’s rebellion and David’s flight to the Kidron.  Whether that is the specific event or not, the Psalm shows us the particular events that have occasioned this writing.  The true king who rules true Israel has been driven from the promised land and the localized presence of God among His people.

Granted, this causes a lot of emotion for David.  Why did this happen?  “Why have you forgotten about me?” the king of Israel asks?  My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?  And, yet, he determines to be faithful, remembering that, despite his circumstances, God is steadfast in His love and will restore to him the land, the throne, and the unmitigated presence of God.

What we’re getting a window into is not a spiritual poet being dramatic about the waxing and waning of a passion for God; we’re seeing an expulsion of the king from Jerusalem and God’s presence at the hands of political enemies – almost in defiance of God’s actual covenant and promises to the king and the people.  But the king believes that this is not a breaking of God’s covenant even though it may feel that way, but a season that will be triumphantly overcome in time.

And this eschatology bears out.  Absalom was put down.  David was restored, and Absalom was buried in the very valley that David was “exiled” to.

Once you understand the original contours of this psalm, you can see why it makes it into Israel’s songbook, as they also are exiled from their promised land, oppressed by enemies with other gods who mock the strength of theirs, and control the Temple.  It, too, looks like God has abandoned them to their enemies and forgotten His covenant.  They can understand their experience through David’s eyes.  This has happened, before, and they can have the same hope.

You can also see why apostles seeing Jesus would see in him the culmination of the expression of this Psalm: the faithfulness of the king and loyal Israel in the face of the power of his enemies resulting in his return and exaltation.  The ultimate overturning of the oppressors, casting them into the very fate with which they threaten the faithful.

As you see the later applications of this Psalm, then you understand that it’s the original meaning that defines the path.  Absalom does not conquer Israel later.  He’s dead.  But the meaning of these events in Israel’s past provides them an understanding of their present, which enables them to have a similar hope and look for a similar outcome.

So then, what about today?  Do these sets of circumstances have relevance for the church today?

At various points, there have certainly been some similarities.  We might think of believers who have to meet in secret because of the political threat to their lives, or even periods like Communist Russia in the early to mid 1900s when churches (and synagogues and other religious buildings) were destroyed.  Believers having experiences like this might easily take this Psalm for their own.  Perhaps they foresee an actual political overturning like David and Israel did, or perhaps they simply know that God has not abandoned them and one day, somehow in some way, they will be vindicated.

Also, we might think about what constitutes a political threat to the people of God, now.  For America, it isn’t another country nor our government (sorry, America – Christians are not persecuted here).  But there are certainly forces at work in the world that threaten to marginalize Christians from a political standpoint and this has already happened many places in Europe.  Again, I’m not talking about active persecution, but I might be talking about a sort of exile.  We are moving rapidly from “the default” in the West to “the crazy uncle,” and it’s not clear where that trend will stop.

Part of that may even be good for the world.  We haven’t been very good stewards of power for the most part.  It’s difficult to argue that places where Christians have been in power look very much like Jesus was running the show.

But at the same time, it is difficult and becomes increasingly difficult to maintain our claims on a world stage where our corner of it is getting smaller and smaller.  We are less relevant.  We sound less credible.  And the loss of our territory has caused many to panic and lash out.  More hatred, more invective, more tyranny.  And the world looks at that and goes, “I think their portion of the stage is obviously still too big.”

But Psalm 42 reminds us that the path forward is faithfulness in our confession and accompanying actions.  God has not forgotten His covenant.  He commands His steadfast love in the day and is our song and prayer in the night.  He is still here.  And if we use this opportunity to consider our faithfulness in the same way Jesus urged his followers to consider theirs, we have reason to hope for a restoration in the world.

I don’t know about you, but meditating on that and thinking about our current story in the world is much more moving, vibrant, comforting, and convicting to me than “7 Steps to Spiritual Restoration in Psalm 42.”  Your mileage may vary.

Applying the Bible, Part 2: Common Methods

This is Part 2 of a series:

Before taking a look at some recommendations for applying the Bible, I want to talk about how it commonly is done, today.  The main focus I’ll have is American evangelicalism, but I think you’ll find these methods in many Christian traditions and in many countries (perhaps partially due to the influence of American evangelicalism).

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but just an overview of some common methods to get a feel for what we’re missing in these methods and what we might look for.

Personal Devotions

“What Does This Make Me Think Of?”

This method is actively promoted among Christians and, depending on your tradition, may have even been taught to you as an indispensable part of being a Christian or even an obligation that God expects of you.

The idea is that you read the Bible on your own, reflect on it, and think about what it means to you and any accompanying obligations or convictions that may come out of that.

Often, this looks like reading a short passage, praying about it, and writing in a journal or spending some time thinking about what this passage has to say to you.

I should start out by saying that this is a fairly recent luxury on the world stage of history.  Prior to the printing press, most people did not have a personal copy of the Bible.  Long prior to that, most people could not read.  There was also a time where there was no canonized collection of the Scriptures.  There was a time when believers only had copies of a few of the books of the Bible, but not all.  And of course, there was a time when there were no Scriptures at all.

So, we need to understand that personal Bible study is something that most Christians, historically speaking, literally could not do.  It’s something we can do, now, and we should take advantage of that, but nothing in the Bible is a command to have personal Bible study nor is it an indispensable part of the Christian experience.  Most Christians throughout history did not and could not have a personal Bible study time.

That’s just to get a sense of perspective.  I’m not discouraging people from personal Bible study.  In fact, I encourage it.  Just keep in mind that this is something of a new development in church history, especially as you consider the sufficiency or authority of what you’re doing when you have your personal devotions.

The other aspect to keep in mind is, when you ask, “What does this passage mean to me?” or really bring any question we have to the Bible, you’re almost guaranteed to get an answer to that question completely unintended by the author.  No matter what your doctrine of inspiration is, the fact remains that the Scriptures were written by people using their own brains, analogies, ways of speaking, style, and knowledge.  Whatever sense you might have of God being the author of Scripture, the writings sound like the people who wrote them; they do not sound like the same person.  And they were not thinking of you or modern society at all.  I doubt that many if any of the apostles even envisioned something like what Christianity looks like in the world today.

