Lesson 7: The Light of the World (John 9)Related Media
Editor’s Note: This article is the lightly edited manuscript for the accompanying audio message that Vickie delivered.
Light and darkness! What do you feel when you think of light? Of darkness? Do you not have an immediate mood response? Darkness is associated with fear, danger, gloom, coldness, disaster, death, shadows, lostness, alienation and overwhelming evil. The first thing we do when we walk into a dark room is turn on a light. Light means safety, life, direction, warmth, beauty, color, variety, purpose, purity, joy, fellowship, healing and overwhelming goodness.
The Bible has hundreds of references to light and darkness. God’s first recorded words were Let there be light. God is Light. Satan is the prince of darkness. Sin is hidden by darkness and exposed by light. We were born in darkness and born again into light. The contrasts are sharp, unmixed, with no shadows. Light is good, darkness is evil. We must have light to live. Today’s lesson is about two kinds of darkness—physical and spiritual. Of the two the worst is spiritual darkness.
Jesus and His disciples had just celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles which celebrated their years in the wilderness. One of the features of this celebration was the lighting of giant lamps in the women’s court of the temple enclosure. The people sang and danced before the Lord as they remembered that He was their Light in the pillar of cloud and fire all through their wilderness wanderings. During this celebration Jesus had declared the second of His great “I AM” statements.
John 8:12 (NIV) I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
There can be no physical life without the light of the sun, and no spiritual life without JESUS.
This was a claim to be both God and Messiah. The O.T. called both God and Messiah Light. He promised light for all of life to those who believed in Him. But instead of seriously considering Jesus’ claim, the Pharisees challenged and argued with Him for the rest of the Chapter. They were determined to not believe regardless of the evidence.
Their discussion ended with an attempt to stone Him. But Jesus slipped away from them and as He and His disciples went along they saw a blind man sitting there by the side of the road. Blindness is one of the most dreaded afflictions that can happen to a person. And this man had been born blind. He had never seen his parent’s faces, never seen a flower or tree, a river or mountain. Never seen any colors at all. He lived in constant unrelieved darkness. The only thing he could do was beg for a living.
Notice the difference in the way Jesus and His disciples viewed this man.
To the disciples this man was just the trigger for a theological discussion. There was no compassion, no expectation or even a request that Jesus heal him. Jesus had healed blind people before. One of the signs of the Messiah was that He would make the blind see. (Is. 35:5, 42:7) but all they could think of was a question with just two alternatives!
“Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (NIV)
There was a popular assumption that some sin before birth was responsible for congenital blindness. This idea came from pagan sources which believed in reincarnation. This man had sinned in another life. Their other suggestion was that this man had reaped the consequences of his parents’ sins. This of course is possible. (Venereal disease, drugs)
We can see from this that the idea that all sickness or affliction is the result of personal sin is not a new idea. We often believe or hear the same thing today. Jesus gave them an answer that can help us today in trying to sort out the reasons for the trials we may be going through.
Jesus did not mean that this man and his parents were sinless, but that the blindness was not a direct consequence of their personal sin. Really said, “This man is blind so that I might come and cure him and God might receive the glory.”
That is pretty heavy stuff. Think of all the years he had suffered in the darkness. For this moment!
Time does not mean to God what it does to us. If you and I could look at the suffering we are going through and say, ALord, you know all about this. You can change this situation immediately if you want to. But if not, all I ask is that my response and the outcome will bring glory to you. Let other people know that it is only Jesus who enables me to endure this day by day. What a difference that would make.
Day meant the time He had left on earth to finish the work God sent Him to do. Night was coming. His death and the time He would no longer be in the world. Now was the time for Him to do the miracles that proved He was the Messiah. He had said He was the Light of the world and now He would prove it.
Imagine the blind man. He did not know who Jesus was, had never seen him or heard his voice before. Suddenly he felt some wet heavy clay being placed over his eyes. And an authoritative but kind voice said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.”
The pool was a good distance away. Jesus did not even tell him why He was sending him there, gave no promise of healing. Would he do it? The man got up and groped his way there with his eyes covered with mud. When he reached the pool he bent down and splashed water on his face. When he opened his eyes he could see for the first time in his lifeClight, color, beauty and human faces. Can you not see him running home, shouting for joy! But notice the reaction of his neighbors.
First they questioned his identity and he had to insist that he really was the blind beggar. Then they were just interested in the mechanics of his healing. There was no sharing his joy in being healed, just one question after another. But all he knew was that a man called Jesus had given him his sight. So they brought him to the Pharisees for further questioning.
Talk about missing the point! The only thing some of these Pharisees focused on was that Jesus had violated their Sabbath rules. They had added hundreds of restrictions defining work on the Sabbath. Making clay was forbidden. And healing someone was also forbidden unless their condition was life threatening. But they argued among themselves because some of the others had sense enough to reason that miracles like this could only be from God.
Even though this man was illiterate, he knew something about the Scriptures and he could think for himself. The Old Testament prophets performed miracles, so this man must be a prophet. This made sense to him. Notice the fact that he had not even seen Jesus yet, but his perception of him was gradually increasing. But the Pharisees were relentless in pursuing their investigation.
“Maybe we are dealing with a fraudulent healing here. Let us find out from the man’s parents if this really is their blind son, and no one else has been substituted for him.”
Notice the parent’s cautious answer. They knew only three things. Their son had been born blind, he now could see, and he was of age to speak for himself. They really did not know how he had been healed and they did not want to be excommunicated from the synagogue. They knew that was the predetermined penalty for believing that Jesus was the Messiah. This was a kangaroo court. Who would have ever thought that being healed from congenital blindness could cause so much trouble?
Put him under oath to tell the truth. “We know this man is a sinner.” (NIV)
But he was not going to be drawn into their argument. He knew one thing, “I was blind, but now I see.” He stuck to his guns. No one could obliterate the evidence or nullify his experience. All the theological discussions in the world could not erase the reality of what had happened to him. There is no argument that can win against a personal experience. That is why we must always share what Jesus Christ has done for us personally with others--not just give cold facts.
Now they provoked him to the point that he lost his fear of them and became sarcastic. This illiterate beggar had the nerve to challenge them, the strict keepers of the law, and actually imply that they would want to be Jesus’ disciples!
They were the authorities, unused to having their word questioned and here this ignorant nobody dared to stand up against their decision. But the former blind man’s logic was wonderful.
1. Even they knew that God did not listen to sinners but to the godly.
2. But no one had ever given sight to a man born blind.
No record in Old Testament of miracle like this.
3. Therefore this man must be from God.
And you smart people cannot figure that out!
Nobody was going to tell him that this miracle was not from God. He did not care what these influential men with all of their degrees had decided. He was the one who had been blind and now he could see.
Sometimes we have to stand alone against rigid positions people take because of the way they interpret the Bible. We must stand firmly that the only way to God is through faith in Jesus Christ.
I remember when I was about 12 and my mother, sister and I moved to a new apartment. We had a landlady who believed you must worship on Saturday. One day after her efforts to convince us seemed to be getting nowhere, she told me, “You will never go to heaven unless you worship on Saturday.” But I knew she was not right. My mother had shown my sister and me the truth from the Bible and I was able to stand in the truth without doubting.
We must not believe that because something is legal that it is moral (abortion).
We have to help our children in school to realize that they do not have to believe in evolution, just because some scientists with a lot of degrees say that it is the way life came into being. The Bible says God created the world and everything in it.
The Bible says sex before or outside of marriage is wrong even if everyone else says it is OK. Teach them to stand for truth while young.
The Pharisees’ dishonesty, pride and hostility to Jesus were revealed by their response.
How could a person be “steeped in sin” at birth? These experts were sure that his blindness was for personal sin even before he was born. How dare he lecture the righteous! So they excommunicated him. He was cut off from fellowship with the community of his people. This was really serious!
Can you not see him as he started back home. He was mystified, angry and probably a little glum. The day had started with him in his usual place, blind and begging. Now he was penalized because he could see. He was alone. Even his parents had been wishy-washy instead of sharing his joy. Just did not make sense.
This should not surprise us. When we take a firm stand for Jesus Christ the results are not always trouble-free for us. You may not be given a promotion at work. You may be rejected by members of your family. You may lose some old friends. Your children may not be invited to some parties. You may have your good name slandered. Jesus warned that these things would happen.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (NIV)
This man had received his physical sight instantly, and his spiritual sight was increasing gradually. He first called Jesus, “a man they call Jesus,A prophet, then a man from God, but He still did not know Him.
Now Jesus took the initiative again to bring him full spiritual sight. For the first time He actually saw Jesus.
Son of Man was a title for Messiah to the Jews. Daniel the prophet saw all men and nations worship Him. (Dan. 7:13-14) Jesus asked this man, “Do you personally believe in the Son of Man?”
His response was so open. “Tell me who He is so that I may believe.”
Jesus completely revealed His identity. “You have now seen Him; in fact, He is the one speaking with you.”
“Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped Him.
He now had both physical and spiritual sight. He had responded to light and was given more light until he could fully see. Rejected by religious leaders. Welcomed by Jesus.
This confrontation is explained by
What a great illustration this incident was. The blind man received his physical sight through the touch of Jesus. When he received further light he believed on the Lord Jesus as his Messiah and his spiritual eyes were also opened.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, claimed to have spiritual sight, but they rejected Jesus, the Light of the world, as their Messiah, so they were spiritually blind. They condemned themselves and remained in darkness.
God is very patient with ignorance. He gives further light. But He will not tolerate arrogance. They remained guilty before God because they claimed to have light while still in darkness. They claimed to be righteous when they were sinners. They rejected the true Light of the world.
Have you ever noticed how many false religions and self-development courses claim to have light? Light from the eastern religions, light from the mystics, light from within, light from the energy of the universe and on and on. This is because “Satan masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Cor. 11:14)
How many followers would he get at the start if he really exposed himself as the prince of darkness? Do not fall for any of these seductive appeals. Light from any source other than Jesus Christ is darkness. He is the True Light that gives light to every man 1:9.
But He is not physically in the world now. Who is the light of the world now?
Matthew 5:14-16 (NIV) You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
Do you see the responsibility that the Lord has placed on you and me? In our daily lives, at home, at work, at leisure, at hobbies, at church, whatever we do---we are to be light bearers. Christ’s light should shine through our words, attitudes, and actions. There is a distinguishable difference between light and darkness. Have you ever noticed how a very small light can overcome a very great darkness? You do not have to be a famous person reaching thousands to be light to the world. You have an area of influence, a place where others are in darkness, where you can shine as light. That is why we must have this as our goal.
