Our church's Bible reading plan has us in Luke 15 today. A few key statements (from NKJV) seem to summarize the chapter well:
And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, "This man receives sinners..." (15:2)
I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents... (15:7)
I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (15:10)
When he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion... (15:20)
And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry, for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. (15:23-24)
It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found. (15:32)
Personal note: I am very glad that Jesus receives sinners!
Last Thursday the United States Supreme Court narrowly upheld the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in its decision in NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT BUSINESS ET AL. v. SEBELIUS, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, ET AL. (11-393c3a2.pdf).
Frankly, I was disappointed by the majority opinion in the case. Don't get me wrong--I believe that providing health care to those who need it is a good thing. My disagreement with ACA has to do primarily with how it accomplishes its goal. The act is contrary to the principles of liberty that underlie the founding of our constitutional republic.
I found the dissent by justices Kennedy, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia to be a very coherent, constitutionally rigorous, and convincing defense of their opinion that the entirety of the ACA should be struck down.
There were three portions of their dissent that particularly caught my attention regarding the issue of textual interpretation. The dissenting justices provided some helpful thoughts that we can profitably ponder in our own reading of the Bible.
I have believed for years that the disagreement in constitutional interpretation between the liberals and the conservatives is very closely paralleled by the disagreement between Christians over Biblical interpretation. To be sure, more conservatives and evangelicals are embracing what they call 'literal' interpretation, but they do not share the entire range of meaning of that term when they thus speak. The difference in interpretive approach is even more pronounced between conservatives and liberals.
The ACA case points out three areas that are critical when interpreting a text.
1. Double Meaning and Textualism
"What the Government would have us believe in these cases is that the very same textual indications that show this is not a tax under the Anti-Injunction Act show that it is a tax under the Constitution. That carries verbal wizardry too far, deep into the forbidden land of the sophists." (Dissent, pp. 27-28).
The dissent points out that the solicitor general, representing the Obama administration, seeks to benefit from both sides of a patent contradiction. Normal readers would understand that either the financial obligations laid on a non-insured person under the ACA are a tax or they are a penalty, but they cannot be both at the same time. The government argued on the one hand that the law was a penalty, so the case could be heard by the court, and on the other hand it argued that the law was a tax, so that the law could be upheld as constitutional. Apparently Justice Roberts and the liberal wing of the court were convinced.
The dissent correctly points out that we must look at the textual indications in the bill itself to see whether the financial obligation is a penalty or a tax. Along with that, they argue that it is 'verbal wizardry' to take the exact same text and make the bill mean two different things from the same text. Court precedent has a very plain understanding of the term 'tax' and another and different understanding of the term 'penalty.' The law, as written, uses the term 'penalty' and the penalty is in fact structured as such. The language and meaning are consistent that the bill imposes a penalty on someone who will not purchase an insurance policy.
For those of us busy interpreting the Bible for our churches in sermons or commentaries, we need to be keenly aware that a text has a single meaning. We have often heard that a text may have many implications or applications; but it has only one meaning. Some interpreters have opted for a double-meaning or multiple-referent approach that I cannot embrace. But what we must all agree on is that even if you believe in double meaning, you cannot take a text and make it mean, at one and the same time, two things that are opposites of one another! To do so would be nonsense.
2. Original Meaning, Authorial Intent, and the Larger Context
When discussing the issue of severability and whether some portions of the law could be struck down while others are upheld, the dissenters write:
"The question is whether the provisions will work as Congress intended. The 'relevant inquiry in evaluating severability is whether the statute will function in a manner consistent with the intent of Congress.'” (Dissent, p. 50).