Depending on the passage you’re reading, “they” were Near East residents twenty to eighty centuries ago.  They are talking about “their” stuff, not yours.  So, “what this passage means to me” will be extremely different between the two of you.

I don’t believe this is a reason to stop doing this, though.

God communicates in various ways, and the spiritual encounter someone has through the exercise of praying and meditating on the Scriptures may very well accomplish that.  If someone reads the story of Zacchaeus and realizes they have been dishonest with their business practices, and they should make things right with the people they have wronged, who am I to say that isn’t the prompting of God using that Scripture to do it?

For me, the key is perspective.

If I read a Scripture and it suggests a meaning or an application to me just from the raw experience of reading it and what it makes me think of, I need to understand that is something I got from my experience.  It isn’t “what the Bible teaches,” it’s “what I got from the Bible when I was reading it the other day.”  While I may share that with friends or get a great deal of value from that experience, it isn’t a commentary on what the author of a passage intended, its purpose in the corpus, or something all other Christians need to recognize and obey.

The main problem for me with this method is that it is virtually guaranteed not to be “what the Bible teaches” while at the same time being the primary or even only way many evangelicals are taught to read their Bible.

An unfortunate side effect of this is many sermons are really just more sophisticated versions of this method.  A pastor proclaims “what the Bible teaches” and its “relevance to your life,” but it has no more connection to the actual intent of the text than a teenager writing in their devotional journal.  They have read the text, it makes them think of certain theological axioms or cultural issues or what have you, and they present that.

Like a personal devotion, these sermons may be helpful and they may even be a key part of an encounter God has with a listener.  But often these sermons are not perceived as “stuff the pastor thought of when he read these words and is sharing with us in case it helps,” but rather are seen as what the Bible teaches.  These personal connections become authoritative statements by nature of the office of pastors.

I actually have a very high view of the kerygma and the Word of God as it is encountered in the moment of preaching, but even with that, I want to make that distinction between what God might be doing with me or with the pastor in that moment and “what the Bible teaches.”

Moralism

“Be Like So and So.  Except For When They Did That Bad Thing.  In That Case, Stop Being Like So and So.”

My least favorite hymn is “Dare to be a Daniel.”

There are a few different reasons for that, but one of them is that it’s a hymn about how great Daniel is and how we should all be more like him, which seems like an odd thing to have in a Christian worship service.  Or a Jewish one, for that matter.

This is a method of applying the Bible that is mostly employed for the Old Testament (although it makes a strong comeback when reading the Gospels).  Unlike the New Testament, which is chock full of doctrine, the Old Testament is mostly narrative or quasi-narrative and that narrative tends to fluctuate between super weird and super mundane.  Divorced from the concerns of the people who produced the Bible, we have to figure out a way to make their stories relevant to us and it isn’t immediately clear.  We don’t know why anyone would care about some episode from this king’s life or this decree or some prophet going on about some nation that doesn’t even exist anymore.

In this method of application, the story is read to get a timeless moral or truth or moral example out of it.

You might remember Aesop’s Fables as a child.  These are weird, wonderful stories about talking animals with sophisticated motivations.  These stories are not meant to give us information about the events, which almost certainly didn’t literally happen, but rather to portray a timeless truth.  The story of “The Fox and the Grapes” isn’t about foxes or grapes but rather that we tend to disparage things we want but fail to attain.  Really, you could tell that same story with a bear and honey or your aunt and the stick of gum at the bottom of her purse.

This is tricky because there are specific stories in the Bible that do work like this.  The story is not really about the events in the story but a moral to be derived from them.  Many of Jesus’ parables function like this, for example.  The hearers are meant to take a “moral” from the story that usually entails a change they’re supposed to make.

But the moralism method does not really take genre into account; it takes a portion of the biblical narrative and asks, “Ok, what’s the moral of this story?” and usually the moral either is or implies some course of action.

I could tell you about some real howlers from my experience in this department, but there are some that are fairly common that you’ve probably heard before.

Like, the story of David and Goliath.  “No matter how big your problems are, if you trust God, He can take care of them.”  “No matter how small or humble you are, God can use you for great things.”  “Always go for the eyes.”

Ok, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.

Probably my favorite moralism target is the crossing of the Red Sea.  Oh, the things the Red Sea has been made to stand for in Christian sermons.  The Red Sea is problems in our life.  The Red Sea is fear.  In the case of the Israelites, the Red Sea was a body of water that made their escape difficult.

Yes, the best exponent of the moralism method is Steve Martin.

But the Bible as a whole is not meant to work like this, least of all the narrative portions of the Old Testament or the Gospels.

These stories are recorded because they were formative and significant for the original audience.  You might not care about a left-handed king using his southpaw tricks to assassinate another king, but Ehud outwitting the Moabites to remove their leader and allow a military victory that secured Israel’s peace for almost a century is VERY important to the Israelites of the time, and not only those people, but later Israelites who may be going through their own struggles with Moab or remember that Moab was a powerful enemy with a powerful god competing with YHWH.

Like the previous method, this method does have some things going for it.

As mentioned, some stories in the Bible are explicitly written for this purpose.  When Jesus tells parables about vineyards and tenants and prodigal sons and bridesmaids, we shouldn’t try to figure out who these people were or why they couldn’t keep a vineyard going.  The significance of the story is not in the history, but the moral of the story.

Also, a certain degree or kind of allegorical interpretation is part of the toolbox of how rabbis understand Scriptures and later authors will use earlier Scriptures.  When Gospel writers talk about Jesus fulfilling a Scripture, it’s almost never a 1 to 1 correspondence of the particulars.  It’s a correspondence of underlying meaning.  Probably one of the more flagrant examples of a kind of allegorization is given to us by Paul who uses the story of Abraham’s relationship to Sara and Hagar as a way to understand the new crop of converted Gentiles’ relationship to the Torah.

