What good is a dead Messiah?

How the first century Jews understood the Messiah and resurrection

Lamentation over the Dead Christ, by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)When we consider the resurrection of Jesus, usually two competing viewpoints come immediately to mind: either Jesus rose from the dead, or he did not. That makes sense. But there’s another option sometimes proposed that isn’t as familiar. This is the idea that Jesus was spiritually resurrected. These people accept that Jesus’ spirit didn’t die but returned to God, and that it was Jesus’ spirit that appeared to his disciples.

At first, this seems like an appealing theory. It doesn’t present the same challenge that a physical resurrection does, it accepts God as a real part of the story, and it still seems to respect the earliest accounts of Jesus . . . or does it? Does a spiritual resurrection do justice to what we know historically about Jesus and his earliest disciples? To properly weigh this proposal, we need to have a clear picture of how the first century Jews understood “the Messiah” and “resurrection.” What did they mean when they used these words?

The Messiah
The old Hebrew prophecies speak of a Messiah, a promised Deliverer from God who would rescue the people of Israel and lead them into a new golden age. The first century Jews were people in need of such a Deliverer. They had been conquered by Rome, their land was occupied by Rome, they were heavily taxed by Rome. They couldn’t escape the signs of the Roman occupation; Roman soldiers were everywhere, as were the political leaders from Rome. Rome even interfered with their priestly system, manipulating who would serve as the Jewish High Priest.

Because of the oppression they suffered, the Jewish people of Jesus’ time were keenly interested in anything having to do with the Messiah. They expected the Messiah to be another Moses or David, someone who would bring about spiritual and national renewal, leading them to drive out their Roman oppressors and re-establish their nation under the leadership of God and his Messiah. The Messiah was understood to be a spiritual, political and military leader.

We have many references to the speculation surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. Was he the One? Could he be the Messiah who would lead them to victory over the Romans? Was he just waiting for the right moment to unite his followers and take action against their enemies? Jesus attracted a large number of disciples, people who were convinced he was the Messiah, their long-awaited Deliverer.

5634185825_612998e5f6But then something unexpected happened. Something unthinkable. Jesus was arrested, he was handed over to the Romans, he was tried, and he was executed. Their supposed Deliverer was publicly, shamefully crucified in the sight of everyone. And—at that point—there could be only one conclusion: . . . he wasn’t the Messiah after all. They had thought he was, but they were wrong. He hadn’t delivered them from their oppressors; their oppressors had defeated and killed him. To continue to believe that Jesus was the Messiah would be as nonsensical as continuing to believe after June of 1968 that Robert Kennedy would be the next president. He was dead. It was over. Jesus was not who they thought he was.

It surprises people to learn there were other men during this period of history who were thought to be the Messiah. They all met the same fate: They were defeated and killed, proving to everyone they were not, in fact, the Messiah. But the case of Jesus took a different turn. Something changed. Shortly after his death a movement exploded that hailed him as the Messiah, and more. How could they claim that a dead man—executed by the Romans like a common criminal—was the promised Messiah? What good was a dead Messiah?

Resurrection
The answer of course is the claim of resurrection, that Jesus had risen from the dead. But we need to understand what these Jews meant by resurrection. When the Jews of this time spoke of resurrection, they all understood exactly what they were talking about. They were referring to the end of time when God would bring his people back to life. This wasn’t the idea of someone dead being healed—who would then die again some day (as in the story of Lazarus). This was the receiving of unending life. And it wasn’t merely some spiritual presence with God. This was a new physical, bodily life.

Now, it’s true that not all first century Jews believed in a resurrection. The Sadducees famously did not, which caused frequent debate between them and the Pharisees. But it was this understanding of resurrection they didn’t believe in. They didn’t try to redefine resurrection to something they could accept. They just said they didn’t believe in it! But whether one believed in resurrection or they didn’t, when they spoke of resurrection they were all speaking of the same phenomenon. There was no confusion as to what they meant by this concept.