Certain provisions of the ACA rely on other key provisions (namely the individual mandate and the Medicaid expansion). The question is this: if you strike down the two key provisions, can the remainder of the provisions make sense as intended by Congress? The dissent says 'no' because of the intertwining of the minor provisions with the major provisions. Even if some minor provisions could make some kind of sense without the major ones, the dissent suggests that their effect would be different than the effect intended by Congress. The court should not get into the business of upholding some parts of a law which now have a new meaning apart from the major provisions. That would have the effect of striking down one part of the law and rewriting the other part because the context of the other part has changed.
This is a helpful concept for us to consider in Biblical interpretation. We can easily fall into a compartmentalized view of the Bible in which we believe our interpretation of one part does not affect another part. Readers of this blog know that I have expressed major concerns over the doctrine of creation held by many evangelicals--a doctrine which, in their view, must be harmonized with science to be relevant and sensible. But, I ask, does such a harmonization agree with authorial intent? It doesn't seem to. And, does harmonizing with science affect our interpretation of other texts in the Bible? Absolutely it does. If the author's intent is overridden in one area, it can easily change the context in significant ways that affect the interpretation of other portions. When authorial intent is discarded in the interpretation of one portion of a text, there is no telling what happens to the interpretation of another portion of the text, even if authorial intent is supposedly upheld in that other portion.
3. Changing the Meaning
Toward the end of the dissent, the justices argue against what the majority has decided. They convincingly claim that Roberts, et al., deal not with the Law that Congress wrote, but rather with the law that Congress could have written. Their argument is that the text of the Law is before the court, and it is the court's job to decide on the law as written, not on a variation of the law that could have been written and could have been before the court had Congress written it differently.
"The Court’s disposition, invented and atextual as it is, does not even have the merit of avoiding constitutional difficulties. It creates them." (Dissent, p. 64).
The dissent thus says that the majority opinion has invented a meaning for the ACA that is not in the ACA itself. The ACA imposes a penalty for an individual who does not obey the individual insurance mandate. The majority has decided to construe that penalty as a tax in its desire to find some way in the constitution to uphold the law. The 'atextual' interpretation of the law has resulted in a messy decision that creates more problems than it solved.
There is a real battle in the area of interpretation today. People who are our leaders now (in government and in churches) grew up in a philosophical environment that allows multiple contradictory meanings without any apparent cognitive dissonance in the person holding those contradictory meanings; an environment that allows the reader to determine the meaning of a text rather than the author; and an environment that permits a person to change or dismiss an authoritative source if it conflicts with their own self-authority.
Given this kind of thinking, I wonder if we really know how to read. Sure, we can sound out the words or spit them out from memory if we learned the look-say method, but do we really read and understand them? Do we understand that we cannot find two contradictory propositions from the same words? Do we understand that God is not the author of contradiction and confusion? Do we understand that meaning does not reside in us, but in the text as intended by the author? Do we understand that we are not the authority, but an external authority is, whether the constitution or the Bible?
The Christian ought to understand that contradiction, reader-centrism, and modification of the plain meaning of the Bible are not consistent with godly interpretation. May God help us to approach His authoritative text very carefully so that we do not make the errors we have discussed above.
Are you mystified by the book of Revelation? You're not alone! A few years ago I taught through Revelation for our church on Sunday evenings. I made a lot of effort not to get bogged down in a lot of details so as to preserve the big picture of the book. Very shortly thereafter, I taught the same series to a group of senior citizens. They had a great interest in the book. Perhaps this is not surprising in the sunset years...the desire to know what is on the horizon, which grows nearer and nearer for those in retirement. Whatever stage of life you are in, the things coming in the future are relevant for our conduct now, as 2 Peter 3:11-14 exhorts.
The notes are available in this PDF file.
I received a question via email as to what the lamp in the tabernacle represents (Leviticus 24:1-4). The inquirer suggested that it may represent the work of the Holy Spirit.
My response was as follows:
The lamp has been variously identified. I believe the oil has been identified with the Holy Spirit, and the light of it has been identified with the Word of God (Psalm 119:105, for instance).
