It can be hard to go from a text to a sermon. The line from past to present can be hard work. But at the root, one must hear clearly what was said. Dave Black looks at a text.
Jesus’ faith in God is what gives life to sinners. This point is made in another famous Pauline confession: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). This text says it best, but again attention must be paid to the original Greek, which reads: “but what I now live in the flesh, I live in the faith, that of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” As a Christian Paul lives in two locations: “in the flesh” and “in the faith;” that is, Paul is crucified with Christ, and as a consequence the faith of the Son of God is active in Paul. Christians live “in Christ,” as Paul does not tire to say. Paul does not have faith in Jesus. He has the faith of Jesus because he is “found in him.” Jesus had faith in the effective power of God; likewise, Paul has the faith of Jesus in the power of God to raise the dead. In passing, it is also to be noted that in this very personal confession Paul gives specific credit to Christ saying that the Son of God “loved me and gave himself for me.” It is not just that God loved the sinners, sent forth His Son, and pours out the Spirit on human hearts. It is also the case that the Son loves humanity and gave himself for all humans. (pp. 67-68)
I was struck by Dave Black’s note on Hebrews 4:14-16 from Wednesday on his blog. I extracted it to jesusparadigm.com, as Dave’s blog is a journal that doesn’t offer links to individual posts. (I have his permission.)
I highly recommend his post. It struck me because Hebrews is such a central part of my reading and study. There are those who claim I can’t get through an hour of study, no matter what the subject, without referring to the book of Hebrews. Within Hebrews, 4:14-16 has to be one of my most quoted passages in the book.
Dave talks about not going to our great High Priest first. That really struck me, because I think I don’t either. The other day I woke up in a cold sweat because I had dreamed about something critical going wrong. Now I’m working through quite a number of things that can justify worry, in a normal sense. I was telling Jody about my “awakening” and she just said, “Next time you wake up in a cold sweat, just remind yourself that Jesus has it all under control.” Jesus says, “Can anxious thought add a single day to your life?” (Matthew 6:27 REB).
I don’t intend to do less. But I’d also like to worry less. None of the problems I’m facing have been alleviated by my worry. Not one.
When my mother passed away in April, my brother and sisters and I chose a text for her grave marker: “I will content with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children” (Isaiah 49:25, KJV). It was one of mother’s favorite texts, and her concept of “children” was broad. She was a nurse and a teacher and was involved in the lives of many.
There was, however, a period in her life when she was deprived of her favorite text. Someone with scholarly credentials told her that the text didn’t mean what she thought it meant, and that she could not claim this as a promise for herself that God would save her children.
She confided this to me in the car one day. She was deeply saddened not to have this text, but she didn’t want to use it if she was misusing it.
Now if one looks at the context of the passage, both literary and historical, it is not talking about spiritual salvation of the descendants of a modern American mother, or of keeping them safe from all danger. It’s talking about the exiles of Judah who are to be brought back to their homeland. In that sense, anyone outside of the time frame of 2nd Isaiah cannot claim the passage for themselves, as it isn’t talking about them. It’s addressed narrowly and specifically.
So are quite a large number of Bible verses.
So here’s how I responded. I told her that yes, indeed, the historical context was different, but that I saw in that passage something about the character of God, portrayed in this passage. God is a God of redemption and works to redeem. God is interested in the generations to come. (It might not surprise you in this context to learn that Psalm 78:1-8 is my theme text for my teaching ministry. God cares about the generations to follow.) I could certainly find many other texts to indicate this as well, but Isaiah 49:25 encapsulates it very well, while placing it in the context of God’s negative judgment as well. This suggests in turn that God’s judgment is intended to result eventually in redemption.
So while the text was not addressed to Myrtle Neufeld in the 20th century (which was when the conversation occurred), and did not specifically speak of her children and what would happen to them, it did express God’s nature and desire for those children. My mother was never naive enough to believe that, despite any choices made, God would make everything right. What she did believe was that God was working to save her children at all times and in all circumstances.
Mom decided that she could use the text after all. Mission accomplished.
