Revelation: The story comes full circle

We often refer to being ‘fed’ by God’s Word. You could even think of the various biblical genres as different kinds of food. To me, the letters to the churches are like a thick, juicy steak, something you can really sink your teeth into. (If you’re a vegetarian, maybe you could compare it to a savory veggie lasagna.) Some of the psalms are almost the equivalent of a sweet, creamy ice cream sundae. On the other hand, the genealogies or chapters of laws and regulations are often more like lima beans or brussels sprouts; we know they serve a purpose and are good for us, but they’re not the most enjoyable thing to eat!

I compare studying the book of Revelation to eating a crab (or maybe an artichoke). Imagine going out with friends to a seafood restaurant that specializes in crab—but you’ve never eaten crab before. The smell is different but somehow appealing, and people seem to be enjoying eating it . . . but how in the world are you supposed to get into this thing and find the meat?! This is the kind of challenge we often experience with Revelation. The book is strongly compelling to many believers, even to brand new Christians. But it also creates a lot of confusion. Just how are we supposed to crack this book open?

Adding to our desire to get a handle on this book is a potential blessing described right in the book:

God blesses the one who reads the words of this prophecy to the church, and he blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is near.

Revelation 1:3

This sounds like a book we want to understand, doesn’t it? Thankfully, there are some basic facts about this book that help us sort out what it’s all about.

Apocalyptic
If you’ve been with us through the rest of this series on studying the Bible, you’ve seen different kinds of biblical literature that are probably familiar to you. We still have letters today, and also history, legal codes, poetry and even proverbs. We can relate to these scriptural genres. But the book of Revelation is a kind of literature called apocalyptic, and this is not as familiar to us. We no longer have apocalyptic literature being written today, but it was fairly common in the 1st century. So what exactly is it?

Apocalyptic writings claimed to reveal the secrets of what would occur at the end of time. The biblical book of Revelation is not only apocalyptic, but also prophetic. These weren’t just some strange visions that John somehow got a glimpse of, they were given to him by God for the purpose of communicating them to God’s people. But there is a common characteristic of apocalyptic writing that we have to be very aware of when we begin to read and study the book of Revelation:

Symbolic
Apocalyptic writing was always highly symbolic. Very little was written clearly and literally, but symbolism was used throughout these writings to communicate their message. That’s the nature of this kind of literature, and this is what we should expect when we read Revelation. Is this what we find?

In the first chapter of Revelation, we’re introduced to seven gold lampstands, which we discover represent seven churches. Seven stars represent the angels of these seven churches. It doesn’t take us long to see that this book is filled with symbols that represent something important, but we need to recognize that most of what we read in Revelation was not intended for us to understand literally. These vivid, colorful descriptions represent things that are very real, but the descriptions are meant to be symbolic.

If you search through Christian art from the Middle Ages, you can find paintings depicting Christ returning with a sword protruding from his mouth. But all biblical scholars recognize that this sword (Revelation 19:15) is not to be understood as a literal sword, but as a symbol or representation of the Word of God. If we aren’t trying to interpret everything in this book literally, we’ll avoid a lot of confusion. For example, some of you may have heard attempts to understand, as literal, the scorpion-like locusts in Revelation 9:1-12 with gold crowns on their heads, faces like humans, hair like women and teeth like a lion. If we try to hard to interpret something literally that is meant to be symbolic, the results can be pretty silly—and we can miss the whole point of the elements in the prophecy.

This is challenging for many of us, because we’re accustomed to understanding the Bible literally. While the Bible includes metaphors and colorfully poetic expressions (as do most writings), everything indicates that the events recorded in Scripture are to be understood as actual, literal events. As a rule of thumb, we assume what we read in the Bible is literal unless something in the text indicates otherwise. In other words, it means what it says (just as we do today). With apocalyptic writing such as the book of Revelation (and parts of the Old Testament prophetic books such as Daniel), we have to turn this rule completely around: In Revelation we must assume that what we read is symbolic unless something in the text indicates otherwise.

Tied to the Old Testament
John (the author) makes specific references to the Old Testament over 200 times in the book of Revelation. The imagery he uses is almost always drawn directly from the Old Testament. This means the more familiar we are with the Old Testament, the easier it will be for us to understand the book of Revelation.

Not written in chronological order
You may have noticed there are many series of seven in the book of Revelation. In the first three chapters, we see seven churches. In the rest of the book, we find seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc. If you’ve ever tried to fit all of these into chronological order, you may have become very confused. Here’s an example of why this is a problem. If you read in Revelation 6:12-17, you’ll see a description of what happens when the sixth seal is broken:

I watched as the Lamb broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun became as dark as black cloth, and the moon became as red as blood. Then the stars of the sky fell to the earth like green figs falling from a tree shaken by a strong wind. The sky rolled up like a scroll, and all of the mountains and islands were moved from their places.

Then everyone—the kings of the earth, the rulers, the generals, the wealthy, the powerful, and every slave and free person—all hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they cried to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to survive?”

What is this describing? It certainly sounds like the very end, doesn’t it? But if we’re trying to fit Revelation into chronological order, we have a real problem because we still have seven trumpets and seven bowls to go. If you read the end of the series of seven trumpets (Revelation 11:15-19) and the series of seven bowls (16:17-21), they also sound like the very end. How do we make sense of this?

If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, this actually shouldn’t be so confusing. We often see in Scripture what the scholars call “recapitulation.” For instance, do you realize we have three accounts of creation in the first part of Genesis? What does the first sentence of the Bible say? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s one complete (albeit very brief) account of creation. The rest of chapter one tells us the story again, this time describing in greater detail how God created and focusing primarily on the story from the perspective of the earth. Chapter two “recapitulates” the story, this time zooming in on the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve.

The book of Revelation is doing something similar. When we study the seven seals, there is very little that ties these descriptions to the end of time until we get to the sixth seal. The seven trumpets seem to zoom in much closer to events of the very last days. They also grow in intensity, from the seals affecting one-fourth of the earth to the trumpets affecting one-third.  The seven bowls not only zoom in even closer to the time of the end, but there are amazing parallels between the trumpets and the bowls: how they affect the earth, seas, water, living things, the sun, bringing darkness, ushering in a great final battle, etc. And the bowls intensify from affecting one-third to everyone and everything.

This is just a brief taste of the parallels and patterns you’ll find in the book of Revelation. But if you don’t try to fit everything into some chronological order, you’ll avoid a lot of confusion and unnecessary exegetical gymnastics (that is, trying to fit square pegs into round holes to make everything fit).

The scope of the book
Throughout much of the history of the church, Bible scholars have debated the intended range and focus of this book. Some have felt that Revelation gives us only a very broad, generally encouraging theme of struggle and suffering, but ultimately of God triumphing. Others have protested that there seems to be much more rich detail in this book than would be required for a general, encouraging message of “God wins.” Some have thought what is described in Revelation is prophecy regarding events that have already occurred, while others see Revelation as being entirely fulfilled in our future.

More and more, students of Scripture are seeing Revelation as being, in a sense, all of the above. It is undeniably a figurative depiction of the struggle and suffering of God’s people and the ultimate judgment and triumph of God. And we can see where certain sections may very well point to things that have already occurred in history. But it seems just as clear that much of the prophecy in this book awaits fulfillment and, as we learned last week, prophecy often has a partial, immediate fulfillment and a final, complete, ultimate fulfillment.

Full circle
One of the most important things for us to do when reading Revelation is to see it from a ‘big picture’ perspective, in light of God’s master plan as revealed in Scripture. When we see Revelation in the context of the rest of the Bible, we find more wonderful parallels.

Genesis begins with creation. Revelation ends with new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. The first chapter of Genesis shows God systematically bringing order into chaos. In Revelation, we first see God removing his order and maintenance from his creation and allowing the encroaching chaos free reign (in essence, undoing much of Genesis 1), and then reestablishing his perfect and beautiful order. We go from the Tree of Life restricted from humanity in the Garden, to the Tree of Life freely given in the new Jerusalem.

Most importantly, we go from separation from God in Genesis—with the corresponding curse, decay and death—to complete restoration and reconciliation in Revelation. Heaven and earth as one (Revelation 21:3-5):

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said,

“Look,
I am making everything new!”

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle [see above]

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

So, you decided to read the Bible straight through from the beginning. (This isn’t the only way to read it, or necessarily the best. But for some reason we all seem drawn to read Scripture this way from time to time.) You slogged through all the genealogies and laws. You read carefully the historical stories and poetic writings.  And then you arrive at the prophets. A verse here and there may sound familiar, but most of it makes you wonder: What in the world is this all about?

If there’s any part of the Bible that’s difficult to simply pick up, read and understand, it’s the prophetic books. While there are brief snatches of history in some of the prophetic books, they are few and far between. This leaves most of what you’re reading without any immediate context. Those of you who’ve been reading our Taking Root studies for awhile will remember that we have a handy tool for just such times. A good study Bible will explain who the author was, to whom they were writing and why, and what the historical setting was. Without this background information, we’re not going to be able to understand what these books are all about. Even with this background information, there are a few additional tips that can be helpful when reading the prophets:

Historical setting
This week we’re discussing the Old Testament prophetic books. (We’ll explore the New Testament book of Revelation next week.) So these books are focused primarily on God’s interaction with the people of Israel. When Solomon died and his son Rehoboam assumed the throne, the nation of Israel was divided into two separate kingdoms: the northern nation of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Very quickly, Israel fell into idolatrous worship of false gods. God eventually allowed them to be completely destroyed by the Assyrians.

