Monday, October 17, 2011

Bible Study Tips: Applying the Neglected Passages

Up to this point most of the bible study tips have focused on things that to help with the observation or interpretation phase of study. Today I want to introduce a tip that applies primarily to the application phase.

It is sometimes difficult to apply lessons from texts that are not obviously doctrinal. Those texts, however, do provide important truths that we should pay attention to. Sections such as the “begat’s” for example, are rarely studied and if they are read at all they are skimmed quickly. We should recognize, however, that by skipping over these texts we are depriving ourselves of some of the means that the Lord has provided for our development.

Paul instructs Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV) and he reminds the believers in Rome that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4 ESV). Therefore we do not want to ignore or neglect any of the scripture.

Our example will be from the second chapter of the book of Ezra which is one of those passages that is often skimmed through. (I didn’t include the entire chapter out of copyright considerations)

            Now these were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town. They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, and Baanah. The number of the men of the people of Israel: the sons of Parosh, 2,172. The sons of Shephatiah, 372. The sons of Arah, 775. The sons of Pahath-moab, namely the sons of Jeshua and Joab, 2,812. The sons of Elam, 1,254. The sons of Zattu, 945. The sons of Zaccai, 760. The sons of Bani, 642. The sons of Bebai, 623. The sons of Azgad, 1,222. The sons of Adonikam, 666. The sons of Bigvai, 2,056. The sons of Adin, 454. The sons of Ater, namely of Hezekiah, 98. The sons of Bezai, 323. The sons of Jorah, 112. The sons of Hashum, 223. The sons of Gibbar, 95. The sons of Bethlehem, 123. The men of Netophah, 56. The men of Anathoth, 128. The sons of Azmaveth, 42. The sons of Kiriath-arim, Chephirah, and Beeroth, 743. The sons of Ramah and Geba, 621. [THE LIST CONTINUES TO NEARLY THE END OF THE CHAPTER]

What are we to do with a list like this? How often would we use this passage to instruct, encourage, or rebuke one another? Probably not often, but by asking a few basic questions about this passage we will see that there is valuable teaching here. First, we begin with the basic journalistic questions so we can understand the biblical passage. We then follow up with a few questions about the similarities between those in the biblical narrative and ourselves.

  1. Who are these people?

We know from the text that these people are “the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia.” That is to say that they are the descendants of Jews who were taken from their land by the Babylonians. We also see that they have maintained their genealogies. They have not fully assimilated into the society of their captors but have continued to be a distinct minority with its own identity.

  1. What are they doing?

They are returning to their ancestral homeland. They are gathered together to go back to Judea and if we read a bit ahead we see that they intend to rebuild the temple and reestablish the ceremonial worship of God according to the Law.

  1. When is this happening?

This is happening about 70 years after their ancestors were taken into captivity. The Babylonians, who had conquered their land, had now come under the rule of the Persians. Just as promised ahead of time through the prophet Jeremiah the Persian king is allowing them to return.

  1. Where is this happening?

They are moving from Mesopotamia to Judea.

  1. How is this happening?

If we back up a bit in the book of Ezra we see that king Cyrus had issued a decree: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:2-4 ESV)

  1. Why is this happening?

For these kinds of texts the “why” is often one of the most important questions. In this case we find the answer back in the first chapter. “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing” (Ezra 1:1 ESV)

  1. How is the condition of the people in the passage similar to our own?

In bible study the focus of this question should always be in a redemptive context. We are really asking how are these fallen people in circumstances similar to us. In this case we see that they are God’s people who were in a kingdom that was not their home and were longing to be back in their homeland. They are preparing to return.

  1. What does this passage reveal about God’s character?

This passage shows at least two important things. First, it shows that God keeps His promises. These people are returning home in fulfillment of a promise that God had made. Second, it shows that God is sovereign because He worked through all the various circumstances to ensure that His prophesies would be fulfilled.

There are many other questions that could be added. Basically they would focus on two categories. First, what is similar or different about us and the people in the text? Second, what does the text reveal about God. Just with these two, however, we see that the second chapter of Ezra is in fact a doctrinal and encouraging passage.