If the followers of Jesus began to claim they had seen visions of Jesus’ spirit talking with them and that he was now with God, this might have sparked some mild interest but the conclusion would be unchanged: So what? He’s still dead. That doesn’t change a thing. He’s still not the Messiah. The claim that his spirit remained alive and that he was somehow with God would not have been remarkable. It couldn’t have “resurrected” his reputation as the Messiah.

Empty TombBut his earliest followers—all first century Jews—claimed to their fellow Jews that Jesus had been resurrected. And they all knew exactly what was meant by this claim. They were saying he had somehow experienced resurrection life before the end of time. He wasn’t just alive in spirit; he was no longer dead! He had physically risen again, and would never again die. Their enemies had done their worst to Jesus, but he had defeated them by coming back to life. God had validated him as his Messiah by resurrecting him from death. Not all their contemporaries believed this testimony. But, again, there was no confusion as to what the claim was. It was the same claimed phenomenon of physical, bodily, unending resurrection life, whether they believed it or rejected it.

So why did Jesus’ followers suddenly begin announcing he had risen from the dead? Where did they get this idea that he had been uniquely resurrected before the end of time? What caused them to go from despair to this hope? Was it just wishful thinking? Self-delusion? We’ll next consider the question: Did Jesus rise from the dead?

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah? [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

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

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Some Christians—driven by a zeal to be faithful to Scripture—seem like they’re trying to escape the present day and somehow return to the 1st century. This can not only be frustrating for them and off-putting to those who love them, but it doesn’t really work. Like it or not, God hasn’t put us in the 1st century, but the 21st.

On the other hand, some believers take what the Bible says and reinterpret it to fit the latest trends in psychology, politics or cultural fads. This, too, can leave observers scratching their heads. Can the New Testament letters to the churches legitimately be used to teach pop psychology, Republican or Democratic party platforms, or ‘I’m-okay-you’re-okay’ spirituality? Clearly, we need some balance in how we approach the teachings in Scripture.

Thankfully, how we handle these historical or cultural differences can often be determined with just some healthy common sense. For instance, we read these instructions in 2 Timothy 4:13:

When you come, be sure to bring the coat I left with Carpus at Troas. Also bring my books, and especially my papers.

Is this an instruction we must obey? How can we? With a little digging, we learn this was written from Paul to Timothy. The more we think about these kinds of passages, the more we become aware of an important truth that can help us avoid error when reading the Bible:

All Scripture is written for us, but it’s not all written to us.

The above verse from 2 Timothy is a perfect example. The instruction was given to Timothy—not to us. We instinctively know this already. I’ve never heard of any Christian who sought to obey God’s Word by trying to get Paul’s books, papers and coat to him. We immediately recognize that this passage doesn’t apply to us. It’s impossible for us to apply this passage to our lives the same way Timothy did to his.

But then we read a passage such as Romans 12:2:

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

When we read this, we naturally assume it applies to us just as much as it did to those who first read these words. The behavior and customs of our 21st century world may look different than those of the 1st century, but we understand there’s a lasting principle being taught here.

For passages such as this one, the biblical principle and the way we live it out in our daily lives are essentially the same thing. When Jesus said to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind,” what is the biblical principle? It’s to love God with all of our hearts, souls and minds, right? And how do we live out this principle? By loving God with all of our hearts, souls and minds. Many passages are very straightforward this way. But others include an element in the instruction that reveals a cultural difference between their world then and ours now. When that happens, we need to:

Learn to distinguish between the biblical principle
and the way it’s lived out in one’s cultural setting.

The biblical principle doesn’t change, but the way we live out the principle often must change for the same principle to be consistently applied. Let me give you a classic example. Some of the letters to the churches include the command: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” What was Paul’s primary concern in giving these instructions? That a lot of kissing would be going on? No, there’s a deeper principle here, isn’t there? In their culture, a kiss was the common way of greeting someone with both warmth and acceptance. The principle that Paul was establishing was that fellow Christians should greet each other in a way that communicated both warmth and acceptance. A kiss was the culturally appropriate way for them to do this in the 1st century.

