Aug 16 - Understanding The Scriptures Properly

Understanding The Scriptures Properly

August 16, 2015

2 timothy 2:15

 

UNDERSTANDING THE SCRIPTURES PROPERLY

August 16th, 2015

People who are not Christians may wonder why there are so many different denominations.  RC, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Mennonite, Missionary alliance, Seventh day Adventists, Church of the Nazarene, Brethren, Christian reformed, Vineyard, …

Also, they likely are not even aware that certain churches who call themselves Christian, believe in things quite different from what I would call, “normal” or “normative” or “historical” Christianity: Mormon church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, Christian Science, …

One of the reasons for the multiplication of denomination and Pseudo-Christian churches is due to certain religious leaders or denominational founders picking and choosing verses from the Bible that they interpret to fit their own opinions or preferences. 

Toward the end of his life, Paul wrote a letter to Timothy, a young man he got to know in Lystra on his second missionary journey in what today is Turkey.

In it, Paul writes:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved … who correctly interprets (handles) the word of truth.

                                                                        2 Timothy 2:15

Correctly interpret what you read, so you yourself are not passing on something that doesn’t conform to the truth.  This is easier said than done, as can be seen by the many different Christian denominations and cults and sects.

However, there are some principles that can help us.  One of these we encounter during Paul’s second missionary journey.  While in Troas, with Timothy and others in tow, Paul had a vision that called him to what was then the Roman Province of Macedonia.

He, Silas, Timothy, and the author of the book of Acts, travelled first to Philippi, where Paul started a church, which met in the house of a wealthy woman named Lydia.  It is this church that Paul had close connections to for the rest of his life (supported him financially).  However, also in Philippi, he and Silas were arrested stripped, severely flogged and thrown in prison since Paul exorcised a demon from a slave girl and the owners were not happy about it. 

From there they went to Thessalonika (Thesaloniki), where Paul also founded a church within just three weeks, but only a few Jews from the synagogue believed.  The rest created such a stink, that Paul and his travel companions had to flee by night to keep from being arrested again. 

And so they came to the town of Berea.  As always, Paul started his work by preaching or teaching in the local synagogue. 

With regard to those at the synagogue in Berea we are told,

Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness, and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.                                    Acts 17:11

Those in the synagogue at Berea were open to Paul’s message, but they also did not want to be duped.  They wanted to make sure that Paul wasn’t telling them something false. 

First principle in discerning truth: search the Scriptures as a whole, don’t be myopic and build a whole theology on just one or two verses – and then you’ll be able to know whether or not a person who is teaching or preaching is actually speaking truth or error.

Another two principle are found in 1 Peter 3:15:

Always be prepared to give a reasoned defense to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is in you.   But do so with gentleness and respect.

1 Peter 3:15

In order to give a reasoned defense, we need to know what we believe and why we believe it.  So, the second principle in discerning truth:  Think through what we believe and why we believe what we do.

But I also think this verse speaks about an attitude of personal humility when we give that reasoned defense.

There has to be the ability to see oneself as a fallible human.  We may NOT be right about everything.  And there may be SOME truth to what another person is saying, even when they are wrong.

Third principle in discerning truth:  Show some personal humility

To correctly interpret what I read, I need to:

  1. Search the scriptures as a whole

  2. Think through what I believe and why I believe it

  3. Show some personal humility

So lets look at some examples where we can apply, particularly the first principle:

In Romans 9, it seems to speaks of God predetermining peoples’ eternal destiny prior to their birth, and this chapter is one of the main reasons why certain churches teach the doctrine of double predestination, that is, that God has preordained who goes to heaven or hell (to glory or destruction) and actively makes certain that it happens (have mercy on vs. hardening). 

Before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand:  not by works but by him who calls – Rebekah was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated.”  What then, shall we say that God is unjust?  Not at all!  For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.                         Romans 9:11-15

Rom 9 is part of a three chapter section (Rom 9-11) that deals with the question why many Jewish people are highly resistant to the Good News that Jesus is their Messiah, while many Gentiles, non-Jewish people, are receptive and have accepted Jesus as their Messiah.  Rom 9 is part of Paul’s argument that the present relatively small number of the Jewish Christians, is because God wants to see salvation reach the non-Jewish communities, but that all of this will change at Jesus’ imminent return, so that ultimately all Israel will be saved. 

So Paul is really pointing out that those who appear not to be predestined to salvation may in fact are, while others who appear to be predestined may not be.

Also, in Paul’s example, Jacob and Esau, where Jacob seems blessed by God, but not so Esau, is really an example of degrees.  Esau still worshipped YHWH and flourished even after he moved South into the Negev and Edom.  His offspring turned into the nation of Edom and the Edomites flourished for a long time. 