John tells us something more in his first epistle.
1 John 1:5-7
In the days when light was given by oil lamps, the wicks had to be trimmed and the glass kept clean for the light to shine clearly. The same is true of us. What part of your life, your thought, attitudes, actions are in darkness? In God there is no darkness at all. When we hang on to favorite sins, we do not have fellowship with God or with other believers. We may say we do, but we are lying. Our light is not shining brightly. Our Father wants us to be in warm, close fellowship and He has provided for our cleansing from these sins that hurt us. The blood of Jesus Christ keeps on cleansing us from all sin. The Pharisees remained in darkness because they would not confess their blindness, their sin. Let us not let that happen to us.
Is there a particular sin that God has convicted you about? Will you confess and let Him cleanse you? Then as you carefully follow the Lord, you will see the impact you can have on others as His light shines through you to overcome the darkness of the world around you.
What does Jesus reveal about our heavenly Father in this story?
- Our Father is omnipotent.
- Our Father notices and cares for each individual.
- Our Father has a purpose for our lives, even through suffering, that will bring Him glory.
- Our Father takes the initiative to give us both physical and spiritual light.
- Our Father can act in our behalf without a requestCthat He knows our needs.
- Our Father is not limited by wrong human perceptions or bound by man-made rules about what He can or cannot do.
- Our Father is patient with ignorance and intolerant of arrogance.
Jesus revealed that those who do not respond to His light condemn themselves to greater darkness.
Have you responded in faith to the Son of God as the only one who can guide you into the light you need for time and eternity?
Lesson 8: Healing on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17)Related Media
Editor’s Note: This article is the lightly edited manuscript for the accompanying audio message that Vickie delivered.
Have you ever sat in church, listening to the soaring music or the impressive sermon, and your thoughts were all turned inward?
Thoughts like: No one here cares that I am hurting desperately. When I first was widowed or divorced or when this illness first was diagnosed, or when my child became a problem, people prayed for me, called me on the phone, visited me, sent me notes. But now that time has passed and everyone is used to me, I guess they expect that I do not need anyone, that I am coping with my problem and that I not really hurting anymore. Maybe they even think that if I were really depending on the Lord, I would be able to handle my situation without any difficulty. But I am in pain and I do not think anyone cares. I sometimes wonder if even God cares!
There was a woman in the synagogue one Sabbath morning when Jesus was teaching there that might have been feeling just like that.
Think about her a little. She was probably middle-aged. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. She had been crippled like this for 18 years! Can you imagine what her life was like? She could not stand at all, could not sit comfortably, could not lie down except on her side. Walking was difficult. Eating could not have been pleasant. Her appearance was pitiful, her face etched with pain. But what had caused her illness? She was crippled by a spirit? This was not a form of arthritis. This was a Satanic attack that affected her body. But do not you think that she also suffered emotionally and spiritually as well? She must have often felt discouraged, depressed, and even abandoned by God. Yet she still worshipped, she still was there in the synagogue on the Sabbath. She still listened to Gods Word. She still had faith. I have to give her credit for just being there.
It is interesting that her condition was caused by a demon. There are many different symptoms mentioned in the Bible that were caused by demon activity: Matthew 9:32-33, dumbness; Matthew 12:22, blindness; Matthew 17:14-18, seizures; Luke 4:33, 8:26, mental disorders, insanity, and abnormal strength. This of course does NOT mean that these conditions are ALWAYS demonic in source. But the Bible clearly says that this condition was. This should teach us that Satan is a real and very busy enemy. Over and over it is recorded that Jesus cast out demons of all kinds. He came to defeat Satan and to make him powerless against believers, and he clearly demonstrated his ability to do this while here on earth. We have to realize that His power and authority over the spirit world has not diminished one iota.
Ephesians 1:19b and 21
That is why we can have confidence that Jesus will protect us. He has authority over everything in heaven and earth. But we must be alert and armored, because Satan does not play fair or come out in the open. He masquerades, sets traps, hides behind fun games, self, development philosophies, even religion. He actively works to fragment our families, to destroy relationships, to cultivate selfishness and independence from God, to make us doubt God’s Word and distrust God’s character.
Peter warns us of that: 1 Peter 5:8. Likewise, Paul tells us about our armor—our protection— in Ephesians 6:10-14.
This woman had been the target of demonic attack for 18 years but it had not destroyed her faith. She was still worshipping God on the Sabbath. As she stood there, bent over, with her head lifted as far as she could, listening to Jesus, and looking at Him, suddenly he noticed
He stopped in the middle of His teaching, pointed to her and called to her to come forward. She shuffled up to Him, surely wondering what He wanted her for. Then He spoke: “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.”
He spoke these few words, He touched her and she straightened up instantly. She was totally healed and she immediately praised God. Did you notice the word Jesus used? He did not say healed. He used a word that is translated in other places, “loosed, put away, let go, set at liberty and released.” She had been bound by Satan and Jesus set her free.
Can you not imagine the joy she felt and the excitement that ran through the spectators as they realized what had happened? The noise level must have risen as the people turned to each other in their enthusiasm. Suddenly a stern cold voice broke through the furor.
The chairman of the board of elders was very displeased and scolded the people. I think he was just a little afraid of openly attacking Jesus directly after such a display of supernatural power. God had made the Sabbath day, the seventh day of the week, our Saturday, a holy day, set apart to worship Him. There were 3 major reasons given for Israel to keep the Sabbath.
Exodus 20:8-11 (10 Commandments)— It followed God’s example of doing the work of creation in 6 days and resting on the seventh.
Deuteronomy 5:12-15— It commemorated their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Egypt— where they never had a day off and could not worship their own God. God gave them the Sabbath to show them that they were a free people, free to rest from their labor and free to worship their God.
Exodus 31:13— It was a sign of the covenant given from Sinai between God and Israel. God had given them a day off a week for worship, joy, freedom and rest. 1500 years later it had evolved, by the addition of hundreds of restrictions, into a legalistic bondage that was more concerned with external behavior than with human need. The religious leaders watched Jesus like a hawk because He was always violating their manmade rules about the Sabbath. They had had several sharp confrontations with Him and had always come out the losers. In one incident when He healed a man with a withered arm, He reminded them that they would rescue a sheep who had fallen into a pit and a man was more valuable. Then He said: “Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12, NIV)
Another time He reminded them that, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NIV)
God gave the day of rest because people need time to relax, regroup, Change their routine, worship and serve God without the pressure of other responsibilities.
Jesus claimed authority over even the interpretation and observation of the Sabbath. Why not? Was not He the One who had established it in the first place? His restoration of the true spirit of the Sabbath had enraged these men so much that they plotted to kill Him because of it. (Mark 3:6)
Now here He was doing it again! The ruler had rebuked Jesus by scolding the people and Jesus answered him. He is a wonderful Defender. Have you ever been unjustly accused or misunderstood and the only thing you could do was to say to Him, Lord, You must be my Defender. You must reveal the truth. There is nothing I can do but trust You. HYPOCRITES! (Originally, a “hypocrite” was an actor who wore masks in amphitheatre plays.) They pretended to be zealous for God, to be righteous. But they were not interested in what God could do in their lives. Their hearts were cold in the face of human need. They had more compassion on their oxen and donkeys than on this poor woman. They released their animals so they could drink but objected when Jesus released this woman, a Jewess, from the bondage of the enemy on the day that commemorated their freedom from bondage. How wrong these men were! They claimed to represent God but they were completely the opposite. Jesus revealed the true heart of God. Jesus exposed their hypocrisy by His true revelation of the invisible God. He hated their pretense and they hated Him for exposing it.
Earlier in Luke He gave a stinging analysis of the Pharisees and experts in the law where He accused them of being only concerned with being externally clean, but inwardly they were full of wickedness. He accused them of injustice and pride. Then He said,
“Woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. ...you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering. (Luke 11:46-53, NIV)
Do not you have to wonder what He must think of the greed, lust, and crimes that have been done and are being done in His name today? He still hates hypocrisy. Yet closer to home. Do we make a distinction between what the Bible actually says and what other people say it means? Do we make our application as binding as God’s? That is how legalism flourishes. Always check to see if our applications are consistent and Biblical. When we have a lot of rules about what we can or cannot do in order to make little loopholes that violates the very spirit of God. The religious rulers did that. For instance, they had a rule that you could not journey farther from home than 3000 feet (1/2 mile) on the Sabbath. So the day before, they would go ahead and deposit some food by a stone a half-mile away. That would then become their home temporarily and they could go another half mile, where they had deposited another sandwich, so they could travel another half mile. In this way they found ways around God’s law about the Sabbath, and violated the spirit of this holy day. This is just one example. They had 60 columns of regulations about the Sabbath.
Maybe you are wondering at this point if we should keep the Sabbath today. The Sabbath was given to Israel. It is the ONLY ONE of the Ten Commandments that is NOT repeated in the New Testament. The disciples and the early church worshiped on Sunday, the first day of the week to commemorate the Lord’s resurrection. Sunday is the Lord’s day.
We do not have rules about it in the New Testament. But we do know what they did on the Lord’s Day. They met together, studied God’s word, prayed, celebrated communion, and gave their offerings. Surely the Lord’s Day should have some special meaning for us. It should be a day of worship, learning God’s Word, service, praise and thanksgiving, giving our offerings, joy and rest and a time with family and friends. It should be different from the other six days of the week. After all, we have so much more to commemorate than Israel did: the resurrection of our Savior from the dead.
Look at the effect Jesus had on the people in the synagogue.
Can you imagine what His power and His authority meant to the common people who were under the burden of religious oppression as well as political oppression.
What Did He Reveal About God?
- Jesus revealed the compassionate heart of God in this story. He initiated this woman’s healing.
- He demonstrated that God knows everything, the cause and the cure!
- He revealed some of God purposes for the Sabbath. It was not a day for misery and bondage, but a day for praise and freedom.
- He revealed that God knows the motives of the heart and is not impressed with external behavior that masks unbelief, jealousy, and hatred. GOD HATES HYPOCRISY.
- He revealed that God is greater than Satan and has authority over him.
But now I want to go back to verse 12. Woman, you are set free from your infirmity. The word for “infirmity” is translated in other places as “diseases, sickness, weakness.” It means literally, “without strength.” Very few of us are sick all the time, but all of us know what it is to be without strength.
