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10 Mistakes People Make When Reading the Bible

Posted on January 6, 2017

Donita had started reading the Bible two years before. She read it a lot and made copious notes of her impressions while reading. I later learned no one had actually shown her how to read the Bible or what dangers she might run into while reading. That is like telling someone food can be found on the other side of six-lane freeway and then putting a blindfold on them and pointing them in the right direction. They might make it okay, but it’s not likely.

She was frantic on the phone. “Pastor Mike, I am just sick about something. I guess I’m supposed to know how to fold the Holy Spirit, but I really don’t”. Yes, she said “how to fold the Holy Spirit”. I couldn’t believe it either.

“What are you talking about Donita?”

“In Revelation. I was reading along and several times I read about the Seven-fold Spirit of God. I don’t know how this folding works? Do I do it or does someone else?”

I rushed over to her house for what ended up being an enlightening 20 minutes for her. There is no such thing as ‘folding the Spirit’. The phrase ‘seven-fold Spirit’ means there are seven aspects or characteristics of the Holy Spirit regarding His work in our lives. When I explained this to her, she wanted to know what they were. I explained that in the first century, Greek philosophers liked to catalog the various characteristics of the gods of Olympus. The community of John who wrote Revelation had ideas about the various works of the Spirit in our lives. They mention most of these in Revelation. I went through the ones I knew and encouraged her to read the book in light of that understanding.

For several weeks after, I did a short teaching with her on how to read the Bible correctly. To this day, she regards that season as when she really began to appreciate what God gave us through the many authors of the Bible. She was appreciative.

I find people still make the same mistakes with the Bible as they were making a half century ago. There truly is nothing new under the sun. There may be many more than just 10 mistakes, but these cover a lot of the most common ones.

  1. Applying All Bible Promises to Your Life: There is a book called “All the Promises in the Bible” and it catalogs 7400 different promises God made in the Bible to various people. The author of this book has taken all of these promises and listed them under different headings. They have titles like “Promises of Rescue”, “Promises Regarding Healing”, “Promises about Money”, etc. All a person has to do, according to this writer, is look up your need, find out what God has promised, and claim that promise for yourself.There are several things wrong about this approach. First, it ignores the possibility of situational promises. In the Bible, God made promises to people which very clearly apply to the situation there were in. In Acts, Paul promises the Philippian jailer that he and HIS WHOLE FAMILY would be saved. Does this mean that every head of a family who believes will result in their whole family following God? I have heard a number of people claim exactly that. In the book of Joel, the Lord promised Israel after an attack of locusts that every one of the crops would start growing again in great amounts. Does this mean God is promising every farmer that bad crops will be followed by bountiful crops? Does this mean God promises everyone who goes through dark seasons that good times are just around the corner? I know many people who apply this exact situational promise to their lives. It is nothing more than wishful thinking at times.Many times these are conditional promises. For instance, in 2 Chronicles 7:14, God promises that “if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, seek my face,  turn from their wicked ways and follow me, then I will come and heal their land.” This may be the most quoted promise from the Bible. But it is a conditional promise. God will not heal a land where the people do not pray, or do not turn from their wicked ways, or do not humble themselves. In Romans 8:28 it says “for we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who are called according to His purpose.” People read that and see a shorthand version of it: “We know God works all things together for good.” Or, we shorten it even further, “Good is going to come out of this.” But that is not necessarily true. There are many evil things in this world which God cannot do anything with. The key to the verse is this idea: “To those who are called according to his purpose” This means, God will orchestrate things when, and only when, a person is lining up with God’s will and obeying the next thing God shows them to do. God does this because helping these people also helps God’s plans.

    When reading a promise in the Bible, ask yourself these two questions:  Who was this promise given to?  and Is there a condition attached to this?

  2. Relying on Only One Translation:  Unless you are reading the Bible in the original languages (i.e. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) you are reading a translation. All translations have been done with meticulous care. And though every translator sought to keep their version free of theological and cultural bias, no one can do that perfectly. This is not to say there aren’t better translations than others. Each of us who teach the Bible have our favorite translations for various reasons. But any time you translate a word from one language to another, you will lose some of the inherent meaning. So how can an English reader get the most out of the Scriptures without losing the meaning?The best way is to have two or three translations open when reading. I find it helpful to have one translation which focuses on the common way of saying things (eg. The Message, The Living Bible, The NET Bible) one which focuses on textual accuracy (eg. The New American Standard Bible) and one which seeks to translate idioms best (eg. The New International Version, New Living Translation). You could add an interlinear Bible (the Greek and the Hebrew are right beside the English) or any number of other bibles which have versions in parallel with each other.

    At the very least, if you’re studying the Bible for understanding, have a few different translations to get a fuller flavor of the original words.

  3. Not Asking Holy Spirit to Help You:  Even highly trained people can make mistakes reading the Bible. I think it is best for a Christ-follower to ask the indwelling Holy Spirit for guidance. He inspired the Bible to be written, and He understands what it means. I believe if you start any time of reading the Bible with a short prayer asking Holy Spirit to give you understanding, your time with the Bible will be rich and more fulfilling.
  4. Reading the Bible Only in Small Amounts:  Here is a pattern I am seeing more often in this busy world. People are reading no more than 2 or 3 verses in the Bible at a time. Or they may read one Psalm, a few proverbs and a small portion out of the New Testament. Though that certainly isn’t a bad way to start, especially if you find it hard to fit Bible reading into your life right now, there is a mistake inherent in this. With the exception of Psalms and Proverbs, the rest of the books of the Bible were meant to be read in one sitting. They were not meant to be chopped up into little pieces. The only reason there are chapters and verses is to make it easier to find where you left off your reading. They do the same thing with Chaucer’s works and Shakespeare’s plays.I advise people to have at least one or two times a week where they practice “chunk reading”. During this time, you read entire books of the Bible or very long sections. Rather than having a time limit, keep reading so you get a bigger picture. Though the majority of Christ-followers have never read through the Bible even once (yes, you read that correctly), even those who have do it over such a long period of time they often lose the sense of the bigger picture. The Bible actually does have a unified theme, which is hard to see if you only read little chunks. Even a relatively slow reader (i.e. 200 words a minute) can read the entire bible straight through in about a month if reading 2 hours a day. Give chunk reading a try and see if it doesn’t open up a broader understanding of the Scriptures. More about this in a moment.
  5.  Over-Reliance on Tradition When Reading:  Most cult leaders tell their people, “Don’t read the Bible for yourself. Instead, rely on my interpretation of it.” That insistence on listening only to one viewpoint is a hallmark of all cults. However, many churches, denominations and church traditions can do the same thing. This is one reason I’m not a fan of so-called “Study Bibles”. These are bibles which have commentary at the bottom or on the side of every page. If you rely upon those notes too much, you will only see one theological point of view as you read. This can be true of those who grew up with certain creedal traditions, who rely on certain liturgies to understand the Bible or who follow certain commentaries when reading the Bible. 1 John 2:26,27 is pretty clear we should not rely on any man to teach us the Bible. This means, we should  not lean too heavily on one point of view when reading the Bible.
  6. Under-Reliance on Tradition When Reading: The opposite is also true. When you read the Bible and rely solely on your own understanding, you will probably come up with very novel and interesting interpretations. This can be helpful occasionally, but often leads people into very dangerous territory. This is the mistake Donita made when she was worried about “folding the Spirit”. When you are reading the Bible and you see something which seems to teach something very radical or dangerous, you should rely on tradition to help you. This is what commentaries and other bible teachers are for. If you’re the only person in the world who has a particular interpretation of the Bible, you ought to be careful of walking it out in real life. I remember a guy who called me and asked about the verse in the Sermon on the Mount regarding sexual temptation, where it talks about “cutting off your right hand”. He thought this literally meant disfiguring himself. I had him come by my office and we talked at length about figures of speech like hyperbole and why we need to understand the purpose of them. He left my office and to this day has two  hands (I think).
  7. Errors in Applying what you read:   The best teachers of the Bible have said there are three steps to studying the Bible:   a) Observation (what does it say; b) Interpretation (what does it mean); and c) Application (what do I do with it). There are many people who read the Bible who don’t do anything with it. For them, the Bible is a magical book which makes them feel better just for reading it. This is not enough. The Bible was written so we can observe what is written, understand what it means and then live it out in our lives. But the application must be built on careful study beforehand. You don’t just read a verse and then jump out and start living it a few seconds later. As opposed to a self-help book, the Bible needs to be meditated upon and prayed through before leaping.I remember a young man who read in the Bible how a rich ruler was told by Jesus to go sell all he had and come follow him. This man owned several parcels of land. He believed he needed to follow this advice and do the same. He came in one day and wanted to give all the money to the church. As the pastor, I was quite willing to take the money. After all, we had a number of projects we were working on which would be much more easily financed through this money. But I asked him what led him to do this and he told me about the Bible verse. I asked him if he and his wife had prayed about it. He didn’t even tell his wife what he was doing. I had a little talk about how to stay alive in marriage and sent him on his way. A few weeks later, he made a gift to the church–a much smaller gift than before. He did talk to his wife and he did scale back some of his enthusiasm. This was wisdom.
  8. Treating the Bible as an Academic Book:  My undergraduate degree is in Theology. I took over 60 credit hours in studying various books of the Bible. I took four different theology courses. In the final course, one of my professors, Dr. John Dahms warned us at the beginning of one class: “Be careful young bible scholars you don’t misconstrue the intention of the Bible. It wasn’t compiled and inspired by God to be studied like a textbook. It is a living thing. God moved men to write it, God moved people to translate it and he moves you to study it. But it is all about God and man. In this, you should end up finding God. In this, you should end up finding yourself. Don’t miss God and don’t miss yourself here as you parse verbs and argue over predestination.”Those are wise words. It is not the intelligent who inherit the earth; it is the meek. The meek are those who know they don’t know it all, and keep searching to learn true meaning to things. If you seek God as you read the Bible, then you will find him if you search with all your heart.
  9. Failing to Recognize the Cultures to Which it was Written: There are many, many things mentioned in the Bible that only mean something when you consider the background of the culture. This is not easy to do, but it is so necessary. Almost every book in the Bible contains references to practices, beliefs, and reference points which are foreign to us. This is the value of not jumping to conclusions when you read the Bible. When you look at issues like slavery, place and roles of women, role of government, idol-worship, demons, head-coverings, sinful practices, etc. it is necessary to know what the people of that day believed and how God was trying to guide them. Then, when you have seen that, look for a universal principle to apply.One very common example should help. In the city of Corinth at the very southern tip of Greece, they practiced many, many strange sexual acts. The temples of that city were devoted to prostitution. Those prositutes, know as the Melissae, were experts at certain types of sex. They were the only women in Corinth who went around town with their  heads uncovered. For the most part, women in Corinth did not leave their homes because they didn’t want to be accosted. That’s how many prostitutes were in that city. If they did go out, they wore full head coverings, similar to the burkas worn today in some cultures. If a woman went out without one, she was declaring herself to be a prostitute. For some reason, some women in the church in Corinth taught that since they were free in Christ, they could go to church with their heads uncovered. Therefore, Paul told them to cover their heads when they went to church. Otherwise, they would bring great shame on their families.