At best, however, these are only analogies. Now, analogies are often helpful for understanding and I don't discard them entirely. But I am unable to think of a Bible text that teaches any typological relationship between the tabernacle lamp and some other New Testament person, idea, or event.
The question really boils down to a hermeneutical question. In the absence of a specific revelatory proposition that makes an identification, I cannot identify a relationship between the lamp and anything else. In other words, when Leviticus 24:1-4 talks about the lamp of the tabernacle, it represents...the lamp of the tabernacle! That's what plain, literal, normal hermeneutics would guide us to realize. The words do not represent a hidden spiritual truth. The meaning of the words is plainly written. Now, if Hezekiah 14:45 were to say, "Christ is that lamp of the tabernacle," then I would have to deal with that revelation. Absent that, I am not required to hunt for a deeper meaning.
Why should we believe there is no hidden meaning? Because, first of all, God intended to communicate something, and hidden truth does not communicate well. In Lev. 24, God desired to tell the priests how to arrange the operation of the tabernacle. If God had wanted to teach something about the Spirit, He would have done so openly and plainly (I leave room for parables and so forth here). Second, hidden meanings (if there were any) can only be extracted by certain "interpretation experts," yet these experts often differ as to their conclusions. Who is right? Third, if you (generic use of 'you') make a specific identification of what the lamp represents, then you are going beyond what Scripture explicitly teaches. How could you then stand in front of the church and say "this means that, and this is the application of what is represented..." with any level of certainty? The person listening would have to wonder where in the world you got the idea from. This brings up a fourth objection to hidden meanings, and that is that preaching them provides a bad example of Bible study to the Christians listening to the preaching.
Hope that is helpful. --MAP
Romans 15:1 - We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves (NKJ).
Romans 15:1 - We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves (ESV).
In my reading this morning I paused at this verse. A few thoughts came to mind. What struck me first is that believers have a moral obligation to be patient with those who are weak. The previous chapter discusses the specific kind of weakness Paul has in mind.
Whatever kind of weakness or failing that some believer or church has, we have an obligation to bear with them. Our first reaction may be to leave the church (read: separate), but that approach is not in accordance with the spirit of this passage. (I assume we are not talking about a matter of heresy or failure to carry out basic Biblical duties.) Someone may say, "Those people are unspiritual, weak Christians. I'm going to find a better church." I do not believe that approach fits what Paul has in mind here. "Bearing with" does not equal "writing off." "Bearing with" requires spiritual maturity and hard work. The goal of edification is not easily achieved (15:2).
Sometimes the "writing off" approach comes from a deep seated attitude that the church has to provide what I need/want, or what my kids need, or whatever. "If this church is too weak to get that done, then I'm going somewhere better." A better approach would be to dig in and use your spiritual gifts to help provide some ministry that fills a gap rather than leaving the church in the same state you found it. "Ask not what your church can do for you. Ask what you can do for your church."
I haven't read on the Lordship salvation controversy in a while, but I recently picked up Lou Martuneac's In Defense of the Gospel and have read through most of it.
I'm not planning to do a full review of it here, but I have to ask at least one question about the interpretation of Romans 10:9-10 he offers on page 203. There, Martuneac writes, “From the above quotations and the biblical evidence the consensus is confession with the mouth of Christ's position as Lord is required for salvation, not a promise of future obedience to Him as Lord.”
This portion struck me as odd. It seems he is not dealing very carefully with the text, in that his statement could easily be construed as an addition to receiving the gospel by faith. Is he teaching a way of salvation that requires a work—public verbal confession—in order to procure salvation?
Don't get me wrong: I am convinced that the Bible demonstrates that faith without some kind of fruit is dead. But given that Martuneac is trying to press the case that Lordship salvation is a faith plus works message (p. 229), he should give a more clear explanation as to what he is saying about this verbal confession. What Martuneac has written reminds me of gospel invitations given with a call to step forward and confess Christ publicly, seeming to make it sound like such an act is a requirement in order to be saved. We need to be very clear to our listeners as to what is required and what is not required. We should not leave them wondering if they need to stand up and give a public word on the Lordship of Christ, or not. Martuneac's statement is clear enough, but it seems to contradict the overall thesis of his book.