In some cultures today, living out this biblical principle in our churches by kissing each other still makes sense. Here in Puerto Rico, it’s common to greet each other with a kiss. (Although men usually don’t kiss each other! So this would be one difference between our culture and theirs.) But in other churches, the culturally appropriate way to greet one another is going to be with a ‘holy hug’ or a hand shake.

Of course, we could insist on not merely observing the principle but following the 1st century application as well. We could go into a gathering of relatively reserved saints in Minnesota and immediately start kissing everyone. We’d definitely be communicating something to them(!), but would they interpret us as greeting them with ‘warmth and acceptance’? By woodenly adhering to the 1st century way of living out this principle, we’d actually be violating the biblical principle. Remember, the biblical principle doesn’t change, but the way we apply it to our lives will change from culture to culture. We can never just ignore the biblical principle, but we must seek to be wise in the way we live out these principles.

The more we understand what a passage meant to them,
the more we’ll understand what it means to us.

Last week, I referred to Paul confronting the Galatians. As you read through his letter to the Galatians, you’ll see there’s a repeated focus on the issue of circumcision. Some teachers were trying to convince the Galatians they needed to be circumcised, and Paul is strongly opposed to this idea. What did this exactly mean to them back then? To understand the significance of this book for us today, we need to know more about what it meant to Paul and the Galatians. (This is another time when a study Bible can be invaluable.)

If we do just a little digging, we learn that by accepting circumcision, the Galatians would be committing themselves to observing the Old Covenant Law. They were being taught they first had to become Jews before they could be disciples of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. Paul vehemently opposes this teaching. He explains in his letter to them that the Mosaic Law has been fulfilled in Christ; the Old Covenant has been superseded by the New Covenant in Christ; what they are being taught is such a serious departure from the truth of Christ it amounts to an entirely different gospel; and if they seek to be accepted by God through obeying the Old Covenant Law, they will be denying Christ and the grace of God!

So what does this mean to us today? Do we have teachers trying to pressure us to be circumcised and become Jews in order to be disciples of Christ? Not very often (although some groups come close to this in the way they merge the New Covenant with the Old). But do we face comparable challenges to add something to the pure gospel? Absolutely. We have people telling us we need an additional experience to enter into a relationship with Christ, whether it’s baptism, being filled with the Spirit, or receiving sacraments from a priest. We also have people insisting we must follow their list of rules and regulations to be a child of God. In Galatians, Paul has shown us that any added requirements for salvation perverts the gospel and must be vigorously opposed. The principles we learn in this letter to the Galatians equip us to handle these challenges.

So whenever you run into a passage that seems to involve a difference in culture, ask yourself these questions:

What is the main biblical principle being taught in this passage?

How did they faithfully live out this principle in their cultural context?

How can we most faithfully live out this same biblical principle in our cultural context?

Exploring these questions can help us sort out many seemingly difficult issues. Should Christian women today cover their heads when they pray or prophesy in the church as it describes in 1 Corinthians 11? First we ask: What is the main biblical principle being taught in this passage? We find it in 1 Corinthians 11:10 “. . . a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority.” The principle Paul is teaching in this passage is that when women speak publicly in the church, they should show they are under authority.

How did they live out this principle? By women wearing a head covering, which communicated to people in their culture that they were under authority. Does this application communicate the same thing today? No, it doesn’t. Head coverings for Christian women don’t have any specific significance in our culture. In one class, I asked the students what they would think if they went into a Christian church and the women were wearing head coverings. One student replied, “I’d think it was some kind of cult!”

So, to rigidly use the same method of application today that they used then (head coverings) won’t fulfill the unchanging biblical principle (which is Christian women clearly showing everyone they are under authority when they speak publicly in the church). How can we accomplish this today? There’s currently no form of dress that communicates this idea. The best way to live out this principle now is probably in the attitude one demonstrates when speaking in the church.