    This is a strange teaching to apply today. Certainly, there are cultures which still require women to wear head covering, and other cultures which attach specific meaning to head coverings. The dominant culture in North America of course, is not one of those. We have other standards which we could apply here. We have both male and female expectations regarding clothing, jewelry, perfume/cologne etc. which may be violated by Christ-followers. The key when translating truth from one culture to another is to learn what a Scripture passage meant to the culture. Once you have done that, then strip away the culture from the Scripture and see what the universal truth may be. Ask God how you might apply that universal culture to your life.

  10. Failing to Read the Bible as One Story:  As I mentioned earlier, the story of the Bible is one story. When you only read your favorite parts, or only read small little sections, the bigger story is not clear. In a nutshell, here are the Cliff notes for the Bible. You only get this when you have read it all through in a short period of time.

    God created everything. God, being perfect, wanted to create a being who could choose to know Him and love Him. In order to make this choice a real choice, he gave mankind the ability to choose freely. This choice God gave them was to follow what God directed them to do, or do it their own way. The first humans, when they became aware of what God wanted, chose to do it their way. They walked away from God. And every generation of their children has been selfish, godless and destructive. God spends centuries looking for individuals who would seek after Him. He found one. A man named Abram. That man trusted God and followed as best he could in faith. God decided to use his family and descendants as a people-group to introduce God to the rest of the world. But Abram’s family went back to being conceited, violent and godless. Occasionally, there were members of that tribe who followed God and obeyed God. He used some of these people to write down truths. Eventually, through that family, God decided to be born as a human being. His name was Yeshua, a variant of Joshua. We today call Him Jesus. He lived as a human, even though he is God. Many people followed him and believed in him. In the 33rd year of his life, he gave his life as a sacrifice. He was killed by some of the selfish children of Abram because he claimed to be God–which He was and is. Then, He rose from the dead a few days after dying. Because of this, He is able to pay for all the selfishness all humans have done or will ever do. God allowed the punishment that Jesus suffered to be enough for humans. For this to be effective, each person has to accept this death and resurrection as real and want forgiveness. Many people did that and became a new family of God. That family included many from Abram’s family and many from other tribes. From that day until today, the followers of Jesus in the Christ family have been spreading the news that anyone can be in a good relationship and standing with God. Then, at the end of the book, God tells us how things are all going to end. Selfishness will battle the Family of Jesus and then Jesus will return to start a new age.

 

—The End—

 

Donald Trump and an Accurate Interpretation of Romans 13:1-2

 

Recently, I had a friend tell me that not only did God ordain that Donald Trump be elected, but that God always ordains every person in power, no matter who they are. Because of this, all Christians must submit to all governing authorities, no matter who they are.

I asked him the inevitable question: “Do you mean a person in North Korea is to submit to Kim Jong Un?” “Yes, of course” was the answer. “Hitler?” I ventured. My friend hesitated and eventually said, “I am pretty sure. Yes.” “How about Nebuchadnezzar, if he is telling you to bow down to a statue of himself he had made? Do you have to submit to him as well?” My friend, though not a strong Christian, knew the Bible enough to realize he better stop while he was confused. He thanked me for the lunch and left the restaurant looking dazed.

I was not sorry I had done it. I am weary of explaining Romans 13:1-2 to friends, antagonists, and Calvinists. If Romans 13:1-2 does not immediately jump into your mind, here it is in the New International Version:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

I use the NIV here because it is rife with translation ambiguities which encourage people to jump to spurious conclusions. After we examine it closely here, I hope you will agree with me that:

  1. We do not have to agree with or support all governing authorities
  2. There is a legitimate place for public protest
  3. God does not set up most political leaders and endorse them
  4. We do not have to be agreeable and supportive of any political leader. We can disagree with them, stand against them, and even advocate their overthrow.

 

Allow me to use historic bible interpretation techniques to show why I draw these conclusions from Romans 13:1-2

Contextual Background

The practices of good bible interpretation are called Hermeneutics.  In Hermeneutics, the first step in the proper interpretation of a bible passage is to discover the context. Context relates to three things

  1. What cultural ideas would the original readers be aware of?
  2. What do the chapters before and after this one talk about?
  3. What does the rest of the Bible reveal about the subjects covered in these verses?

 

We call these the Cultural Context, the Textual Context, and the Theological Context. These three contexts will provide a better understanding of what the Apostle Paul was emphasizing.

  1. Cultural Context: At the time of the writing of Romans, the Roman government had been in power for over 100 years. They had effectively conquered the Greek, Persian and Egyptian Empires as well as less powerful Median, Ethiopian, Gaulish and Germanic kingdoms. Caesar was the head of the nation and could act with impunity. Though citizens of Rome could vote, the conquered people could not. They had little say over how their lives were lived. The Roman laws were absolute, and they could not violate them without severe penalties.The Roman Empire was autocratic and absolute. Unless you were Caesar or a Senator, you had virtually no power over your own life.This was the political climate Paul was writing into. It resembles modern-day North Korea. The China of Mao’s communists, Stalin’s communists, Castro’s communists, the farcical “democracies” of Venezuela, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Angola have all shown elements in common with the Roman Empire.But there was a positive side to all this autocracy. The Roman legions kept the peace and prevented warring tribes and nation-states fighting against each other. They quelled local rebellions and kept roads and waterways in good repair. The so-called “Pax Romana” was truly a  time of world-wide prosperity and relative peace.But peace came with a price: Freedom.When Paul is speaking to people about the governing authorities, he is referring to a government under which they had no vote and few choices. In this sense, their situation is very different than ours in the Western democracies. One of my theology professors, Dr. James Cheung, used to tell us that the people of China understand better than Americans what it would mean to live in the world of the Romans. He said Paul wrote this book to people who had no way to change their government other than total rebellion and anarchy. That contextual understanding affects what Paul says in these verses.
  2. Textual Context: In Romans 12 Paul examines the value and beauty of a life in surrender to God. Verses 1 and 2 may be the most sublime expression of what it means to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit and to stay away from sin’s grasp.