So, just because an interpretation or an application has a “moral of the story” aspect to it doesn’t make it automatically wrong, but often these morals are arrived at without any kind of regard for the actual meaning of the story or the circumstances that made the story meaningful in the first place and then applied indiscriminately.

When this happens, biblical passages get used for all kinds of “moral lessons” that may not have been the authors’ intent at all.

This Is Us

“We Are In The Same Boat As These People”

This outlook is enjoying a really big resurgence right now, especially among some missions organizations.

The idea, here, is that the people and circumstances described in a biblical text are essentially identical to our own or should be.  In other words, we and the people in the text are the same.

If Jesus says something to his disciples, then he’s saying it to us.  If Paul gives an instruction to a congregation in Asia Minor, he’s giving it to us.  If God gives Israel a warning through her prophets, He’s giving that warning to us.  If Acts describes an event that happened in the early church, it should be happening to us.

In this way of looking at the Bible, there is virtually no room for history or context.  The things that separate us from the original audience are trivial and have only minimal impact.  It doesn’t matter if Jesus said a thing to his disciples on a specific mountain or to a crowd at a specific festival.  It doesn’t matter that a city might be under the economic dominance of the Diana cult or that the early church was under an Empire or that the Spirit had (or hadn’t) been poured out.  Whatever the text commands or portrays, that’s what we’re supposed to do or be like.

This is basically the same interpretive flow as “What does this passage mean to me?” but applies it in the opposite direction.  Instead of taking an ancient text and making it talk about our present experience; it takes our present experience and seeks to conform it to what we think the text is talking about.

Most proponents of this method do make a distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament when talking about what our experience and ethics should look like, although I have found a lot of selectivity, here.  But the basic idea is that, at least from Jesus on forward, everything in the Bible should define our present experience except now we have cars and airplanes instead of camels and ships.

Sometimes, proponents of this method are even very diligent to try to get to the original context and meaning of a text.  For instance, there is a growing awareness in evangelical authors that the “gospel” in the New Testament was a lot more about Jesus’ lordship than it was about personal conversion.  But again, this is about application.  The application is that, whatever that meaning was, that’s what it means for us, too, in a very direct way.

I think this is popular with missions organizations because the church described in the New Testament was really successful with their conversions, and since we do not often see these levels of success, the assumption is that it’s because we’re not doing what they were doing.  It’s not that the world has changed or the religious and secular landscapes look very different or that technology has impacted the world or the scientific method has arisen or that a decent chunk of the world is coming out from Christendom and colonialism or anything like that.  It’s that we’re not being “biblical” in our methods, and if we were, then we’d see the hundreds and thousands converting like Acts records and seeing people rise from the dead and so on.

This is, I think, a very tricky river to navigate.  On the one hand, this is getting us closer to a good way to link original meaning and application to today, especially in comparison to some of the other ways that gap is bridged.

But on the other hand, there is a key premise to this way of looking at things that I think prevents us from sound and healthy applications, and that premise is this: the New Testament writings form a comprehensive picture that is frozen in time of what God’s people look like in the world, and we are still living in it.

Beginning with either the ministry of Jesus or Pentecost, everything forward gives us the picture of what the church in the world looks like, and it’s our job to ensure we keep the integrity of this picture as close to the original as possible even as the particulars of the world change around us.  We might change elements that aren’t mentioned in this picture, like our styles of music for example, but everything mentioned in this picture: practices, beliefs, ethics, experiences, messaging – needs to look as much like that New Testament picture as we can possibly get it.

Like the other methodologies, there are some tendencies here that can be helpful, but if we don’t keep them in perspective, they can be fatal.  Because we don’t recognize the difference between the first century church (or churches) and the twenty-first century church, we maintain some things that are only hurting us and fail to pursue some things that help us.  In fact, some people are so committed to looking like that first century church that when we have obvious differences (e.g. a lack of casually raising people from the dead, thousands of conversions after speaking a couple of paragraphs), we develop theologies to explain those differences.  We actually invent new doctrine to allow us to be as unchanged as possible, which makes as much sense as it sounds.

But nothing in the Bible works this way.  It is not a record that presents a static picture from page to page.  It presents a people navigating lots of different circumstances and stages in history and they do not move through these stages unchanged.  Yes, there are some core constant principles.  They do not continually and radically revise everything about themselves.  But at the same time, there is almost no broader area of religious life or perspective that goes unchanged as the people encounter new circumstances in the world.

And that is the dynamic challenge that faces us as we look to apply the Scriptures.  What are the riverbanks, and what is the river?  What are the continuities that connect us with our spiritual ancestors, and what are the new twists and turns that we must reckon with that they never foresaw or would seem just as irrelevant to them as Ehud seems to us?  How do we stay in the trajectory of the biblical story without being frozen in it, only just as relevant to the world (and, I might say, useful to God and our fellow man) as anything else from the first century Near East?

And in all of that, how do we write our own story?  This never stopped happening, even in the New Testament.

Applying the Bible, Part 1: Why It’s Important

This is Part 1 of a series:

The Bible can be studied as a historical product – a collection of writings produced over time by a people (predominantly Israelites) that chronicles their path through history through the eyes of their religious faith.  The Bible certainly is this, and I think there’s a lot of value to studying the Bible in this way – a way that is almost entirely overlooked by many modern expressions of Christianity.  It’s the one thing everyone can agree on in terms of what the Bible is.

Studying the Bible in this way helps us because we begin to see these Scriptures through the eyes of the community that birthed them.  What did these texts mean to them?  What did it remind them of when they read them hundreds of years later?  What were their questions, concerns, and big events and how did these Scriptures respond to and illuminate those issues?  When we do this, we move closer to understanding their Scriptures as they did.  We get closer to intent.  We hear less of the noise of what we create in our own heads and begin to hear these spirits speak for themselves.

For all the Abrahamic religions, some or all of the writings in the Bible are more than that, though.  Christians do not read the Bible the same way we might read the Baal Cycle or the Eddas.  “Isn’t that interesting what these people believed?”