Judah continued to be ruled by the line of David, and enjoyed the presence of the Temple in Jerusalem. As with Israel, the history of Judah also includes decline and idolatry, but interspersed with periods of repentance and reform. Their downward spiral took longer than their brothers and sisters to the north but they also were eventually conquered. Their beautiful capitol city and Temple were destroyed, and most of the surviving people were taken captive to Babylon. 70 years later, they were allowed to return to their home, rebuild the Temple and eventually restore the city of Jerusalem.

Confronting his people
Three weeks ago, we learned about the psalms in the Bible. We saw how the psalms are prayers to God, not always God’s words to us. But the prophetic books are very different. The prophets were people whom God specifically called to be his official messengers to his people. When they spoke their prophecies, they were speaking the words of God himself; they were quoting him verbatim. This is why we repeatedly see in the prophetic books some variation of the phrase: “These are the words of the LORD . . .”

Much of what God had to say to his people was direct confrontation:

The LORD gave another message to Jeremiah. He said, “Go to the entrance of the LORD’S Temple, and give this message to the people: ‘O Judah, listen to this message from the LORD! Listen to it, all of you who worship here! This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says:

“‘Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. But don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the LORD’S Temple is here. They chant, “The LORD’S Temple is here! The LORD’S Temple is here!” But I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever.

“‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie! Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, “We are safe!”—only to go right back to all those evils again? Don’t you yourselves admit that this Temple, which bears my name, has become a den of thieves? Surely I see all the evil going on there. I, the LORD, have spoken!

“‘Go now to the place of Shiloh where I once put the Tabernacle that bore my name. See what I did there because of the wickedness of my people, the Israelites. While you were doing these wicked things, says the LORD, I spoke to you about it repeatedly, but you would not listen. I called out to you, but you refused to answer. So just as I destroyed Shiloh, I will now destroy this Temple that bears my name, the Temple that you trust in for help, this place that I gave you and your ancestors. And I will send you out of my sight into exile, just as I did your relatives, the people of Israel.'”

Jeremiah 7:1-15 

As you read through the prophetic books, you’ll also notice that sometimes God gave the people the opportunity to repent and avoid the judgment awaiting them. But other times, he let them know judgment was coming and that he would not relent. And it’s not just his own people whom he confronts; he has quite a bit to say to the surrounding nations as well.

Revealing the future
This is where it gets a little tricky. We’re used to assuming that every prophecy telling about the future is revealing our future. But that’s usually not the case in the Old Testament prophetic books. Much of the material from the prophets is simply God confronting his people and letting them know what awaits them if they don’t return to him. We also find prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ sprinkled throughout the prophetic books. For us, these prophecies are all concerning the past—although they still teach us about how God interacts with his people, and they serve to validate the earthly ministry of Jesus.

Yet there are also important passages that point to the very end of history and the culmination of all things in Christ. One of the interesting things about the prophetic books is that they often include prophecies regarding both what is past (for us) and what is still present—but the prophecies are in the same immediate context and not always easy to tell apart! Have you ever seen a mountain range in the distance while you’re traveling? It can seem as if two mountains are right next to each other, but when you get closer, you realize that a huge distance separates them. This is the kind of challenge we have when interpreting the prophetic books.

To see a great example of this, compare the prophecy in Isaiah 61:1-2 with Jesus’ reading of this prophecy in Luke 4:16-21. Do you notice how Jesus reads all of the prophecy except the last line: “. . . and with it, the day of God’s anger against his enemies”? Why is that? Because the last line is referring to when Christ comes in judgment, and this wasn’t yet occurring during his first coming.

Two authors
Another thing to remember about Scripture is that it actually has two authors—the human author and the divine Author. This means that the Author (Holy Spirit) could include meaning that the author (human) wouldn’t have understood. We can reach back to the psalms for a perfect example of this. When Jesus was on the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Jews would have immediately recognized this as a quote from Psalm 22. What’s amazing is that David wrote this psalm hundreds of years before crucifixion existed as a form of execution. Yet when you read the psalm he wrote, the similarities to the crucifixion of Jesus are astounding:

Everyone who sees me mocks me.
They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
“Is this the one who relies on the LORD?
Then let the LORD save him!
If the LORD loves him so much,
let the LORD rescue him!” . . .
My life is poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart is like wax,
melting within me.
My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.
You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.
My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;
an evil gang closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones.
My enemies stare at me and gloat.
They divide my garments among themselves
and throw dice for my clothing.

Psalm 22:7-18 

There is nothing in this psalm that indicates David was speaking of someone other than himself. Obviously, he was writing figuratively about what his enemies were doing to him. But the language he uses is overly strong for what he was experiencing; it points beyond the immediate circumstance to something greater. And we see the fulfillment in the death of Christ. The Holy Spirit inspired David to write something that—though it had real meaning to him at the time—included a deeper meaning that David couldn’t have grasped then. (In another place, when Daniel asks for an explanation of the vision he’s seen, he’s essentially told, ‘Never mind, this isn’t for you’ [Daniel 12:5-13].)

Most of the prophecies we read in Scripture have some kind of fulfillment in relatively close proximity to the time of the prophecy. But as you read these prophecies, watch for elements that don’t fit, that were not completely fulfilled. Isaiah 13 is a prophecy about the destruction of Babylon, but as you read it you’ll see language that actually describes a final judgment at the very end. Many prophecies have an immediate, partial fulfillment but await(ed) an ultimate fulfillment either at Christ’s first coming or his return.

Ultimate restoration
The prophecies we read reveal a pervasive corruption and stubborn rebellion against God by his people. Through the prophet Isaiah (65:1-2), God said to them:

I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help.
I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me.
I said, “Here I am , here I am!”
to a nation that did not call on my name.
All day long I have opened my arms to a rebellious people.
But they follow their own evil paths
and their own crooked schemes.

Through prophecy after prophecy, God warned them what was coming. But the people stubbornly wouldn’t listen. So God disciplined his people by allowing them to be conquered and humiliated. Jerusalem was laid waste, and the Temple was destroyed. But the good news is that he didn’t utterly reject them. Even while he was telling them of their impending judgment, he encouraged the people that he would one day restore them:

But this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I will certainly bring my people back again from all the countries where I will scatter them in my fury. I will bring them back to this very city and let them live in peace and safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. . . .

In the empty streets of Jerusalem and Judah’s other towns, there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and laughter. The joyful voices of bridegrooms and brides will be heard again, along with the joyous songs of people bringing thanksgiving offerings to the LORD.

Jeremiah 32:37-38, 33:10-11

But the prophecies of restoration and healing go beyond what God did for the people of Israel:

People from many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of Jacob’s God.
There he will teach us his ways,
and we will walk in his paths.”
For the LORD’S teaching will go out from Zion;
his word will go out from Jerusalem.
The LORD will mediate between nations
and will settle international disputes.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
nor train for war anymore.

In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together;
the leopard will lie down with the baby goat.
The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion,
and a little child will lead them all.
The cow will graze near the bear.
The cub and the calf will lie down together.
The lion will eat hay like a cow.
The baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra.
Yes, a little child will put its hand
in a nest of deadly snakes without harm.
Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,
for as the waters fill the sea,
so the earth will be filled
with people who know the LORD.

Isaiah 2:3-4, 11:6-9

This isn’t just good news for the ancient people of Israel; it’s the wonderful hope for all of God’s people. This is the future we can all anticipate. Just as God disciplines and judges, so he will heal and restore.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back [see above]

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

Walk with the wise and become wise;
associate with fools and get in trouble.

Proverbs 13:20

Sounds like good advice, doesn’t it? Thankfully, the Bible provides a number of books we refer to as ‘wisdom literature.’ Last week, we explored the Book of Psalms, and many of the psalms were intended to pass on wisdom. In addition to these psalms, we have the books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. We’ll take a look at each of these, but first we need to know exactly what we’re talking about.

The passage I quoted above teaches us to walk with the wise and to not associate with fools. Does this mean we should seek out the brightest people to spend time with, and avoid those who are not quite as sharp? Should we have people take an IQ test before we hang out with them? The word wise in the Bible doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. It refers to someone who has a ‘skill for living,’ particularly in the sense of making choices and decisions that are truly godly. On the other hand, fools aren’t people who are ignorant or unintelligent, but those who willingly resist and defy what they know to be right, and insist on stubbornly doing their own thing. This is why:

Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom.
Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment.

Proverbs 9:10

So if these biblical books will help us gain this skill in living godly, healthy lives, we should take a closer look.


Job

The book of Job is a very ancient book, possibly even written before the time of Moses. Many people are familiar with the basic story: God allowed Satan to harm Job (but not to kill him). Through tragedy after tragedy, Job lost almost everything he knew and loved. Despite being tempted even by his wife to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9), Job held onto his faith in God, movingly expressed in words such as these:

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.

Job 13:15 (NIV)

 

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised.

Job 1:21

The book of Job begins and ends with the story of Job, but most of the book is a poetic exchange between Job and his friends (and ultimately God). It’s easy to get lost in all the Hebrew poetry, so it’s important to pay attention to who’s speaking at any given point. This is especially necessary because Job’s friends have an understanding of Job’s predicament that is completely upside down. They tell him repeatedly, in very poetic words, that all of his troubles are because of his sin. They insist that if he would simply repent to God and stop sinning, then all the bad things will stop happening and he’ll experience only what is pleasant. (We still hear this today, don’t we?) Toward the end of the book, God himself rebukes the friends and their condemnation of Job. So we want to make sure we’re not drawing our wisdom from the unwise friends of Job! And we certainly don’t want to be teaching their erroneous thoughts as the wisdom of God—as I’ve seen done!