We ALL have weaknesses. Do not you have things that fill you with dread when you have to face them? Fear of flying, fear of anything. Do not you have areas where you have consistently failed? Are there not relationships that you just cannot handle, people that rub you the wrong way? Maybe your weakness is a sense of worth that you have let someone else impose on you. Maybe your weakness is a habit you have not been able to break. Maybe your weakness is a disposition that always sees the bad side of everything.
Maybe your weakness is a crippling sin that keeps you from going on to maturity in your Christian life. Is it love of money and the things money can buy? Is it a desire to please people more than God? Is it a thought life that you would be ashamed to have projected on a screen for all to see? Is it a selfishness that keeps you from making a commitment to anything that will interfere with your own plans? Is it self-pity, pride, hypocrisy, a violent temper? I have suggested a lot of things to stimulate your thinking, and I may have missed your issue. But you just thought of it, did you not? Jesus came to set us free from our weaknesses. How does He do it?
First, we must come to Him for help.
We come to one who can sympathize with our weaknesses. He was a human being living on this earth, subject to all the temptations we face and He did not sin. He will give mercy and grace to overcome.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
He may not remove our weakness, because then we would be independent. My weakness is given me to teach me to depend moment by moment on His power. His power is demonstrated where I am powerless. This changes my attitude towards my weakness.
Instead of hating myself for failing, I can see this as God’s opportunity to work in my life. God becomes real. Jesus really does live out His life in me. But it is only when I admit my weakness and depend on Him that I will experience His strength.
The Lord Jesus Christ wants to say to each of us today, “Woman, you are set free from your weakness.” He calls you to come to Him for freedom and strength. Will you come?
Lesson 9: The Widow’s Offering (Mark 12, 2 Corinthians 8-9)Related Media
Editor’s Note: This article is the lightly edited manuscript for the accompanying audio message that Vickie delivered.
The holiday season is almost here? The day for giving thanks is one week away and the day for giving gifts is almost six weeks away. Giving is on our minds these days. It is fun to think of giving gifts to those we love. It is not as much fun to give gifts because we feel obligated or think that they are expected. Why is giving both pleasure and pain?
Because it involves our treasure and therefore our hearts.
Everyone wants our money. Letters come from every charity, political and religious organization, pleading for our money to continue their work. We give to some, we feel guilty about not giving to others, and some letters we just throw away without a second thought. Our motives for giving are mixed. We think about whether or not we can take a tax deduction. We respond to emotional appeals that are prepared by professional fund raisers and often ignore the smaller, more effective works that do not make such a big splash but really need us more. Extracting our money from us is a big time business.
So it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back when you come to church and the sermon or the lesson is about giving. Should not the church be more spiritual than to ask us to give money?
Interestingly, the Bible has a great deal to say about money. For instance, one verse out of seven in the book of Luke is about money. Money is God’s greatest rival for our worship. That is why Jesus said, Luke 16:13. “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Paul gave a serious warning when he wrote to Timothy.
1 Timothy 6:6-10
We all know people who have wandered from the faith and brought upon themselves many sorrows because acquisition of money became their god. Maybe it is something you are struggling with even now. The first impressive church discipline recorded in Acts 5 involved money. Ananias and Sapphira both died because they pretended to give more than they did. Since money represents so much danger to our lives the Scripture also tells us how to be free from bondage to it.
The solution: Honor God with your money and trust Him to meet your needs.
It was the middle of the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, just before Passover. He had entered Jerusalem on the back of a colt the previous Sunday to the tumultuous welcome of the common people. He went to the temple daily to teach and had engaged almost immediately in constant confrontations from all the different factions who hated and feared HimCthe Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, priests and teachers of the law. They tried again and again to trap Him into taking positions which would either alienate Him from the people or get Him in trouble with the Romans. Each time He skillfully evaded their traps and revealed their ignorance of God’s Word and God’s ways.
After one such exchange He warned the people:
These teachers and preachers loved the honor and privileges they received because of their position. They did not get paid a regular salary for their work, but were supposed to be supported by tithes and offerings brought to the temple. Jesus accused them of exploiting widows, pressuring the very people they should have protected, women with the most limited means, to give them their property. He accused them of just making a show of spirituality by long prayers, but they were really con men. They loved money and were unscrupulous in getting it. These religious leaders today who preach a prosperity theology which they prove by living in multi-million dollar houses are not just at 21th century phenomena. Notice also that He said they would be severely punished.
When He finished speaking He sat down on a bench opposite the temple treasury. In the women’s court of the temple enclosure, the only place where women could come, there were 13 trumpet shaped receptacles for people to drop their offerings.
Picture the scene. The city was crowded for the Passover celebration. People came from all over to give their tithes and offerings to the Lord. Many rich people threw in large amounts. Can you not hear the sound of their coins clanging against the receptacles? Not only that but Matt 6:2 tells us that some wealthy people even had a trumpet fanfare announce their offering. Unnoticed among these proud and prominent men was a little widow.
She quietly slipped in and put her two tiny coins in the treasury. They hardly made a sound. They were only worth 1/3 of a cent, 1/64th of a day’s wage. This humble widow, poorly dressed, sorry that she could give no more, gave her tiny gift and slipped away hoping that she had not been noticed. But she was!
Jesus saw her and was so impressed by her offering that he called his disciples to him to use her as an object lesson for the kind of giving that pleases God. He said, “She gave more than all the others.”
God has an altogether different way of judging the value of our gifts. We look at the actual amount and are impressed or not impressed by it.
God measures our gift by what we have left for ourselves.
It is not a sacrifice to give 1 million dollars when you have 100 million left. It is not a sacrifice to give $1000 when you are earning $100,000 a year. But it is a total sacrifice to empty your purse into the collection plate when there is nothing in the bank. That is what this widow did. Was not it a little unrealistic for her to do that? After all, does not God expect us to use our common sense?
What was she really saying when she gave all she had to live on? She was demonstrating her faith in God to supply her needs. She loved the Lord and was grateful to Him. She was not embittered by self-pity, she was not expecting any handouts. She was simply entrusting herself to God. He was her Husband, her Provider, her Security. (Is. 54:5.)
She was a living example of Matt. 6:31-34
So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear? For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father KNOWS THAT YOU NEED THEM. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
By her giving she acknowledged God as the Source of all she needed, that He knew her needs and she was willing to trust Him to provide one day at a time. That is really great faith.
No wonder Jesus commended her. Talk is cheap. Actions are costly. God did not need her money, but she needed to give. Do you honestly think that God was going to let her down after such an expression of faith? I am sure there was bread on her table that day.
1000 years earlier King David had the same perspective about wealth. He gave his personal fortune to buy the materials for Solomon to build a temple for the Lord that David would never see. His example stimulated the generosity of this people and they had a great day of dedication of the gifts for the temple.
1 Chronicles 29:10-16
God is the One who gives us what we have in the first place. It all belongs to Him. When we give to Him we honor Him by acknowledging that He is the Source of all our blessings.
God does not need our money. We need to give as part of worship.
While the whole Bible has much to say about money and giving there are 2 chapters that especially concentrate on the subject and give us some important principles to govern our attitude about money.
The Corinthian Christians had a lot of problems. Some of them were that they were impulsive, changeable and fickle. The previous year they had committed themselves to giving to support the ministry of the Gospel and sharing with the needy and they had started with enthusiasm. But they had not continued and Paul speaks very frankly to them.
He used 3 examples of sacrificial giving to admonish and encourage the Corinthians.
Three examples of sacrificial giving
1.The Macedonian Christians
2 Corinthians 8:1-3
If any people had excuses not to give, they did. They were suffering many hardships. Some had lost their means of earning a living because they were Christians. Some had been rejected by their families. They were in extreme poverty. But they were so joyful in their faith that they gave more than they were able to give. In fact they pleaded to give. No one had to urge them to sign pledges or faith/promise card.
Why were they so generous? They had first given themselves to the Lord. When we give ourselves, it includes our pocketbooks. Paul then says, “Follow their example, finish what you started.” Giving is a grace. God will enable you to give.
2. The Lord Jesus Christ
2 Corinthians 8:9
What a paradox. Jesus left the riches of heaven to become a human being. To live on earth in a humble carpenter’s home. To earn His living with His own hands. He was a poor man. He never owned any property. Then He suffered the humiliation of a criminal’s death for us. But he rose victoriously from the dead. When we put our faith in Him we become heirs of God, all the riches of heaven is promised us in the future and the rich blessings of a right relationship with God is ours now. Jesus gave Himself for us so that we, who were poor, might be rich.
2 Corinthians 8:11-12
Notice how God evaluates our gifts. By our eager willingness and according to our means. Our giving must be voluntary. Notice that God never asks us to give what we do not have, but from what we do have. That is why it is so good to have a percentage as a guide. When you have a little, you give accordingly, when you have a lot, you give accordingly. The O.T. had the tithe, 10% as a guide. But there were 3 tithes taken. (2 yearly and 1 every 3rd year)
Dr. Charles Ryrie estimates that the tithes actually came to about 22%. And beyond that they gave freewill offerings. Whatever amount you decide on, giving a percentage of your income is a good start. Then as you get used to the blessings that come from giving you can increase your percentage. You see giving is not a one-way street. You do all the giving and someone else gets all the benefits. Giving blesses the giver. It is more blessed to give than to receive.
Giving is a good measure of your spiritual maturity. Giving is not an option; it is a command. Your love for the Lord is measured by obedience. Generous giving pays wonderful returns.
2 Corinthians 9:6
Action Steps: First, the law of sowing and reaping applies to your giving. If you plant a just a few seeds you get a little crop. If you plant a lot of seed you get a large crop. If you invest generously in God’s program, the returns will be far beyond your imagination. People will be saved in countries you will never go to because you supported a missionary, a radio program, a literature campaign. These people will meet you in heaven and thank you for helping to make it possible for them to be there, too. That is what Jesus meant when He said,
Luke 16:9 (NIV) I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
2 Corinthians 9:7
Attitude: The decision about how much to give is yours to make. Just be sure that you are not giving because someone is pressuring you, but because you are willing. God loves a cheerful giver, a hilarious giver. And God knows exactly the attitudes and motives for our giving.
2 Corinthians 9:8-11
Ability: Do you see what this is saying? God will continue to supply all that you need personally, so that you can continue to give generously on every occasion. He is really saying,
“Put my interests first and I will take care of yours. Trust me with your material needs. I will give you the ability to give abundantly.” Two ways to meet our needs: get more money or spend less.
Accomplishments: What does this kind of giving accomplish here and now?
2 Corinthians 9:12-15
Your giving is a ministry, a service to God. (Priestly service, diakonia, liturgeia) Credited to you. Your giving will supply the needs of God’s people. They will praise and thank God for your ministry.