This list of names (that most people skip) is a testimony to the trustworthiness of God, that He has the power to bring about His ends, and keeps His promises. What is more we recognize that we are also a people exiled from home in a place that is often hostile to us but have the promise of God that He will protect us and that, if faithful, we will return home to be with Him. We can be encouraged not just in an abstract sense (though that would be sufficient) but also because we have the very names as evidence that the Lord has kept similar promises in the past. Our hope is in a Lord who keeps His promises and does not abandon those who remain faithful to Him.

By taking some time to ask a few basic questions we can find relevant teaching and application in every part of the scripture, even those that seem to be rather distant from our own circumstances. It just takes a little bit of thought and a few well placed questions. As a teacher of mine used to say, “When you come across a passage that seems a bit dry you can usually make it less dry by applying a bit of perspiration.” I pray that the Lord would continue to bless you in your studies.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

My Thoughts are With You

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16)

It is a great blessing when we go through any kind of adversity or trial that our brothers and sisters in the faith are praying for us. When a Christian says “my prayers are with you” they are letting you know that they recognize that God has the power to intercede on your behalf. They are communicating to you that you should trust God to do so. They are also demonstrating faith that God will honor His promises to hear our prayers. There is tremendous power in prayer. By praying we are appealing to the sovereign power of God to do what we recognize we cannot do.

Lately, however, I have noticed that many people these days are saying things like “my thoughts are with you” or “sending good thoughts your way”. This is one of those areas where there is a huge gap between those who have a relationship with the living God and those who do not. While I recognize that it is a polite and thoughtful thing to tell someone that you are thinking of them it does absolutely nothing to address the underlying issue. It is simply a recognition that someone feels bad that you are dealing with some kind of trial. The thoughts of others cannot change our circumstances nor can they give us the strength to endure them beyond what was already within our psychological capacity. The believer on the other hand has access to the phenomenal power of God who can either resolve the issue or provide the strength for us to grow from it.

For His own reasons God does not always heal us or deliver us from particular circumstances but He always has the power to do so. When I am going through adversity I do not want acknowledgement from others who are just as helpless as I am. I want to know that my brothers and sisters are interceding with my Father, King, and Savior who has already demonstrated His love and care for me. As a believer, if I must suffer, I do so in the knowledge that my suffering has a purpose and is itself accompanied by the benevolent guidance of God. What a privilege that is. The unbeliever is sadly without that hope. The thoughts of people, good or not, cannot change that.

Every time I hear about a person suffering some tribulation and I then hear someone say that “their thoughts are with them” I am reminded of Paul’s words in Ephesians.

“…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12)

I then thank God that He has saved me. If you are a Christian consider using these opportunities as a way to share the hope that is within you. Tell people that you are praying for them (make sure you do it if you say you will). Some may not think it will do any good and others may even ask you not to. Most people, however, genuinely appreciate it and I have found it often opens the door for further discussion about faith down the road. Even if it doesn’t, it is an expression of your own faith.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Dawkins Spoof

If you have  ever read anything by Richard Dawkins or heard him speak then this is for you. Admittedly it is a bit sophomoric but hey it is getting late and it made me laugh. I thought I would share.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Unhelpful Answers: Jesus as Universal Pacifist

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  (Matthew 5:38-39 ESV)

There are many Christians who understand those words to mean that Christians are to passively undergo abuse regardless of the situation. How does this relate to our responsibility to protect our families and our own lives? Some teachers make a distinction between active defense (i.e. fighting back) and passive defense (i.e. locking our doors) but when we look closely at that distinction it becomes rather problematic to apply practically.

While some use this verse to support universal pacifism and see willingness to do so as a hallmark of faith we must be careful about establishing whole doctrines on single verses. I believe that closer examination will show that using this verse to support universal pacifism is inappropriate.

Jesus begins this teaching with the phrase ““You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you…” Some people understand these words to mean that Jesus is giving a new teaching and that He is somehow superseding the law with a superior ethical standard. Jesus, however, makes it clear that He is not abolishing or changing the Law that was delivered through the prophets.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
(Matthew 5:17-18 ESV)

The phrase “you have heard” is not a reference to the law itself but rather to the way it was being taught. Jesus is responding to teachers who were taking the word of the law out of context and misleading people. The general issue was that the law was being taught as if it were a series of regulations that, if kept, would make people righteous in God’s sight. This was never the intention of the law (c.f. Rom 3:20, Gal 2:16) and is why Jesus says in verse 20 “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is making it clear that conformity to outward regulation cannot make people righteous because they are by nature sinful.