So today I read this article from CNN. What struck me in this was not the debate about Romans 13. I have definite opinions on that, but at the moment I will only note that people I respect deeply, who are both sincere and well qualified, disagree with my definite opinions on Romans 13. Well, I should acknowledge that many agree as well! I’ll get to the matter of disagreeing on the meaning of texts in a moment.
The passage that struck me was Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Or let me quote a bit more in context:
10 It is a great joy to me in the Lord that after so long your care for me has now revived. I know you always cared; it was opportunity you lacked. 11 Not that I am speaking of want, for I have learned to be self-sufficient whatever my circumstances. 12 I know what it is to have nothing, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have been thoroughly initiated into fullness and hunger, plenty and poverty. 13 I am able to face anything through him who gives me strength. 14 All the same, it was kind of you to share the burden of my troubles.
The Revised English Bible. (1996). (Php 4:10–14). Cambridge; New York; Melbourne; Madrid; Cape Town; Singapore; São Paulo; Delhi; Dubai; Tokyo: Cambridge University Press.
You know something? Here’s the comment from the article:
When the Apostle Paul wrote that line, he was referring to a Christian’s ability to withstand suffering. It wasn’t about winning; it was about enduring loss. Paul wasn’t taking a victory lap; he was in prison contemplating his execution, says Van Voorst, a professor at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan.
Um, true. Paul didn’t play basketball. But he wasn’t just talking about a Christian’s ability to withstand suffering. He was talking about being able to handle whatever life throws at you. If you’re a basketball player, what life throws at you might be a career-ending injury or it might be an opportunity to make a couple of free throws to end the game victoriously. Yes, it is quite possible to apply this verse in ways that are not appropriate. It doesn’t mean you’re always going to win, for example.
Neither does Romans 8:28ff. The passage goes on to say that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. It’s a powerful passage about spiritual things, about our ultimate salvation. But it’s also a powerful passage about God being with us at all times. It doesn’t mean things will happen the way I want them to. It does mean that, in the end, what God works out will be good. And yes, that good may come in the next life.
I have two major problems with what goes on in this article, though first I must note that many things noted there about abused texts are quite correct. It’s certainly possible to misuse a text. It’s also possible to disagree quite rationally about the meaning of a text or to rob that text of all applicability.
- My first problem is this: Biblical scholars can suck the lifeblood from Scripture. With enough historical study, one can assure that nothing in Scripture applies to anything in anyone’s life. Scripture is understood in community, and how it applies to the present grows out of the community and its understanding. It is important to use historical scholarship as an anchor. It’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the history. But for those who believe that God is still God, it’s quite possible to think that God might act again in ways God has acted before. If you don’t believe God is still God, your argument is on that point, not in the understanding of Scripture.I would hope that scholars would encourage, inform, and edify the members of the community, not nit-pick them into abandoning a personal reading and application of Scripture.
- My second problem is simply this: If we understand that there are multiple possibilities for ways to understand and apply Scripture, we should also expect that a news article from CNN that quotes a couple of scholars cannot settle the issue of meaning for multiple Scriptures. This is why I prefer “I disagree with that view” to “That view is wrong.” There are some really bad interpretations out there, but some of those are held by highly qualified people, and a response should include careful argumentation. “There’s another way to view this” will accomplish more, I think, than “Your view of this is stupid.”
Most obviously, I might suggest that a short article is hardly going to set the record straight on multiple Scripture passages. I found places I agreed and places I didn’t. I know of serious commentators who would agree and some who wouldn’t.
As a life-giving, spiritually invigorating support, a text can be wonderful. As a club to beat up your neighbor? Not so much.
I know relatively few people who will not complain from time to time about proof-texting. At the same time, I know equally few people who don’t prefer to be able to pull out a single line from scripture that makes their point. If you just have chapter and verse, then you can be scriptural. A number of current debates rely on trying to wave the banner of a particular scripture at opponents.