There is a sense in which these Scriptures are meant to speak to us, today.  They are supposed to, in some way, help us understand our present circumstances, give us guidance in them, and encourage us as we live through them.  They are, in some way, meant to be communication to us meant for us from the same God who is depicted in them.

But how does that work?  Is it even important to talk about?

I think it is, and let me give you an example.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a man who is a recovering addict.  I am his sponsor.  He is a Christian and, like many recovering addicts, is having a hard time as he tries to repair his relationship with his spouse.

As part of this project, he and his wife see a Christian counselor together, and recently, she (the counselor) shared with him Ezekiel 16.  Here is a portion:

Therefore, O whore, hear the word of the LordThus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whoring with your lovers, and because of all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, therefore, I will gather all your lovers, with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated; I will gather them against you from all around, and will uncover your nakedness to them, so that they may see all your nakedness. I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy. I will deliver you into their hands, and they shall throw down your platform and break down your lofty places; they shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful objects and leave you naked and bare. They shall bring up a mob against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords. They shall burn your houses and execute judgments on you in the sight of many women; I will stop you from playing the whore, and you shall also make no more payments. So I will satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer. Because you have not remembered the days of your youth, but have enraged me with all these things; therefore, I have returned your deeds upon your head, says the Lord God.

Ezekiel 16:35-43 (NRSV)

On this basis, the Christian counselor said, my friend’s problems with his wife were a reflection of God’s anger at his sins, so he should expect a period where God uses her to punish him, but eventually God will exhaust His anger toward my friend and peace and reconciliation will follow.

Yes, a therapist said this.  The reason things are difficult with your wife is because God is enraged at you and hasn’t gotten it out of His system, yet.

Not only would I say this is a tremendously irresponsible application of Ezekiel 16, it’s an actively destructive one.  Imagine the impact this would have on you if you were a repentant addict trying to put your life back together.  Imagine the impact it would have on your view of God and His disposition toward you, and what impact that might have on your spirituality.  Imagine the impact it would have on your spouse to hear that they are the dispensers of God’s wrath toward you in your life and the exhaustion of His wrath must take place before any reconciliation.

Of course, it doesn’t take a very in-depth reading of Ezekiel 16 to see that this understanding is way out of line.  God is talking about nations, one of which is in covenant with Him (Israel), and how they have forgotten their covenant with YHWH to make allies of pagan nations and their gods.  Therefore, they will experience in history betrayal by the very nations they are trying to earn favor with, and this is God’s wrath toward them.  However, there will come a time when their oppression by these other nations will end and they will be reconciled to God.

There is absolutely nothing in this text that even hints that this is how God reacts to an individual’s behavior or that this is God’s habitual pattern for dealing with anything.  It’s how God is dealing with a nation at a point in history.  The pronouncement by the prophet warns Israel of what will happen to her if she continues this course of action, and when it does happen, will help her understand what those events mean and give her hope that it won’t last forever.  This is not a textbook entry on How God Deals with Sinners.

This may be an egregious example, but only because of degree.  This type of applying the Scripture to our contemporary lives – this looking for abstract or superficial commonalities and dropping them into our present circumstances – is very common, and the results run the gamut from helpful to harmless to destructive.

So, I think it’s important to talk about how we might apply the Scriptures in ways that respect what the Scriptures are and what they meant.  It doesn’t mean that all our applications have to be positive ones any more than it was for the original authors and readers of those Scriptures.  But perhaps we can at least make sure we’re on surer ground when we derive contemporary meaning from the Bible, and at the very least, understanding that we are transposing texts that do not primarily have us or our circumstances in view will grant us some humility in our discourse when we talk with one another about what the Bible might be saying to us.

How Did We Create John MacArthur: An Anemic Gospel

This is Part Three of a series.  You can read Part One, here and Part Two, here.

An Anemic Gospel

“The gospel” is such an interesting phrase to me.  It is the one phrase that evangelical Christians will stake everything on, and also the one phrase that everyone would define somewhat differently.

“This belief is a threat to the gospel!  This person is preaching another gospel!  The phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ undermines the gospel!”

Yeesh, well, what is this “gospel” that everyone seems ready to kill for?

One of the complicating factors is that it actually means something different depending on where the concept shows up in the Bible.

Take, for instance, Isaiah 52:7 –

How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news [gospel],
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

In this passage, the good news is that God will deliver Israel from Babylon as He did from Egypt and Assyria.  It’s not about heaven or hell.  It’s not about the afterlife.  It’s not about freedom from sin.  It’s not about the institution of  new covenant.  The “salvation” is quite literally God saving Israel from Babylon and liberating Jerusalem, and the “gospel” is the announcement that God is doing this.

This passage is also quoted by Paul in Romans 10 to establish the need for preaching salvation, again, to the Jews.  In Romans 10, the context is that God has defined a righteousness apart from the Torah, which only cursed Israel.  Through faith in Jesus, the condemnation of the Law no longer applies to Israel, and their situation which was a result of the curse of the Law would be overturned.  Just as Isaiah saw the need for the announcement of this good news among Israel in his day, so Paul says a similar proclamation is needed in his day (and will likely get a similar response).

This is a tricky concept, because we’re very used to injecting words like “salvation” or “gospel” with what’s in our heads and assume that’s what the writers must have meant.  It’s important that when we read about “the gospel” that we take the time to determine what the actual good news is that’s being talked about in that passage, or what being “saved” might mean in that particular context.

I would argue that the “gospel” that is nearest to us is the announcement that Jesus has been made Lord and Christ and that his people who have his Spirit show that the true, creator God has not given up on the world or His vision for it, and no matter what the world looks like now or how empty or broken your life is in it, the creator calls you into His world in the here and now.  And, one day, all the structures that threaten you will be judged and removed, including death itself.

Obviously, we can debate that.

However, I feel fairly confident that at no point in the Bible is the gospel ever defined as: You are going to Hell when you die because you have committed sins, but if you accept Jesus into your heart, you’ll go to Heaven when you die, instead.