In light of this conversation, we are faced with at least three choices, the main ones being: reading the lines, reading between the lines, or a combination of both. I am voting for "reading the lines."
It is not at all necessary to read between the lines to find most of what Ben and Chris and the other commentators see in the OT about the Messiah. Furthermore, it is hermeneutically dangerous to read between the lines. Why? First, the meaning of the text of the Bible is in the text, not the whitespace. Second, the text, not the whitespace, is inspired. Third, between the lines gives away too much of the idea of progressive revelation.
Perhaps I am taking "between the lines" a bit too literally (!), but it seems that the propositions communicated in the OT are clear enough without having to hunt behind or under the Scriptural text.
Now, the above is not a full endorsement of what Mark has written, particularly the idea in his original post that Christ is not a theme in the OT. I would beg to differ...ideas such as God raising up an ideal prophet/priest/king (Deuteronomy 18:15 / 1 Samuel 2:35, Psalm 110:4 / 2 Samuel 7, Psalm 2:7, Amos 9:11) and the servant motif (Isaiah 53) are very important forward-looking ideas in the OT that are clearly Messianic. But, that said, I think Brother Snoeberger has made a helpful, if slightly overstated, point.
This post is about the sometimes puzzling texts Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1, and Luke 9:27 "... there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."
One important rule of Bible study to keep in mind is this: don't let the chapter divisions fool you. They are not inspired.
Matthew 16 ends abruptly with this announcement. Chapter 17 would initially seem to leave the reader dangling as to what Jesus means with those words. But actually we should read 16:28 and continue into chapter 17 as if there is no chapter division at all.
As with many Bible difficulties, the answer to the question about who and when this "not taste of death" will be fulfilled is right in the text. In this case, chapter 17 gives the fulfillment of 16:28. Peter, James, and John were the "some standing here" who did not die before they saw a glimpse, albeit very brief, of the glorified Jesus with Moses and Elijah. What they saw is how Jesus will be in His kingdom, with dazzlingly white clothing and shining face, and interacting with resurrected saints of past ages.
The idea that we should not let chapter divisions fool us is backed up by the Mark and Luke passages, where there is no chapter division between the "not taste death" and transfiguration passages.
By the way, in 2 Peter 1:16-17 the apostle reflects on this transfiguration experience. He uses some "kingdom" language when he refers to Christ's power and coming, His majesty, honor, and glory.
It is a much debated text, but I’m convinced that it is an oblique reference to the Holy Spirit and particularly His presence in the church during this age of grace. This is evident because:
In my September 14, 2007 post, I probably raised more questions than I answered with respect to the issue of polygamy and its practice in the Old Testament. One statement I made elicited some response from at least one reader. I said that "though Exodus 21:7-11 regulates polygamy, this does not necessarily endorse it." The question was whether that is a valid principle. If something is regulated, shouldn't we suppose that it is within God's will? That is to say, since God regulates polygamy, it seems that, at least in some cases, it must be allowable and God does thus endorse it. Of course, later in the same post, I said that the Levirate institution causes tension with my view "in that God gave this as part of the Law and so in some sense endorsed it."
I supported my position with a similar statement regarding divorce. In the case of divorce, God definitely regulated its practice in the OT (Deut. 24:1-4, among other passages). In fact, Exodus 21:10-11 sets forth some case law in the situation where polygamy and divorce together are at issue and again God "endorses" divorce by way of commanding that the first wife go free. However, Matthew 19:6-8 makes it clear, at least to this reader, that God did not endorse the general practice of divorce "from the beginning" of creation. It does not seem reasonable to suppose that God would positively endorse an act which is always the result of other sins. What marriage ended in divorce where there was not some sin leading up to the divorce? So I still believe the principle to be valid on the face of the texts--what God regulates he does not necessarily endorse. The specific cases cited are exceptions with regard to polygamy and divorce. But not all things that God regulates are within the boundaries of what he desires. (Of course, all things that come to pass are within the bounds of his decreed will. I am speaking of his "moral" or "desired" will.) Sometimes he regulates things simply to prevent total anarchy from taking over.