    From that, Paul logically applies this spirit-led life to a practical application. He advises each person seek to be used by the Spirit in service to others in the body of Christ. The focal point of living in the Spirit is not to meet our own needs or improve our image. It is to serve. We submit to God and He fills us with his Spirit. The Spirit flows out of us to serve others. We might show kindness, hospitality or respect out of this spirit-led love. Or we might exercise a supernatural gift of the Spirit. From this base, Paul then applies this loving attitude toward two other groups of people. First, he addresses how the spirit-led person will act toward those who persecute them. Then, he follows this up with the approach to be taken in conflict. We are to be at peace—as far as it depends on us—with everyone.

    This is the chapter context leading into chapter 13 of Romans. Paul is not thinking particularly about politics. He is not as concerned about world leaders and political ideologies. Rather, Paul wants to apply the basic principle of being “transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:2) to every difficult situation in life. Fellow church members, enemies, interpersonal conflicts, and the oppressive governments of that day immediately came to his mind.

    There are some who feel Paul makes an abrupt change of topic in chapter 13. But I disagree. If you read the rest of the chapter after the first seven verses, you see that Paul returns to this topic of walking in the Holy Spirit with an attitude of love. Verse 8 says

    Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law“.

    Therefore, good contextual hermeneutics suggests we read Paul’s teaching on our attitude toward government in the light of love and walking in the Spirit. This is not his treatise on government systems, God’s sovereignty, or man’s response to oppression. This is Paul’s way of applying the concept of love to down-to-earth difficult situations.

  3. Theological Context: Since many people approach Romans 13:1-2 as if Paul is addressing the Christian’s viewpoint on government systems, let’s see how the rest of the Bible approaches that issue for comparison. Since these verses seem to suggest we are to believe God establishes every government, and that we are simply to obey the governing powers and not rebel against them, does the rest of the Bible support this?Actually, it doesn’t. Even a cursory glance at the Bible nets a completely different result. Israel did not submit to Pharaoh, but rather fought against his rule. They blatantly disobeyed when he ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill the newborns. They plundered the Egyptian leaders and lied to them when they left captivity. Later in Israel’s history, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to a statue of Nebuchadnezzar. They refused to do as the leader of the country ordered. A few years later, Daniel also refused to obey the government and was thrown into the lion’s den as a punishment.David disobeyed Saul, though passively.Most of the prophets disobeyed their kings, especially the evil ones. Nathan the prophet chastised David the King to his face. In Israel’s post-exilic history, the nation fought against every ruling authority which took over their land. The Maccabees were especially rebellious. At no time after the exile did the people of Israel respect or obey those who ruled them.Even when the Herods came to power, the people were constantly rebelling against them. John the Baptist spent much of his ministry rebelling and fomenting rebellion against the Herods. The rulers of Jesus’ Israel, besides the Romans and the Herods, were the Sanhedrin. Jesus constantly confronted them and their interests. He called them a bunch of snakes, flouted their rules, and mocked their disciples.

    Jesus criticized publicly most of their decisions and even went as far as to overthrow the money-changers tables in direct rebellion against temple rules. Few people in this world went out of their way as much as Jesus did to tweak the nose of the ruling establishment.

    What about after Jesus died and rose again? His disciples carried on in his footsteps. After being ordered by the government to stop preaching and to stop teaching about Jesus, they steadfastly refused and rebelled by doing the very thing they were ordered to stop doing. They were not respectful of the government and followed only the laws which suited them. They schemed to hide from the government officials who sought to arrest them. Paul even pitted one government against another when he appealed to Caesar during his second trial. When thrown in the Philippian jail, Paul felt no obligation to stay there even though ordered to jail by an appointed official. He not only escaped jail, but befriended his jailer along the way.

    There is one other theological context to address. How deep does the influence of God go in terms of elections and appointment of rulers? Since the main reason people refer to Romans 13:1-2 is to support the idea that God establishes all human rulers, does this make theological or logical sense? I contend it does not.This teaching is firmly ensconced in the idea of God’s sovereignty and determinism. This is a slippery slope doctrine and most people who believe it will agree.

    It is remarkably easy to take it too far. The problem is, if you are going to believe in the full doctrine of God’s sovereignty then the only way for it to be consistent is to take it too far. Here is what I mean.Logically, if you say God has control over all things, then all things are under God’s control. If all things are under God’s control, then God wills that all things happen as they do. Nothing happens unless God wills it. At this point, the believer in God’s absolute sovereignty wants to hedge their belief. They will say there is a difference between what God allows and what God wills. But logically, that makes no sense. If God allows something, God wills it.

    If I am able to stop my child hitting me, I have control over that. I can no longer blame the child for hitting me if I do nothing to stop it. If you say God is in control of all things, then God wills all things. This is what led a famous modern Calvinist to remark on the death of children in a schoolhouse massacre: “God desired that each of those children be killed, or it would not have happened.” At least this teacher is honest with his belief system.If you say that God’s allowance of an event is different than willing that event, then I have one thing to say. We both believe there are limitations on God being in control of everything. I just have more things I don’t think God is in control of than you.

    If God truly wanted Donald Trump to be President, there is only one way to do it. God had to force every person to vote exactly as they did. And God had to prevent people from voting if their vote would have affected the outcome. Unless God affects them all, the outcome is indeterminate. So, when you say God wanted Donald Trump to be President, you are saying there was no other way it could have happened. This eliminates the choice any person would make in an election.

    This also makes God out to be a monster and a puppet-master. This is not how God has revealed Himself to be. There must be limits on God’s sovereignty or else God is responsible for everything, including sin. Since we believe God is all-powerful—and I do believe that by the definition of God as Creator—then how is God to be limited?

    The Arminian teaching is that God is self-limiting. No person can limit God, but God can limit Himself. God cannot sin for instance; that is a limit God places upon himself. God will not violate human choice unless God wants to accomplish something. That is another limit God places on Himself. This is what is shown in Romans 9 with Pharaoh. God can overrule human choice, but He chooses to do so infrequently.

    For the most part, our sin and violence has mangled the beauty God created. Evil rulers have taken power whom God did not choose or ordain. What then is Romans 13:1-2 talking about if it is not addressing God’s overarching sovereignty? To answer this, we must look more carefully at the text itself.

Examination of the Text Itself

To fully understand what Paul says here, let’s note the key words and phrases in these two verses. Then, when we have finished that, we will put it together into a logical process. I will then note two alternate translations which show the full nature of what we find here.