Similarly, the nation of Israel, which seems to currently be outside of God’s elect, will in fact become elect again. 

The whole theology of predestination also needs to be buffered with personal accountability for one’s actions and attitudes.  In a section about the last judgment, the apostle Paul, wrote in the same letter to the Romans:

God will give to each person according to what he has done.  To those who persistently do good and focus on the glory, honour and immortality (found in the afterlife), he will give eternal life.  But to those who are self-seeking, who reject the truth and follow evil, will receive (God’s) wrath and anger.           Romans 2:6-8

So in the very same letter, Paul speaks, on one hand, of judgment based on our attitude and actions, which strongly implies free will, and on the other hand about election (9:11), which strongly implies predestination.  This dichotomy is something that is pretty mysterious – I think the danger is to think that a person who disagrees with my personal views on this topic is completely out to lunch or that my view is the only right one. 

Or, there are passages that promise physical blessings for those who fear God.  For example, in Malachi, the prophet chastises the nation of Israel for robbing God of the proper sacrifices at the temple:

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.  Test me in this, says YHWH Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the flood gates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough to contain it.           Malachi 3:10

Or there is the passage in Luke where Jesus tells his followers not to judge, but instead to forgive and to give, likely to those in need, even though I have often heard it in reference to giving toward a ministry of some sort:

Give and it will be given to you:  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be poured into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.                                   Luke 6:38

Jesus repeatedly champions the principle that God’s attitude toward us is influenced directly by the way that we treat others.  If we refuse to forgive, we should not expect forgiveness from God.  But if we show mercy and compassion, God will show mercy and compassion toward us.  If we give, we will receive.

The apostle Paul, with regard to taking up a collection in the church in Corinth for the church in Jerusalem, wrote:

Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.                                                                            2 Corinthians 9:6

In Proverbs we read about how good people are blessed and bad people are not:

YHWH does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.            Proverbs 10:3

Blessings crown the head of the righteous, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.   Proverbs 10:6

The blessings of YHWH brings wealth, and he adds no sorrow to it.                                                     Proverbs 10:22

What the wicked dread will overtake him; what the righteous desire will be granted.            Proverbs 10:24

These verses have been used to some extent in the Word/Faith movement, which states that, given enough faith, all Christians should be healthy and wealthy.  It is not in God’s will for us to struggle with our health or our finances or anything else for that matter. 

Suffering is the result of sin and prosperity is the result of right living.

Also added to it is often the idea that when we give to God, usually, when we give to some televangelist, that God has to bless us financially and will make us rich.

But the reality is that some good people, people of integrity and a tremendous amount of faith, suffer greatly or aren’t wealthy, while some corrupt or evil people seem to flourish, accumulate great wealth, and be in good health. 

This bothered a number of writers in the Bible, including the prophet Jeremiah:

O YHWH, … I would speak with you about your justice:  Why do the wicked prosper in life?  Why do the unbelieving live at ease?                          Jeremiah 12:1

The deposed Muslim dictator, under whose 8 year leadership up to ½ million Ugandans were killed, amassed $ 1 billion, has 54 children, was never tried for his actions and lived in luxury in Saudia Arabia when he died.

The Psalmist writes,

I envied the arrogant when I saw that these wicked people prospered.  They have no struggles, their bodies are healthy and strong.  They are free from the burdens that others commonly deal with.        Psalm 73:3-5

The atheist Richard Dawkins had a net worth of 140 million $. 

The wise man in Ecclesiastes makes this comment:

There is something else that is meaningless on the earth:  righteous people who receive what the wicked deserve, and wicked people who receive what the righteous deserve.                                                   Ecclesiastes 8:14

Putin is the picture of health and is worth an estimated $ 100 billion. 

In fact, Jesus tells his listeners that a life of following him will not be a cake walk:

In this world you will have troubles (face trials).                                                                                                      John 16:33

If anyone wants to be my disciple he will need to deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.                                                                            Luke 9:23


The reality is that we can take one passage on its own and construct a whole theology upon it that is false or misleading.  Of course there are blessings that believers experience, but these are often not material in nature.

Here is another example.

Life can be scary.  Yet one of Jesus’ favourite expressions is, “Fear not!” Or he asks the rhetorical question, “Why are you afraid?”  In other words, he would tell his followers repeatedly, “Stop being afraid.”