As both polygamy and divorce are disputed examples in this area, the reader asked if there are other examples. I could not think of any others besides the example of sin in general. God does not endorse sin of any type, but he does legislate punishments when it happens. In the OT, he regulated sacrifices that were to be made for particular sins and types of sins. He decreed for sin to occur, but clearly he is not the author of it, nor does he endorse it in some positive way. But he very definitely does regulate it. So, it is regulated but not endorsed.
Still this leaves me with an uneasy feeling regarding those exceptional cases with divorce and polygamy. Are those things that God "endorses" themselves sin? Would God command something to be done that is sin? Certainly we would agree that even if divorce were OK in some cases, it is definitely sin in others. When God commands it, we would not be correct to say that it is sin, for God cannot sin nor does he tempt any man to sin (James 1:13). It was somewhat of a help to me to think of the example of the killing of a person. If it is murder, then it is sin according to the 10 commandments. But God regulates this sin with another act that, on the surface, seems to be sin: namely, the killing of the murderer himself. This killing would seem to be sin, but as it is commanded by God, it is not sin. In fact, it is right and just as a punishment to extract a life for a life. God regulates murder with the death penalty but he is not thereby endorsing murder. It is only that without capital punishment, the end result would be more egregious than if capital punishment were not done, and the murderer was allowed to live. This would be a great miscarriage of divine justice, for the loss of life made in God's image would not be recompensed with a punishment of commensurate weight.
So I'm still sticking to the notion that though polygamy and divorce did happen in the OT, we do not have to bow to the idea that they were or are institutions that must necessarily continue in the present age because they carry God's stamp of approval. They do not. Perhaps you have some more thoughts that will help me refine my thinking.
There is a proposed hermeneutical principle in the study of the Bible which its proponents call the principle of first reference. When a word or concept is encountered, the first reference in the Bible to that word or concept is consulted as the most significant defining or foundational passage. (If anyone reading can supply a better definition, please send it to me.)
Even though I had studied quite a bit of theology, the first time I remember running into this concept was a couple years ago in the book Velvet Elvis by post-modern/emerging church guru Rob Bell. I then ran into it in a Days of Praise devotional last week (November 24 - Magnified Mercy).
It strikes me as a very unreliable and unbiblical principle--I considered it nonsense from the first time I heard it. For one thing, "first" reference has to be defined--is it first in chronological composition of the Bible? Or first in "Bible order" in the 66-book English Bible? Or is the order of books as it is found in the Hebrew Bible (which is different)? Second, there is no mention of such a principle in the Bible. Third, we do not apply this principle to any other book. Finally, there is no inherent reason that just because a word is used for the first time that this use defines its characteristics. That use could be the odd use, the opposite of normal, or a bad example of the practice of that word or concept.
One of the tensions with my "no polygamy" stance is how to understand the Old Testament, where polygamy abounded. It is first mentioned in Gen. 4:19 where Lamech took for himself two wives. We see many men, including Abraham and Jacob, with multiple wives. Kings David and Solomon had a huge number of wives.