  1. The first phrase is a command. The command “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities” means to recognize there are higher powers and authorities than yourself. The purpose of writing this is to counter the idea that anarchy is God-ordained. There were many in Paul’s day who advocated overthrowing all human authority and simply falling under God’s authority. The best translation of this verse has this idea: Every soul in this world must continually recognize there are higher authorities than themselves. You are not in charge of the world.
  2. Now we come to the crucial misunderstanding and ambiguity of this verse in the original Greek language. The NIV translates it this way: “For there is no authority, except which God establishes“. Going through the Greek words and the simple grammar, it would sound like this: “For there is no authority, except under God.” There are literally three ways this could be legitimately translated:
    1. There is no authority except those God establishes
    2. There is no authority that doesn’t come under God’s authority
    3. There is no authority except God’s authority.
  3. I personally think the second translation is the best one. Every government pales in comparison with God’s government. So even though we recognize that humans can seize control and rule over others, this rule will always be temporary in both time and extent. God’s rule is more powerful. God allows humans to be kings and rulers. God allows us to vote in whomever we want. And even though God doesn’t often interfere with what human rulers do, God is always the ultimate authority.Though the Third Reich killed six million people there were miracles which happened to prevent this holocaust from spreading to the rest of the world. I have no idea why God didn’t intervene earlier or cause Hitler to die earlier, but He didn’t. But there is a reason there is no Third Reich in the world today. God used people to overthrow Hitler and his regime. But if no people had been willing to do so, Hitler would have hurt many more. We humans must come under God’s authority and serve Him for anything to change.
  4. The next phrase “the authorities which exist have all been established by God” has the same translation difficulty as the last phrase. To be consistent then, the best translation is “All existing authorities come under God’s authority ultimately.”
  5. Putting together all these thoughts into one verse would sound like this: “Every soul must recognize there are higher authorities than themselves. For there are no authorities who do not come under God, for all existing authorities ultimately come under God’s authority.”
  6. The next phrase flows logically out of the verse before it. The phrase starts with the word “therefore” which implies what comes after is the application of the truth. The truth is that God is the one who allows humans to govern. If you have trouble with the concept of other people ruling your life, you have a problem with God. All attitudes of anarchy and rebellion are attitudes against God. Therefore, King David did not want to overthrow King Saul but rather to protect him, even when Saul was trying to kill David. David recognized that he didn’t want to come against the King out of his respect for God.Most legitimate rebellion means to stand up against what a ruler does and says, not against their right to be rulers. The concept of authority is something God allows people to have. This is an interesting theological conundrum. When Israel originally approached Samuel the prophet and asked him to question God about this idea of having a king like the other nations around, here is God’s answer to Samuel:10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

    19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
    21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”God warns them if they seek after a human ruler it won’t always go well with them. The ruler will expect tributes and money and power. And when they complain to God, God is going to ignore their complaints. But to rebel against this idea of any ruler and to want anarchy is to rebel against God. This is the point of the first part of verse 2 of Romans 13.

    Therefore, we may do all we can to change our leaders, and even our form of government (a la the American Revolution), but we must not discard the idea of others having some authority over us. That is anarchy and God does not sanction it.

  7. The final part of verse 2 lets us know the consequence of rebelling against all authority. If you fight the concept of authority over your life completely, you will find you keep getting judged over and over. You will find that rulers keep hurting you. The person who sneers at the police wonders why the police pick on them. The sports star who calls the referees names wonder why they get called for so many fouls. The anarchist organization who fights the government at every turn wonders why the government fights back. The person who says “no one is allowed to tell me what to do” will force everyone to tell them what to do.

Application of These Verses

What can we conclude from all this? Paul, writing with the idea of applying the love and power of the Holy Spirit to every part of life, warns us we cannot walk in the Spirit and keep believing no one should tell us what to do. We recognize the right of leaders and governing authorities to exist because God allows them to. This doesn’t mean God set every leader up or endorses all they do. It means that God allows human authorities to call the shots for a while. We do well to honor that.

However, God allows us to disagree with ruling authorities. They have a right to exist, but we have a right to vociferously demand they change their ways if they are evil or misguided. In the culture Paul wrote to, Christians could not make changes in their governments. Paul basically tells them not to waste a lot of time on it. We face much different realities in the Western cultures. We can and do make our voices heard. We can march, write, speak out, defy and even be jailed for our beliefs. These all fall under the aegis of this chapter’s teaching. At the same time, if we act as if we are the final authority in life, we will find that existing authorities want to hurt us. And God will allow that.

The attitude of rebellion is a wasting disease, and God wants the spirit-led Christian to stay away from it.

This implies God did not determine Donald Trump would be the winner of the election. Neither did God want Hilary to be the President. Or Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. God allowed us to have whomever we wanted. But we must live with our choice. We may biblically protest, criticize, engage, applaud, impeach, march against, yell at, and satirize our leaders. But let us not invalidate the concept of leadership. That invalidates God and his ordinances.

Here are the other two translations I mentioned so you can compare them to the translation I put together:

The Message:

Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible.

New Living Translation:

Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.

Beginner and Intermediate Lists of Theological Books

Posted on July 6, 2015

theologyI did a teaching recently on the value of reading theological books and knowing the importance of learning to think theologically. Following up on that teaching I felt I should strengthen my position on this with some suggested book lists. I have two lists, so look carefully at these descriptions:

Basic Theology Reading List:  This list is designed for people who have either never read books that deal with theological topics, or have been turned off by theological books.

Intermediate Theology Reading List: This is for those who have already waded into the waters of theological reflection and now want to get a really good foundation on theological books that challenge the mind more thoroughly.

I have not included any books on systematic theology. That is, none of these titles covers all the subjects in theology. There indeed are books that do this, and I may do an article later this month giving my viewpoints on which of those comprehensive volumes is best.

Without further explanation, here are my recommended beginning and intermediate theology reading lists.

Beginner’s List for the Appreciation of Theology:

1. Know Why You Believe  by Paul Little. This gem of a book may seem small and simple, but it will challenge you to think all things through theologically.

2. The Case for Christ  by Lee Strobel.  Strobel takes you back to the beginning of your faith and asks all the questions that would have been good to ask then. By doing so, he makes it possible for us to understand our salvation in a reasonable format.

3. The Pursuit of God  by A. W. Tozer.  This classic never goes out of style.  Tozer, in a series of essays, makes it clear that we can find God when we understand who we are looking for. Since theology is the study of God, this book is a great beginning place.

4. Knowing God   by J. I. Packer. Dr. Packer takes the simplicity of Tozer’s subject and shows how deep the well can go if you think about our amazing God.

5. The God Who is There/He is Not Silent  by Francis Schaeffer.  These two volumes are really parts 1 and 2 of the same book. Schaeffer gives a philosopher’s take on why the church gave in to the Enlightenment and how we can recover from it both theologically and practically.

6. Wholly Sanctified   by Dr. A. B. Simpson.  Simpson wrote in the 19th century, but he shows us how theology can be a language not just of the mind but also of the heart.

7. Exegetical Fallacies  by D. A. Carson.  Dr. Carson shows us how easy it is to make mistakes in interpreting Scripture. And of course, he outlines both how to avoid those mistakes and how to spot them when preachers/teachers are using them.

8. Four Views on Hell  by several authors including William Crockett.  Actually any of the “Four Views” books would work here. This is a format of theological book which collects major views on a topic and lays out the different views one by one. The reason I think this is invaluable for a beginning reader of theology is that it shows how to consider more than one view on a major doctrine.

9. Heaven by Randy Alcorn.  This is a wonderful example of how an author explores every scripture on a particular subject (in this case, heaven) and how he lays out that scriptural underpinning into a workable theory. All budding theologians need to know how to do this. A very helpful AND entertaining book

10. Orthdoxy  by G. K. Chesterton.   This is a classic work of theology by one of the world’s greatest minds. It is not a long book, but it cannot be read fast. I think this may be the best example of a theologian who keeps all viewpoints in mind when he writes.

11. The Cost of Discipleship  by Dietrich Boenhoeffer. Boenhoeffer is a practical theologian. He is one of the very few pastors who stood up publicly against Adolph Hitler in Nazi Germany. This book is the theological underpinning for how he lived his life. This is where theology meets action.

12. Mere Christianity  by C. S. Lewis.  I could have chosen a half dozen different Lewis books to show his ability to take a difficult theological concept and present it logically and fairly. In this case, he shows how he came to believe in Christ and why the simple Gospel is so profound. I recommend also, “The Great Divorce”, the “Problem of Pain” and a “Severe Mercy” as other examples.

 

Intermediate Reading List for Learning to be Theologically Reflective

1. Confessions  by Augustine.  One of the oldest theological works known to the church. You can’t call yourself a theologian without wrestling with Augustine, considered the greatest post-biblical theologian.

2. The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?  by F. F. Bruce.  Don’t just accept the Bible as God’s Word. Find out why we accept the New Testament as readily as we do.

3. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind  by Mark Noll.  We have often settled for much less than good reflective thinking as evangelicals. This book will greatly challenge you.

4. The Blessed Hope  by George Ladd. There are many sensationalistic books on the End Times. Here is one written by a scholar who knows how to get to the point. Not a long book but a great example of saying more with less on a touchy issue.

5. The Next Christendom  by Philip Jenkins.  What will Christianity look like as other cultures are more dominant in the church than North America. How will that affect our doctrines and practices?