Ecclesiastes

If you don’t understand what this book is all about, it can be the most depressing book in the Bible. Many believe the author was Solomon, although other scholars disagree. Solomon does seem to fit the author’s descriptions of himself. He was king of Israel, ruling from Jerusalem. He had almost unlimited resources and power. And he made it his goal to discover the ultimate meaning of life. He begins the book with his conclusion:

“Everything is meaningless,”
says the Teacher,
“completely meaningless!”

Ecclesiastes 1:2

Isn’t that uplifting? After describing the continuous, unending cycles within nature, he writes:

Everything is wearisome beyond description.
No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied.
No matter how much we hear, we are not content.
History merely repeats itself.
It has all been done before.
Nothing under the sun is truly new.
We don’t remember what happened in the past,
and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now.

Ecclesiastes 1:8-11

In the rest of his book, he tells us of everything he tried in order to find meaning and purpose in life. He poured himself into great accomplishments and building projects, into learning and wisdom. He sought to bring justice and benefit to society, and he sought pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Everything became ultimately meaningless to him, like “grasping oil” or “chasing the wind.” The best he could come up with is to fear God, work hard, and enjoy whatever you have with those you love for as long as you can. (Doesn’t sound that different from the common wisdom of today, does it?) For a book we find in the Bible, it’s surprisingly cynical.

But then we notice a phrase that is repeated throughout the book. The author is describing what he’s found “under the sun.” The meaninglessness and elusive, fleeting sense of purpose is the best one can expect to find by looking merely “under the sun”—that is, from a purely human perspective. Unless we can somehow see life from God’s perspective, this is the most we can hope for. I like to compare the depressing, “under the sun” meaninglessness of Ecclesiastes with the words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Philippians 3:7-8

So we see only what is under the sun, or we see everything that is under the Son.


Song of Songs

This book (another one associated with Solomon) can be confusing to readers. If you don’t know it’s there, it can seem surprisingly graphic for something in the Bible:

Your lips are like scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is inviting.
Your cheeks are like rosy pomegranates
behind your veil.
Your neck is as beautiful as the tower of David,
jeweled with the shields of a thousand heroes.
Your breasts are like two fawns,
twin fawns of a gazelle grazing among the lilies.
Before the dawn breezes blow
and the night shadows flee,
I will hurry to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of frankincense.
You are altogether beautiful, my darling,
beautiful in every way.

Song of Songs 4:3-7

Now, today we wouldn’t ordinarily compliment someone by telling them, “Your teeth are as white as sheep”(!) but it’s not hard to look past the ancient Hebrew expressions to see the emotions being expressed. These are emotions that most of us know well. The church went through a period of history when many were embarrassed by the sexual frankness of this book. So they decided it was an allegory about Christ and the church. The problem is that this book is about precisely what it seems to be about! It’s difficult to read Christ and the church into a passage such as:

You are my private garden,
my treasure, my bride,
a secluded spring, a hidden fountain.
Your thighs shelter a paradise of pomegranates . . .

Song of Songs 4:12-13

Okay, but why is it in the Bible? And why are we talking about this book in a study of the wisdom books in the Bible? Don’t forget what “wisdom” is all about in Scripture. It’s a skillfulness in living a life that is pleasing to God (and therefore healthy). Next to our relationship with God, what is more central to our lives than our marital relationship? And what demonstrates the wisdom of God better than a healthy, vibrant marriage?

I think it’s wonderful that this book is in Scripture. Many times, Christians have viewed sexual intimacy as a necessary evil. But the Bible celebrates this beautiful intimacy between husband and wife. We need to remember that the magic of romantic love and the wondrous intensity of emotional, physical and spiritual intimacy we experience in marriage were all created for us by God. The more we see the precious beauty of God-given sexual intimacy in marriage, the more we clearly see sex outside of the marriage relationship as the cheap imitation it is.


Proverbs

When we think of wisdom literature in the Bible, we usually think of the book of Proverbs, so I’ve kept this book for last. We first need to remember that this is a poetic book, so we should expect the usual poetic forms as I described last week. For instance, one proverb tells us:

Sensible children bring joy to their father;
foolish children despise their mother.

Proverbs 15:20

I recall studying this verse in a Bible study years ago, and someone was trying to explain how this proverb showed the different ways mothers and fathers relate to their children. Of course, if we understand how poetry works in the Scriptures, we’ll know this proverb is simply saying the same thing in two different ways. Don’t make the mistake of overcomplicating poetry.

As we’re reading proverbs in the Bible, one of the most important things for us to remember is the nature of a proverb. What is a proverb? We’re all very familiar with proverbs, even if we’ve never read the Bible before. Every culture has proverbs. A proverb is simply a catchy saying that expresses a general truth. Here’s a common American proverb:

Early to bed, early to rise,
makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Is this proverb true? Well, yes, sure it is. But is it an absolute law? Is every person who goes to bed early and rises early guaranteed health and wealth and wisdom? No, of course not. It’s not some kind of law; it’s just expressing a general principle. It’s a short, pithy expression of something that is generally true, without including all of the clarifying details. That’s what a proverb is—and that’s also what a proverb is in the Bible. Let me give you an example:

Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools,
or you will become as foolish as they are.

Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools,
or they will become wise in their own estimation.

Proverbs 26:4-5

Now, is the Bible contradicting itself? No, because these aren’t absolute commands; they’re expressions of principles that are generally true, and very wise. It’s not hard for us to see the wisdom in both proverbs. We don’t want to lower ourselves to the level of the fool (the person stubbornly defying God) and enter into their silly arguments. It just makes us look as foolish as they. But then there’s also a time to counter foolish arguments. If we just remain silent, the claims of the fool could appear unassailable. So we have two proverbs, wisely giving us both perspectives of this problem.

It’s important that we read the proverbs as they’re intended. The proverbs in Scripture are general principles, not absolute promises. It’s common to hear people claim certain proverbs as promises from God that will never fail.

Direct your child onto the right path,
and when they are older, they will not leave it.

Proverbs 22:6

Is this really telling us that if we raise our kids right, when they’re older they will remain faithful? Are good Christian parents guaranteed to have good Christian children? (Does this mean that God was a faulty ‘parent,’ not directing Adam and Eve onto the right path?) Can we claim this as a promise from God? No, because this isn’t found in the book of Promises, but the book of Proverbs—and that’s exactly what it is, a proverb. This is expressing a general principle—kids tend to continue in life according to how they were raised—not an absolute promise or guarantee. The book of Proverbs was not intended to catalogue promises from God, but short, catchy sayings that make us wiser in how we approach life. We need to use them the way God intended.

A proverb is a general principle,
not an absolute promise.

You’ll find humorous proverbs:

A beautiful woman who lacks discretion
is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.

Proverbs 11:22

Sarcastic proverbs:

Without oxen a stable stays clean,
but you need a strong ox for a large harvest.

Proverbs 14:4

And proverbs with sober warnings:

There is a path before each person that seems right,
but it ends in death.

Proverbs 14:12

There are two primary truths the wisdom literature in Scripture emphasizes over and over again:

1. True wisdom (skill in living a healthy life) comes from God.

2. Wisdom is of inestimable value, something to be earnestly sought.

Tune your ears to wisdom,
and concentrate on understanding.
Cry out for insight,
and ask for understanding.
Search for them as you would for silver;
seek them like hidden treasures.
Then you will understand what it means to fear the LORD,
and you will gain knowledge of God.

Proverbs 2:2-5

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom [see above]

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

The scene is familiar to most of us. We’ve lost someone we care about, so we gather together to share in our grief. At some point, someone may stand and recite these words:

The LORD is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the LORD forever.

Many immediately recognize this as the 23rd Psalm. But no matter how many times we’ve heard the words before, they still have an effect on us. David’s expression of trust and confidence in his Shepherd somehow comforts and encourages us as well.

The first thing many of us learn about the Book of Psalms is that it’s the really big book in the middle of the Bible! If you’re trying to find a book in the Old Testament, it helps to know whether it comes before Psalms or after. But the psalms are much more than just a handy navigating tool. In fact, they’ve become some of the best-loved, most-remembered passages in Scripture. What is it about them that draws so many people to the psalms?

Prayers
To begin with, we need to recognize that the psalms are not teaching passages like the letters to the churches, and they’re not straightforward stories, such as in the Gospels and Old Testament history. The psalms are prayers. While, in most of Scripture we’re used to God speaking to his people, in the psalms his people spoke to God.

But these aren’t mere routine, go-through-the-motions prayers. These psalmists express overflowing joy and overwhelming sorrow. Because they prayed from their heart, conveying the depth of their emotions, their prayers still resonate with us. Their joy-filled words help us communicate our joy to God; their thankfulness helps us express our gratitude; the pain and confusion they share free us to cry out to God in our own pain and confusion. In speaking to God they speak to us, and help us to speak to God, too.

So, while the psalms do at times tell a story or refer to theological truths, this isn’t their primary focus. The psalms are much more centered on the emotional aspect of our relationship to God and our spiritual lives than they are delivering information. We should accept the psalms for what they are and not try to glean content from them they’re not intended to convey.

Poetry
The psalms are poetry, and we need to read them this way. They use a lot of colorful, descriptive language that we’re not intended to understand literally. When we’re told that God will “shelter you with his wings” we’re not to imagine God as a giant chicken, and when it says the mountains “skip like a calf” we shouldn’t assume some cataclysmic, geological event. This is the kind of poetic language we should expect in the psalms.

We also need to remember that the psalms are in the Old Testament. While some of the psalms look forward to Christ in amazing, prophetic ways, all of them were written long before Jesus was born. The people who wrote the psalms were still under the Old Covenant that God established with the nation of Israel, so they speak often of the Temple, sacrifices, the law, etc. Some of the psalms were used at special times, such as during Passover or the coronation of a new king. This doesn’t mean they can’t be meaningful to us now, but we need to understand them in their historical context.