God has sovereignly placed his people in different times and cultural contexts. And—regardless of our contexts—we seek to faithfully live out the truth revealed in his Word. But Scripture gives us both the core principles and also ways his people were to live out these principles in their 1st century context. So how do we most faithfully live out these unchanging biblical principles in our current context? The questions above give us a way of determining which methods of application are most faithful to the scriptural intent. They help us go beyond a mere religious, woodenly literal obsession with the letter of the law, and instead help us truly honor God by faithfully living out the actual principles he has given 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 [see above]

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

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Sometimes I’m asked, “Why do I have to study the Bible? Why can’t I just open it, read it and do it what it says?” This is a good question. To help us see the need for studying the Bible, I’d like you to read the following and see if you can explain what it means:

It is now my dear Friend a long time since I had a line from you. The Fate of Gibraltar leads me to fear that a peace is far distant, and that I shall not see you — God only knows when; I shall say little about my former request, not that my desire is less, but before this can reach you ’tis probable I may receive your opinion. If in favour of my comeing to you; I shall have no occasion to urge it further, if against it, I would not embarrass you; by again requesting it. I will endeavour to set down and consider it as the portion alloted me. My dear sons are well their application and improvements go hand in hand. Our friends all desire to be rememberd. The Fleet of our allies expect to sail daily but where destined we know not; a great harmony has subsisted between them and the Americans ever since their residence here. I wish to write to Mr. Thaxter but fear I shall not have time. Mrs. Dana and the children are well. The judge has been very sick of a fever but I believe is better. This Letter is to go by the Iris which sails with the fleet. I hope it will reach you in safety. If it should fall into the hands of an Enemy, I hope they will be kind enough to distroy it; as I would not wish to see such a family picture in print; adieu my dear Friend. Why is it that I hear so seldom from my dear John; but one Letter have I ever received from him since he arrived in Petersburgh? I wrote him by the last oppertunity. Ever remember me as I do you; with all the tenderness which it is possible for one object to feel for an other; which no time can obliterate no distance alter, but which is always the same in the bosom of

Portia

In classes, I’ve had students attempt to make observations regarding this text. What is the author’s “former request”? What is the nature of the relationship between the author and the letter’s recipient? It’s surprising the range of guesses that come from such a discussion—many of them conflicting with one another!

So what would we need to know about this letter to make sense of it? Well, it would help to know who’s writing it, wouldn’t it? (I’ll give you a clue: the author’s name is not Portia.) We also need to know to whom it’s written, and what exactly this person means to the author. We have a few clues as to the timing (the mention of America, the odd spelling and grammar, etc.), but it would really help us to have a little bit more information about the historical context. (“Ah,” I hope you’re thinking, “context.”) Who is the enemy to whom the author refers? What is the “fate of Gibraltar”? Who are the allies? Is there any significance to Mr. Thaxter and to Mrs. Dana and the children? And just where is this letter being sent from and written to?

As you can see, interpreting what we read is not always a simple, cut-and-dried process. The technical term for figuring out what a text means is hermeneutics, and it’s something we do all the time. Every time we read a news article or a spy novel, we’re doing ‘hermeneutics’—we’re interpreting what we read. The more distant the text is from us historically and culturally, the more challenging the task of interpreting what it means. The Bible was written in different languages, over a wide period of time, from different human authors (all writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), and in very different cultural settings.

Is this background information really all that important? Only if we want to genuinely understand what we’re reading in Scripture! Here’s a principle worth remembering:

The Bible can never mean what it never meant.

Scripture can’t have some unique, esoteric meaning to me personally that is completely divorced from its historical and cultural setting. It can’t mean something to us now that it never meant to them then. To understand what the Bible means to us today, we first need a sense of what these letters and books meant to the people to whom they were originally written. If we don’t know any of this background information for the Scriptures we’re reading, then we’re as in the dark reading the Bible as we are deciphering the mysterious letter above. And I know that’s just how many of you often feel.

