As I was praying this morning, a verse from 1 Peter 5 came to mind:
Resist him, steadfast in your faith, knowing that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.
1 Peter 5:9 (NRSV)
Although there’s some debate over when 1 Peter was written, the situation to which he refers is the increase of persecution. Interestingly, verse 8 attributes this persecution to a mechanism of the devil to devour the early church.
“All the world” is en tou kosmou, meaning “in the present system of things” or “in the current state of affairs” or “in the world as we know it.”
The idea behind this is that these early believers everywhere are experiencing persecution, and they resist being persecuted by being steadfast in the faith. So that, after suffering for a time, God who has called them to glory for ongoing ages will restore them.
This is a letter intended for dispersed believers throughout various Roman districts in the first century (or very early second century, if you skew that way).
When I thought of that verse, however, I was not thinking about the early church in the first century among the various provinces of Asia Minor and such. I was thinking about the Church in the world, today, especially those in countries where the church is actively persecuted and, in America, where the Church is not persecuted but is rapidly losing influence and credibility.
Is it legitimate to use this passage to comfort and pray for Christians, today, who are being persecuted?
I think it’s most likely that Peter (yes, I think Peter wrote 1 Peter or at least was behind the basic thoughts even if Silvanus wrote the actual letter – take it up with my agent) did not envision the underground church in 21st century China. What’s more, I doubt he even had in mind extensive future generations of the churches he was thinking about. If you wrote a letter to a church to help them with their current struggles, you probably would not think about how helpful your advice would be to that church in 4200 A.D.
Yet, the Church almost intuitively senses that the words of this letter have something to say to her. In fact, we almost read it by default as if Peter were writing directly to us, today (which, I think, is also not a very good idea). But can that be right? How can we acknowledge on the one hand that 1 Peter is a specific letter written to a specific audience to address a specific situation at a specific time, yet at the same time allow that letter to speak into our situation?
Quite some time ago, I wrote about Matthew 2:18. I’m not going to rehash that whole thing (thanks to the magic of hyperlinks), but here is a passage where Matthew’s gospel describes Herod executing infant Hebrew sons, and says this “fulfilled” Jeremiah 31.
It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to see that Jeremiah 31:16 says “Ramah” and not “Bethlehem,” nor were infants being killed. Matthew is not blind; he can clearly see the passage has nothing to do with a governor killing infants nor Bethlehem.
What’s more, it is unlikely that Jeremiah ever personally intended to communicate anything about Bethlehem several centuries into the future. “Hey, guys, I’m a prophet, so I tell the future, right? Well, here’s some stuff about Ramah and Babylon and the restoration of Israel, which I realize we’re dealing with right now, but what I’m really talking about is child executions in Bethlehem far into the future. It’ll all make sense, then, trust me. Right now I’m just teeing us up by talking about a completely different city that has no children being executed. Because… PROPHECY! WooOOOOOooo….”
I really wish I had a budget or at least the skill as an illustrator to make little the little films I have in my head, sometimes.
Anyway, Jeremiah is not thinking about infanticide in Bethlehem, and this is obvious to Matthew. Yet, Matthew doesn’t even think twice about taking that passage and using it to speak into the situation of his day. What’s more, he expects his readers will go right along with it. “This thing in Ramah? Oh, yes, it’s about Bethlehem. I see that, now. So obvious, really. Thanks, Matthew.”
The reason Matthew can do this is because this text that spoke of that specific circumstance so long ago had a meaning that fit and explained the events Matthew was recording. God promised he would restore Israel, and Ramah would be comforted because Hebrew children would no longer be exiled from their land into Babylon. Ramah was weeping because Israel’s sons were being sent away from their land into captivity under a foreign power. To Matthew, Herod ruling Judea fit the same bill in a very direct and violent way, and the same promises God made about the liberation from Babylon were the same ones Matthew’s readers could treasure in their heart for the deliverance of Israel in the day of Jesus’ arrival.
This is actually a very old and acceptable way of interpreting the Scriptures that goes far, far back in Judaism. When you read these early rabbinical commentaries, they don’t even blink when they tell you that a particular Psalm is about King David, King Solomon, Israel, the Messiah, and whoever the High Priest is currently. It is almost as if the Scriptures have been designed this way – forged like iron around the particulars of a given historical situation so that we can bring those molds forward and see if they fit the shape of our present circumstances.
We should not take away from that analogy an overly rigid concept of Scripture’s meaning. If Scripture can be used to understand various situations through history, it has to wrap around a variety of differing particulars. A Ramah-shape cannot wrap around a Bethlehem-shape, but an ExileUnderPaganPowers-shape can wrap around both.
At the same time, we also have to consider that these meanings cannot be boiled away from the particular circumstances under which they were written. In fact, I’d go so far to say that it’s the specific, concrete, historical situations that shaped the Scripture that give it the particular form we can use to view other situations.
I don’t want to, for example, preach a sermon about Abram being called to leave his homeland and say, “Everyone needs a change once in a while. Abram did, and so do we. The Bible speaks to us, today! Let us pray.”
No, I must first ask what that instruction meant to Abraham, or really, what was the significance of that instruction to the hearers of the Abraham story? Because it is that meaning that I will carry into the ages to come and see what that meaning might look like under a different historical context.
So, on the one hand, I think we are free to pull these Scriptures into our contemporary context and see what they look like. On the other hand, we are not free to make the Scriptures say whatever random stuff we happen to think of. Or rather, we can, but when we do that, we get further away from the world of the Bible, which takes us further from the power to be found in those words – that primal river channel of the Spirit that spoke to our forefathers millennia ago.
Back on the one hand, it means someone does not need to be a scholar in order for the Bible to speak to them. On the other hand, it means that when we teach the Bible, we need to help people get in touch with the context and the events and the stories that shaped a given passage. We must pass down to future generations both the story of our past and the Spirit-led skill of shaping that meaning in the present.