Your giving is proof of your obedience and a good testimony to others.
People will pray for you and care for you because you have cared for them in your giving.
3. God the Father
2 Corinthians 9:15
He gave His Son for us. Anything we give is in gratitude for this gift which is beyond description.
That leads to the question, where should we give?
How should we distribute the Lord’s money?
- Your local church should have priority in your giving. The salaries, building maintenance, and materials all cost money and you are the beneficiaries. The folks at the Christian Science Church are not going to give to this church.
- Family members in need.
Give to those in need in your own family, e.g. aged parents.
- Ministries that personally bless you.
Diversify: foreign, home, children, education, evangelism, church planting, etc.
- The poor.
First in God’s family, Gal. 6:10. Then to others. We are responsible to care for needy believers. Union Gospel, Salvation Army, Church Mercies Fund, Samaritan’s Purse, etc.
Those who are fighting battles for morality in the public square.
Give purposefully, intelligently and obediently as God lays it on your heart to give. But give.
2 Cor. 9:11 says that God will supply abundantly so that we can be generous on every occasion.
This is such an exciting concept to me. May I give a word of personal testimony? When I was about 12 or 13, I heard a message on tithing and asked my mother if we tithed. She said, “We have so little.” And that was true. She was a widow with 2 daughters to support. But we decided to give our little tithe and we continued to do it. God continued to meet our needs and supply more. He met her needs till the day she died at 80 years of age. And she never had more than a few dollars in the bank. In my adult life, it has been exciting to raise the percentage of my giving from time to time and see God continue to supply so that I can give more.
If you are having financial problems, the solution may not be to get more, but to give more.
Giving to the Lord from what He has given you will break the stranglehold that money and things have on our lives. It is a great step of faith, but God can handle it. He has not broken a promise yet. Are you willing to be obedient to Him in this important area? I am sure Jim Elliot’s famous statement included our money as well as our lives.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Jesus used this poor widow’s act of devotion and faith to teach us many things about our money and our God.
What does Jesus reveal about God, our heavenly Father?
- Our Father is the Source of all we have. It belongs to Him.
- Our Father does not measure the worth of our gifts by their size, but by what we have left.
- Our Father looks at the heart, our motive for giving. He does not reward ostentatious generosity for purpose of impressing people.
- Our Father does not expect us to give what we do not have. We are to give from what we have and everyone has something. No gift is too small.
- Our Father will not compel us to give, just as He will not compel us to love Him. Giving is a personal matter.
- Our Father wants us to give voluntarily and generously with faith that God will supply our needs and enable us to keep on giving. Not acceptable if reluctant.
- Our Father will give generously to us so we can continue to give generously.
- Our Father gives eternal returns on our investments. We will leave all our bank accounts, investments and real estate here when we die. But we will be welcomed in heaven by those we have reached through our giving. These are eternal returns.
- Our Father uses our giving as a testimony to cause others to thank and praise God, and to pray for us.
- Our Father Himself is the most generous Giver.
If giving to the Lord has been a problem for you, confess it as selfishness, unbelief, or greed. Then tell the Lord you want to believe Him for this area which has such a stranglehold on our affections. You want to be free from bondage to money. Then decide what percentage you will faithfully give. Do it and see how God will bless you.
When we started this series I said we would emphasize what the Lord Jesus would reveal about our invisible Father in heaven. We have seen Him to be our omniscient, omnipotent Creator, a Father who is compassionate, loving, strong, generous, welcoming, interested in every detail of our lives. He initiates a relationship with sinners and makes them His children by faith. He delivers us from sin. He is patient with ignorance and hates arrogance and hypocrisy. He gives us forgiveness, peace, and joy. He sent Jesus so we could be with Him forever in heaven. Let me remind you of what J.I. Packer said.
“You sum up the whole of New Testament teaching in a single phrase if you speak of it as a revelation of the Fatherhood of the holy Creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole of the New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. Father’ is the Christian name for God.”1
1 J. I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 201.
Lesson 6: Principles of Biblical InterpretationRelated Media
As a Protestant I cherish the NT teaching on the priesthood of believers—that each Christian has the right to his own interpretation, but also that each Christian has the responsibility to get it right. ―Daniel Wallace
When it comes to making claims about what the Bible means, sometimes we hear comments from Christians or non-Christians like the following: “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” “The Bible can be made to say anything you want.” “You can’t really understand the Bible. It is full of contradictions.” “No one can understand the true meaning of anything anyone says.” Or, someone sitting in a Bible study might say, “This is what the Bible means to me.” All of these types of comments are about principles of biblical interpretation also called in theological jargon hermeneutics. Welcome to our postmodern world. Pilate’s question lives on: “What is truth? (John 18:38).”
Some issues that we as Christians face regarding the topic of biblical interpretation include: How does divine inspiration and human authorship affect biblical interpretation? What does a text mean? What are some general principles of interpretation? How do we interpret the Old Testament? How do we interpret the New Testament? These are all critical questions for us to consider as we seek to become better interpreters of God’s word, the Bible.
What Does a Text Mean?
The last lesson looked at the topic of inspiration and found that the Bible is both a human book and a divine book. There are certain implications of this for biblical interpretation. The first is that the human authors had a specific historical audience, context and purpose. These authors used their own language, writing methods, style of writing and literary form of writing. The divine authorship of the Bible gives it its unity and the ultimate source of all interpretation is from God. In the book of Genesis Joseph was asked about the meaning of some divinely given dreams and he replied, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? (Gen 40:8).
So let’s just start with the most basic question. What does a text mean? The answer to this question is that a text means what the author intended it to mean. If there is only one thing you learn from this lesson this is it. For a simple example, if you wrote a letter with some statements in it that are a little ambiguous, then what does the letter mean? Does it mean what you intended it to mean or how the readers interpret it? Of course it means what you intended it to mean. The true meaning of a text resides in the authorial intent of the text. This leads us to the first primary and fundamental principle of interpreting the Bible.
General Principles of Biblical Interpretation
Principle 1: Interpretation must be based on the author’s intention of meaning and not the reader. This means we must get into the author’s context, historically, grammatically, culturally and the literary forms and conventions the author was working in. To be able to do this some good Bible study tools are needed since we are 2000 years or more removed from the biblical authors and their context is very different than ours. The first tool that any one should get is a good study Bible with notes that explain historical and cultural background information. Most major Bible translations come in editions with these types of notes but by far the NET Bible with its over 60,000 notes surpasses them all. Get the most extensive Study Bible that goes with the translation you use. After this, good evangelical commentaries are essential tools to study the Bible but make sure to look at a couple to get a variety of perspectives. When someone in a Bible study states what the verse means to him, we need to redirect and clarify that the meaning is what the author intended. After that the question then is how that historical meaning applies to us today. The second principle of biblical interpretation should also be considered foundational.
Principle 2: Interpretations must be done in the context of the passage. What does the following mean? “It was a ball.” Well, the answer depends on the context. Consider the following sentences: The baseball umpire saw the pitch drift to the outside and said, “it was a ball.” We went to the dance last night, in fact it was so formal “it was a ball.” As I was walking along the golf course I spotted something small and white in the tall grass, “it was a ball.” I had so much fun at the game night, “it was a ball.” In each case the word ball means something different. Therefore, context determines meaning! The nearest context must given the most weight in interpretation. First, there is the near context of the sentence, then the paragraph, then the section and then the book and even author. The interpreter should look at all these circles of context to be able to correctly assess the meaning.
Far too often people try to interpret a verse by itself in isolation without looking at the context itself. For example, consider the verse Revelation 3:20 which is sometimes used as an illustration for evangelism. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me (Rev 3:20; NASB).1 If this is all you looked at, it would be easy to understand the verse in terms of someone asking Jesus into his or her life for the first time. But the context in the preceding verse (v. 19) is talking about discipline of those whom Jesus loves, which would most naturally refer to believers. Also, in looking at the larger paragraph the passage is to a church
(Rev 3:14, 22). The verse is really addressed to believers who need to repent from their sin and return to fellowship with God.
Principle 3: Interpret the Bible literally (or normally) allowing for normal use of figurative language. Take the plain meaning of the text at face value. When the literal does not make sense you probably have a figure of speech. For example, Isaiah 55:12 states the trees of the field will clap their hands. Since trees do not have hands or clap this must be a figure of speech. Look for words such as “like” or “as” which can also communicate a figure of speech. Figures of speech and illustrations give the Bible a powerful and colorful means of expression. They are an important part of the normal expression of language.
Principle 4: Use the Bible to help interpret itself. Interpret difficult passages with clear ones. This is sometimes called the law of non-contradiction. Because the Bible is God’s word, and God is true, the Bible will not contradict itself. For example, there are clear passages that teach the doctrine of eternal security, that once a person is truly saved he or she cannot lose salvation (John 5; Rom 8). Some passages in the Bible are very hard to interpret like Hebrews 6:4-6.2 So I would let the overall and clear theology of the Bible influence me that a very hard passage like Hebrews 6 is not teaching that someone can lose his salvation. Also, use the New Testament to help interpret the Old Testament. This recognizes the progressive nature of revelation, that is the Bible is giving more revelation on topics over time. But one must start by interpreting the Old Testament text in its context before a New Testament consideration is made.
Principle 5: Interpretation must be distinguished from application. While there is one interpretation that is historical, there are many applications that can be carried over to our modern context. Build an application bridge from the interpretation to the timeless principle and then to the application now. For example in John 12, Mary anoints Jesus with very expensive oil. The historical context records a historical event. The interpretation relates only to what Mary did to Jesus. What about us today? An application might be that we are willing to give sacrificially for the Lord’s work and give Jesus acts of worship as Mary did. Or when Jesus states the principle in Matt 7 to love one’s enemies it is a general command that I might apply specifically by loving a worker who undermines me or a neighbor who offends me.
Principle 6: Be sensitive to distinctions between Israel and the church and Old Covenant and New Covenant eras/requirements. Promises made to Israel in the Old Testament cannot automatically be transferred to the church in which we are a part. For example, the land promises were given to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:7) but that does not include me, a Gentile Christian. Christians are not under the requirements of the Mosaic law (Rom 6:14). For example, in Lev 19:19 there is a command “you must not wear a garment made of two different kinds of fabric.” This was a binding command under the Mosaic law but not under the terms of the New Covenant. It is true that certain Old Testament commands repeated in the New Testament are still binding, but this is made clear by their repetition in the New Testament. The church was formed in Acts 2 with the descent of the Holy Spirit and most direct statements to and about the church occur after that. Also, there is a future for national Israel (cf. Rom 11) in which many Old Testament promises will yet be fulfilled and certain practices of the church age will come to an end at the second coming of Jesus (such as the Lord’s supper 1 Cor 11:26).