In this particular case it seems that the Pharisees were misapplying one of the penalties of the law. In the law an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was a sentencing guideline to be applied by the judicial authorities after a conviction resulting from the Jewish legal process. Its purpose was actually to protect against revenge driven sentences and ensure that punishments were proportional to the crime. The Pharisees had apparently distorted the teaching by making it a personal standard of retribution that was never intended in the law.

If we look closely at the example that Jesus gives when teaching on this we may also notice something that is often missed. Jesus specifically mentions being hit on the right cheek. This is interesting since most people are right handed. If Jesus is speaking here of being punched in the face by someone who is trying to do great bodily harm  it is much more likely for them to be struck on the left cheek. If, however, Jesus was talking about a backhanded slap then the detailed reference to the right cheek makes sense. If He is referring to a slap rather than a punch then his admonition to turn the other cheek takes on a different light.

A slap of this sort is generally not intended to cause great harm but rather is intended to humiliate. To be slapped in the face is an affront to ones honor and is a bold insult. The context where these verses appear, the fact that Jesus is addressing the personal application of a legal standard, and this insight into the type of physical aggression all point to the fact that Christ was talking about retaliation and vengeance in this passage and not about defending oneself when in great bodily danger. Rather, He is explaining that we are not to engage in the kind of tit for tat retaliatory responses that escalate into feuds. We are not to see challenges to our honor and personal slights as a reason for getting even the way the world does. It is the same point that Paul makes in his letter to the Romans:

“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:17-21 ESV)

In neither Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 nor Paul’s words in Romans is there any command that we do not defend ourselves from immediate danger. There is a distinction between a necessary defensive response and a vengeful one. In the book of Exodus the law governing the protection of ones home gives us interesting insight into that very distinction.

“If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.”     (Exodus 22:2-3 ESV)

Notice that this law establishes for the protection of both the thief as well as the victim. The defender has a right to defend themselves and their property and yet has no right to respond vengefully. If they are startled in the dark they are able to respond as they see necessary. However; if the opportunity exists for them to identify the thief and go to the authorities they are required to do this and are not free to respond with deadly force. The ability of people to defend themselves and for restitution to be made is protected; however, they have a responsibility to assess the situation. If the circumstance was such that the case could be taken to the proper authorities (the thief can be identified) this is what should be done. The property owner did not have the right to take the life of the intruder.

The expectation that people may defend themselves from immediate and severe bodily harm is not just found in the Old Testament. Consider the instructions Jesus gave to His disciples prior to his arrest.

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”    (Luke 22:35-38 ESV)

Jesus tells His followers to sell their cloaks and purchase swords. Many commentators understand this in a spiritual rather than a literal sense but there are a few reasons to believe that He is speaking literally. First, He begins by referencing previous instructions that He had given regarding knapsacks, moneybags, and sandals. Those were literal instructions and so it seems reasonable that these are literal as well. Also, after these instructions the disciples show Him that they already have two swords and Jesus replies that “it is enough”. These were literal swords and Jesus did not correct them as He had done so many times before when they misunderstood something He had said.

Notice that the disciples already were carrying swords. We know that these swords were not used offensively so we may assume that they were carried as defensive weapons. Jesus did not rebuke them for having them but rather gives his approval by saying “it is enough”.  Much is made of His later rebuke of Peter for using his sword but that is a completely different circumstance. First, Jesus intended to go to the cross and fulfill the scriptures and secondly Peter did not use his sword for personal protection. The guards had been sent by those in authority, they were not thieves or robbers.

In Matthew 5 Jesus is clarifying the teaching of the law and is not establishing a requirement for universal pacifism. We are to trust in God and His ultimate justice in the face of personal indignities and not engage in vengeful retaliation. This does not mean that we cannot defend ourselves and our families against an illegal, direct, and immediate threat to an extent sufficient to remove the threat.