One of these times happened after Jesus was at the shore of the Sea of Galilee teaching a large number of people.  The crowed was so large that Jesus decided to get into a boat, have it rowed out a ways and speak from there.  There were no posses or a motorcade of black Cadillac Escalades.  But there was a boat.  In the evening, Jesus wanted to get away from the crowd, he got close enough to shore that the 12 could join him and then they sailed away to the opposite shore.   

We are told that an unexpected storm came up. 

This must have been quite a squall, since the waves were so high that water started to sweep over the boat so that it was almost swamped. 

The disciples were panicked, they were terrified.  It was obvious to them that they would drown.  If you’ve been through a life-threatening situation, either in an airplane or car or boat or some other way, you can likely imagine the panic of those in the boat.

And yet Jesus was asleep in the boat, oblivious, it seemed of what was happening.

So they woke him up.  And, we are told, he rebuked the wind and waves and said, “Quiet, be still!”  And the wind stopped blowing the waters calmed.  And was does Jesus say,

Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?

                                                                                    Mark 4:40

Why are you so afraid?  Stop being afraid!  Believe or trust in me.

And when they saw what had happened they were even more terrified, not of the storm, but of Jesus.  Who was this person who, with his words can direct the weather?

Now there is someone we should have a high degree of reverence and respect for, but it isn’t the boogey man.  It isn’t the thing that goes bump in the night.  It isn’t some disease or illness.  As Jesus said,

Be not afraid of them (those who persecute you), for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. …. Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  And not one of the will fall to the ground apart from your Father.            … Fear not, therefore.  You are of more value than many sparrows.

Matthew 10:26,28-31     

So who is Jesus referring to here?  Well, it’s unlikely he’s referring to Satan since he believed that he and his followers had dominance over demonic forces.  Further, nowhere in the Bible do we have a picture of Satan being on God’s payroll as the chief superintendent of hell, measuring out the punishment of the lost. Instead Satan himself is thrown into Gehenna and destroyed there.

So it is much more likely that Jesus is speaking here of God himself, the final judge who determines our final destiny.   Jesus was also aware of the very common concept, found in Psalms (111:10) and Proverbs (1:7; 9:10), that the fear of YHWH is the beginning or foundation of wisdom. 

And yet, we are told in 1 John 4,

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.  For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears (God?) has not been perfected in love.  We love (others) because He (God) first loved us.                       1 John 4:18-19

The Greek word for “fear” in both passages, Matt 10 and 1 John 4, are derivatives of the Greek “Phobos” (the verb being “phobeomai”).

On the one hand, we should fear God, on the other hand, we should not fear, presumably God.  Which is it?

Perhaps the best way to look at this is when we look to God as our heavenly father.  According to the Bible, we should so respect and honour our parents, who love us, that we obey them.  Not because we’re really afraid that if we don’t, they will punish us, but because we don’t want to offend or hurt someone we love (and someone who loves us so much). 

Fearing God, then, should be understood as "filial fear." C. S. Lewis, in his book “The Problem of Pain”, describes this kind of fear as being filled with awe, of feeling wonder and a certain shrinking, and as feeling a sense of inadequacy to cope with God’s presence and so being prostrate before it.   

If we love and cherish and stand in awe of God, then we don’t have to be afraid, even if we are faced with something or someone that we have every right to be afraid of. 

During the 20 year reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD161 - 180), the persecution of Christians greatly increased.  It was considered the fourth great persecution after the persecutions under the emperors Nero, Diocletian and Trajan.  Justyn was just one of the many Christians at that time who was tortured and killed.

Claudius Galen, the foremost physician of that time, wrote this about Christians:

Sometimes, they (Christians) show such behaviour as is adopted by philosophers; for fearlessness of death and the hereafter is something we witness in them every day.[1]

These Christians of the second century had such great reverence and love for God, and such hope in life eternal, that everything else paled in comparison.

Think about the thing you fear most:

Cancer

Loss of job

Bankruptcy

Death of a child

Suffering

Uncertainty of the future

Jesus said, don’t be afraid.  You are worth a lot to God. 

Finally, let us look at a passage that also is often misunderstood:

Jesus told his followers not to worry.  But we seem to be programmed to worry … we can’t help worrying.  It seems to be part of our human condition.  And, let me be clear, I don’t think Jesus was talking about the kind of anxiety attacks that are becoming more and more common in our culture and society. 

I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will wear.  Is life not more than food, and the body more than clothing? … Which one of you, by being anxious, can add a single hour to the length of his life?  … Therefore, do not be anxious and say, “What will we eat?” or, “What will we drink?” or, “What will we wear?” 

For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  Instead, seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.  Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, because tomorrow will have enough worries of its own.          Matthew 6:25-34

Who of you by worrying can add to the length of your, or for that matter, anyone else’s life?  Quite the opposite is true, isn’t it?  Worry tends to place stress on us and actually reduces our life expectancy. 