Music
You’ll also notice they’re numbered. The psalms were prayers set to music, and the Book of Psalms was the songbook for the people of Israel. Each psalm is an individual unit and may focus on a completely different subject than the psalms before and after it. So when we’re reading the psalms, we don’t look at context quite the same as we do in other, more cohesive, books of the Bible.

Because the psalms are music, they’re structured in ways that show their lyrical nature. Many of the psalms have verses and a repeating chorus. Some are call-and-repeat type songs. All of them follow standard forms of Hebrew poetry. One of the most common forms (which we see throughout the psalms and in many other poetic sections in the Bible) is to have two lines say essentially the same thing in a slightly different, creative way:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
and their words to all the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

Do you see how each pair of lines is saying the same thing in slightly different ways? It’s helpful for us to know that this is a common way for Hebrew poetry to work. When the psalm says “the skies display his craftsmanship,” it’s saying essentially the same thing as “the heavens proclaim the glory of God.” If we try to contrast what’s happening “day after day” in verse 2 from what’s happening “night after night,” we’re missing the point—or better put, the poetry—of the psalm. When you read the psalms, read them the way you would song lyrics, sensing the emotional depth of what the psalmist is expressing.

Psalms to fit every need
Just as there are many different emotions involved in our spiritual lives, so there’s more than one kind of psalm. There are psalms of celebration:

Shout with joy to the LORD, all the earth!
Worship the LORD with gladness.
Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the LORD is God!
He made us, and we are his.
We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good.
His unfailing love continues forever,
and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

Psalm 100

There are psalms of worshipful adoration:

O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water.
I have seen you in your sanctuary
and gazed upon your power and glory.
Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
how I praise you!
I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
I will praise you with songs of joy.

Psalm 63:1-5

There are psalms of repentance:

Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
and your judgment against me is just. . . .
Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Oh, give me back my joy again;
you have broken me—
now let me rejoice.
Don’t keep looking at my sins.
Remove the stain of my guilt.
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.
Then I will teach your ways to rebels,
and they will return to you.
Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves;
then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.
Unseal my lips, O Lord,
that my mouth may praise you.
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.

Psalm 51:1-17

There are psalms to help us cry out to God when we’re confused and discouraged:

O LORD, low long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Turn and answer me, O LORD my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the LORD because he is good to me.

Psalm 13

Notice how David (the author of this psalm) asks God, “How long will you forget me?” and “How long will you look the other way?” Does this mean God was actually forgetting him or looking the other way? No, it doesn’t. Remember these aren’t God’s words to David (and us), they’re David’s words to God. They tell us movingly how David felt. And this speaks to us because we’ve felt the same way. This encourages us that we can express to God exactly what we’re feeling. We can pour out our sorrow and frustration to God.

But also notice that David doesn’t give up on his faith in God. After crying out with such anguish—and probably contrary to everything he was feeling and experiencing—David chooses to cling to his hope in God: “But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice . . . I will sing to the LORD . . .”

We even see in the psalms that we can express our anger to God:

Bring shame and disgrace on those trying to kill me;
turn them back and humiliate those who want to harm me.
Blow them away like chaff in the wind—
a wind sent by the angel of the LORD.
Make their path dark and slippery,
with the angel of the LORD pursuing them.
I did them no wrong, but they laid a trap for me.
I did them no wrong, but they dug a pit to catch me.
So let sudden ruin come upon them!
Let them be caught in the trap they set for me!
Let them be destroyed in the pit they dug for me.

Psalm 35:4-8

Is this what God wants for David’s enemies? Not necessarily. This doesn’t tell us God wants to harm or destroy these people anymore than Psalm 13 tells us God forgot David. This is David’s prayer to God, not God’s answer. This perfectly reveals to us the heart of David, not the heart of God. And we can’t forget we now follow the perfect example of Jesus who taught us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, the one who prayed, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” But these psalms do show us we can express and confess our anger to God. After all, he already knows how mad we are. We can’t hide our anger from him! Better to pour out our feelings to God, than to vent our rage at someone else.

The psalms are a beautiful example of God meeting us where we’re at. No matter what emotions or circumstances we’re struggling with, God has provided us examples of other believers wrestling with the very same things. This should comfort us that we’re not alone in our experiences; other children of God have felt the same things, and God has faithfully brought them through to the other side. And these psalms should encourage us to do as they did: pour out our highest praise, deepest anguish, and most intense longings to the One who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. He is our Shepherd, and he will lovingly care for us.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us [see above]

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

Every now and then in a class or Bible study, someone will emphasize that Christians must faithfully obey the Ten Commandments. Now, part of the job of the teacher is to challenge the people they’re teaching, to get them wrestling with vital concepts, to facilitate a certain amount of creative tension. Often we need to spend more time questioning answers than answering questions. And I certainly cause some head-scratching when I ask: “Are we supposed to obey the Ten Commandments?”

“Of course, we are!” a few people will say confidently.

“Why?”

This usually leaves the people more than a little nonplussed. Finally, someone will say, “Because it’s in the Bible. It’s God’s law.”

“So, you keep the Ten Commandments?”

“I do my best to, yes.”

“Do you keep the Sabbath?”

“Well, I . . . um . . . I try to reserve Sunday for worshiping God and spending time with my family.”

“That’s great,” I’ll say, “but that’s not keeping the Sabbath. If we’re going to follow God’s law, we can’t alter it or adjust it. The Sabbath is the seventh day, which is Saturday. And keeping the Sabbath didn’t have anything to do with going to church. It was having a day of total rest. No work, no chores around the house, not even any cooking or traveling. Nothing that would cause you to exert yourself. Do you faithfully do this every Saturday?”

At this point, another believer may jump in and ask, “But aren’t there passages that say we don’t need to observe the Sabbath anymore?”

To which I’ll often respond, “Yes, let’s take a look at a few of them.”

In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable.

Romans 14:5

You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years. I fear for you. Perhaps all my hard work with you was for nothing. Dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to live as I do in freedom from these things, for I have become like you Gentiles—free from those laws.

Galatians 4:10-12

So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality.

Colossians 2:16-17

I also have them look at the example of the early church in the New Testament and see that there’s no place where Christian believers are taught to observe the Sabbath. Finally, I’ll ask, “So, are Christians required to keep the Sabbath?”

“No,” is usually the answer from everyone.

“Okay, then I guess that means that Christians are supposed to obey the Nine Commandments . . . right?”

And now they’re grappling with the issue again! Do you see where the confusion is coming from? We have a tendency to open the Bible anywhere and, because it’s all God’s Word, assume that everything applies to us. In previous studies, we’ve discussed how this causes a lot of confusion and error. We know instinctively that not all of the Old Testament applies to us now. But surely some of it does. Wouldn’t this include the Ten Commandments?

Some have tried to solve this by distinguishing between moral laws and ceremonial laws. There’s only one problem. We don’t find even one place in the Bible—either in the Old Testament or the New—where it categorizes the law in this way. Instead it consistently refers to “the law” in its entirety. To say ‘this isn’t a moral law, it’s a ceremonial law,’ is really just a fancy way of saying, ‘I don’t think this law should apply to me.’ If we don’t have any biblical basis for making this distinction, we’re right back where we started.  (And James is very clear that if we’re going to keep the Mosaic law, we have to keep all of the laws [James 2:10].)

So let’s apply some common sense here:

When were the Ten Commandments given?
When the people were at Mt Sinai, after God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

What was the context?
The Ten Commandments were part of a much more extensive law given to the people by God. This was part of God establishing his covenant with the people.

With whom was God entering into this covenant, and to whom was this law given?
The nation of Israel.

Are we part of the nation of Israel?
Many of us are not. We would fall into the same category as the new Gentile believers in the early church, who were not required to become Jews and obey the Old Covenant law.

So the Old Covenant is not our covenant,
and the Old Testament law is not our law.

But what of Jewish followers of Christ today? Are they obligated to observe the Old Covenant law? The Old Covenant (the formal relationship established between God and the people of Israel), with it’s laws and sacrifices, pointed forward to and anticipated Jesus. He established a New Covenant—a new way for any of us to enter into relationship directly with God.

This New Covenant in Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant (and its laws and sacrifices) and superseded it. All followers of Christ—Jews and Gentiles—are New Covenant people of God. We’ve been freed from the Old Covenant law and are no longer under its jurisdiction. (Some Jewish followers of Christ still observe their traditional laws and customs, but this is because they choose to; they don’t follow the old law to earn God’s favor.)

Do we see this in Scripture? The letter to the Galatians was written about this very issue, so let’s begin there:

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised.

Galatians 3:19

Before the way of Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.

Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.

Galatians 3:23-25

Corresponding to Paul’s teaching in this letter are the many references to us no longer being “under law, but under grace.” The book of Hebrews also makes clear this change:

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves.

Hebrews 10:1

When God speaks of a “new” covenant, it means that he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date and will soon disappear.

Hebrews 8:13

So, does this mean that we can do whatever we want? That we’re not bound by any law at all? Not at all! Paul makes this clear as well in 1 Corinthians 9:20-21:

When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law.

When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ.

Did you notice how he clarifies this? He is not subject to the old Jewish law, but he is still under the law of Christ. James makes the same distinction in James 2:8-13 when he speaks of the “royal law” of love and the “law that sets you free.” Now we can see how significant it was for Jesus to tell his disciples that he was giving them a new commandment (John 13:34).