Principle 7: Be sensitive to the type of literature you are in. The Bible contains many different types of literature: law, narrative, wisdom, poetry, gospel, parable, epistle, and apocalyptic. Each of these types of literature has specific features that must be considered when interpreting a text. Some of these will be examined in the next section. For now we need to understand that where we are in the Bible makes a big difference on how we interpret and apply it.
Interpreting the Old Testament
Narrative Literature: Much of the Old Testament contains narrative literature. First, the passage needs to be interpreted in its historical context and then applications can be drawn from the characters and events. In the book of Judges, only one verse is given to the judge Shamgar. It reads, “After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath; he killed six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad3 and he too delivered Israel” (Judges 3:31). Why did God include this passage? Yes, it records an historical event. Also, the verse teaches God’s delivering power can come in an unexpected way, not with a mighty army but with one man wielding an oxgoad.
Law: Realize that Christians are not under the law as a legal system (Rom 6:14) but that we are to fulfill the principles that stand behind the law of loving God and loving one’s neighbor (cf. Matt 22:37-40)? Sometimes the teaching is carried directly into the New Testament (e.g., Do not murder, etc). Other times, the New Testament takes a text and applies a principle from it. For example, “You must not muzzle your ox when it is treading grain” (Deut 25:4). Paul takes this verse, which refers to feeding a work animal and applies the principle of the Christian worker being worthy of tangible support. Paul states, “Elders who provide effective leadership must be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching. For the scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and, ‘The worker deserves his pay’” (1 Tim 5:17-18, cf. 1 Cor 9:9). In general, if the Old Testament command in the law is not repeated in the New Testament, look for the principle behind the statement in the law and then try to apply that.
Wisdom Literature: Realize that much of the proverbial type of wisdom in the Old Testament is general truth based on observations but not absolute truths or promises. Two good examples are seen in the following: “A gentle response turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath” (Prov 15:1). Another one is, “Train a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Prov 22:6). Christians should not take these types of proverbial statements as promises of what will always happen but rather patterns that are generally true outcomes based on observation. A gentle answer will not always prevent an angry outburst but it is much more likely to than a harsh one. Christian parents who have a child who has gone astray from the faith may have done their best to train the child the right way but the child did not take it.
Poetry: Realize that poetry often has a greater use of figurate language than narrative or law. Also, Hebrew poetry’s main characteristic is parallelism. For example, Psalm 24 says, “The Lord owns the earth and all it contains, the world and all who live in it. For he set its foundation upon the seas, and established it upon the ocean currents. Who is allowed to ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may go up to his holy dwelling place?” (Ps 24:1-3). Here we have three sets of pairs in side by side fashion with the second reference restating the basic idea of the first. The phrase “the earth and all it contains” is amplified by the phrase “the world and all who live in it”. The phrase “he sets its foundation upon the seas” is rephrased “established it upon the ocean currents.” The question of who is allowed to ascend to the mountain of the Lord is restated “Who may go up to his Holy Dwelling place?” Most English Bible translations will format poetry using indentation, which helps show the parallel ideas.
Interpreting the New Testament
Gospels: Understand that each writer has a specific audience for whom he is writing, and that he has selected his material for them. Matthew was written for a Jewish audience. Mark was written for a Roman audience. Luke was written for a Greek audience. John was written for a universal or Gentile audience. This can help us see nuances or explain differences between accounts. For example, in Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12 Jesus teaches on the hard topic of divorce. Both gospels state that a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. Mark alone though adds the point that if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she commits adultery against him. Why is this difference there? It probably has to do with the audience. Matthew is writing to a Jewish culture in which a woman could not divorce her husband while Mark is writing to a Roman audience in which one could.
Read the gospels not only vertically, that is, understanding what is said in each individual account, but also horizontally, that is, considering why one account follows another. For example, see Mark 2-3:6; what do these various accounts have in common? One can notice that they are all different stories that relate to the conflict that Jesus had with the Jewish leadership. Mark 3:6 reads, “So the Pharisees went out immediately and began plotting with the Herodians as to how they could assassinate him.” The stories are grouped in a way that gives an explanation as to why Jesus was rejected as strongly as he was.
Lastly, recognize that the gospels are in a transitional stage between Old and New Covenants. Jesus lived in the context of Judaism prior to the birth of the church. For example, Jesus is keeping the Old Testament prescribed feasts in many of his journeys to Jerusalem. Also, he is introducing changes that will be inaugurated with the start of the New Covenant. For example, in Mark 7 Jesus declared all foods clean which was a change from the Old Testament dietary laws.4
Parables.5 Parables are a form of figurative speech. They are stories that are used to illustrate a truth. There are parables in different parts of the Bible but Jesus was the master of them and many are found in the gospels (e.g., Matt 13, Mark 4, Luke 15). How then should we interpret the parables? First, determine the context that prompted the parable. Parables always arise out of a context. For example the Pharisees disdain for Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners prompts Jesus to tell a parable about how God loves a lost sinner who repents (Luke 15). Second, understand the story’s natural meaning which is often taken from real life situations in first century Palestine. Third, ascertain the main point or truth the parable is trying to give and focus on this. Only interpret the details of the parables if they can be validated from the passage. Many details are there only for the setting of the story. For example, what is the main point of the mustard seed parable? Jesus stated: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest garden plant and becomes a tree, so that the wild birds come and nest in its branches” (Matt 13:31-32). The parable is an illustration of the kingdom of heaven which starts small but grows to be very large in size. This seems to be the main point. The birds and the branches are probably there only to illustrate how large the tree has become.
Acts. Recognize that Acts is a theologized history of the early church. Acts tells what the church was doing from the human side of things and what God was doing from the divine side of things. For example, consider these passages on the early growth of the church which refer to the same event but from two different perspectives. “So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added”. . . . (Acts 2:41) “And the Lord was adding to their number everyday those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Here we see what God is doing in and through the church. Also, we need to recognize that the church starts in Acts 2 with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Spirit, the filling of the Spirit, church planting and gospel outreach characterize the events of the book. In addition, some events in Acts are descriptive of what happened not proscriptive of what is necessarily expected in the modern church. For example, Samaritan believers did not receive the Holy Spirit in Acts 8 upon faith in Jesus. They had to wait for Peter and John to get there. When Paul was bitten by a viper in Malta, yet he miraculously lived (Acts 28:1-5). These are descriptions of what happened and are not necessarily normative of what happens in the church today. So it probably would not be a good idea to start snake handling services!
The book of Acts is also a book of transitions. First there are key transitions in biography. This is especially true as the book focuses more on the ministry of Peter in the first portions of the book then shifts to Paul. There is also a transition in ministry focus from the Jews to the Samaritans and to the Gentiles. Lastly there is a geographical transition starting in Jerusalem taking the gospel outward into Samaria, Asia Minor, Europe and eventually Rome. In Acts 1:8 Luke gives us a rough outline of the progression emphasizing the progress of the gospel. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth."
Epistles. Since the New Testament epistles are directed to churches and individuals in the church, they most directly apply to us today. Most commands given in the epistles are general enough in nature that we need to obey them, or in the case of promises we can claim them. For example in 1 Corinthians 15 there is a promise given for immortal bodies and eventual victory over death. These promises are not just for those in the local Corinthian church but the universal church of God.
In the epistles, pay special attention to logical connectors/conjunctions to explore relationships of clauses and sentences. Look for these types of words: “for, “therefore,” “but,” etc. For example Hebrews 12:1 reads, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us.” The word therefore points back to the previous chapter in which Old Testament saints were held up as people who had given a good testimony or witness of faith. The phrase “cloud of witnesses” then would naturally refer back to the people of the preceding chapter. In another example the author of Hebrews writes, “So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. For our God is indeed a devouring fire” (Heb 12:28-29). Here the word for sets up a subordinate idea giving the reason we as Christians should offer worship in devotion and awe to God.
Revelation. Revelation is the one book in the New Testament that is one of the hardest to interpret. There are several reasons for this. First, there are substantially different interpretative approaches on the overall timing of the book. Some see most of it as purely historical. Some see most of it as yet future. Second, there are many Old Testament allusions in Revelation. Allusions are phrases and references to the Old Testament without an explicit statement by John that he is quoting the Old Testament. So when John refers to the Old Testament he generally does not tell you he is doing so. Third, there is a greater use of symbolic language in Revelation than in other parts of the Bible. Revelation is in a form of literature known as apocalyptic.6
How can one get started? First, the book of Revelation promises a blessing to the one who reads it (Rev 1:3). So we should read it even if we do not completely understand everything. The basic thrust of Revelation’s message is clear. Jesus is coming again and will defeat the forces of evil. We can be assured of this. Other interpretative helps that can be given would be to interpret the seven churches as seven historical churches in existence in the first century A.D (Rev 2-3). Interpret chapter 4 onward as primarily future events from our perspective (Rev 1:18-19).7 Follow a generally chronological view of the book from chapter 4 sequencing the bowls, trumpets and seals, second coming of Jesus, millennial kingdom and eternal state. Use a study Bible with a good set of notes to help frame common interpretations and Old Testament backgrounds. Lastly, become a student of the book and keep working at it.
Conclusion and Summary
Biblical passages must be interpreted according to the intention of the author and in the context in which the statement is made. Interpretation must be distinguished from application. One must be sensitive to what type of literature one is in and how this may or may not apply to a believer in the church age. Interpreting the Bible is sometimes hard work but it’s always worth the cost. David reminds us of the value of God’s word, “They are of greater value than gold, than even a great amount of pure gold; they bring greater delight than honey, than even the sweetest honey from a honeycomb” (Ps 19:10).
- What types of interpretations have you heard where you questioned the method of interpretation?
- What would happen to interpretation if the church used reader centered interpretations as opposed to an author centered interpretations?
- How does the Holy Spirit help us in interpreting the Bible (1 Cor 2)?
- If the Holy Spirit is guiding us in interpretation why do godly Christians have differing interpretations on various passages?
- What is our relationship, if any, to the Old Testament Commandments/Law?
- Why are only 9 of the 10 commandments repeated in the New Testament? The Sabbath command is the one of the ten commandments that is not there.
- How does the distinction between the church and Israel affect application of the Old Testament?
- How do you know if something is symbolic or not?