It should be noted first that God never specifically commands men to take multiple wives; rather, the teaching from the time of Adam is one man, one woman, and one flesh (Gen. 2:23-24). Second, it is obvious that God allowed polygamy, and that, good or bad, it accomplished certain things like allowing prominent men to have many children more quickly than they would have been able to have with one wife. It also resulted in intra-family rivalries (e.g. 1 Sam. 1:6). Third, though Exodus 21:7-11 regulates polygamy, this does not necessarily endorse it. Similar regulations were given to regulate or curb the sin of divorce (Deut. 24:1-4) but this did not change God's desire for marriage (Matt. 19:6). Fourth, God's allowance of David to have Saul's wives is simply that--an allowance which indicated a complete transfer of the kingdom rule to David (2 Sam. 12:8). In the midst of the rebuke given by God through Nathan, God is saying that He gave David everything he could ask for and then some, and then David was still not satisfied and wanted yet another wife from a man who only had one! Here is a clear-cut case when taking another wife was done so in adultery.
There is another problem with respect to the Levirate marriage institution which was used for the propagation of the family name and inheritance rights (Deut 25:5-10). The brother of the deceased could do the levirate marriage or not. Presumably if he were already married, then he would have two wives after taking his deceased brother's widow as his own. Fortunately for my position, we are not under the Mosaic Law today so I don't have to worry about this case in the present day as if it were legally sanctioned by God. But it is a legitimate tension in that God gave this as part of the Law and so in some sense endorsed it. I'm willing to live with that tension for now until I have time to think it through more fully. In western cultures, this is not a problem because polygamy is outlawed anyway. In other cultures where polygamy is legal, we should explore why is it used. Is it done for religious or pragmatic reasons? Is it tied to certain religious beliefs, as in Islam? Or is it related to the culture's view of inheritance, property transfer, and sustaining the family name? Or is it simply a way for men to indulge their sinful desires?
All of that may be somewhat less than perfectly satisfying, but I am trying to deal honestly with the Biblical text. What we can say without any doubt, gentlemen, is that God wants you to love your wife as yourself and enjoy her as the gift from God that she is. Solomon might say, "My son, keep my words. Don't look elsewhere to satisfy your desire for love."
I did get some feedback on the Polygamy entry from August 16. One query had to do with whether my use of Romans 7:1-3 is valid at all. That is, does Romans 7:1-3 really have any bearing on the issue of polygamy, since that is not at all what Paul is teaching about? Good question--since I am committed to the belief that we must teach the Bible in context and not lift passages out of context to make a point we desire to make.
The answer to this is basically that there is an implication in what Paul is teaching that does have to do with polygamy. It seems quite clear from the passage that polyandry is adultery. "Polygamy=adultery" seems to be a straightforward extension to this. Certainly Paul's point is not to teach about polygamy or polyandry. But based on this implication, a man who runs off with another woman and commits adultery with her, but remains married to his original spouse all the while, is in egregious sin. I don't see anything "sanctifying" about parading that adulterous relationship up to a civil magistrate, having him declare it a "marriage," and then pretending it is better than if you didn't have it legally declared a marriage. Just saying it is right doesn't make it right. Dressing up adultery with marriage vows and a marriage license does not make it any more righteous.
For the inaugural entry in my blog, I thought what better than to tackle a tough theological issue like polygamy? There are many "sub issues" to this one, such as whether men with multiples wives can be members of a local church (say, in Africa), whether they can take communion or be in leadership roles, how they should handle their wives after becoming saved, whether they should divorce all but one (and which one?) or support them without having relations, and whether the law of their home country has any bearing on the question at all.
Before we can get to those questions (perhaps in future blog entries), it is important to note that Romans 7:1-3 has some bearing on this issue. It speaks of a wife becoming an adulteress if she marries another man while her first husband is still alive. By implication, a man who marries another woman while his first wife is alive also becomes an adulterer. This seems quite obvious to most Christians. The application to the case of polygamy is just that the man who marries a second wife is an adulterer with respect to his first wife. It does not seem to make a difference to me if you call it a marriage or not, as it is no different than if the man has an ongoing affair with another woman. This comes to bear on the question of whether the second marriage is valid, and would have significant impact on the answers to the questions posed in the previous paragraph.