What is this new commandment of Christ? “Love one another.” When we truly love God and love each other—in faith in Christ and through the power of the Spirit—we fulfill the law. Not only that, but when we view the Old Testament legal instructions through the lens of Christ’s law of love, we’re able to distinguish easily between the unchanging moral requirements of God and the temporary civil and ceremonial laws for the people of Israel.

If you love someone, will you murder them? Of course not. In fact, Jesus says we won’t even have hatred in our hearts toward them. If you love your spouse, will you commit adultery? No. We won’t even entertain lustful thoughts about someone else if we’re truly loving. If we love God, will we worship something or someone in his place? Definitely not.

If we love God and others, will we keep the Sabbath? This isn’t simply a question of love anymore, is it? The Sabbath was intended to set apart the nation of Israel as God’s people. Keeping the Sabbath was a temporary ordinance, not an eternal moral imperative. The same is true of laws prohibiting the eating of pork, marking of one’s body and mixing different kinds of fabric. When we look at the Old Testament law through Christ’s law of love, we’re able to clearly distinguish between the eternal and the temporary, the moral and the ceremonial. But we’re not making this distinction purely on our own, but by seeing everything through Christ’s New Covenant law of love. And it’s not a coincidence that most of the unchanging moral requirements are reiterated in the New Testament, while the temporary civil and ceremonial codes are not.

So are we supposed to obey the Ten Commandments? We follow many of these same commands: we don’t worship other gods, we don’t murder, we don’t steal, etc. But we don’t follow them because they’re in the Ten Commandments. We follow them because we follow the way of Christ and his law of love. To fail to observe these laws would be to fail to love God and each other. But we must keep clear in our minds that we are not the nation of Israel, and we are not under the Old Testament law. We follow Christ and his New Covenant law of love.

We strive every day to love as Jesus loves, and hopefully we’re continually growing in this life of love. One day we will perfectly love as God perfectly loves us. Then we will be truly human as God always intended us to be. And when we are completely transformed by the love and power of Christ, then we will perfectly fulfill the law of God. Because all he requires from us . . . is for us to be who he created us to be.

Related post:

Are Christians supposed to tithe?

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law [see above]

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Last week, we talked about how to read the book of Acts. [Following the story: God and his people, part 2.] We saw that we’re not supposed to model our behavior after everything some biblical character does. We’re careful to remember that stories are stories; they’re narrative in nature, not didactic (i.e. intending to directly instruct). This is especially necessary when reading the book of Acts because it portrays the early church rather than the Old Testament people of God. The inclination is going to be much stronger to pattern ourselves after what we see in Acts.

We looked at an important example of this last week. It’s no more appropriate for us to expect, in our everyday Christian lives today, the same signs and wonders we see in Acts as it was for Elijah to expect the same manifestations of God’s presence experienced at Mt Sinai. God never changes, but the way he works in and through his people does. God’s character and faithfulness are rock solid, never moving, never wavering. But his methods are often unpredictable. Rather than following the same formula every time, he seems to delight in surprising us!

So does this mean we can’t learn anything from Acts? Not at all. Just as with the Old Testament stories, the accounts of the early church tell of a unique period in history. God was doing something completely new and unprecedented in the lives of his people, and it’s important for us to understand this. When we read of the birth of the church in Acts 2, we see God inhabiting his people in a way that had never been true before. Through the Holy Spirit, we now experience an intimacy with God that transcends anything the Old Testament saints knew. This changes everything, and the letters to the churches explore this new relationship we now have with God.

But is this it? Is Acts only useful as history of what God was doing then? Can’t the stories of the early church teach us anything about how we should live as the church? Yes, they can. But we have to be careful. We need to know what applies to us, what does not, and why. To determine whether something in Acts applies to us today, we need to ask two essential questions:

1. Is this principle taught elsewhere, especially in the letters to the churches?

2. Is this a one-time occurrence, or do we see this principle consistently described through the book of Acts?

Let’s try these criteria on a couple of issues that are important for us today.

Proposed principle to consider:

The church is to be led by a group of co-equal pastoral leaders
with no one taking a distinguished senior role.

Can we use the accounts in Acts to teach this? Well, let’s look at our first question. Do we see the principle of shared pastoral leadership taught in the letters to the churches? There is no explicit command that the churches are to be led this way. But we do find an impressive number of references to teams of elders/overseers (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 4:14, 5:17-19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Many of these passages describe aspects of their pastoral ministry, or give instructions regarding the appointment and pay of elders. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 provide the qualifications for elders.

Contrasted with these references, we find no mention of a sole church pastor or a designated senior leader in distinction to the elders, no appointment of such a leader, and no qualifications given for one. This overwhelming consistency over a broad range of New Testament authors and letters is hard to dispute. So we do find this principle implicitly taught in the letters to the churches.

What of our second criterion? Is there only an isolated example of this principle, or do we see it consistently described through the book of Acts? We find references to church elders in Acts 11:30, 14:23, 15:2-23, 16:4, 20:17-38, and 21:18. These references are all to groups of elders (plural), and again we see no reference to a sole or senior pastor/elder/overseer (even when we might expect such a reference). We observe Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in each of the churches they planted (14:23). We see elders deliberating with the apostles concerning requirements for Gentile believers (Acts 15). And we read instructions given directly to a team of elders (20:17-38), including the commands to pastor and keep watch over the church. Supporting this principle, in the early chapters of Acts we even see the apostles leading the church in Jerusalem as a group, with no designated “chief apostle.”

So this principle of shared pastoral leadership, with no senior elder/pastor, passes our test. There is no great cultural difference in the way we carry out this principle, so our churches today should be led in the same way. And it is entirely appropriate for us to use the stories in Acts in studying or teaching on this biblical principle. Do you see how we arrived at this conclusion? Let’s look at another test case:

Proposed principle to consider:

Baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs after salvation
and is always accompanied by speaking in tongues.

Many Christians use the book of Acts to teach this principle. But when answering our first question, we begin to run into problems. Do we find the principle that baptism in the Holy Spirit normally occurs after salvation in the letters to the churches? Actually, we see just the opposite. There is no reference at all in the epistles (i.e. the letters to the churches) to believers receiving the Spirit subsequent to salvation, and passages such as Romans 8:9, 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Ephesians 1:13-14 indicate that the receiving of the Holy Spirit is an integral aspect of our initial salvation.

What of the claim that every Christian should speak in tongues when they receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Here again, no passage outside of Acts suggests such an idea, and Paul pointedly opposes it in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. So not only is this principle not taught in the letters to the churches, the clear teaching we see in these letters contradicts this idea.

Then why is this teaching so prevalent? Those who support this principle do so by relying on the stories in the book of Acts. So let’s test this claim with our second question. When we look at the accounts in Acts of believers receiving the Holy Spirit, do we see consistency? There are four descriptions of the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts: Acts 2:1-41, 8:4-25, 10:1-48 and 19:1-7. How consistent were these experiences? Let’s compare them:

Intentionally waiting for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on them:
Chapter 2 account: yes
Chapter 8 account: no
Chapter 10 account: no
Chapter 19 account: no

A sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: no

What looked like flames or tongues of fire appearing and settling on each of them:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: no

Hands laid on those receiving the Spirit:
Chapter 2: no
Chapter 8: yes
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: yes

Receiving the Spirit after they were saved:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: yes
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: no (I’ll discuss this in greater detail below.)

Speaking in tongues described as part of experience:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: yes
Chapter 19: yes

Prophesying described as part of experience:
Chapter 2: yes
Chapter 8: no
Chapter 10: no
Chapter 19: yes

How consistent are these descriptions? Not very. With this lack of clear consistency, along with contradictory teaching from the letters to the churches, it’s difficult to biblically assert this claim. “Still,” some might suggest, “something happened in each description that was dramatic enough to be noticed by everyone around. Maybe the principle is just that the receiving of the Holy Spirit will be dramatic and noticeable.” This does seem to be a consistent pattern in these accounts in Acts. Can we draw from this pattern to give us a normative teaching for us today? Or was there something unique happening here in the history of the early church? Let’s see what else we can observe about these stories.

Do we notice anything these accounts have in common? Well, each story is about a group of people receiving the Spirit. Of course, I’m not suggesting we can only receive the Holy Spirit in groups and that an individual is just out of luck! But there seems to be something significant to Luke (the author of Acts) about these groups receiving the Spirit of God. We have no description in Acts of an individual believer being baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Do we see anything interesting about these groups? Actually, we do:

Chapter 2 account: original church (exclusively Jewish)
Chapter 8 account: Samaritans
Chapter 10 account: Gentiles
Chapter 19 account: followers of John the Baptist who lacked adequate knowledge of Jesus

Does this remind you of what we saw last week regarding Luke’s focus in writing Acts? Remember he didn’t give us an in-depth history of the early church, but instead a representative sample that showed the church expanding both geographically and ethnically—from Jews to Samaritans to Gentiles. Do we see this same focus in his descriptions of the receiving of the Holy Spirit? Absolutely. The book has more to tell us about the rapid expansion of the church than about historical peculiarities of the early church. In the same way, Luke seems to emphasize that this expansion was a work of the Spirit rather than giving us a definitive, normative description of how all believers receive the Holy Spirit.

When you think about it, there are very good reasons for these receptions of the Holy Spirit to be so dramatic and noticeable. As I already mentioned, God was doing something completely new in pouring out his Spirit on his people. It makes sense for this initial outpouring to be overt in its power and glory, just as God’s interaction with the Old Covenant people of God at Mt Sinai was overt in its power and glory. The Hebrew prophets spoke of a time when God would pour out his Spirit on all his people. Now this was finally happening, during the Jewish festival of Pentecost, right in the heart of Jerusalem . . . to the followers of Jesus. It was important that the Jewish people there saw what God was doing, and so this initial baptism of Christ’s church into his Holy Spirit was obvious and undeniable to all who witnessed it.