6. Benefit of a Doubt  by Greg Boyd. Do we always have to believe everything with 100% certainty to be a good follower of God. Boyd says that this can make dangerous disciples. He proposes another way of Faith.

7. The Divine Conspiracy  by Dallas Willard. One of the great classics of Christianity and a difficult book to read without thinking deeply. I challenge every person who wants to be a good theologian to wrestle with this one.

8. For Calvinism (Michael Horton), Against Calvinism (Roger Olson):  Here are two books that were created as interactive discussions on a touchy theological subject: Namely, Calvinism. These are two of the most articulate writers on this subject and they are also friends. They show a considerable amount of knowledge on the subject, but they also show how one can be gentle, considerate and humble in presentation of theological viewpoints.

9. Power Evangelism  by John Wimber.  Wimber was a seminary professor and a theologian when God began to use him in healing power. That Holy Spirit power had to be incorporated with good theology. Notice in this book how Wimber attempts to do this, though not always successfully.

Principles of Bible Interpretation for Teachers

I was sitting with a group of Christians at a conference a few years ago, and we were encouraged to gather in small groups to pray with each other. The five of us who shuffled our chairs randomly to somehow gather together introduced ourselves. Then one very dear saint reminded us before we started praying: “We don’t need a big group. After all, the Bible says that “if two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.”

I started to open my mouth and then quickly closed it. It wasn’t worth it. But I so wanted to instruct this person that they were using a Bible verse completely out of context. But the reason I didn’t bother is that they were just trying to encourage us, and their point was well taken, even if they were misusing the Bible to do it. After all, it isn’t like they were teaching a congregation.

But when I hear Bible teachers misuse the Bible, I don’t keep my mouth closed. I watched a video two years ago from a Sunday evening service in a large church in America. The pastor and his wife were answering questions from the congregation. One young man sent his question to the pastor and it basically sounded like this: “My wife and I just had a baby earlier this year. We decided that she should continue working and I would stay home with the baby since her job pays twice as much as mine. Did we do the right thing?”

This pastor and his wife spent the next twenty minutes tearing this guy to shreds. They told him (he was anonymous in his questioning, by the way) that if they ever found out who he was they would remove him from membership. Then, as a basis for this drastic action, they quoted a verse from one of the books of Paul to Timothy: “If a man does not take care of his own family, he is worse than a heathen.” I was already angry at the foolish way they were addressing this sincere question. But when they taught this, I started to sputter and shake my fist at the computer screen.

Yes, I realize how silly that probably looked. But I was so angry. This is a so-called Bible teacher completely taking that verse out of its context to back up his stupid bias. The verse is speaking of families that will not provide for their widowed mothers, choosing instead to rely on the church’s help when they could just as easily provide it for her. This is NOT talking about whether men or women should be the primary breadwinner.

I wish I could say this was the only incident. But because bible knowledge as a whole is diminishing among Christians, bible teachers are getting away with these sort of egregious errors.

It is one thing to study the Bible for your own edification. You don’t necessarily have to know all the rules of interpretation to enjoy the truths of the Bible. But perhaps it would be good for all of us to know the rules of biblical hermeneutics (the rules of interpretation). Yes, these can get technical, and yes, this does take work. But if  you want to really know what the Bible says, these are the accepted rules that all good teachers follow when they study the Bible.

1. Begin with Inductive Study.  I highly recommend the book by Kay Arthur “How to Study Your Bible”. In that book, she lays out the principles of Inductive study quite clearly. Summarizing, the method teaches to ask the five W questions (who, what, where, when and why) and How in order to get a systematized view of what the passage is saying, In addition, you should note contrasts (using the words “but” or “rather”) and conclusions (using “therefore” and “knowing that” etc.) If you do an inductive study of a passage of the bible, you at least can teach with certainty that you have looked at the evidence of what is being taught clearly.

2. Context Within the Chapter. Every book of the Bible has a train of thought that runs through it (with the exception of Proverbs, which are a collection of pithy and spiritual sayings). Therefore, to understand a verse or a series of verses, you should read the entire chapter to get an idea of the train of thought. That would have saved the little old lady in my prayer group. What she thought was referring to worship or prayer was actually referencing times of confrontation. Study the chapter and find out what the author is getting at. It will make the verse you want to teach more understandable.

3. Background of the book and writer. Once you have understood the chapter that your passage comes from, it is then good to spend a few moments learning the name of the writer, their historical place and why the book was written. Most authors of Bible books give statements as to why the book was written. John’s Gospel, for instance, tells us that “these things were written that you might believe that Jesus is the Son of God.” It would be good to know that Paul wrote Philippians in jail or that John wrote Revelation while he was imprisoned on an island. It will help you to interpret some of the teachings.

4. Other Places in the Bible. When you are interpreting a difficult passage of the Bible that is hard to understand, you might need to go to other places in the Bible to help you understand it. This can be done in three ways.

a. A Word study. The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek (with a tiny bit in Aramaic). It would be helpful to get a Word Study book that contains all the original words and look up where some of the more difficult words of your passage are found in other parts of the Bible.

b. Theme Study: A Bible dictionary can tell you where certain concepts can be found in other places in the Bible. So can commentaries and Bible encyclopedias. These helps can aid you in seeing the bigger picture for your passage.

c. Other books by the same author. The most powerful resource to help understand one book is another book by the same author. The five books of Moses for instance, carry certain themes and therefore it is good to get an entire picture of Moses when looking at difficult truths. Paul’s letters, Luke’s Gospel and Acts, John and Revelation. Each author has similar truths they are putting forth, and to read other places where that author writes can shed light on the passage you are studying.

If you follow these basic rules of interpretation, you should be able to interpret about  95% of the Bible accurately. But what do you do with the other 5%? In the next article, I will lay out what resources you can use to work through hard teachings.

God the Bully and Other Myths

bully-1In a poignant scene in the 1981 Academy Award winning movie “Chariots of Fire” two of the main characters are walking out of a Scottish church on a Sunday morning. They are discussing the sermon.. The skeptic makes this observation: “So, your description of God is that he is a dictator.” The other person, an older saint–a retired missionary–says “Aye, he is. But a benign, loving dictator.” They go on their way, both satisfied with that answer.

It is a good Reformed church answer. And for several hundred years, it has satisfied those who sometimes refer to themselves as Calvinists. Even those Christians who do not believe in the concept of God as “dictator” acknowledge that this position is at least tenable and plausible.

But enter the Calvinists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. No longer do they believe in a God who is gentle and benign. They still believe God is a dictator, but now God is the other type: Virile, cruel and capricious. In essence, to the neo-Calvinist, God is The Bully.

John Piper, long the banner-waver for this doctrine, recently said this about the killing of schoolchildren and other innocents:

“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand.”

He is claiming that God wanted every one of these children dead. Look at his statement for a second. He admitted in his question/answer session  that most people would struggle with his teaching. But he reminded his listeners that if you accept the absolute sovereignty of God, then you have to accept that God wanted those children dead. Nothing happens in this world, according to the neo-Calvinist, that God does not actively desire. God’s desires are always done, they claim.

In essence, if children died, God wanted that to happen. The old Calvinists would say that God permitted it to happen but did not actively desire it. Today’s Calvinists find that position to be weak and namby-pamby. If you’re going to have a sovereign God, they claim, then God needs to be sovereign over all things.

I could give many, many examples of how R. C. Sproule, C. J. Mahaney, John Piper, Mark Driscoll and others present God as a dictator, as a sovereign ruler who controls and orders all things to happen as God wants. They paint a picture of God whose will is never thwarted, whose plans always go forth, whose every whim and dictate is law.

My contention is that if all of this is true, then God is the author of sin, the author of lies and the author of murder. But the neo-Calvinist has a ready answer for this. They would claim that, as God, He can do whatever He wants, and when God does it, it is righteous. Everything God does is right; therefore, if God does it, it cannot be wrong. God does whatever He wants, and no person can say anything about it.

They are adamant about this. What they don’t realize–or perhaps they do, I can’t decide–is that God is a Bully. Since no one can stand against God, and God can do anything he wants to us, and because God is so powerful that no one can stand against him…well, that is the classic definition of a bully. A person who uses their power and authority to take away all power from others. After all, if all things are determined and we cannot make a decision that goes against God’s will, then God always gets his way and no one is strong enough to stand against Him

That is a bully.

