Chapter 6: Scripture’s Light and Beauty. 4, Obeyed, Not Interpreted

I’ve already implied my third topic: the Bible shouldn’t be interpreted, only obeyed. (As if obedience required us to not to think, study, and understand!) Instead, I affirm instead that our interpretation gives us clarity about the Gospel and, in turn, shows us how to obey God’s will and guidance.

Back in my younger days, I had a friend who appreciated Mark 7:6-8:

He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Doctrines contrary to my friend’s conservative church were “words of men” (“human precepts”) but that didn’t teach human doctrines, only the Word of God.  I’m not mocking the basic idea there—searching for guidance and understanding, finding clarity and help within a community—only the critical spirit that accompanies a too-easy identification:  I believe the Word of God, you (who differ with me on a point of interpretation) believe the doctrines of men, and therefore my soul is safe, but you seek God in vain. Yet (this was my brief experience as a naïve young person) if you’re afraid for your salvation because someone told you that you’ve misinterpreted the Bible, then what becomes of the Good News of God’s free grace?

We don’t always think through the way Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ongoing presence in our lives guides the way we read and interpret the Bible.[1]  This point came home to me strongly as I was reading Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture.[2] Goldsworthy says that, “while there is much in the Bible that is strictly speaking not the gospel, there is nothing in the Bible that can be truly understood apart from the gospel.”[3]  While the Bible allows for a variety of readings and interpretations, I find aspects of Goldworthy’s argument interesting with regard to preaching and practice.[4] How has the Good News—the wholly free gift of salvation of sinners through the blood of Christ and the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit—clarified, modified, fulfilled, or even negated the meaning of a particular Bible passage?  In other words, how does the message of Jesus provide ways by which we interpret (and not simply obey

For instance, consider the Torah. Jews revere the Torah as God’s direct word, while the prophets are God’s message communicated through the prophets’ words, and the books of the Writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, and others) are divinely inspired but are more definitely of human authorship.[5] If a person’s sole scripture is the Old Testament, then this hermeneutical approach makes sense and is consistent. But the New Testament—the event of Christ—-changes these levels of authority. As I discuss in the next chapter, the prophets and also the psalms take on greater authority in the New Testament; the “lesser” prophets and writings became keys for interpreting Jesus as messiah and, therefore, for interpreting the Torah. Consequently, Christians interpreted the Torah as a preliminary (but not abrogated) way by which God expresses his will (Matt. 5:17-20, Rom. 3:31, Heb. 3:1-6). Because of Christ, we must think about the ways that the Torah is scripture for Christians. We must interpret the laws in the context of the Bible’s whole witness, so that “You shall not murder” is always true for everyone, but “You shall not round off the hair on your temples” (Lev. 19:28a) or the mitzvah of shatnez (Lev. 19:19 and Deut. 22:9-11) is pertinent for observant Jews but not everybody.  

Similarly, consider the prophets. Read through those books and you’ll see the harshness of God’s judgment against the people’s faithlessness and the direness of his warnings. A person could easily neglect the context of the prophets in ancient Israel and use prophetic judgments to address contemporary examples of unrighteousness and social injustice. (For instance, we use the term “prophetic preaching” to mean sermons and writings that confront, challenge and criticize.)  The prophets’ themes are timeless: the formal practice of religion is no substitute for true righteousness, and true righteousness always includes justice (e.g. Amos 5:23-24). But when we look at the prophets with a broader view, we also see that the prophets focus not only upon then-current societal situations but also God’s plans for the future. God achieves his will for the people of the divided kingdom of the prophets’ times, but God also, through the prophets, announces his will for the more distant future: the person and work of Christ.  To use the prophets primarily to address specific social problems risks neglecting the “canonical shape” that puts the prophets in context with Christ’s salvation.[6] So… we must interpret not only the prophetic passages but also the situation of the prophets within the variety of biblical viewpoints and, altogether, the whole biblical witness.

As Goldsworthy also discusses in his book, we must also consider how the death and resurrection of Christ also informs how we understand the teachings of Jesus himself!  The Good News of Jesus’ resurrection frees us from the law (Gal. 3:10, 3:23) but also makes us take the demands of discipleship all the more seriously, because we’re freed from the notion that God saves us when we’ve checked off the “shalts” and avoided all the “shalt nots.” Christ in his roles as teacher, healer, and risen Lord help us do his will.

As I reflected on this point, I thought of several ways this is true.

  • When I was young, I worried that God was keeping track of every time I became angry and called someone a “fool” (or “jerk” or “idiot” or more unprintable versions): Matthew 5:21-22. Yes, we’re held accountable for “every careless word” (Matt. 12:36), but on the other hand we’re not saved by anything we do or don’t do (Rom. 3:28). We’re saved from our sins, without reservation, and we have ongoing forgiveness and power for salvation (Heb. 4:14-16). But when we look at this “fool” passage in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see afresh at how Jesus has saved us from all our sins (past, present and future), and so, thus freed from the fear of earning God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9), we can respond with a new sense of joy and love, both for God and for one another (Rom. 8:1-8). As Christ healed his contemporaries, his love and power heals our souls of angry words (although anger is a normal human emotion when appropriately addressed: Eph. 4:26, 31).

Thus, instead of interpreting that “fool” saying as a law which God is counting against us, we see it as an even deeper challenge: how are we modeling Christ’s love? How are we growing in love through the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24), so that dismissive and contemptuous comments cross our minds less frequently? How is the Spirit of Christ changing the content of our hearts?