Does this mean we all have to become seminary students just to understand our Bibles? Not at all! Thankfully, we can benefit from the work of dedicated biblical scholars every day. Remember a couple of weeks ago when I recommended using a good study Bible? This is a handy, convenient way of carrying around a handbook on the historical context of Scripture—right in your personal Bible. A study Bible gives you an introduction to each book of the Bible, telling you who wrote it, to whom it was written, when it was written, and a little about why it was written. By simply reading a brief intro, you’re now miles ahead of where you were before in your ability to truly understand the text.

A study Bible will tell us that Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts (and that he was a Gentile). This gives us much better insight into both books. A study Bible can explain what the books of Ezra and Nehemiah have to do with each other, helping us to better understand both. A study Bible will help us sort out just who the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) were writing to and what they were writing about.

Who were the Galatians, and why did Paul so quickly get on their case in his letter to them? A study Bible will help you understand what’s going on in their letter. Why was Paul wanting so badly to get back to the Thessalonians? (Who were they anyway? Where did they come from?) Who was Timothy and why did Paul feel such a close, fatherly bond with him? Why in his first letter to Timothy does Paul speak of coming soon to where Timothy was (Ephesus), but in his second letter to him Paul speaks of his own impending death? What happened between these letters?

One of the most important things we can do while studying the Bible is to ask these kinds of questions. Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? A study Bible is like a gifted scholar sitting down beside us explaining how everything fits together. If you’re reading the book of 1 Corinthians, it will help you understand the situation in Corinth, why Paul wrote to the Corinthians rather than go immediately to them, why he wrote to them the way he did, and how 2 Corinthians relates to 1 Corinthians. In a few brief paragraphs, it gives you the lay of the land and helps you see everything in perspective. As you can tell, I’m enthusiastic about study Bibles!

I once heard of a competition between two woodcutters. A young woodcutter had been boasting he could out-cut the older pro. So they had a competition. The morning of the contest, they were given identical axes. It didn’t take them long to discover they both had the same problem—the axes were dull. The young kid just worked harder, thinking he could muscle his way to victory. But the veteran woodcutter stopped and took the time to sharpen his axe. When he finally got to actually using the axe, he was far behind his young opponent. But as the day went on, he caught up with and surpassed the challenger. When the competition was finished, the young upstart was so exhausted he could barely lift his arms, but what he had produced paled in comparison to the older, more experienced woodcutter.

I think the lesson is clear. We can’t simply muscle our way through the biblical text and expect to get much out of it. We need to take the time to sharpen our axe. A crucial part of any job is making sure we’re using the right tool, isn’t it? And we need to know the tool is in proper working order, and that we know how to operate the tool correctly, don’t we? One of the best tools we have in understanding God’s Word is a study Bible. As I mentioned two weeks ago, the study Bible I recommend to most believers who are just beginning to dig into the Bible is the Life Application Study Bible. If you’re a little more experienced at studying Scripture or if you’re going to be teaching others, I love the NLT Study Bible. I don’t have any connection to the publishers; I just love all the helpful features these study Bibles have, and I’m excited about getting them into the hands of Christians who can then use them to better understand the Bible.

If you choose a different study Bible—great! Just use it! Take the time to sharpen your axe. To mix our metaphors, don’t be satisfied with me or anyone else giving you fish—learn to fish for yourself. Sharpen your skill in studying the Bible for yourself and being able to understand it. My responsibility as a pastor isn’t just to feed you; it’s to teach you to feed yourself. That’s the whole point of our current series. Once you get a taste of digging into God’s Word for yourself, it will just make you hungry for more!

(PS: For those who are still wondering, the letter I quoted at the top is from Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams [who would later become the second president of the U.S.], and it was dated December 23, 1782.)

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? [see above]

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