Let me ask you, by worrying have you made people around you happier?  Doesn’t constant concern drive others crazy, or worse yet, it instills our fears and worries in them!

So is Jesus saying that we should live for today and not plan for tomorrow? 

If that is the case, why is it that the apostle Paul wrote this to the Christians at Thessalonica:

Aspire to live quiet lives and to look after your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may live properly before those outside the church and not be dependent on anyone.

                                                            1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

So which is it?  Not worrying about tomorrow, or looking after our own affairs, that is, making sure we don’t become a burden to anyone? 

In order to understand Jesus’ words, I think we need to be aware of a number of things.  He was speaking about worrying about the necessities of life: food, drink and clothing.  I guess you could add shelter to that list.

What he was saying is that we should trust God to always provide for us the basic necessities of life.  Of course, most, if not all of us, never have to worry about these.  We tend to worry about kids, aging parents, paying bills, getting a boyfriend or girlfriend, keeping a spouse, aging parents, and so on. 

The second point we need to understand, is that the kind of worry and anxiety that Jesus spoke about, is one where we can’t do anything about what we are worrying over. 

In other words, we are importing something that may or may not happen in the future and obsessing about it today.  If there is something we can actually do something today, like working or saving or spending less or exercising or eating right, I don’t think that Jesus would have anything against this. 

Of course Jesus didn’t want his followers to obsess about any of this either.  After all, we can be so focused on accumulating more and more in the here and now, that we become absolutely useless in living out the life that God intended for us to live.  We end up living for our possessions instead of living for God.

So Jesus tells his followers to focus on God, the kingdom of God, which could be in reference to living in submission to God’s will or life eternal, and God’s righteousness, which could be speaking about living right before God … doing what He would want us to do … a large part of which is helping even those who are not part of our immediate family.

So Jesus is not saying that we should live irresponsibly, or that we shouldn’t think and plan ahead.  We shouldn’t believe that God will give us a prosperous future, no matter how we live today.  We can’t just spend every dime we have without thought to the future and think that God will ensure that we have lots income when we get there.  We can’t just decline an education because we don’t like studying and think that God will make sure we get well-paying jobs.

But in light of the fact that we can do things today, why obsess about eventualities that may or may not happen in our uncertain lives?

It really comes down to knowing that ultimately God is in control and will not forsake us or stop loving us tomorrow, whatever tomorrow may bring.

Jesus wanted his followers to trust God to provide the necessities of life, to be on their side, to have their best interests in mind, and knows what they need, so that they do not have to obsess and worry over future eventualities that may or may not happen.   

By the way, Jesus disciples didn’t get this until after his resurrection.  It was only then that “not worrying about tomorrow” made sense. 

The apostle Paul, chained 24 hours a day to a Roman guard, in danger of being executed, wrote some stunning words,

Rejoice in the Lord always, … Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.                                     Philippians 4:4-7

This is not the peace of knowing that you have a scholarship, or enough in your retirement fund, or the perfect marriage.  It is the peace that is convinced that God loves you and knows what you need.

How do we correctly interpret the Word of truth?  We do so by

  1. Examine the Scriptures daily – be aware of all that it says, not just a few verses out of context.   search the Scriptures as a whole, don’t be myopic and build a whole theology on just one or two verses.

  2. Be ready to give a reasoned defense of your faith.  Think through what you believe and you we believe what you do. 

  3. Relay your thoughts, beliefs and convictions with gentleness and respect for the beliefs and convictions of others.  Show some personal humility because you know you are not infallible and may get things wrong, just like anyone else.

If we do, we can hold in tension the concepts of predestination and free will.

We don’t have to be caught up in thinking that God’s love for us HAS to result in a care free life, one where illness and financial struggles cannot touch us.

We can have great reverence and awe of a God who loves us and will judge us, without having to be afraid of him.

And, we can realize that Jesus did not tell us to live irresponsibly, without plan for the future, yet at the same time, not having to worry about the necessities of life or the possible eventualities that we will face in the future. 

Am I willing to do the hard work of “CORRECTLY INTERPRETING THE WORLD” or am I willing to accept whatever I am told?

Prayer:  Ability to know and see the whole counsel of God and to live life accordingly, in reverence and awe, in thanksgiving and joy, with a peace that overcomes the things we could worry about.

[1] Ibn Abi Usaibia, The History of Physicians, tr. L. Kopf (1956), p.150.  Ibn Abi Usaibiah (d.1270) quoting an earlier writer, `Ubayd Allāh ibn Jibrā`īl.