Who were the next people to receive the Spirit? The Samaritan believers. What do we know about them? Well, they were of a mixed race, partly Israelite and partly a combination of all the surrounding peoples. And they also had a competing religion they claimed was the true, original faith, with a competing temple and priesthood. The Jews and Samaritans hated each other and were suspicious of anything having to do with the other.

What would likely be the natural outcome if Samaritans accepted Jesus as their Messiah? Can you see how easy it would have been to have two competing Christianities right at the beginning—one Jewish and one Samaritan? So God didn’t immediately pour out his Spirit on these new believers. He waited until the (Jewish) apostles had come and laid hands on them. By laying hands on these Samaritans, the apostles were accepting them as brother and sister believers. And by the Holy Spirit coming to them through the apostles, the Samaritans realized they were under the leadership of the Jewish apostles and could no longer go their own way. But for this connection to be effective, the reception of the Spirit by the Samaritans (through the apostles) had to be undeniably obvious to both.

In the following chapters in Acts, as well as Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we see how difficult it was for the Jewish Christians to accept that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus without first becoming Jews. They wrestled with this for a long time. So we see the great wisdom of God in interrupting Peter’s speech to the Gentiles in Acts 10, and obviously and undeniably pouring out the Spirit on these Gentiles as they placed their faith in the Christ whom Peter was preaching. God’s method accomplished its purpose: Peter couldn’t help but notice these people experiencing the outpouring of God’s Spirit, and had to acknowledge them as genuine children of God and his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Jews from all over the world traveled to Jerusalem during the Jewish festivals. Many of them had been there for bits and pieces of the events we read in the Gospels, but they went home before taking in the whole gospel story. They enthusiastically shared what they had found with others, but their knowledge was incomplete. Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) was one of these Jews, and the people Paul spoke with in Acts 19 had this same limited understanding. Again, there was a danger of a competing, incomplete Christianity forming from these zealous, but unknowledgeable, followers. The receiving of the Spirit, through the laying on of Paul’s hands, showed that these people were now truly part of the body of Christ.

It’s crucial that we notice something else about these incidents of different, key groups receiving the Holy Spirit. Each one was historically unique and unrepeatable. The church will never again receive God’s Spirit for the first time. The church will never again expand to include, for the first time, a competing half-race to the Jews, or the first Gentile believers in Christ. There are no longer surviving people who experienced only partially the 1st century events recorded in the Gospels (and so might pass on a truncated faith). The descriptions in Acts of people receiving the Spirit are tied specifically to the context of the original expansion of the church, from an exclusively Jewish church to a universal one. Not only should we not try to find a normative description here for how believers receive the Holy Spirit today, there’s no way for us to base such a principle on these historically unique and unrepeatable events.

So the letters to the churches teach us that we receive the Spirit of God when we place our faith in Christ and become his. And we also learn that some will speak in tongues, and some will not. [Whether speaking in tongues is a valid gift for today is a question we’ll have to explore in another post!] Should this receiving of the Spirit be an overtly dramatic, sensational experience obvious to those around us? No more than we should expect God to speak to us from a burning bush. This is not to say we won’t experience God’s presence in powerful, explosive ways. We may, and we may not. We can’t dictate to God how he will move in our lives. If we insist on the safe and sedate—he may just shake us up! But if we demand “the stuff” we see in Acts, he may answer us with the sound of a gentle whisper. Never forget who’s God . . . and that he doesn’t seem all that interested in fitting into our boxes.

I know this post was a long one. Thanks for sticking with me to the end. I hope this will be helpful to you as you not only read and study the Bible, but seek to live out its truth in your daily lives.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we? Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today? [see above]

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

I think the more we learn how to study the Bible, the more we see that doing this well depends largely on common sense. For instance, a few weeks ago, I wrote about how to read the stories in the Old Testament. One of the guidelines for understanding these accounts is to remember that they’re stories. Yes, they are real, historical events in the history of Israel. But we shouldn’t assume just because an event is recorded in Scripture that God is teaching us to do what the characters did. When Zimri took over as king of Israel, he killed the entire royal family of his predecessor (1 Kings 16:9-11). This doesn’t mean we should emulate him when assuming a position of leadership!

This is easier to remember when we’re reading Old Testament stories. They feel removed from us, to some extent, because they’re all about the people of Israel and the Old Mosaic Covenant. But when we come to the stories in the book of Acts, it can be a little more challenging. Suddenly the stories are all about the church. That’s us! It’s easy to slip into thinking that everything we read about the birth of the church will be true of us today as well.

I love creative, thought-provoking book titles, and one of my favorites is from Dan Schaeffer’s book The Bush Won’t Burn, and I’m All Out of Matches. He explains that we have a tendency to assume God will act exactly as he has in the past. God spoke to Moses through a burning bush—and we want the same kind of interaction. We’re even willing to set a few bushes on fire ourselves to get the conversation started. But when we look through all of Scripture, how many times did God speak to someone through a burning bush? Just once. Should we expect God to speak to us through a burning bush? Of course not. We’d never make the mistake of thinking this way . . . would we?

The great prophet of God, Elijah, fell into this error. After he had stood courageously against virtually the entire kingdom—and God had faithfully answered with fire from heaven before everyone—Elijah hears a threat from Queen Jezebel and he turns tail and runs. Where to? Where better but Mt Sinai, where God had dramatically manifested his presence in the sight of all the people. And do you remember what God asked Elijah when he got there? “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah went into his list of reasons for feeling sorry for himself. So the Lord gave Elijah the signs and wonders he thought he needed. He sent a mighty windstorm, an earthquake and a fire. But it says that God was not in any of them (1 Kings 19). Then he asked Elijah again, with the sound of a gentle whisper, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

When reading the exciting stories in the book of Acts, it’s natural for us to desire the same signs and wonders in our lives today. But then we begin to look at Acts in its larger context. We realize that when we look at the entire biblical story, the great, awe-inspiring miracles are actually few and far between. This can be surprising because we tend to assume there were miracles occurring left-and-right on a daily basis. But we find long periods of time in Scripture without any overt signs or prophecies from God. And when God did act in a dramatic way, it was almost always at a highly strategic moment in the history of God’s interaction with his people. So, it makes no more sense for us to demand today the same signs and wonders we see at the birth of the church than it did for Elijah to expect the same manifestations of God’s presence at Mt Sinai. When we start assuming that to do what God calls us to do today we need all the signs and wonders God performed in the book of Acts, he may just quietly say to us, “What are you doing here?”

So what can we learn from the book of Acts? Well, first we need to take the time to see what’s in the book—and what’s not.

A slice of history
A common first reaction to the book of Acts is, “This is the history of the early church.” But is this correct? Acts does contain history. But how broad a picture does it give us of the early church? What do we learn from Acts about the spread of the Christian faith into North Africa? This happened fairly early in the history of the church, but interestingly the book of Acts tells us nothing of it. What of the expansion of the church to the east of the Mediterranean region? We aren’t told of this either.

The more we carefully read the book, the more we see that its “lens” is zoomed in, and that the scene changes during the book. The early chapters of the book are focused on Jerusalem and its environs; the later part of the book is all about Antioch and the churches planted by people going out from there. At first the book is in a distinctly Jewish setting, but then we see more and more Gentiles incorporated into the church. A key figure in the beginning of the book is Peter, and in the rest of the book it’s Paul.

So it seems that Luke (the author of the book) wasn’t intending to give us a detailed history of the early church and its development. Instead, he provides for us a representative sample of what was going on in many other places at the same time. He appears to be focused on showing how the church expanded rapidly, both geographically and ethnically—from being exclusively Jewish to being open to Samaritans and eventually to any Gentiles without distinction.

Once we understand some of Luke’s purpose in writing the book of Acts, we’ll be able to distinguish between questions the book is intended to answer and those it is not. While Luke tells us a great deal about the establishment and expansion of the church, he doesn’t seem that interested in giving us many of the nitty-gritty details we so want to learn. After the churches were initially planted, how did they appoint new elders? We don’t know. How exactly did the early church observe communion? We’re not told. Just what did their regular, weekly meeting look like anyway? Luke didn’t see fit to give us a description.

Does this mean we can’t learn anything from the book of Acts that applies to us today? Not at all! But we need to be able to tell what applies to us, what was unique to them, and why. This is what we’ll explore next week.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2 [see above]

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

The heart of the story: Jesus

Christmas is just a few days away. Could there be a more perfect time to discuss the New Testament Gospels? The biblical story begins with creation and ends with the restoration of God’s creation. But the heart of the story is the earthly life of Jesus Christ. Everything either points forward or looks back to this brief, but climactic, period of time. It’s ironic that our entire society measures history according to this one life. But what some observe merely because of the historical development of the modern calendar, we acknowledge in spirit and truth, realizing that everything we are as Christians, everything we believe, and everything we hope for is all rooted in what Jesus did in 1st century Palestine.

Four Gospels
Since this part of the story is so essential, it’s important that we understand how best to read and study the Gospels. Probably the first thing we notice about the New Testament Gospels is that there are four of them. Why four? Well, instead of having one official, tightly-controlled version of the life and ministry of Jesus, we have four. And these four accounts were written by very different authors. According to early tradition, Mark wrote his Gospel from the perspective of Peter, drawing on his personal accounts. Matthew and John were also eyewitnesses, but writing at different times with extremely different styles and perspectives. Luke wasn’t even Jewish. He was a Greek physician and understood the need for careful research (since he wasn’t an eyewitness) and detailed historical writing. These authors even arranged their material differently, some putting everything in careful chronological order, and others arranging the events and teachings according to topic.