1 The NET Bible gives a translation rendering that helps to alleviate this confusion. “Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).
2 “For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, 6 and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt (Heb 6:4-6 NET).
3 An oxgoad is simply a long stick with a pointed end that was used to prod animals into walking.
4 He [Jesus] said to them, "Are you so foolish? Don't you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? 19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer." (This means all foods are clean.)(Mark 7:18-19 NET).
5 Adapted from Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs: Victor, 1991) 194-226.
6 A scholarly definition of Apocalyptic: “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another supernatural world” J.J. Collins “Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre,” Semeia 14 (1979), 9. Revelation focuses on the future and spiritual world to a much greater degree than other portions of the New Testament and it is communicated in visions and symbolic language.
7 Revelation 1:19 gives a basic chronological outline of the book. “Therefore write what you saw, what is, and what will be after these things” (Rev 1:19 NET). (past: what you saw (Chapter 1:9-20); present: what is (Chapters 2-3); and future: what will take place after these things (Chapters 4-22:5).
Lesson 7: The Study of ChristRelated Media
I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires, and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and whatever other religions the distance of infinity. ―Napolean Bonaparte
Who is Jesus?
Jesus once asked the question of his disciples, “Who do people say that I am” and after some answers he quickly followed with a second more important question, “But who do you say that I am.” (Matt 16:13-15). This is life’s greatest question and our whole eternity is hinging on the correct response. C.S. Lewis once stated: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”1
The study of who Jesus Christ is and what he did is something that deserves our lifelong pursuit until as Paul says we see him face to face (1 Cor 13:12). The study of Christ is referred to as Christology. This lesson will survey the study of Christ from his preexistence to his future return and earthly reign. Did Jesus exist prior to his birth? How did the Old Testament point to Jesus? What is the incarnation? What is the biblical evidence that Jesus was both God and man? What is Jesus doing right now? What will his future reign look like? These are some of the questions that this lesson is designed to answer.
The Eternality and Preexistence of Christ
The eternality of the Messiah was stated as early as in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Isaiah 9:6 reads: “For a child has been born to us a son has been given to us. He shoulders responsibility and is called: . . ., Everlasting Father (cf. Micah 5:2). Here the “son” to be born is described as the “Everlasting Father.” But how can a son be “everlasting” and how can he be father? Clearly, something unique is being said about this promised son. This son is identified in the New Testament as Jesus Christ (Is 7:14; Matt 1:23). Also, John points to the preexistence of the Word who became flesh at the outset of his gospel where he states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning . . . The Word became flesh (John 1:1-2, 14). The Word clearly refers to Jesus Christ. John the Baptist also gives testimony about Jesus’ preexistence: “On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me’ (John 1:29-30). Even though John the Baptist was older than Jesus, John states that he existed before him. Lastly, in a conversation with his fellow Jews Jesus gave testimony himself about his preexistence prior to His birth. “The Judeans replied, “You are not yet fifty years old! Have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (John 8:57-58). That sums it up pretty well. In summary, Jesus not only existed prior to his birth, but he also existed from all eternity past. This means that Jesus was not a created being but rather eternal God.
Christ in the Old Testament
Since Jesus Christ did exist prior to his birth and is the promised Messiah, then a question one could ask is how and where he is seen in the Old Testament. A very important testimony regarding Christ in the Old Testament can be found spoken by Jesus himself in the gospel of Luke. “Then he [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). The reference to the Law, Prophets and Psalms is a reference to the threefold division of the Old Testament canon sometimes referred to as the Tanakh.2 We should expect to find Christ in all the sections of the Old Testament. Besides general designations for God, there are three primary ways that Christ can be seen in the Old Testament: direct prophecy, typological prophecy, and what is called theophanies or christophanies.
Direct prophecy refers Old Testament passages that give explicit predictions of the coming Messiah. These predictions then are fulfilled in Jesus Christ some of them at the first advent. A good example of this is the prophecy of the virgin birth: “For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel” (Is 7:14; cf. Matt 1:23).3 Other direct prophecies will be fulfilled at the second advent when Jesus returns to earth. A good example of this is found in Zechariah 14. “Then the Lord will go to battle and fight against those nations, just as he fought battles in ancient days. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives which lies to the east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in half from east to west, leaving a great valley. Half the mountain will move northward and the other half southward” (Zech 14:3-4).
Typological prophecy refers to Old Testament people, places and events that are intended by God to illustrate and point forward to Jesus’ Christ’s person or his work. Sometimes these prophecies are explicitly validated in the New Testament and other times they are not. A good example of this was the Passover Lamb sacrifice instituted by God in Exodus 12. The Lamb had to be male and perfect. Its blood had to be applied to the house for the angel of death to pass over it. This sacrifice would then point forward to the ultimate Passover sacrifice that God would accept. Paul makes this explicit tie when he states, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7).
Various manifestations or appearances of God himself in the Old Testament are referred to as theophanies. These are sometimes called christophanies if one makes an explicit connection by later revelation to the second member of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. One example of this, in my view, is the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament who is equated with God in Exodus 3:1-6. This Angel followed Israel as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exod 13:21; 14:19). The New Testament makes an allusion to this which appears to specify this Angel as Christ. Paul writes, “For they [the Israelites in the wilderness] were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4 cf. Exod 17:6).
The Incarnation of Christ
What does the incarnation refer to? In short the word means “in flesh” and it refers to God, who is spirit, taking the form of human flesh. A more precise theological definition would be that the incarnation “defines the act wherein the eternal God, the Son took to Himself an additional nature, humanity, through the virgin birth.”4 One of the main biblical passages on the incarnation is from John 1:14: “Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us” (John 1:14). Another important passage is from Paul, “Christ Jesus . . . who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature (Phil 2:6-7). This emptying was not emptying Jesus of his deity, rather it was the adding of his human nature into a humble situation to even death on a cross. C. S. Lewis well articulated, “The Son of God became the Son of Man so that the sons of men might become the sons of God.”
The Humanity of Christ
The result of the incarnation was that the preexistent Christ became a man, and as such Jesus experienced the realm of humanity. Luke emphasizes this when he says, “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). Jesus had the title of Son of Man (Matt 8:20) which was the most common way he referred to himself. He had the human lineage of son of Abraham and David (Matt 1:1). As a man Jesus was: hungry (Matt 4:2); thirsty (John 19:28); grew tired (John 4:6); grieved to the point of tears (John 11:35); tempted (Matt 4:1); experienced physical death (Luke 23:46). In short he was a man and he experienced humanity to the full. He was one of us. The only qualification one would have to make regarding Jesus’ humanity is that while he came in the “flesh” he came only in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3), and that while he was tempted in all things as we are, he was without sin (Heb 4:15). At the same time, sin is not an essential part of humanity the way God created man. After God created Adam and Eve, they were perfectly and fully human and God declared it good. God even stated it was very good prior to the sin that led to man’s fall (Gen 1:31; Gen 3). In the first and second century A.D., there was a heretical movement known as Gnosticism which denied that God who is good could take on an actual human body which they thought was sinful. In essence, they were deniers of the doctrine of the incarnation (cf. 1 John 4:2).5
The Deity of Christ
Jesus is not only presented in the Bible as a man but he is also presented as having the nature of God. He has a unique identity with the Father. Jesus stated, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “the person who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Also, Jesus had the titles of Son of God (John 10:36) as well as Lord and God (Matt 8:20). He is equated with Yahweh in the Old Testament (1 Cor 2:16; Is 40:13). As God Jesus is creator (Col 1:15-16), had power over nature (Matt 8:26), had power over death (John 11), forgave sin (Mark 2:1-12) and rules as God (Heb 1:8). He was and is the exact representation of God inwardly and outwardly (Heb 1:1-4). Martin Luther stated, “If Christ does not remain the true natural God . . . then we are lost. For what good would be the suffering and death of the Lord Christ do me if He were merely a man such as you and I are? Then He would not have been able to overcome the Devil, death and sin. He would have been far too weak for them and could not have helped us.”6
The theological term used to describe the teaching of the two natures of Christ, divine and human, is called the hypostatic union and was articulated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D7. A simple definition of the hypostatic union is this. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man (= two natures) united in one person.8 In other words, Jesus is the God-Man.
The Roles of Jesus
While this is most certainly too simplistic, it is nonetheless helpful that Jesus is sometimes described as prophet (first advent ministry), priest (death on the cross and current ministry) and king (his rule now from heaven and in the future on earth). The earthly ministry of Jesus can be divided into two major activities, his words and his works. He called people to repentance and associated with sinners (Matt 4:17; Mark 2:16); he identified with humanity (Matt 1:23); he rebuked hypocritical religion (Matt 23); he gave sermons (like the Sermon on the Mount; cf. Matt 5-7); he drew lessons from life (such as parables)(cf. Matt 13), he gave prophecies about the future (Matt 24); he selected, trained and commissioned the 12 (Matt 4:18-22), he did miracles (Matt 8-9); he revealed the Father (John 17) and so much more.
The Passion of Christ
About one third of the gospels cover the last week of Jesus’ life. This shows the importance of these final events in Jesus’ earthly life to the gospel writers. Jesus clearly stated the reason for his coming: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:25).
The following is a short chronology of the last week of Jesus’ life: On Saturday, Jesus arrives at Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 11:55-12:11). This town is near the Mount of Olives a short walk to Jerusalem. Here Jesus is anointed for burial with the expensive oil (John 12:1-7). On Sunday, there is what is termed the triumphal entry as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matt 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-44; John 12:12-19). Here the people shout out, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” which can be understood as save now, the promised Messiah. On Monday, Jesus drives out the money changers in the Temple and later curses an unfruitful fig free symbolizing the dire state of Israel’s condition (Matt 21:12-19; Mark 11:12:18; Luke 19:45-48). In the temple he rebukes them saying, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are turning it into a den of robbers!” (Matt 21:13). On Tuesday, Jesus’ authority is debated with the Jewish leadership, the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees (Matt 21:23-23; Mark 11:27-12:40; Luke 20:1-47). The story of the widow who out of her poverty gives a very small amount (a mite = less than a penny) happens in the midst of this turmoil (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). The Olivet Discourse explains the fact of the Temple’s future destruction and circumstances surrounding the second coming of Jesus (Matt 24-25; Mark 13:1-37; Luke 21:5-36). The main point is to “be ready” for the coming of the Son of Man. On Thursday, events really start to pick up. First Jesus is betrayed by Judas one of the twelve. (Matt 26:17-25; Mark 14: 12-21; Luke 22: 7-13, 21-23). Washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20), the Last Supper (Matt 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20) and the Upper Room Discourse (John 14-17) give Jesus the opportunity to give some final teaching to the disciples. After Jesus’ prayer in a garden called Gethsemane (Matt 26:30, 36-46; Mark 14: 26, 32-42; Luke 22: 39-46; John 18:1) the arrest occurs (Matt 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-12) and the trials of Jesus start. On Friday, the trials continue when Jesus appears before the Sanhedrin, the Roman Governor Pilate and Herod Antipas (Matt 26:57-27:31; Mark 14:53-15:15; Luke 22:54-23:25; John 18:12-19:6). At the verdict and scourging Pilate tries to release Jesus but the crowd wants death. Pilate asks “Why? What wrong has he done?” They shouted more insistently, “Crucify him!” Jesus then is placed on the cross (Matt 27:31-34; Mark 15:20-23; Luke 23:26-33; John 19:16-17).
The last words of Jesus on the cross give us a glimpse of Jesus’ concern and mindset in his final hours. Seven of these sayings are recorded in the gospels and while a lot can be said about each one perhaps just a reading of them without comment has a powerful impact when they are seen together: “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). “He said to his mother, ‘Woman, look, here is your son!’ He then said to his disciple, ‘Look, here is your mother!’”(John 19:26-27). “‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matt 27:46). “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). “It is completed" (John 19:30). “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).
The Resurrection of and Ascension of Christ
Jesus predicted his resurrection (Matt 16:21). If he would not have been raised from the dead he would have been considered a false prophet. After Jesus died, his tomb was guarded by a Roman guard and sealed with the Roman seal (Matt 27:62-66). Yet the tomb was opened, Jesus came out in a resurrected physical body and it became empty. The empty tomb that was guarded and sealed continues to be one of the strongest proofs of Jesus’ resurrection. There is also the eyewitness testimony of the disciples that they were willing to die for. He was seen by the disciples and over 500 brethren (1 Cor 15:1-7). He talked with them and ate with them (Luke 24:39-43). After 40 days of being with the disciples, Jesus was taken up into heaven from the Mount of Olives. This is referred to as the ascension. Luke records, “After he [Jesus] had said this, while they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).
The Current Ministry of Christ and the Second Advent
While many studies about Jesus focus on what he did at his first advent or even what he will do at his second advent, Jesus is not inactive in the present age. He has a current role and ministry. Christ is the head of the body directing the activities of the church. Paul teaches, “He [Jesus] is the head of the body, the church” (Col 1:18). Also, Christ as High Priest intercedes in prayer on our behalf. The author of Hebrews states, “So he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Heb 7:25). What a wonderful proclamation about Jesus praying for us which keeps us and our salvation in God’s omnipotent grip. Robert Murray McCheyne once stated, “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet the distance makes no difference; He is praying for me.”9
The second coming of Jesus Christ can be divided into two major parts. The first is the coming in blessing for the church, which is referred to as the rapture. The word rapture means “caught up.” The primary passage on it occurs in 1 Thess 4:16-17.10 There Paul writes, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:16-17).
The second phase is the coming in judgment for the world and the rule of Jesus on the earth. John writes, “Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called ‘Faithful’ and ‘True,’ and with justice he judges and goes to war” (Rev 19:11). After Jesus comes back to earth he will set up his rule. Jesus himself said in Matthew: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matt 25:31).
Amazing! Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord, the Savior, the Alpha and Omega, the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Son of David, the Word, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the Bread of Life, the light of the World, Judge, Prophet, Priest, King, Kings of Kings and Lord of Lords and much more. As John states if everything that Jesus said and did were recorded there would not be enough books in the world to contain it (John 21:25). In closing, contemplate Jesus as described in the hymn “I Saw One Hanging on the Tree” by John Newton.
I saw One hanging on a tree,
In agony and blood;
He fixed His loving eyes on me,
As near His cross I stood.
Sure, never to my latest breath,
Can I forget that look;
It seemed to charge me with His death,
Though not a word He spoke.
My conscience felt and owned the guilt,
And plunged me in despair:
I saw my sins His blood had spilt
And helped to nail Him there.
A second look He gave, which said,
“I freely all forgive:
This blood is for your ransom paid,
I die that you may live.”
- How does preexistence differ from the eternality of Christ?
- What objections have you heard in regards to the deity of Jesus?
- How do the Jehovah witnesses, Mormons or Muslims view Jesus?
- Why do you think Jesus did miracles?
- Why didn’t the Jewish leadership accept Jesus as Messiah?
- Who was responsible for Jesus’ death?
- Why was the sacrifice of Jesus necessary for God to forgive our sin?
- What is the evidence for the resurrection and what would the consequences be if Jesus was not raised from the dead?
- How should Jesus as head of the church affect us in our local churches? Do people in the church understand this concept?
- Why do you think the Bible tells us that Jesus is coming back?
- Where is Jesus coming back to and what will he do when he gets there?
1 C. S. Lewis, (New York: The McMillian Company, 1952), 58.
2 The Tanakh refers to the Torah = Law, the Nebiim = Prophets, and the Kethubiim = the Writings.
3 Matthew 1:23 reads, “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” Note that the Hebrew word translated “young woman” in Is 7:14 in the context of Old Testament Israel would normally refer to young woman who was a virgin and the Greek translation of the Old Testament specifically translates it as virgin as well as the fulfillment of the passage in the Greek New Testament regarding the virgin birth of Jesus.
4 Peter Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology – Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 713.
5 John seems to write against Gnosticism in 1 John 1:5–8; 4:1–3. One major form of Gnosticism was called “Docetism” = the Christ only appeared to be human (cf. 1 John 1:1–4; 4:2; John 1:14). Also, “Cerinthianism” taught that the divine Christ descended on the human Jesus at his baptism and left before his death (cf. 1 John 5:6).
6 Roy Zuck, The Speakers Quote Book (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009), 74.
7 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1987), 534.
8 A longer definition of the Hypostatic Union is, “A theological expression that refers to the dual nature of Christ. God the Son took to Himself a human nature and He remains forever true God and true man—two natures in one person forever. The two natures remain distinct without any intermingling, but they nevertheless compose one person, Christ the God-man.” Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, 713.
9 Zuck, The Speakers Quote Book, 78.
10 The other major passage on the Rapture is, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:51-53).
This four part study of the book of Ruth was preached at Trinity Bible Church in Richardson Texas in 2012.
The book of Ruth is a timeless drama of God's faithfulness in a time of loss and how He uses His people to restore one another. Naomi and her family fled to the country of Moab to escape a famine in their hometown of Bethlehem, but the land that was to be a place of refuge became a graveyard. Death robbed Naomi of her family. Broken and ruined, she returned home but did not go back alone. Her ever faithful daughter-in-law, Ruth, returned with her to face an uncertain future. But the God of Israel had not abandoned them. He brought one of their kinsman, the noble Boaz, into their lives and began unfolding a grand plan of restoration. God demonstrated His loyal love, and in turn the three of them demonstrated loyal love to one another. Their simple faithfulness led to events that changed the world.
Taking the Bible “Literally”Related Media
I never like the question, “Do you take the Bible literally?” It comes up with some frequency, and it deserves a response. But I think it’s an ambiguous—and, therefore, confusing—question, making it awkward to answer.
Clearly, even those of us with a high view of Scripture don’t take everything literally. Jesus is the “door,” but He’s not made of wood. We are the “branches,” but we’re not sprouting leaves.
On the other hand, we do take seriously accounts others find fanciful and far-fetched: a man made from mud (Adam), loaves and fishes miraculously multiplied, vivified corpses rising from graves, etc.
A short “yes” or “no” response to the “Do you take the Bible literally?” question, then, would not be helpful. Neither answer gives the full picture. In fact, I think it’s the wrong question since frequently something else is driving the query.
Taking “Literally” Literally
Let’s start with a definition. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word “literal” means “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory, free from exaggeration or distortion.” Why do people balk at this common-sense notion when it comes to the Bible or, more precisely, certain passages in the Bible?
Let’s face it, even non-Christians read the Bible in its “usual or most basic sense” most of the time on points that are not controversial. They readily take statements like “love your neighbor as yourself” or “remember the poor” at face value. When citing Jesus’ directive, “Do not judge,” they’re not deterred by the challenge, “You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”
No, when critics agree with the point of a passage, they take the words in their ordinary and customary sense. They naturally understand that language works a certain way in everyday communication, and it never occurs to them to think otherwise.
Unless, of course, the details of the text trouble them for some reason.
What of the opening chapters of Genesis? Is this a straightforward account describing historical events the way they actually happened? Were Adam and Eve real people, the first human beings? Was Adam created from dust? Did Eve really come from Adam’s rib? Did Jonah actually survive three days in the belly of a great fish? Did a virgin really have a baby? Such claims seem so fanciful to many people it’s hard for them to take the statements at face value.
Other times, the critic simply does not like what he reads. He abandons the “literal” approach when he comes across something in the text that offends his own philosophical, theological, or moral sensibilities. Jesus the only way of salvation? No way. Homosexuality a sin? Please. A “loving” God sending anyone to the eternal torture of Hell? Not a chance.
Notice the objection with these teachings is not based on some ambiguity making alternate interpretations plausible, since the Scripture affirms these truths with the same clarity as “love your neighbor.” No, these verses simply offend. Suddenly, the critic becomes a skeptic and sniffs, “You don’t take the Bible literally, do you?”
This subtle double standard, I think, is usually at the heart of the taking-the-Bible-literally challenge. Sometimes the ruse is hard to unravel.
An example might be helpful here.
Literal vs. Lateral
In the Law of Moses, homosexual activity was punishable by death (Lev. 18:22-23 and 20:13). Therefore (the charge goes), any Christian who takes the Bible literally must advocate the execution of homosexuals.
Of course, the strategy with this move is obvious: If we don’t promote executing homosexuals, we can’t legitimately condemn their behavior, since both details are in the Bible. If we don’t take the Bible literally in the first case, we shouldn’t in the second case, either. That’s being inconsistent.
How do we escape the horns of this dilemma? By using care and precision with our definitions, that’s how.
Here’s our first question: When Moses wrote the Law, did he expect the Jewish people to take those regulations literally? If you’re not sure how to answer, let me ask it another way. When an ordinance is passed in your local state (California, in my case), do you think the legislators intend its citizens to understand the words of the regulations “in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory, free from exaggeration or distortion”?
Of course they do. Legal codes are not written in figurative language allowing each citizen to get creative with the meaning. The same would be true for the Mosaic Law. Moses meant it the way he wrote it.