What is not surprising is that those who espouse this position often become bullies themselves. Mahaney and Driscoll have both been removed from their pulpits because they bullied staff and congregation members at will (yes, I know both of them resigned, but it was only after they realized they couldn’t keep doing what they were doing without being fired or punished).  Piper was put on a leave of absence two years ago for the same reason. Each of them has a unique way of teaching neo-Calvinist doctrine, but all of them used their positions of authority to bully others.

In this, they are mirroring their own view of God.

This has always been the case. If we view God as the bully, we become bullies. If we view God as meek and lowly of heart, that is what we will be. If we see God as a God of vengeance, it is easy to forget that this is forbidden territory to us and we will then strive to get even with others. If we view God as gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness, that is now we will act.

As Arminians, we recognize God’s sovereignty. God can do anything God wants. But we also believe that God is Self-Limiting. What that means is that no one can limit or place restrictions on God. But God can and does place restrictions on Himself. God cannot sin. God will not be involved with injustice. God won’t violate our freedom of choice. God chooses to forgive even before we ask (just as God asked us to do).

If you are a neo-Calvinist, look at your view of God. Put down the rhetoric and the arguments for a second and look at the logical conclusion of your belief system.

Can you really love and follow God the Bully any longer?

 

Victoria Osteen and John Piper – Some Similarities

A few weeks ago, Victoria Osteen was discovered on a recording from their Texas church saying some things that have outraged people. Here is a clip from that recording:

What bothers people the most is she claims that God determined that our human happiness is His highest priority. This seems to smack up against what the church has taught for 2000 years. Namely, that we exist for God’s pleasure and not the other way around. One observation I have to make about it is this: This clip is consistent with what the Osteens and most other Word of Faith teachers have been selling for years. If people are angry at her comments now, then clearly they haven’t been paying attention.

But the other side of this coin relates to another famous pastor, John Piper. For years, Piper has put forward his concept of man and God in a theology he calls “Christian Hedonism“. Summarizing this belief, Piper defines it this way:

By Christian Hedonism, we do not mean that our happiness is the highest good. We mean that pursuing the highest good will always result in our greatest happiness in the end. We should pursue this happiness, and pursue it with all our might. The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy you cannot love man or please God.

Of course, you can see the differences between Osteen and Piper immediately. Piper believes we are happiest when we pursue the highest good. Osteen believes that the highest good is our happiness. So clearly they are saying something different. But it is the one point of true similarity I want to note.

Both of these teachings focus on the happiness of man as the greatest measure of our life. If we are happy–for Osteen this could result from anything, for Piper from pursuing the highest good–then we are fulfilling God’s purposes for our lives. But is happiness the goal of our lives?

The teachings of Jesus do not focus on happiness. They focus on obedience. And Jesus tells us quite clearly that there are times when we will be persecuted, treated badly, rejected and despised. If you do what is right, you will ULTIMATELY be blessed. But that does not necessarily mean you will be happy.

One implication of Piper and his neo-Calvinist theology is that our choices in life are fairly meaningless. Out of that pseudo-determinism (my description, not his)  that he teaches comes the idea that man is essentially a ‘robot’. God chooses certain people to be part of the kingdom, He chooses these ones to be righteous, and He chooses these ones to be happy. All those not chosen by God are miserable and will become an example of what it looks like not to be chosen by God.

Piper tries to mask this determinism by hinting that we can choose the highest good and therefore find happiness. But this is not true. According to neo-Calvinism, God does not allow us to make choices outside of God’s will. Therefore, there are no choices other than God’s choice.

At least Osteen’s teachings are honest. The Osteens have never claimed to be anything other than what they are: Prosperity teachers. Piper gives people the impression they can choose to do right or wrong, but then teaches that God has already determined and decided what choices we will make.

And that means there are no choices. In the end, God determines who will be happy and who will not.

It’s no more encouraging or any better teaching than what the Osteens are saying.

 

The God of Initiation (Old Testament Benefits Part 2)

Posted on August 4, 2014

As a young teen, I thought about suicide. I don’t speak of it much because it doesn’t even feel like me, but it is true. I entered puberty a few years before many of my fellows, and I suffered the emotional storm that goes with this before my mind could catch up with these abstract things happening.

I also didn’t do anger well. I kept all my anger inside, hoping to make everyone happy around me. This is a formula for depression. Therefore, at age 11, I began to depress myself regularly, dwelling on hurts and letting anger lead me into hopelessness.

By age 13, I had already made two plans to take my life. I never went through with either of them. But I would have done it if I had had the nerve. That’s when God reached down and took hold of my life. Within a three-month period, four significant people (all believers in Jesus) became friends with me. None of them knew each other at the time and all of them showed God’s love to me. One of them, Mr. Serna my 8th grade English teacher, presented the truth claims of the New Testament and asked me if I wanted to receive the gift of eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

I did want that. I changed forever that day, and there were no more thoughts of suicide. (Note: That is not to say that Christians never think about suicide. Many people do. I just found my new relationship with God helped me with it).

After that, the other three Christians who had come into my life mentored me into an understanding of how to live for God. I realize, looking back on it 42 years later, that God initiated all of this. I could have resisted his help, but the help was given before I even knew I needed God to help.

That’s why 1 John 4:10 reminds us that “it was not that we first loved God, but that He first loved us and gave himself for us“. God is the great Initiator, the One who pursues us long before we pursue God.

And the Old Testament is by far the best place to observe this happening. In the Old Testament we find example after example of how God pursued a relationship with His creation and how God dealt with so many of the obstacles we put in the way of accomplishing this. Let’s do a small survey to show what I’m referring to.

Our Existence: Perhaps this borders on the realm of the deeply philosophical, but we humans did not think up the notion of our existence and who we would become. God pictured us in his mind long before our creation, long before any creation.

God could have created little mouse-like creatures with long tails and rapier swords in their hands to serve him. He could have created just angels and left it at that. There didn’t even need to be a physical realm. But we were created in the Image of God as our core. We are creators, we are choosing beings, we are built with a moral center and a communal desire. No matter what we do with these abilities, we have them because God wanted us to have them. The whole of man’s existence hinges on one thing: God initiated all of this and wanted us to exist. God wanted ME and YOU to exist. We had nothing to do with that desire. It is God’s romance from start to finish.

The Concept of Justice: In his 1929 book “A Preface to Morals”, atheist Walter Lippmann made a great attempt at proposing a system of rights and wrongs that does not allow God into the equation.  Others had attempted this before him, but no one could solve the great conundrum of ethics: If you don’t believe in absolute right and wrong, how can you propose what is right and wrong? Lippmann, as well, ultimately failed to explain his rationale–and all supporters of his position agree he failed–but at least he made the attempt.

Nihilism and Existentialism, the two best-known atheistic philosophies, don’t even bother. They both conclude that morals in a pluralistic world are impossible.

The Old Testament consistently proposes one grand theme: That God is the author and initiator of the concept of Justice. God evidenced his view toward justice in the story of Noah and the Ark. In Genesis 6:5-8 we read,

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth,and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

In verses 11 and 12, it also says “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.” The Hebrew word for “corrupt” is a word which means to “destroy or tear apart”. God saw how man was destroying everything and everyone. It was God’s decision that the human race as it had become needed to be cleansed and purged.

Some people wrongly suspect that it was because of man’s attitude toward God that made God want to wipe us out. However, the word for “corrupt” tells us that it is the way we treat each other and this planet that causes God great pain. You see, the New Testament is clear that God is a forgiving God. The book of Jonah confirms that. But it is what we do to one another and to this world that God cannot overlook. God can forgive–and does–the sins we commit against Him. But being a righteous judge, He cannot overlook the destruction we cause in the lives of others.

When you read the Old Testament, see the God of justice in action. Even though God raises up Nebuchadnezzar to bring consequences on Israel for the way they betrayed their covenant with God, the Babylonians went too far and God had to judge them for being cruel.

In those moments when you feel like everything is unfair, it is good to see that God takes the initiative to keep score. Vengeance is God’s; He shall repay. We are freed from having to be vengeful because God has already said that all acts of cruelty, thievery and any other injustice shall be answered for.

As we observe in the Genesis 6 passage, God is grieved when humans acts with wanton abandon and hurt others. All of the murders, violence, lying, stealing, cheating, betrayal will be judged. God initiated that.