We tend—and I include myself in this—to search the scriptures for the answers to doctrinal, social, or political questions, and hope to have as an outcome a simple text or set of texts that will leave our opponents reeling. Most of us a realistic enough to realize that we won’t convince them that easily. They’ll reel off to some place where they can find more congenial company. There are those who seem to think that if you don’t join the chorus, it’s because you don’t really care about the issue or the people involved. The volume and persistence of your contribution is seen as a measure of your commitment.
While I’m as tempted by all this as the next person, I am unconvinced that any of this type of exchange (I cannot call it discussion) actually accomplishes anything useful. What we need, instead, is transformative Bible study.
Transformative Bible study occurs when we (or I) study the Bible in order to behold and be changed (2 Corinthians 3:18).
I do not mean that we do not study Bible in community. The church, from small groups to congregations to denominations, and to the Body of Christ universal, needs to study to be changed.
I do not mean that others do not need to change. There are many people who, I’m quite convinced, are behaving in ways they ought not to behave.
I do not mean that the formulation of doctrine is not important. I am a member of a congregation in a denomination that I believe has great difficulty defining doctrinal boundaries that are sufficient to maintain a cohesive community.
I do not even mean that we don’t need to do some doctrinal enforcement. Saying that one is a member of a group has to mean something. There is a need for some identity.
I also don’t mean that we can’t suggest ideas or even correct others, though we should be equally willing to hear. Such exchanges require some level of relationship, however.
But I think the best way to lead in a better direction is to always read the Bible with a focus first on its changing me. In community, that should be with a view to changing us.
We want to change others because we are certain they are wrong. It is frightening simply to trust that if we can help give people a glimpse of Jesus, and then trust God and the Holy Spirit to implement change. We’re no longer in control. I would point out that we are not in control in any case. All the loud yelling is not actually changing people’s minds.
I’m suggesting a meditative study, open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and carried out with a willingness to make changes. It’s a matter of example.
I hope you’ll think about it. I plan to!
This evening, at 6 pm at Chumuckla Community Church, we continue the study of Romans, just starting chapter 2. Here’s a quote from some of my reading today:
The Gospel is not just a matter for the mind, a message that must be understood. It is a way of being in the world that must be lived. The Gospel may reach the individual through the mind, and the mind has a task to do with it, considering its premises, judging its arguments, evaluating its goals. But the Gospel must find its home in the heart, the seat of being. It cannot get to the heart without passing through the mind, but it is not effective unless it settles in the heart, changing it in the process. As Paul puts it, the heart must be circumcised (Rom. 2:29). The power of sin in it must be expurgated. The Christian has a mind renewed from above and a circumcised heart. Paul’s promise to his converts is that “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). To keep the mind and the heart together is to live by faith and reason. The love of God that the Spirit pours into the heart does not dislodge the unity of the mind and the heart. It strengthens it. In the Christian, faith and reason abide as one. (Herold Weiss, Meditations on the Letters of Paul, pp. 59-60)
There are those who think we’re moving slowly. I think we’re moving at lightning speed! If you live in the area, come and join us for an exciting discussion.
When I talked about structure, I mentioned that I’d write a follow-up after my Wednesday night class. Here’s the rundown, though I plan to keep it brief. I’m indebted to David Alan Black for the basic note about the participles in this passage, and in a scholarly article I would need to cite a number of additional sources. The structure of the passage followed my own take on it in the context of Hebrews and made the argument easier. I include this discussion in my book To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide, which is currently under revision for a second edition. (The main problem with the current edition is that I created it with readings, exercises, and questions, along with several appendices with discussion. I’m putting some discussion in the lessons!)
There are a number of passages I referenced in class, but there are three passages before 6:4-6 that I see as key, and then one after. The reason is that the author of Hebrews signals new topics well ahead of the main discussion and then ties them in to later discussion.
So if you look at Hebrews 2:1, “drifting off course.” This is an early signal of what I think is the key theme of the book, one that is further developed in 6:4-6 especially. At this point, the author has presented Jesus as the true representation of God and is now ready to open up the door to the result. God has spoken in these last days through a Son, which sounds good, even exciting, but what does it mean?