Now, most evangelicals, probably including John MacArthur, would say that sounds too reductionistic.  But if they were to “flesh it out,” most would just add more backstory.  They would talk about Adam and the Fall.  They would talk about God’s holy nature.  Some of them would talk about how accepting Jesus into your heart also means that your life needs to change (ironically, some would argue this is actually not at all the gospel).  A few of the more biblically astute might even point out that “Heaven” isn’t the end destination, but resurrection in a new heavens and new earth is (which is entirely correct).

But this is just more meat on the bones.  The core assertion is that the gospel is about an individual’s destiny after they die.

The consequences of this are twofold:

  1. Because this is the story, it gets read back into any and all passages that seem to mention it whether this would be intelligible to the authors or not.
  2. Anything unrelated to producing the conversion experience which transitions someone from Hell to Heaven is viewed at best as a secondary matter and at worst something Satan is using to take the church away from her mission.

I’m not going to belabor that first consequence.  The Isaiah passage I quoted illustrates how this happens and actually creates a lot of distance between us and the biblical text.  The good news Isaiah proclaims is not, “Hey, I know you’re exiled and under Babylon’s power right now, but if you accept Jesus, you’ll go to Heaven when you die,” and if you read the passage in that way, not only do you miss what Isaiah was trying to communicate to those faithful saints under persecution, you also potentially miss what comfort that passage might offer you, which is that God will not abandon His people to their circumstances no matter how dire those circumstances may appear in the world (or how long they may go on).

But the second consequence explains so much.  If it’s not about an individual’s conversion, then it has nothing to do with “the gospel.”  Under this way of thinking, the church should simply not be distracted with issues like poverty, disease, racial or gender inequities, psychological health, or corruption in the halls of power.

One of the chief obstacles to this, unfortunately, is Jesus himself, who seems reasonably interested in addressing these things as they appear in his circumstances.  In terms of air time, personal conversion certainly gets mentioned, but this is just one facet of Jesus’ ministry in which he embodies and enacts the holistic restoration of a people.  The kingdom of God isn’t simply about the afterlife but an entire, competing world system.  It is literally a new kosmos.

It is the rise of this kosmos with Jesus as the king that threatens the Temple power structure and the Roman Empire and why they want to snuff it out.  People’s afterlives are no threat to any power structure, ever, and one could argue that some power structures have effectively harnessed an interest in the afterlife to preserve the political status quo (not naming names).  But the incursion of a new concrete, historical, political reality into the here and now is quite the potential threat, especially as it mobilizes large groups of people.

But the popularity of the conversion/afterlife-centric version of the gospel is immense and John MacArthur is a product of it.  If you think of the gospel primarily in terms of converting to secure a good afterlife, then you’re going to consider things like social justice and reevaluating women’s roles to be at best secondary concerns, but more likely an actual danger that keeps the church from doing her “real work.”

How Did We Create John MacArthur: Tribalism

This is Part Two of a discussion of how forces in evangelicalism produced the influence that John MacArthur has.  You can read Part One hereHere’s Part Three.

Tribalism

Here, I’m thinking of tribalism in the sense of defining your “tribe” over and against other possible “tribes.”  It’s Us versus Them, so we need to be vigilant about who is Us and who is Them.

This may come as a surprise or a disappointment to some of my more progressive friends, but I actually think a certain degree or variety of tribalism can potentially be healthy for the church.

When God calls Abraham (or Abram initially – Genesis 12), He calls him out of the rest of the world.  He selects Abraham to be His specific representative and progenitor of a people in the world who are going to be different from their neighbors.

These people are going to be a priestly people – a new creation people – an advance guard of what God would reveal was His desire for the whole world in the midst of a world that was not very much like that.

This would be a people who had a special agreement with God: they would be His people, and He would be their God.  Their destinies in the world would be intertwined.  It was the family of Abraham’s job to live in faithful service to God, and in return, God would not only preserve them in the world, but increase their number until they filled it.

And what would the outcome of all this be?  That all the families in the world would be blessed through what God would do through Abraham’s family.  Their job was not to destroy the other families until only they remained or oppress the other families of the world or rule them with an iron fist or even think badly of them.  Their job was to be God’s people in the world with an eye toward blessing everyone.

So, you do have a tribe.  You have a people who are defined against the canvas of a broken world to be a community of light.  And what characterizes this community?  Love of God and love of neighbor.

It is this kind of tribalism that I think is beneficial.  It’s the kind that looks at the principles at work in the world to hate God and hate our neighbors (and hate ourselves) and, instead, decides to run off of different principles.  Pro-God and pro-human principles.  Love, justice, mercy, healing, fidelity, wisdom, joy, restoration, peace.

We are a people who is meant to embody a certain thing in the world for the benefit of the world, and in that sense, it is helpful to focus on what kind of people we ought to be in the world and trying consistently to help each other be that thing.  Oh, if we spent half the energy on blessing the nations that we spent on critiquing them.

It is perhaps this principle of tribalism Jesus articulated in Matthew 12:30, when he talked to the Pharisees accusing him of being in league with Satan about his mission to deliver Israel from the evil that oppressed them: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”  In other words, “Pharisees, you’re supposed to be helping in this project, and if you aren’t using your position to help get this done, then you’re just making the oppression worse.”

And this leads us into the kind of tribalism that is endemic to evangelicalism, and that is the desire to vilify Them and constantly make sure that anyone in the Us is “truly” Us and not secretly or partially Them, because Them are just the worst.

This principle is all over John MacArthur’s labors.  The man has spent so much time and money fighting against what he (and by extension all True Christians) is against that you sort of have to dig a little to find out what he’s for.

His “Strange Fire” conference was not about a biblical theology of the Holy Spirit; it was about how wrong Charismatics are.  His statement on social justice wasn’t about comprehensively defining the good news of Jesus Christ for the world, but rather about how people pursuing social justice are wrong to do so (the “greatest threat to the gospel” as he said at the time – sorry, Satan).  He hasn’t carefully combed exegetical, historical, and scientific data and arrived at the position that the Earth must be 6000 years old; he’s against non-literal readings of the Bible.  This latest “Truth Matters” fiasco wasn’t about bold, vibrant definitions of ministry that could change the world; it was about how wrong everyone was that thinks women should be able to participate – especially the women, themselves.