Communication:  God is there and He is not silent. These are the words which form the title of one of Francis Schaeffer’s greatest books. They also describe one of the great themes of the Old Testament. God wants his people to know his voice and to follow his leading. 

Other religions have prophets. Other religions show the gods communicating with man. But there is no other writing extant which shows God being tender, compassionate, gentle and kind with human beings. Let’s just note a few of the wonderful communication stories of the Old Testament.

When Adam and Eve sinned, God didn’t turn away from them. God came looking for them and asked what had happened. Remember, when God asks a question, he is entering into a dialogue; He doesn’t need the information. God wanted to keep the dialogue going with Adam and Eve.

When Cain killed his brother, God came to him, wanting to talk. He asked where Cain’s brother was (once again, God was not looking for information, he was seeking to hold Cain accountable).

Noah heard God give him the dimensions of the boat that would save a remnant of the human race.

Daniel received interpretations of dreams from God. So did Joseph and Elijah.

Moses walked so closely in communication with God that the writer of Numbers said it was if “Moses spoke with God face to face.” What a wonderful God that allows humans to speak with Him so intimately.

Samuel was a small boy of 4 or 5 when God called to him in the night. Even though Samuel did not at first recognize God, God kept speaking until Samuel understood.

The prophet Nathan was sent by God to tell David the King that his new son was to be called Jedidiah, which means “loved by the Lord”. This is the second child born of the relationship between David and Bathsheba. Even though the first child died because of their adultery, God still showed his love to them at the birth of their second child.

Zechariah receives many visions from God, and God takes the time to show him how to interpret visions. The Book of Zechariah is a marvelous primer in how to receive visions from God.

I could go on for days extolling the many times that God spoke to men and women. What we see overwhelmingly is that God is the one who initiated this conversation. Though man wanted to hear God–such as Job who kept asking for an audience with God during his time of suffering–God is the one who came to mankind to communicate.

God still does. God the Initiator does so much more to have a relationship with Him than we do. This is what the Old Testament shows us over and over. It is one of the reasons I love reading it.

 

 

Reading the Old Testament for Benefit – Part 1

Posted on July 25, 2014

For years, both in Canada and United States, I have served as a reader and examiner for men and women who want to be ordained. The ordination process can be a grueling exercise where would-be missionaries, pastors, professors and chaplains push themselves to understand the nuances and depth of both theology and practical Christian work with people.

At the end of several years’ worth of work, they are asked to submit to an oral exam lasting two hours or more.

One young man went through his oral exam easily and less than halfway through I knew he would pass. Often, when a person comes in with great expertise and knowledge, I  feel inclined to push them to see how “deep the well goes” concerning their knowledge. His “well” of knowledge was deep indeed.

At the end of the interview, I asked if there was anything theologically he struggled with. He hesitated; but I assured him we wouldn’t fail him because of struggles. So he admitted the one he had:. “I struggle to believe the Old Testament is from God.” That shocked me. In every way, he had seemed orthodox in his answers. He certainly knew his Bible thoroughly. So how could he come out with this? I asked him to explain.

Simply, he looked at Jesus and the God of the Old Testament and concluded that no matter how you sliced it, they were not the same. And because they were not the same, one of them had to be false. We talked for awhile about his doubts, and I helped him to realize he had probably misinterpreted some key doctrine. He looked relieved to know he didn’t have to jettison his faith because of some doubts.

So we scheduled some time for he and I to look into this matter together. Over the months we met, I went over principles that would help him appreciate the first 2/3rds of the Bible. In an earlier blog entry, I gave an overview on how to read the Old Testament with more accuracy. But now I want to point out some of the ways we can appreciate this part of God’s Word.

One element which always bothered me when reading the stories of the Old Testament is how badly Israel’s leaders lived their lives. If you read through the historical books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles, you will quickly realize that every one of Israel’s kings messed up big time. None of them lived an entire life of faithfulness to God. Even some of the best of them–such as David and Solomon–had egregious mistakes that tainted their legacy.

David committed adultery with his friend’s wife and then covered it up with a conspiracy to murder. Later in his life, he allowed his children to commit murder, incest, rape, and treason and failed utterly in disciplining them. His son Solomon, even though he started well, ended very poorly. He married over 300 wives and had 600 concubines. God had given him more wisdom than any other man, yet he squandered his life near the end on sexual pleasure and idol worship. Hezekiah was used by God to bring revival to the country, but pride caused him to make political mistakes which resulted in the Babylonians taking over his country.

I could keep going for a long time. After reading about all these failures, I began to despair about God and His plan.

Then something occurred to me. There was one king that didn’t blow it. Jesus, the King of the Jews. And I realized that was the point of all these stories. Only Jesus can live the kind of life that pleases God. If we have surrendered our lives to follow Christ, inviting his Holy Spirit to live within us, we can truly change to look like him. We now have the promise that the end of our lives can be better than the beginning or the middle. Every day we have the opportunity to live successfully, even if yesterday was a disaster and a loss.

This is the first point I want to make about appreciating the Old Testament. Keep the example of Jesus firmly in your mind. When you see humans fail all through the books, you can realize that this is just what happens with humans. It is only with God’s help that we can rise above all of that.

That really helps me appreciate the people in the Old Testament. Just knowing their lives are not supposed to be good examples all the time, knowing that they are just like all of us, and have as many failures as successes; this causes me to thank God even more for Jesus.

When I read about Moses, that humble man who communed with God as if face-to-face, and see he also made huge errors in his life, I am encouraged. When Moses struck the rock with the staff and poured out his anger on the people of God, I realize my anger at members of God’s church is not something unusual. However, I don’t use Moses’ example as a rationale to excuse my own behavior. I use it to bring me back to the central tenet of Christianity: That without the power of Jesus flowing in me by the Holy Spirit, I am going to fail regularly in life. And, when I do fail, there is a God of grace who will not leave me, forsake me or reject me.

Even though Moses lost his privilege to enter the Promised Land because of his angry outbursts, he was still able to say at the end of his life (Deuteronomy 32:46-47):

“Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your children to be careful to observe—all the words of this law. 47 For it is not a futile thing for you, because it is your life, and by this word you shall prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess.”

God stayed with him even through his failures. How much more can we stand in victory if Christ is the strength of our lives? This is the value of the Old Testament. We see humanity in its rawest form and we can anticipate the power of God to change us because of Jesus.

Next article, we will look into Appreciating the Initiative of God.

How To Read the Old Testament

Posted on July 3, 2014

BibleOften, people who are new to the Bible come to me and look exasperated. They have been reading the Old Testament of the Bible and they struggle with two things. First, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to them. Second, it seems to teach things about God that contrast with what the New Testament teaches.

I then go into a simple outline of how to read the Old Testament. Here are the six things I suggest for all of us as we read this inspired Scripture section.

  1. Many of the promises God makes in the Old Testament are for the nation of Israel. Not many of them are for today’s Christ-follower. The ones that are for today are either reiterated in the New Testament or they refer to promises fulfilled by the life of Christ. Resist the temptation to apply an Old Testament promise to your life unless there is good New Testament reason for doing so. (Note: I admit when I first wrote this, I suspected it would not sit well with most people. We all have those verses that Holy Spirit has used to shape us from the Old Testament. The problem is, if we go back and study many of them in context, they don’t mean to us what we hoped they meant. No matter: Holy Spirit can take a verse and apply it to an individual in a way that would not work if applied to other people. That’s why we have more than just a Bible, we have God’s Spirit in us and with us).

Example: In Joel 2:25, it says that God will repay Israel for the years the locusts have eaten. Many people interpret that to mean that when bad things happen to us, when others take advantage of us and hurt us, when we have lost our prosperity and health due to the actions of others, we can claim that God will restore all of those things to us. This is not true. Many fine believers have suffered greatly and never received in this life a just recompense for what they have given up.

  1. Narrative Portions of the Old Testament are intended to be examples of how humans try to relate to God, sin and others. They are not meant to be instructive teaching portions. Much of the Old Testament is narrative. A narrative is the telling of a story. The following books are almost completely narrative:

Genesis,  Joshua,  Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 

1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, 

Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Jonah, and Haggai

The following books are mostly narrative with a few teaching and poetic passages thrown in:

Exodus, Numbers, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Job

Why is this important? Simply because some people use the stories in the narrative portions to justify how we are to act today. They read how God’s people entered into the Promised Land and killed as many of the inhabitants as they could. Then they use this as vindication for violence and xenophobic actions.

Here is where the real dilemma in interpretation occurs. Can something be accurate and still wrong? Of course it can. Aaron lifted up the idol in the desert and said “This is Elohim who brought you out of Egypt”. The quotation is accurate, but the sentiment is false. King Saul may truly have believed that God told him to wipe out an entire nation–and he chose to wipe out those people he didn’t have any use for–this may be accurate as to what happened and how he understood thing, but still not be right. Jesus reveals a God who loves all people. There is no way to adequately reconcile that with a God who counsels his people to commit genocide. But this does not diminish the accuracy of the Bible account. It simply calls into question the accuracy and rightness of the people in the narrative.

There is an exception to this. (Thanks to two friends who pointed this out to me). When God brought judgment on the world through the Flood and on Sodom and Gomorrah, he was righteous to judge the wicked. He never had man do that. God is the God who said “You shall not kill”. But He is also the God who says “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay”. That last verse is an Old Testament verse but repeated in the New Testament to show its timeless nature.

God is the God who did not validate Moses killing the Egyptian. But God did send Moses to declare God’s wrath in the plagues. I believe the best New Testament lens to look at the Old Testament is to separate what God does unilaterally from what man does. God and the angels are righteous judges. Mankind is never a righteous judge.

I understand this is hard to interpret. It seems to suggest that some of the viewpoints we have about God in the Old Testament are wrong. But remember, God was just beginning to reveal Himself to the world. Like a parent disciplines a toddler physically, so God used physical means to do so. But in Christ, the Holy Spirit comes to live inside the believers. Followers of Christ are now those who bring God’s word to the world. We are quite literally his Body on earth. Jesus represented God to us. We now share that Truth with the world. It is not appropriate any longer for Christ-followers to emulate the Jews whose understanding of God was very elementary.

3. The Names given to certain Old Testament books aren’t necessarily who wrote those books: For several hundred years, there have been debates over who wrote which book of the Old Testament and when they wrote it. Entire colleges were formed to support one theory over another. For the most part, this is both a waste of time and energy. It doesn’t matter who wrote which book. The point is what we learn about God and man through the stories. The Old Testament is the story of mankind before God became a human being. Mankind was in a lot of trouble without a Savior.  It also doesn’t matter if the Traditional author was indeed the author. Since we believe that God inspired the writers of Scripture, it matters little who they were and when they wrote the books.

Example: The first five books of the Old Testament are believed to have been written by Moses. We know there are parts of the book he didn’t write because it speaks of events that happened after he died. Also, there are three completely different literary styles in the five books, suggesting that this was either a document composed by one person and then edited by two others or a document created by a community of people. Either way, the Old Testament gives us a good picture of how God began to work with the human race after we had strayed away from Him.

Job is almost certainly an epic poem about a man who lived hundreds of years before the book was actually written. Joshua is so close in form to 1 Samuel and Ruth that it is likely Samuel (or another prophet) wrote all these books. There is a good chance that Isaiah was written by three different people and they compiled it into one book.

Jeremiah however probably wrote the entire book that was his. If you’ve read it you realize no one but the poor guy who went through all of that could have written his story.

4. The Old Testament (and the Bible as a whole) was never meant to be a science textbook: This is not to say that the Bible is inaccurate, but there may be scientific details it leaves out completely. There are some people who believe that the earth was created in six days because that is what the book of Genesis says. But perhaps the word “day” is a descriptive word rather than a scientifically accurate word. I am not saying you should decide one way or another on that, but it would be helpful if you didn’t get hung up on whether the Bible is scientifically detailed enough to satisfy modern scrutiny. I believe it is, but it doesn’t matter. The Bible is dealing with spiritual themes of sin, righteousness, God, evil, human nature and redemption. None of these things can be verified through Science anyway.

5. Many portions of the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and Proverbs use Poetic language which is not meant to be a foundation for doctrine.  In seven of the Psalms the Psalm-writer says that he wishes God would take the children of his enemies and dash their heads against a rock. We are not supposed to understand from this that God’s will is that children should be punished for their parents. In Ezekiel we are explicitly told that the fathers will not be held liable for the sins of the children, nor the children for the sins of the fathers. No, these poetical books are there to show the emotions and heart-longings of every person; especially of those who seek to follow after God. When we read in Psalm 42 that the writer’s heart pants for the living God, we can identify. When in Psalm 73, we hear the psalmist say it is useless to serve God because the wicked prosper, we can identify with that as well. We read that if we train up a child in the way they should go and when they’re old they won’t depart from it, we need to see that as a generality and not a promise. Generally, children raised with good moral foundations will return to those foundations later in life. But not every one of them will. Be careful with the poetical books. They are emotional, dramatic and often use hyperbole to state something. But occasionally, they do shed a powerful light on the human condition. And occasionally, they make reference to Jesus in prophetic form (see Psalm 22).

6. Finally, the most powerful images found in the Old Testament are those which prophesy about the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. Almost every book in the Bible has a prediction about the Savior. These ones are worth studying. Many reference books and online resources can help you find these. They remind us that the story of mankind from beginning to end is the story of the second member of the Trinity, the Son of God/Son of Man who came to set us free from the yoke of slavery we were held in by our sin and by the Devil. Marvel at how men and women 1000 years before the Messiah anticipated his coming. It will bring you to a new sense of wonder at the God who planned for your redemption even before the first person sinned.

Theology Land Excursions 5-26-2014

Posted on May 26, 2014

People wonder at times why I like investigating Theology so much. Before mentioning why, there are a number of reasons why I DON’T do it:

  1. I like to pick theological fights (I really don’t)
  2. I like discussing things more than doing them (once again, nada)
  3. I feel superior discussing concepts with multi-syllabic words like “antedeluvian, Complementarianism, supralapsarianism, gobbledeegookism”. (That last one is not real…yet).

But, at its best, Theology represents an outward expression of that deep, intimate, Holy Spirit-led walk with Jesus and puts names to experiences and yearnings that we all have but struggle to describe.

And if you aren’t allowed to discuss these things intelligently, then our minds turn to mush. Oh wait, that does happen. Even the Apostle Paul, speaking of men and women who disagree with each other in the church: “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” (1 Cor. 11:19). Fortunately, even that verse is in the context of Paul’s disapproval of trivial divisions in the Body of Christ. 

We have false teachers around. There are many false teachings as well. It is only in the fair and respectful exchange of ideas that we can discern who is speaking from God and the Bible and who is not.

That’s why I love Theology. It can help you tell the difference between the Truth and the non-Truth. Hopefully the Spirit of God will help us even more than our knowledge of theology.

With that explanation, here are some wise and thought-provoking theological essays of the past few weeks on the Internet.

Best Question: Greg Boyd asks how a good God can create a world of such dichotomy between good and evil. We would expect a good God would only create good. This essay provokes the mind to ask tough questions and then supplies some meaningful answers.

Read it here:

Best Scholarly Look at Jesus: The teachers at the White Horse Inn ask if the biblical account of Jesus can be trusted in light of modern research into the historical Jesus.

Here is the audio of that discussion:

Best Look at Grace vs. Law: Recently, the ultra-conservative Gospel Coalition, forced Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham, to take his blog off their site. A week later, he left the organization mostly because the group is unwilling to discipline its members of sexual misconduct. This article talks about why Tchividjian had the doctrinal falling out with TGC.

Meditate on it here:

Best Look at a Controversial Book: The writer at “Arminianism Today” is a thoughtful theologian and eminently gracious. Here is his take on John McArthur’s “Strange Fire” a book that says most Pentecostals and Charismatics are heretics.

See his point of view here:

Best Real Review of a Movie Premise: All the other bloggers had a field day saying why the movie “Noah” was either a work of blasphemy or a genius rendering. From the blog “Experimental Theology” comes a viewpoint you probably wouldn’t have thought of. And that is what you usually find there.

This is the location of the article:

Best POV from a Recognized Theologian on the Outs with Evangelicalism:  I’m not a fan of what Rob Bell is currently doing with his life. But I like this one where he asks the unusual question: “How did Jesus pay his expenses during his ministry?”

Agree with him or not, RB asks great questions. Read his here.

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