Frequently Hebrews is read as a book with a message of works and perfectionism. In fact, as someone with a Wesleyan background, I’m used to starting there in my thinking. But the more I study the book, the less I think that is the correct reading. The warnings in Hebrews are not about human performance of good actions, but rather of total confidence in the one who has been presented here in chapter 1. Verses 1-4 present the Who, while the rest emphasizes that Jesus is greater than the angels. There will be more emphasis on precisely who Jesus is, but we have this pause in the first few verses of chapter 2 so we can get a preview of the theme.
Through the rest of chapter two and into chapter five, but especially in 4:12-16, we’ll develop the things that make Jesus ideal as our priest, even though we aren’t quite sure what such a priest will accomplish.
In 5:8-9 we get the second key connection, as we are told that Jesus learned obedience through suffering (and a rich passage that is, even though I’m just going to touch on it only briefly. Verse 9 tells us that he was perfected. It is this “perfection” that I think is the key object of Hebrews, the perfection of Jesus, not the perfection of any human being.
I see 5:11-14 as a bit of reverse psychology, challenging the readers/hearers with their dependence on milk just before he goes ahead and introduces some meat anyhow.
The third key passage is Hebrews 6:1, and “going on toward perfection.” It’s my understanding that United Methodist pastors are still asked this question on ordination, and I believe not a few have their fingers crossed when they answer. Figuratively speaking, of course! But though few translations do it, this can be taken as a passive, and thus be translated “carried on toward perfection” rather than “going on toward perfection.” I would go further and argue that the perfection that we are to go on toward is Jesus, and is only to be attained “in Christ” and not by us or as something possessed by us.
Having jumped from signpost to signpost, this leads to 6:4-6. I have noted previously that I don’t take this as a “once out always out” passage, but rather as a warning against rejecting the voice or urging of the Holy Spirit. Paying closer attention to structure and the participle tenses helped back that view up and expand it.
Here’s my translation with structure:
I have summarized the theme of Hebrews as “get on the right train and stay on it until you reach the destination.” The key is that if you have the best, the greatest, or even the only hope of rescue and you don’t take it, rescue escapes you. That’s why I have the temporal sense here. If you are rejecting the final sacrifice of Christ, according to the concepts developed in the preceding five chapters, what option is there? Jesus, the Christ is sacrificed once-for-all, and cannot be sacrificed again. If we continue to fail to accept the finality, we are crucifying him afresh.
But it’s even more simple than that. You can’t accept while you reject.
Does that make it too simple? Actually, I think it makes it a clear statement of precisely the point of Hebrews. You have two choices: This train or no train.
And that leads to the final passage I want to use, Hebrews 10:26-27. Here we have no sacrifice for sin after Jesus. It’s often used in sermons to threaten people with how seriously they should take New Testament commands. But that’s not the point at all. There is no more sacrifice because the sacrifice has been offered. If you don’t accept the sacrifice, there isn’t another one. You can’t redo it or substitute it.
The whole message centers on confidence in the grace that has opened this “new and living way” (10:20), in the perfection of our High Priest, and in the necessity of placing our full confidence in Him.
Let me add that I believe that the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1ff should be seen as those who are cheering us on because they have experienced the weaknesses and the failings that we have and know the grace of God and the final reward. It should not be used as a club as I have heard it preached, in the sense of: “Look at all these holy people who are watching you. Don’t screw up!”
(Featured Image Credit: Openclipart.org.)
No, this is not a post about the crazy ways people interpret the Bible. It’s about the way in which people make precision difficult in communication. Am I thinking about biblical interpretation? Of course I am. If you have to guess what I’m thinking about and I don’t give you a clue, “biblical interpretation” is a good bet.
When I teach Greek or Hebrew, and as I’ve mentioned, this is to people by ones and twos, not in seminary classes, I try to emphasize basic linguistics. How does language work in day to day usage. I can illustrate what I mean by people messing up interpretation using a one line rule I give my Greek or Hebrew students: People are lazy. This rule applies, for example, to the reason why sounds tend to drop out of common phrases. “Good day” becomes “g’day,” an expression that may be more commonly used in Australia. (I say this so that I can get in a bit of a pet peeve. Check this sort of stereotypical thing out if you can. In this case, I find “g’day” in an article titled Outrageous Aussie Stereotypes Debunked. Not promising!)