One wonders how many of MacArthur’s positions are not the product of careful thought, prayer, and searching the Scriptures and are more just the end result of opposing things he thinks are terrible.  He has to take those positions, because if he doesn’t, the Evil will get in.

This describes an awful lot of evangelicalism.

Because the way we tend to see the world is that we are beacons of light surrounded by a night that is dark and full of terrors.  But worse than that, the ally at your side could, at any time, become seduced by that darkness and stab you in the back.  Every friend is a potential foe waiting to happen.

We all know this trope; it happens in every zombie movie, right?  You have the rag tag band of warriors fighting off the zombie hordes and, inevitably, someone gets bit.  And then it’s just a matter of time before the zombie plague is now inside the perimeter, destroying mankind’s last hope for salvation.

And this is why evangelicalism is not only at war with the world (and we might discuss whether or not that’s the best disposition to have toward the world) but at war with itself.  Have the wrong belief, and you’re out.  Show tolerance for the wrong group of people, and you’re out.  Vote for the wrong candidate, and you’re out.  Claim that something we think is a sin isn’t so black and white, and you’re out.  Any of that reeks of the little compromises that will turn you into a zombie that will kill us all.  Or, you know, at least turn you into someone who might write a book about it.

We are like this, and when we are like this, the people who are our heroes are the people walking among us, culling out the diseased so the rest will be safe.  They are the ones ferreting out the double agents and the heretics and the weak-minded who, if allowed to live inside the compound with the rest of us, will end up with the whole camp slaughtered by the evil outsiders.

John MacArthur incarnates this.  He has defined his ministry by it, and that’s why people love him.

How Did We Create John MacArthur: Conflating the Bible with My Reading

This is Part One of a series.  Here’s a link to Part Two. Here’s Part Three.

I realize the whole John MacArthur rage has died down a little and John Crist is the big thing, currently, but I don’t have a lot to say about John Crist since I only found out who he was last night.  I watched a compilation of “The Best of John Crist” last night, and if that’s the best, I’m not real impressed.  I think more of the jokes would land if you’re white, conservative, and marginally racist.

On the other hand, I sure wish evangelicals held their Presidents to the same standards as their comedians.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I talked about John MacArthur and how nobody really needs to care what this guy says about anything.  He has a collection of deeply flawed positions and bullies people with them.

But that got me thinking: how is it that such an obviously ridiculous person ends up being a hero and a leader for so many in evangelicalism?  Granted, there are a decent chunk of evangelicals who think that guy should take a long walk, but his influence in evangelicalism as a whole is disproportionately large.

How does this happen?  How did we create a man like this and make him an icon?

There are many things that have occurred to me as I’ve pondered that issue, but I’m just going to pick three, lest this turn into an epic saga.  My three are: conflation of the Bible with my reading, tribalism and an anemic gospel.

Conflation of the Bible with My Reading

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”

Why do you hate God’s word? Why must you twist the acts of the faithful women mentioned in scripture into something they are not?

That was a quote from a comment thread discussing an article arguing that there were women leaders in the early churchScot McKnight wrote the article in question, and if you have any familiarity with Scot McKnight, you know he’s hardly a bastion of theological liberalism and most certainly does not hate the Bible.

This may seem like an extreme example, but I assure you this kind of thing is a very common feature of evangelical discourse.  It may not be stated as overtly as the quote I used, but the sentiment is very present: if you disagree with me, you disagree with the Bible, ergo God Himself.

No evangelical would claim that they are God’s direct mouthpiece or that they have been gifted with infallibility.  Many evangelicals functionally operate this way, however, because they do not make a distinction between the content of the Bible and their understanding of that content.  The Bible, to such people, is crystal clear on various matters that comprise evangelical theology, so to disagree with an evangelical theological position is functionally the same as saying that you don’t care what the Bible says.

Take the quote above, for example.  This person has a passage of Scripture in mind that they believe is crystal clear and authoritative and no other thinking needs to be done.  It says what it says, that’s the end of the discussion (“Period,” some might add).  It’s impossible that someone else might also consider that passage authoritative but come to a different conclusion, perhaps in light of other Scriptures, historical context, genre, copyist notes about source text, etc.

When you cannot make a distinction between your understanding of the Bible and the Bible, itself, this by nature of the case makes an enemy and a rebel out of anyone who might understand the Bible differently than you do.  The only “logical” explanation for why someone might not agree with you is if they held the Bible in disregard or contempt.

Take another look at the quote, above.  The question isn’t, “Why don’t you understand this passage to be prohibiting women ministers,” the question is, “Why do you hate God’s word?”

In a similar vein, I once pointed out to someone that some of Paul’s advice to churches reflects a concern for scandal and survivability in a first century world, and someone asked if I was an atheist.  In their minds, because a scholarly concern led me to a different reading than their own, the only other possible option is that I must actually be an atheist trying to undermine the Christian faith.

Anyone who holds a different position is automatically caricatured as someone in open defiance of God who hates the Bible, even in cases where this is obviously ridiculous.  Scot McKnight does not hate the Bible.  I am not an atheist.  Yet, evangelicals (#NotAllEvangelicals) find themselves forced into ludicrous claims like this because that’s the only alternative they’ve allowed themselves.

In this way of seeing the world, your opponents are not thoughtful people.  They do not have the Spirit.  They do not love the Bible.  They are a group of people who have invented values that they prefer and do not care what the Bible has to say about them, because, in your mind, that’s the only other possible option.  The one option that is not possible is that the Bible actually means something different than how I understand it.

I believe what “the Bible teaches,” ergo, if you disagree with me, then you are directly flaunting Scripture, which means you are directly flaunting God Himself.  You can see how, if this is your thought pattern, any kind of discussion is virtually impossible, and the only way to handle disagreement is to treat it as rebellion and an incursion of the Enemy.

I blame modernism, although I will also say in the era of the Internet and sound bites and people being sharply divided on various issues, we seem to have lost the ability to believe we are right while also acknowledging that we might be wrong and making that a genuine possibility.

You can absolutely believe your position is completely correct and maintain it with passion while also acknowledging that you could be wrong (and mean it).  You can acknowledge that “the other side” has good points without having to surrender your position.  There have been plenty of times where I’ve had to acknowledge, “That’s a very good point, and I don’t really have any good response to that.  Overall, though, I’m still not convinced.”

This is one of the privileges of being an adult human being; you don’t actually have to justify your positions to anyone else’s satisfaction but your own.

But getting back to the issue, this dynamic of assuming that my position is the clear, biblical one, and therefore everyone who disagrees with me just doesn’t care what the Bible says is a major, major issue in evangelical discourse.

So, you can see how this dynamic leads us to a John MacArthur.  This is John MacArthur’s take on almost anything you might imagine.  Pentecostals are not Spirit-filled, Bible-believing folks who understand certain passages differently than you do; they are possessed by Satan.  Christians working for social justice are not Spirit-filled, Bible-believing folks who believe Jesus teaches us to address social evils; they are threats to the gospel.

In many ways, his words and life’s work, really, are the logical conclusion of a failure to differentiate between a reading of the Bible and the Bible, itself.

Will Elijah Come Back Before the Second Coming?

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a pastor and a good friend about John the Baptist’s denial that he is Elijah in John 1:21.  It is sheer coincidence that this happened to dovetail with my latest devotional entry.

Although we had similar takes on why John the Baptist said “no,” he also offered that the actual Elijah will actually show up prior to the second coming of Jesus, citing Jesus in Matthew 17:11 saying that Elijah would come to “restore all things” (and John the Baptist did not do this) and Malachi’s prophecy in 4:5 stating that Elijah would come before the final judgment.

By contrast, I offered that the Gospels’ portrayals of John the Baptist and his ministry present him as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophetic expectation, and there’s no Scriptural indicator that we should be looking for a future appearance of the actual Elijah.

What follows is my explanation to him of why I think the way I do with some minor edits for clarity.  While it is maybe more scholarly than 97% of the emails I send, it’s also not a scholarly paper and is meant to serve as an explanatory overview than a thorough defense of a hypothesis.


1. Malachi

Malachi is a revelation to Israel, and Chapter 1 begins with Israel’s election – preferred by God over her close relatives.  But Israel is accused of not showing the honor a son should show a parent, and this is illustrated mostly by the carelessness of their religious ceremonies.  It should be noted this reveals a heart condition, but it is illustrated in how little the priests and leaders care about how God is worshiped.  They use blemished sacrifices, etc.  In chapter 2, this gets into some very vivid imagery, such as God spreading the dung from the animals in the priests’ faces.

Malachi continues to show how good the covenant was and how God was faithful, but Israel continues to do evil, broadening the picture to include excusing evil behavior, adultery, accusing God of not keeping up His end of the bargain – a faithlessness that has made them a mockery even among pagan nations.

In chapter 3, God says he will send a messenger to prepare the way before Him, and this messenger will bring a refiner’s fire, judgement, etc.  This imagery is largely how John the Baptist depicts the coming Messiah in the synoptics.  The list of Israel’s crimes grows to include sorcery, oppression, and a variety of sins.  God notes that, if Israel will return to Him, He will return to them, but they seem to not know how to do that.  This chapter does note that the faithful few will be spared on this day of judgement.

In chapter 4, God describes this day as a terrible day of fire that will destroy the wicked, but those who are faithful will survive and rejoice and flourish in the aftermath.  God reminds them to remember their covenant, and there says that Elijah will come before this day, turning the hearts of the sons to the fathers so that God will not smite the land with herem – a total destruction.

So, the context throughout the book is Israel.  A day of judgement will come to Israel where the wicked in Israel will be destroyed and the faithful remnant of Israel will survive it.  Before this day comes, Elijah will appear to turn these descendants’ hearts back to their ancestors and vice-versa.  They will remember their covenant, and then God will not utterly destroy the land and everyone in it.

There is no textual indicator that anything in Malachi is talking about the end of history or a final judgement, and this bounding historical context is important.  If I say, “I’m going to drive to my office.  When I get there, I’m going to fire all the slackers,” the context sets the parameters.  No one would think I was going to fire every slacker everywhere, because I established that this was going to happen at my office.

This will be a judgement in history that will come to Israel where the wicked in Israel will be destroyed and the righteous will be liberated, and before that day comes, Elijah will be sent to turn people’s hearts to avoid a total destruction.

2. Jewish Views Before Christ

Perhaps the oldest view we have of the future role of Elijah is Sirach 48, which is an entire chapter on Elijah.  This would have been written around the 2nd century BC.  The key verse that talks about his future role is verse 10:

designated in the prophecies of doom to allay God’s wrath before the fury breaks, to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

This is very similar to the text in Malachi with the addition that Elijah will “restore the tribes of Jacob.”  In other words, restore Israel.  Indeed, the entirety of Sirach is concerned with the destiny of Israel and the troubles she is suffering because of her treatment of these holy men of God and failure to keep the Law.  The author looks for a time when God will fulfill these prophecies and clear out the wicked from Israel, restoring her to righteousness.  Later rabbinic writings seem to confirm this understanding,

Again, there are no textual indicators about the fate of other nations or the world or this being the end of history.

It is noteworthy that there are other expectations that crop up over time.  For instance, one popular view is that Elijah would put to rest all disputes about the Torah and explain it clearly to everyone to produce unity (thus turning the hearts of the fathers to their children and so on).  This view shows up in at least three early sources (such as the Mishnah’s Eduyot 8 (redacted in the 3rd century AD but contents are much, much older)) and the Zohar says that Elijah will be like Aaron was to Moses.

There was also a view that Elijah would change the minds of people and lead them to repentance, although this seems to be a later, minority view.  The earliest account of it I can find is a short passage in the Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer which would have been 8th or 9th century AD.

I could only find one reference to Elijah raising the dead, and this is in the Shir haShirim Zuta (10th century A.D.) which says that, in order to prove his identity, Elijah will raise the dead of people known to the people who see him.  Sort of like Jesus’ miracle with Lazarus.

So, when we see Jewish thoughts on Elijah that might have influenced Jesus or been “in the air” at the time, it seems like the understanding is that Elijah will come and turn Israel back to her covenant, thus restoring Israel.

3. Matthew 11:4

and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen

Here, Jesus directly identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah who is to come.  The addition of the “He who has an ear, let him hear” language tells us that this is happening in a non-literal manner.  We have to spiritually discern Jesus’ meaning.  John the Baptist is not the literal Elijah everyone was expecting, but he was the Elijah who was to come all the same.

Also, John the Baptist is still alive when Jesus tells everyone this.

4. Matthew 17:10-13

And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

This passage is fun from a translation standpoint because the “is indeed coming” is erchontai which is translated as “came” the vast majority of the time it appears.  Matthew 25:11 for instance.  It is most commonly translated to mean something happened in the past, but it is sometimes translated as present or future, depending on the context.

Here, it is probably translated in the future because “will restore” (apokatastesei) is in the future, although obviously Elijah can have come and cause a future effect.  “I showed up an hour ago, and I’m about to get some food.”  This verb means to “reconstitute.”  Something was broken up, and he will reform it.  The word for “all things” is panta which just means “all.”

This seems to fit Malachi’s picture and the early Jewish rabbinical understanding of what it meant for Elijah to return.  God is going to send a terrible day of calamity on Israel to remove the wicked, but He will save the faithful.  So, prior to that day, God will send Elijah to turn people’s hearts back to each other and their covenant, and by doing so will restore Israel (as Sirach has it).  This is what John the Baptist did.

Again, there’s no reason to think Jesus is talking about the end of the world or a final judgement of the world.  Malachi isn’t, and no Jewish interpreter is either.  It is certainly possible that Jesus is bringing a new meaning to these ideas.  Wouldn’t be the first time Jesus did that with a traditional Jewish understanding.  But the burden would be to prove that’s what he’s doing.

Perhaps the greatest argument that this is what Malachi and Jesus had in mind is that this is what actually happened in history.  God’s judgement did fall on Israel and destroy their power structure, resulting in the deaths of an immense amount of Jewish people on that terrible day.  And yet, those who repented escaped.  Before this happened, God sent John to turn the hearts of the people so that they might repent and become the new Israel, and it was out of these people – the poor, the blind, the lame, and the sinners – that Israel was restored, while their priests and scribes and politicians and legalists were destroyed.

5. Mark 9:11-13

Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.”

In Mark’s version, the English translation is very similar to Matthew, but the Greek is a little different.  Get to that in a moment.

It’s also interesting that, here, Jesus anticipates the objection that, if Elijah is coming / has come, then why will the Son of Man suffer?  This is interesting because it shows us that, in Jesus’ mind, the coming of Elijah is before the Son of Man and it will not fix everything.  Elijah comes, and the Son of Man will still be mistreated, and to prove his point, he highlights the fact that Elijah was mistreated “as is written about him.”

So, whatever it means for Elijah to “restore all things,” this act is not comprehensive enough to stop the mistreatment of the Son of Man.

When we look at the Greek, the “is indeed coming first” is elthon proton (in contrast to the tense the disciples use in their question – elthein proton).  Elthein is consistently translated as “to come,” whereas elthon is consistently translated as “came” or “having come” – past tense – even more consistently than the erchontai of Matthew.  The “restores” is apokathistanei which is present tense, not future.  Elijah, having come, restores all things (panta is the same).

6. Luke 1:16-17

He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Luke does not contain a story where Jesus says that John the Baptist was Elijah, but it does contain this prophecy of John’s birth, which has a hint of the Isaiah passage in it, but is obviously a direct reference to the Malachi prophecy.  I think Luke is the bridge that resolves the tension between John the Gospel and the other synoptics.  John is not literally Elijah come back.  But he has Elijah’s spirit and power and fulfills the prophetic expectation of what Elijah was supposed to accomplish.

7. The End (Finally)

Malachi prophecies a day of destruction that is about to come upon Israel where the righteous will be saved.  Prior to that day, Elijah will come to turn people’s hearts so that not everyone will be destroyed.

Sirach (and others) expect that this will be the restoration/reformation of Israel.

Jesus proclaims that Elijah has come and will restore all, but this will not stop the suffering of the Son of Man.  He identifies John the Baptist as the person who is doing this thing.

In history, the day of calamity falls on Israel, destroying many, but the repentant and faithful are saved.

To me, this all wraps up pretty neatly.

When we start with Malachi and move forward in history, this provides us a context for understanding Jesus’ teaching, and when we do this, we see that John the Baptist fits the bill and what God said would happen happened.  There’s no particular reason to expect that a literal Elijah will appear before another calamity.  This could happen, of course; there’s just no particular reason to look for it.  The things that God said would happen did happen.  Not necessarily in the exact way everyone expected, but that’s Jesus for you, and he explains to us that it did happen if we have ears to hear.

In my opinion, the only way to say that John the Baptist didn’t fulfill this role in prophecy is if we begin with a preexisting idea of what Jesus must be talking about – i.e. a final judgement of the whole world at the end of history and a restoration of everything in that world – and then carry that backwards through the texts.  Obviously, that did not happen and John the Baptist didn’t do that, so our only option with that understanding is that it must be happening at some point in the future.

But that direction seems less sound to me.  I don’t want to start with a preexisting idea of what Jesus must be talking about and then project that backwards.  I want to understand Jesus against the background of his context and the continuity of what God was doing at the time.  I don’t see anywhere in that chain of thought or history where a final judgement and restoration of the entire world is in view.

I do believe in a final judgement and restoration of the world from other passages.  Paul especially develops this idea as he begins to realize the ramifications of what Jesus did for the nations, and John himself describes this picture at the end of Revelation.  But I don’t think that’s what’s in view in Malachi and the subsequent passages that build on Malachi.