But while these writers wrote at different times to believers in different settings and using different approaches (no sign of imposed uniformity here), it becomes very clear they’re recounting the same story, communicating the same message. The differences are real, but they tell us of the same Jesus, and the same faith and hope in him.

As you read the Gospels, it’s important to not fall into either of two extremes. The Gospels record the historical accounts of Jesus, his ministry and the responses of the people. But these books are much more than history. If you only focus on the historical details, you’ll miss the pulsing life of the story. On the other hand, these stories are more than inspiring myths or spiritual metaphors; they’re actual historical events. When these authors wrote the Gospels, they were writing what they knew to be true and authentic. We study the Gospels today because we firmly believe these things truly happened.

Variations among the Gospels
Now, for many thoughtful readers, the historical nature of the Gospels brings up a number of questions. I remember as a child reading the Gospels—with the words of Christ conveniently in red—and I noticed that the statements of Jesus often read differently in one Gospel when compared to another. These weren’t glaring contradictions, just variations in the wording. But I was an analytical kid, and it bothered me. How could this be? Wasn’t this the inerrant Word of God, recording the words of Christ? How could there be any difference between the Gospels?

I came to learn that the common, everyday language for Jesus, his disciples and the local Jews was Aramaic. When Jesus originally spoke the words we read in Scripture, he wasn’t speaking Greek, but Aramaic. Later, some of his disciples recorded these teachings for other believers. And they naturally wrote these accounts in Greek because it was the common language for Jews (and Gentiles) throughout the Roman empire and even beyond. As you might guess, whenever you have different people translating, there are bound to be variations in the results. They’ll convey the same meaning, but use different words. (Just imagine four different people independently translating a story from Spanish into English. Are they going to choose the same English words every time?)

It’s also helpful to know that the original biblical manuscripts didn’t include any quotation marks. They weren’t used in the ancient world, and the people then didn’t expect precise, word-for-word quotes the way we sometimes do. When you see quotation marks in Scripture (and the words of Jesus in red) this is the work of the translators and scholars, not the original writers. 1st century people were comfortable with conveying the essence of what someone had said instead of the exact wording. For instance, a child asks, “Mom, can we have some ice cream before dinner?” And she replies, “That’s a bad idea because it will ruin your dinner.” And the child reports to his waiting siblings, “No, she said we better not ‘cuz we won’t eat our supper.” Is this word-for-word? No. But is it accurate? Sure it is, and people then commonly summarized what someone else had said in a similar way. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we run across slight variations in the statements of Jesus.

Historical context
As with any other writing in Scripture, we need to understand the historical context of the Gospels. In many ways, the Gospels have a unique setting. Jesus came to establish a new covenant with his people, one based on his grace-filled sacrifice for us, and our faith in him. But most of the events recorded in the Gospels took place before Christ’s death on the cross. So these teachings and stories are still looking forward to and anticipating the death and resurrection of Jesus. They share much of the same perspective as the Old Testament.

Yet Jesus is right there in their midst, already telling them of how everything is changing. He’s fulfilling prophecies about the Messiah and the coming kingdom of God. He’s powerfully displaying his power over the enemy, casting out demons, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, even raising the dead. The ministry of Jesus was nothing less than light dramatically invading the darkness.

So this Gospel period is a time when the Old Testament and the New Testament overlap. Many of Jesus’ teachings and examples are given while the people are still in the context of the Mosaic Law, but he’s preparing them for a direct relationship with God, through him, based on grace and faith. In Jesus, the kingdom of God (or rule of God) had suddenly come upon them, but he was not yet ushering in the kingdom in its fullness as he one day will. This is what theologians call the ‘already, but not yet.’ The kingdom was already in their midst, but it was not yet all-encompassing as it will be in the future. Also during this time, Jesus was preparing the twelve for a special ministry as his personally commissioned apostles.

To whom is Jesus speaking?
What does all of this mean for us when we’re reading the Gospels? It means we have to ask ourselves, “To whom is Jesus speaking in this passage?” We can’t just assume that every statement applies to us. For example, in Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus gave these instructions:

So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.

So, to whom is this addressed? To New Testament Christians? Not unless we’re still supposed to be taking sacrifices to the Jewish Temple. Jesus spoke this to people in an Old Covenant context. We can learn from this instruction, but it wasn’t given directly to us. What about these instructions from Luke 9:3:

“Take nothing for your journey,” he instructed them. “Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money, or even a change of clothes.”

Who was he talking to? Us? No, he’s giving these instructions specifically to his apostles (and he later changed these requirements even for them). Jesus gave many commands to the disciples that had a limited application during a unique period of history. If we try to fulfill these instructions now, we’ll just confuse and frustrate ourselves. So pay attention to whom Jesus is speaking. Thankfully, much of what he says applies to all of us the same way. Just make sure what the text says before figuring out what it means for you.

This is particularly important when reading the parables of Jesus. Many of his parables are so familiar to us, we naturally apply them to our lives today. But always take note of the setting, and just who is there listening to him. Many of the parables were meant specifically for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day; many more were intentionally aimed at the Pharisees. Again, this doesn’t mean these parables have no meaning for us, we just need to see what they meant to them then before we can know what they mean to us now.

No hidden meanings
As we talked about last week, look for the main point in the parables, not some secret, hidden meaning. We recently studied the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast in Luke 13:18-21. It used to be common to hear people teach that these parables were speaking of abnormal growth (a mustard seed into a tree) and the permeation of sin (supposedly represented by the yeast). Not only is this interpretation technically incorrect (mustard plants naturally grow 10-12 feet; yeast doesn’t only represent sin), but it completely misses the point of the parables. The kingdom of God begins small and inconspicuous, but grows and spreads to a surprisingly large scale, as it was intended. And notice, if we insist that these negative interpretations are correct, then this is apparently what Jesus was saying about the kingdom of God—not some corrupted, institutional church. Is this really what he was saying about the rule of God? The lesson here? Don’t seek strange, esoteric, coded meanings to the parables of Jesus. Instead strive to understand what the parables would have meant in their original context.

Finally, also be aware that Jesus was a creative, colorful communicator. He used common figures of speech, including hyperbole (intentionally exaggerating to make a point). We do this all the time too. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times!” “I’m so tired, I’m going to sleep for a week!” So when Jesus told the people (Matthew 5:29-30):

So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. . . . And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.

they understood immediately he wasn’t literally telling them to starting gouging out and cutting off body parts. (Would gouging out your eyes really keep you from lusting?) They recognized he was dramatically making a deeper point. A healthy common sense can be very helpful here. And the more you really think about what Jesus is saying and what it meant to them then, the more you’ll often see an underlying humor in the words of Christ. Have fun with your Bible study!

Most importantly, don’t forget why the Gospels are the heart of the story. Don’t forget just who Jesus is, and what he’s doing in these accounts. At the time, the disciples couldn’t quite grasp the bigger picture. We need to make sure we have the deeper significance firmly in our minds as we read and study the Gospels.

[I’ll be out of town next week, so there will be no Taking Root study. I’ll have a new one for you the following week. Merry Christmas everyone!]

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus [see above]

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

Every time it happens I get a little frustrated. You’ve probably seen this too. Someone on a TV talk show is trying to discredit a biblical teaching. So they say something like, ‘Yeah, well, David not only committed adultery but he murdered the woman’s husband to cover it up, Lot did shameful things with his own daughters, and many of the men in the Bible had slaves and multiple wives! Do you really want to live by the Bible?!’ And so they make a classic mistake that sometimes Christian believers make as well. When we begin reading the stories in the Bible we need to remember an important principle:

1. Just because somebody in the Bible does something doesn’t mean the Bible is teaching us to do the same thing.

Now this is just common sense, especially when we’re talking about biblical characters who murder and sleep around. Of course we’re not supposed to follow their example! (Actually, the fact the Bible shows its “heroes” as they really were—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is strong testimony to its truthfulness. It would have been easy to whitewash the stories of the patriarchs,  but the biblical writers didn’t do that.) But when people in the Bible do things that aren’t blatantly wrong, we sometimes fall into using them as a model.

Have you ever heard someone say they were going to ‘put a fleece before the Lord’? Do you know what this means? It means asking God to give you a sign indicating what decision you should make. ‘Lord, if you want me to take this job, then make the third car I pass be a yellow Porsche Boxter S.’ Why is this called putting a ‘fleece’ before the Lord? Because of the story of Gideon in the 6th chapter of Judges. But if you read carefully, Gideon’s ‘fleece-putting’ wasn’t to determine God’s will; it was to ask God to prove to Gideon that God would really do what he had already said he was going to do! Gideon’s behavior wasn’t a sign of faith, but of unbelief. Clearly, this is an example we don’t want to follow!

2. The main thing the biblical stories do is tell us a story.

In the letters to the churches, we found direct commands and instructions. Biblical stories don’t work this way. The story of David and Bathsheba never directly tells us that adultery and murder are sinful. But it very clearly illustrates how low even a godly man can fall into sin, and the consequences of sinning in this way and then trying to hide it from God. While the stories may illustrate important truths (and even, in a sense, teach us insights), we need to be careful to not base any specific teaching on a biblical story. The teachings we follow—and teach others to follow—should be clearly taught somewhere else in Scripture, such as in the letters to the churches.

We also need to avoid reading the stories in the Old Testament as if they’re some kind of fable with a moral at the end of each story. Now, it’s not that Old Testament stories don’t vividly illustrate important lessons for us—many do. But not all of them. And if we insist on finding a nice, neat lesson to every biblical story, we’ll end up over-simplifying what we’re reading in Scripture. In the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, is the main point really about honesty and fairness? Is this the most significant thing going on in this story?