But now, it seems, we’re stuck on the other horn of the dilemma. To be consistent, shouldn’t we currently campaign for the death penalty for homosexuals? For that matter, aren’t we obliged to promote execution for disobedient children and Sabbath-breakers, both capital crimes under the Law?
The simple answer is no. Here’s why. Just because a biblical command is intended to be understood literally, does not mean it is intended to be applied laterally, that is, universally across the board to all peoples at all times in all places.
Consider this situation. Jesus told Peter to cast his net in deep water (Luke 5:4). That’s exactly what Peter did because he took Jesus’ command literally, in its ordinary sense. He had no reason to think otherwise. However, because Jesus’ command to Peter was literal does not mean the same command applies laterally to everyone else. We’re not obliged to cast nets into deep water just because Peter was.
Here’s another way of looking at it. No matter what state you live in, the California legal codes are to be read literally, but don’t have lateral application to all states. They only apply to those in California.
In the same way, the words of the Mosaic Law, like those of all laws, are to be taken at face value by anyone who reads them. Yet only those under its jurisdiction are obliged to obey its precepts.
The Jews in the theocracy were expected to obey the legal code God gave them, including the prohibition of and punishment for homosexuality. It was not the legal code God gave to gentiles, however. Therefore, even if the words of the Mosaic Law are to be taken literally by those under the jurisdiction of that code, this does not mean that in our current circumstances we are governed by the details of the provisions of that Law.
A clarification is necessary here. Am I saying that nothing written in the Mosaic Law is ever applicable to Christians or other gentiles or that there are no universal moral obligations that humanity shares with the Jews of Moses’ time. No, I’m not saying that.
Though Moses gave legal statutes for Jews under the theocracy, that Law in some cases still reflects moral universals that have application for those outside the nation of Israel. Yes, we can glean wisdom and moral guidance from the Law of Moses for our own legal codes, but there are limits. Working out those details is a different discussion, however. 1
The question here is not whether we take the Mosaic Law literally, but whether we are now under that legal code. We are not. That law was meant for Jews living under a theocracy defined by their unique covenant with God. Simply because a directive appears in the Mosaic Law does not, by that fact alone, make it obligatory for those living outside of Israel’s commonwealth.
Americans are a mixture of peoples in a representative republic governed by a different set of decrees than the Jews under Moses. We are not obliged to obey everything that came down from Sinai. Just because it was commanded of the Nation of Israel does not necessarily mean it is commanded of us. If anyone thinks otherwise, he is duty-bound to take his net and cast it into deep water.
That confusion aside, we’re still faced with our original question: When do we take the Bible literally?
Reading the Ordinary Way
Here’s how I would lay the groundwork for an answer. If I’m asked if I take the Bible literally, I would say I think that’s the wrong question. I’d say instead that I take the Bible in its ordinary sense, that is, I try to take the things recorded there with the precision I think the writer intended.
I realize this reply might also be a bit ambiguous, but here, I think, that’s a strength. Hopefully, my comment will prompt a request for clarification. This is exactly what I want. I’d clarify by countering with a question: “Do you read the sports page literally?”
If I asked you this question, I think you’d pause because there is a sense in which everyone reads the sports page in a straightforward way. Certain factual information is part of every story in that section. However, you wouldn’t take everything written in a woodenly literal way that ignores the conventions of the craft.
“Literally?” you might respond. “That depends. If the writer seems to be stating a fact—like a score, a location, a player’s name, a description of the plays leading to a touchdown—then I’d take that as literal. If he seems to be using a figure of speech, then I’d read his statement that way, figuratively, not literally.”
Exactly. Sportswriters use a particular style to communicate the details of athletic contests clearly. They choose precise (and sometimes imaginative) words and phrases to convey a solid sense of the particulars in an entertaining way.
Sportswriters routinely use words like “annihilated,” “crushed,” “mangled,” “mutilated,” “stomped,” and “pounded,” yet no one speculates about literal meanings. Readers don’t scratch their heads wondering if cannibalism was involved when they read “the Anaheim Angels devoured the St. Louis Cardinals.”
We recognize such constructions as figures of speech used to communicate in colorful ways events that actually (“literally”) took place. In fact, we never give those details a second thought because we understand how language works.
When a writer seems to be communicating facts in a straightforward fashion, we read them as such. When we encounter obvious figures of speech, we take them that way, too.
That’s the normal way to read the sports page. It’s also the normal—and responsible—way to read any work, including the Bible. Always ask, “What is this writer trying to communicate?” This is exactly what I’m after when I say, “I take the Bible in its ordinary sense.”
Of course, someone may differ with the clear point the Bible is making. Fair enough. There’s nothing dishonest about disagreement. Or they might think some Christian is mistaken on its meaning. Misinterpretation is always possible. Conjuring up some meaning that has little to do with the words the writer used, though, is not a legitimate alternative.
If someone disagrees with the obvious sense of a passage, ask them for the reasons they think the text should be an exception to the otherwise sound “ordinary sense” rule. Their answer will tell you if their challenge is intellectually honest, or if they’re just trying to dismiss biblical claims they simply don’t like.
Two Thoughts on Metaphor
Reading any writing the ordinary way requires we understand two points about figurative speech, both implicit in the concept of metaphor.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable…a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else.” So, metaphors take one meaning of a word and then creatively leverage it into another meaning to make an impact on a reader.
Here is the first point to be clear on: All metaphors (or other forms of figurative writing) rely first on literal definitions before they can be of any use as figures of speech.
All words must first be understood in their “usual or most basic sense” before they can be used metaphorically. We find, for example, the word “shepherd” prominently featured in the 23rd Psalm. Do you see that we must first understand the literal meaning of “shepherd” before the phrase “the Lord is my shepherd” has any figurative power?
This point is critical for accurate biblical interpretation. Here’s why.
Sometimes we attempt to solve interpretive problems by digging through a Bible dictionary. This can be a helpful place to start, but since all figurative language trades in some way on dictionary definitions, the dictionary is not the final word. It can never tell you what use a specific writer is making of any particular word or phrase.
Strictly speaking, since no word is a metaphor in itself, words cannot be used metaphorically unless they’re embedded in a context. Therefore, it makes no sense to ask of a solitary word, “Is the word meant literally?” because the word standing on its own gives no indication.
Dictionaries by definition can only deal with words in isolation. Other things—context, genre, flow of thought, etc.—determine if the word’s literal sense is being applied in a non-literal way, symbolically “regarded as representative” of something else.
Take two sentences, “The sunshine streamed through my window,” and, “Sweetheart, you’re a ray of sunshine to me this morning.” Sunshine’s literal meaning is the same in each case. However, it is used literally in the first sentence, but metaphorically in the second. Further, unless my wife understands the literal meaning of “sunshine,” she will never understand the compliment I’m offering her in a poetic sort of way.
So first, literal definitions must be in place first before a word can be used figuratively. Second, metaphors are always meant to clarify, not obscure.2
There’s a sense in which figurative speech drives an author’s meaning home in ways that words taken in the ordinary way could never do. “All good allegory,” C.S. Lewis notes, “exists not to hide, but to reveal, to make the inner world more palpable by giving it an (imagined) concrete embodiment.”3
Figurative speech communicates literal truth in a more precise and powerful way than ordinary language can on its own. The strictly literal comment, “Honey, your presence makes me feel good today” doesn’t pack the punch that the “sunshine” figure provides. The metaphor makes my precise point more powerfully than “words in their usual or most basic sense” could accomplish.
Remember, even when metaphor is in play, some literal message is always intended. Hell may not have literal flames,4 but the reality is at least as gruesome, ergo the figure.
Once again, it’s always right to ask, “What is the precise meaning the writer is trying to communicate with his colorful language?” But how do we do that? Here I have a suggestion.
The Most Important Thing
If there was one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one useful tip I could offer to help you solve the riddle of Scriptural meaning, it’s this: Never read a Bible verse. That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph—at least.
On the radio I use this simple rule to help me answer the majority of Bible questions I’m asked, even when I’m not familiar with the particular passage. When I quickly survey the paragraph containing the verse in question, the larger context almost always provides the information I need to help me understand what’s going on.
This works because of a basic rule of all communication: Meaning flows from the top down, from the larger units to the smaller units. The key to the meaning of any verse comes from the paragraph, not just from the individual words.
Here’s how it works. First, get the big picture. Look at the broader context of the book. What type of writing is it—history, poetry, proverb, letter? Different genres have different rules for reading them.
Next, stand back from the verse and look for breaks in the passage that identify major units of thought. Then ask yourself, “What in this paragraph or group of paragraphs gives any clue to the meaning of the verse in question? In general, what idea is being developed? What is the flow of thought?”
With the larger context now in view, you can narrow your focus and speculate on the meaning of the verse itself. When you come up with something that seems right, sum it up in your own words. Finally—and this step is critical— see if your paraphrase—your summary—makes sense when inserted in place of the verse in the passage.
I call this “the paraphrase principle.” Replace the text in question with your paraphrase and see if the passage still makes sense in light of the larger context. Is it intelligible when inserted back into the paragraph? Does it dovetail naturally with the bigger picture? If it doesn’t, you know you’re on the wrong track.
This technique will immediately weed out interpretations that are obviously erroneous. It’s not a foolproof positive test for accuracy since some faulty interpretations could still be coherent in the context. However, it is a reliable negative test, quickly eliminating alternatives that don’t fit the flow of thought.
If you will begin to do these two things—read the context carefully and apply the paraphrase principle—you will radically improve the accuracy of your interpretations. Remember, meaning always flows from the larger units to the smaller units. Without the bigger picture, you’ll likely be lost.
Don’t forget the rule: Never read a Bible verse. Always read a paragraph at least if you want to be confident you’re getting the right meaning of the verse.
Do I take the Bible literally? I try to I take it at its plain meaning unless I have some good reason to do otherwise. This is the basic rule we apply to everything we read: novels, newspapers, periodicals, and poems. I don’t see why the Bible should be any different.
1 For the record, I think the immorality of homosexuality is one of those universals since, among other reasons, it’s identified in the New Testament as wrong irrespective of the Mosaic Law (e.g., Rom. 1:27).
2 The exception to the generalization would be the parables Jesus told His disciples so that they would understand the meaning, but the crowds listening in would not. Mark 4:10
3 C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, “Afterword to Third Edition,” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 208.
4 In more than one instance, Jesus described Hell as “outer darkness” (e.g., Matt. 8:12) and literal flames give light.
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