  • Similarly forgiveness. “We’re supposed to forgive each other,” we might say. But we forgive each other in the context of a lively, growing relationship with Christ. When we are freed by Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness is not a law or a hard obligation. Forgiveness is a response to Christ’s unearned love. Even more, we don’t have to force ourselves to forgive through our own will power, but we find power to learn to forgive (and even empowered forgiveness isn’t always easy) as we deepen our relationship to Christ.
  • And prayer.  Another verse that worried me when I was young was “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV). I couldn’t do that!  Nobody can: our brains are not neurologically set to focus continually.  But that verse isn’t a law that requires every single thought to be prayerful.  That verse is a call to deepen our love and concern for one another as we receive the resurrected Jesus’ love and power. Instead of interpreting the verse primarily as a rule, we focus upon Christ as our Savior and helper when we fail. Through Christ, our minds and hearts acquire the habit and impulse of prayer.
  • And still on the subject of prayer: how do we pray the Psalms as Christian prayers? Obviously the psalms are originally Hebrew and Jewish prayers, now part of the Christian canon. But we could very easily neglect to connect the psalms to Christ’s death and resurrection. For instance, if you’re in (what I call) a “Psalm 51 state of mind,” are you praying the prayer as a plea to God for forgiveness and restoration? Do you also and simultaneously keep firmly in mind that we have forgiveness and restoration already through the crucified and risen Lord? Psalm 51, classic though it is, has to be connected to verses like Romans 7:24-25, where the assurance of Christ’s salvation of lost, broken people is affirmed.
  • What about using a Bible verse as God’s holy word in condemnation of another person?  Certainly the Bible warns us and is used to warn.  But Jesus himself stood condemned by God’s word; he was under a curse because of God’s law (Deut. 21:23). He also gave grace and a new opportunity to the woman of John 7:53-8:11) when people used God’s word against her. One particular warning, Matthew 7:1-5, is all the more keen when we’re tempted to employ the Bible in a condemnatory way.
  • Is our evangelism always supposed to achieve great results? The contemporary decline of membership among mainline denominations has added urgency to evangelistic efforts.  Acts 2:41 and 47 imply that, if we’re doing evangelism right, God will bless our efforts with great numbers. This outlook dovetails well with American concepts of success; yet “getting great numbers” was not a concern of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46, and Paul’s ministry among the Athenians was ineffective in practical terms. Yet no one would say that Paul shouldn’t have taken his ministry among the Greek intellectuals. Our command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19) is relevant whether we make a few disciples or many: the real work is done by God’s Spirit, promised to us by the risen Lord.
  • How about using Bible characters as models?  David is an example, for the Bible calls him a “man after God’s heart” (1 Sam. 13:13-14, Acts 13:22), in spite of his very flawed life. If you’re like me, you want to be a person after God’s heart, too. We ask, “How can God use me? Does God see me as somebody he can use?”  Neither is necessarily an easy question to answer. As we develop a good spiritual life that includes regular worship, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer, and a certain amount of spiritual discipline, we try to keep focusing back to God. We try to stay open to God’s guidance and purpose. We take comfort that a flawed person like David could be so well used by God.

But we can’t raise these questions only in the context of David’s stories! First, we need to be careful not to place ourselves on a similar stature as David, to make ourselves equal somehow to him, or to make God’s plans with Israel similar to the patterns of our lives. (Besides, David was an Iron Age warrior and killer of many, many people; to focus upon and identify with only his spiritual humility is to ignore significant things about him.) David and his people were special in God’s salvation history, while we’re beneficiaries of the groundwork God accomplished through them. Second, although we can certainly learn with aspects of Bible characters’ experiences, we need to seek God’s will about these stories in the context of our salvation in Christ. For instance, we all actually have a better chance to become close to God than David because, now, God’s Spirit is poured out to all of us. God’s Spirit gives gifts of power and ministry unimaginable in ancient times, taking God’s will for us to new levels (John 14:12). So often we take Bible passages and Bible commandments and separate them from the key things: our covenant relationship with God, our relationship to God through Christ, and Christ’s commandment that we love.

Link to next section 

 


[1] The idea of “progressive revelation” affirms the development of God’s truth from lesser to greater clarity. Scriptures such as a prophetic messianic text or a messianic psalm have has meaning for their own times but gain additional meaning when we connect the passage’s original sense to Christ.

[2]  Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible As Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

[3] Goldworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible, 95.

[4] In its variety of witnesses, the Bible allows for different kinds of readings. For instance, Walter Brueggemann warns: “[T]he task of Old Testament theology, as a Christian enterprise, is to articulate, explicate, mobilize, and make accessible and available the testimony of the Old Testament in all of its polyphonic, elusive, imaginative power and to offer it to the church for its continuing work of construal toward Jesus. That is, Old Testament theology, in my judgment, must prepare the material and full respect the interpretive connections made in the New Testament and the subsequent church; but it must not make those connections, precisely because the connections are not to be found in the testimony of ancient Israel, but in the subsequent work of imaginative construal that lies beyond the text of the Old Testament.” Theology of the Old Testament, 732. Brueggemann differs in his approach from the canonical readings of Brevard Childs.

[5]  Stephen M. Wylen, The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), 22-23.

This is not to say Jews cannot interpret the Torah laws. Jews recognize that not every law is applicable today and therefore they must be discussed and considered. W. Gunther Plaut, ed., Torah: A Modern Commentary, (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), is a publication from the Reform tradition that interprets and discusses the Torah material.

[6] Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 128-132.

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