But my “people are lazy” rule has many problems (or exceptions, if you wish), which also illustrates one of the problems of language. People are diverse. What I think is easy to pronounce someone else may find next to impossible. I remember vividly trying to learn to pronounce a few Hungarian words while driving with my translator. She would pronounce the word and I would imitate. It always went downhill from there. In Hungarian actual vowel length, i.e. the length of time a vowel sound is sustained in speech, is phonemic (i.e., it impacts the meaning). In English, this is not the case. I was taught long and short vowels, but they were not sustained for different periods of time, but were actually different sounds. (That’s a very loose way to explain it! See? I mess up interpretation too by being lazy.) For me, properly judging the length to sustain a vowel sound was next to impossible. For her, it was second nature.
So another rule: Things you have become accustomed to doing will seem easy. To you.
People just don’t follow one set of rules. We may have learned in English class that a paragraph consists of a thesis sentence, followed by three explanatory sentences, and ended with a conclusion. How many paragraphs in this post look anything like that? I tend to paragraph by sound, and often set off a sentence that would either be a conclusion or the introduction of a new element by itself, simulating the pauses for emphasis I might use in public speaking.
Like this one.
When I was an undergraduate student, one of my professors (J. Paul Grove at Walla Walla College for those who might know), required me to turn in three sermon outlines a week as part of a course in Hebrew prophets. I thought this was a horrible requirement, as I had no intention of becoming a preacher. I was going to be a biblical scholar. Bless Professor Grove! It turned out to be one of the better exercises of my educational process because it made me think of a connection between the data I was accumulating and the real world. It didn’t result in even one sermon outline that I would ever use in preaching, even though I have preached frequently. That’s because I vigorously eschew three point outlines and diligently work to violent rules of homiletics.
Which means that I’m human. I don’t always follow the rules.
I turn this now to structure, which I discussed a bit yesterday. Studying structure is good in interpreting scripture. Just don’t be too structured about it. I’ve been asked if I accept various outlines of Hebrews, such as Vanhoye’s. I guess it depends on what you mean by “accept.” I find a great deal to commend his work, but I don’t find that any structure is followed closely. I believe that in studying Hebrews you have to carefully track what the author has done, the ways in which he connects and interweaves his topics. He’s flexible; the interpreter must be flexible.
Just like getting stuck on one label when trying to communicate, getting stuck on a structural label can be harmful to your mental health. People rarely follow the rules completely. Most commentaries that I’ve read do provide caveats about their structural conclusions. You should provide more.
Flexibility is a key to sound interpretations, because people are flexible.
(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org)
A weakness of a great deal of Bible study is in the failure to truly see the details. In our normal conversations we have multiple contextual clues including shared history and knowledge. When reading scripture, we have to be more careful, because it is not addressed directly to us, and we often don’t share those clues. In Old Testament studies, people get used to the idea that the culture was very different. But the New Testament reflects a time and culture also different from our own, though less blatantly so. Thus we need to pay close attention.
That in turn leads to the problem with serious, detailed Bible study. When digging out details, it’s very easy to forget the broader structure. This is particularly critical when reading Hebrews because the author signals upcoming topics, sometimes more than once, then discusses them, sometimes discusses them again in another way, and then looks back at them. You won’t understand a topic in this book unless you are paying attention to the larger structure of the book.
On Wednesday night I’ll be discussing Hebrews 6:4-6 with my class at church. In this, I’ll draw lines from Hebrews 5:9 to 6:1 to 6:4-6 to 10:26-27, from each of those to other connections, all building toward an understanding of this difficult passage. I’ll post about it when the class is over. I don’t really have time to do it justice today.
What I want to emphasize is that studying the structure of the literary work one is studying is critical, and is more critical when it comes from a time and place that is not yours.