3. The stories in the Old Testament are part of a bigger story.

Hopefully, you’re still thinking about the importance of context. What is the context of the Old Testament stories? We’ve discussed this briefly before. Genesis begins with creation, quickly moves to Noah and the flood, and then narrows the story to Abraham and his family, particularly his grandson Jacob (renamed Israel) and Jacob’s sons. The books of Exodus through Joshua tell of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt, establishing his covenant with them, and eventually bringing them into the land he had promised them. Judges through 2 Samuel take us from the early history of the tribes of Israel, when they were led by judges, to Samuel the last judge of Israel and Saul the first king of Israel, and finally to David the prototypical Israelite king. 1 Kings through 2 Chronicles tell of how the nation was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and how each nation fell into idolatry, eventually being conquered by an outside force and taken into captivity. Ezra and Nehemiah describe the people being allowed to go back to the land, and rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Esther tells of events that occur among the Jewish community who didn’t return to the land.

A good study Bible will give you more background on each of the books. But the point is that when you read the stories in the Old Testament, you need to be aware of where the story fits into the bigger story of what God is doing with his people. And, of course, the stories in the Old Testament ultimately lead to Jesus in the New Testament. When we look back at the Old Testament stories, we see them through the lens of Jesus. We recognize how Jesus puts these stories into proper perspective and often makes seemingly inconsequential accounts jump out at us. So when you read stories in the Old Testament, be aware of where you are in the bigger story of the Old Testament, and where you are in the even bigger story of God’s grand plan as recorded in Scripture.

4. Don’t try to find secret or hidden meanings in the biblical stories.

Some of you may remember the controversy over supposed Satanic backward messages in rock music. Eventually most Christians realized it was much better to pay attention to what the songs were unambiguously saying when you played them forward! (The Christian rock band Petra recorded a backward message that said: “Why are you looking for the devil when you should be looking for the Lord?!”) In a similar way, the important things that Scripture has to tell us are found in the clear biblical writings and stories. In the story of Abraham seeking a wife for his son, Isaac (Genesis 24), Abraham does not equal God, Isaac does not equal Jesus, and Rebekah does not equal the church. The story is about precisely what it seems to be about—Abraham seeking a wife for his son Isaac. Don’t turn historical accounts into some secret allegory. When we try to find these kinds of hidden meanings, we invariably lose the real significance of the story.

5. Don’t just see the story, observe how the story is told.

After you read a few stories in the Bible, you may notice they’re not much like modern novels. We aren’t given elaborate descriptions of people or scenery. This isn’t the way stories are told in Scripture. So when you do see details, pay attention. They are there for a reason. Have you ever watched a movie, and a character lays an envelope on the desk, then the camera lingers on the envelope lying there? You know it’s going to be important later, don’t you? It’s the same idea with these details in the biblical accounts. When Judges 3:15 notes that Ehud was left-handed, it’s going to be important to the story. When the birth of Jacob and Esau is described, along with the physical characteristics of each infant, we can know this is significant.

Notice how the dialogue in a story develops. Much of the stories in the Old Testament are told through the dialogue. And be on the lookout for repeated themes. If you’re watching an old black and white movie on TV, and two men wearing hats, boots and gun belts walk out into the middle of a dirt street with old wooden buildings on each side,  people scrambling to get out the way, and a blinding sun glaring overhead—what’s about to happen? An Old Western gunfight, right? Watch for these kinds of motifs in the biblical stories. For instance, notice how many stories in the Old Testament have to do with barren women who eventually have children. Notice how many older brothers are passed over while the younger is chosen. These patterns give us insights into what God is doing with his people. And, as with the letters to the churches, be watchful for repeated words and phrases. These can often open up deeper layers to the story.

There are amazing, captivating accounts recorded in the Old Testament. It’s okay to get swept up in the story. They’re good stories! Just remember these stories aren’t there just to provide entertaining reading. They communicate something important to us about how God interacts with his people, and how the smaller stories fit into a much larger plan. And don’t forget the most important principle for reading Old Testament stories:

In every biblical story, the hero is always God.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1 [see above]

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

There’s one mistake even long-time Christians sometimes make when reading the Bible. We often assume that we just open the Bible and—no matter where in the Bible we’re reading—we read it exactly the same way. We read Psalms the same way we do Philippians, and Leviticus just as we would Matthew. The problem is this doesn’t work, and many believers end up frustrated. They struggle with their Bible reading, but they’re not sure why.

The Bible is one cohesive, interwoven whole, and it’s all the Word of God. But the Bible is also a collection of very different kinds of writings. In our everyday reading, we read from many different genres. We’re used to this, and we routinely adjust our expectations accordingly. Do you read a cookbook the same way you read a spy novel? Of course not. Do you pick up a tax guide with the same sense of anticipation you’d feel opening a love letter? No way (unless you’re really into tax guides). Usually, we don’t even have to think of these differences in our reading material, but many of us have never realized the same thing is true of our reading of Scripture. So, for the next few weeks, we’re going to look at the different kinds of writing we find in the Bible, and why it’s important that we approach these scriptural genres with different expectations and methods.

We’re going to begin with the letters to the churches. In many ways, these are the biblical books that most directly apply to us. These letters were written to New Covenant believers; we’re New Covenant believers. They were written to, and about, local churches; we’re part of a local church. Many of the same issues that challenged them then also challenge us today. So it makes perfect sense for us to spend time studying these letters.

If you’ve been reading the past few Taking Root studies, you’ll remember the importance of context. You’ll know we need to be aware of who wrote the letter, to whom they were writing, and what the circumstances were. Here’s another fun tip: many times the authors themselves tell us why they’re writing. This gives us a very clear perspective of the rest of the letter. Here’s a classic example. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he explicitly states the purpose of the letter:

I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God.

1 Timothy 3:14-15

Sure enough, when we look through the rest of this letter, we find it packed with instructions on how the local church is to be organized and maintained to ensure its health and vitality.

Another thing to be aware of is noticeable patterns. For example, the more you read Paul’s letters, the more you’ll notice that he tends to focus on big, overarching spiritual principles in the first part of his letters, then in the second half he shows how these principles relate to our everyday lives. You may also notice he almost always begins his letters by giving thanks for the church to whom he’s writing, and praising them for things they’re doing well. This is why the opening of Paul’s letter to the Galatians quickly arrests our attention. Paul doesn’t give thanks for them or praise them, instead he immediately confronts them:

I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

Galatians 1:6-7

Not only does this dramatically reveal the extreme importance of this issue for Paul, but it also gives us a great insight into the theme of the rest of the letter. These Galatians were being swayed by false teachers who sought to add to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ wasn’t enough for these people; they had a list of things one must also do to become a Christian. Paul devotes this entire letter to confronting those who would allow legalistic rules and regulations to be added to the gospel. Is this still an issue for believers today? Absolutely.

It’s also helpful to watch for patterns within a particular letter. If you carefully read
1 Corinthians, you’ll begin to notice how Paul repeats certain phrases:

Now regarding the questions you asked in your letter [7:1].

Now regarding the question about . . . [7:25].

Now regarding your question about . . . [8:1].

Now, dear brothers and sisters, regarding your question about
. . . [12:1].

Now regarding your question about . . . [16:1].

It’s clear that Paul is responding to a list of questions the people had, and he’s working through these topics one by one. As you study this letter, you’ll also begin to see there’s a serious problem with disunity in the church in Corinth, and that the people seem to be divided over these issues. They weren’t just asking these questions out of some theological curiosity. They were looking for Paul to settle their doctrinal squabbles. For each subject Paul addresses, he interacts with two opposing views—often giving needed correction to both sides!

Along with these clear parallel references, there are other places in this letter where we see Paul introducing subjects. These are either additional issues that the Corinthians had asked about, or simply topics that Paul felt it crucial to further explore:

But there is one thing I want you to know: . . . [11:2-3].

But in the following instructions, I cannot praise you . . . [11:17].

Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of . . . [15:1].

The way the author structures the letter isn’t an accident. For instance, 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 are all about spiritual gifts. But right in the middle of this section of the book—in chapter 13—we find a change of topic. Why did Paul (and the Holy Spirit) “interrupt” this discussion of spiritual gifts with a whole chapter on love? I can guarantee you one thing: It’s no coincidence.

Also be aware of repeated words and phrases right in the immediate section you’re reading. This can help you see what the author is emphasizing. For example, read through 1 Corinthians chapter 12-14 and see how many times Paul uses words like edify, build up, help, bless, strengthen, etc. (The words may vary depending on the translation you’re using.) Some of us even like to mark these repeated words and phrases right in our Bibles. What do these repeated words tell us about Paul’s focus in this section of the letter? What does this have to do with spiritual gifts?

The more our radar is sensitive to these kinds of patterns, the more we’ll understand what we’re reading. The more familiar you become with these letters, the more you’ll see they each have a definite outline and flow of thought. It’s often helpful to first read through an entire letter in one sitting without trying to resolve any of the details. This will give you a feel for how the whole letter fits together. Then, when you more carefully study each section and paragraph, you’ll have a better idea of how it fits into the theme of the whole letter. As with anything, the more you practice this, the more skilled you’ll become.

This post will give you a taste of reading and studying the letters to the churches. But what about the parts of these letters that aren’t so easy to figure out? What about the places where there are significant cultural differences between the 1st century and today? Are we to woodenly apply everything to our lives today in exactly the same manner they did then? Or can we just shrug off these passages as “for them then,” but no longer applicable for us? How can we know what applies to us now, what doesn’t, and why? We’ll look at these questions next week.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches [see above]

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle