Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Preaching Christ from the Old Testament Panel Discussion

If preachers and teachers are going to carefully convey the truths of Scripture it is crucial that they pay close attention to what the author has written. All too often messages are developed by taking verses out of context, spiritualizing them, or simply using them as a launching point for sharing ones own opinions. To teach or preach the Bible accurately it is important that the preacher or teacher carefully study the text. This means the history, grammar, structure, life situation, purpose, and themes must be examined in order to try and understand the point the author was trying to make. Only by being careful to understand the historical and grammatical message in the text can preachers guard against the tendency to give a speech rather than explain the scriptures.

There is, however, an inherent tension involved in this approach. If the preacher does not preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ then they have failed to acheive the end for which all Scripture was given. We should not read the Old Testament as though we have never heard the Gospel. Consider the implications of the following statements in the New Testament about the Old.

“And he [Jesus] said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
(Luke 24:25-27 ESV)

“For 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)

“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”
(1 Peter 1:10-12 ESV)

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me”
(John 5:39 ESV)

These are just a few of profound verses that show us that Christ is the message of the entire Bible. We see the repeated examples of the Apostles missing the significance of the Scriptures with reference to Jesus and only after His resurrection did they understand fully.

The difficulty then is how to faithfully preach Christ from all of Scripture (knowing that He is the ultimate unifying theme) without engaging in sloppy exegesis or using allegory and typology where it is not supported in the text. We do not want to ignore the New Testament when preaching the Old but on the other hand how do we stay true to the Old Testament text when Christ isn’t alluded to directly? How should preachers demonstrate the Gospel from the entire Bible without imposing a meaning on Old Testament texts that is not immediately evident through historical and grammatical study?

This has been a theme I have dealt with many times on the site and I have reviewed a few books that help to provide a framework for answering the question. Recently I was also blessed to watch this video of some very capable and well respected preachers discussing this very topic. I thought I would share it with you. I pray God will bless you through it. I think the discussion would be interesting to anyone interested in understanding the Bible better even if you are not a preacher or teacher.

(if you do not see the embedded video you can click HERE to view it)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bible Study Tips: Study Parallel Structures

One of the more difficult types of literature to study in the Bible is the wisdom literature. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the structure of the writing is quite different from the way modern writers communicate. Second, because of the way the “sayings” are structured people often break them up into individual units and disconnect them from the larger teaching of the particular passage in which they appear. For example, the book of Proverbs has an overall structure and outline that helps us to see the connection and flow between all of the individual proverbs. If we simply take them one by one we can miss the larger point that is being made by assembling all these little pieces of wisdom together.

Today’s Bible study tip is intended to help you make sense of these individual units. As I have already said, once you see the point of the individual units you still need to do the work of examining how they are organized and work together in a larger teaching segment. One of the characteristics of Hebrew wisdom writing is its parallel structure. These parallels are designed to convey an idea in coordination with or in contrast with a related idea thus forming the parallel. The ideas are often organized into couplets or sometimes three line sections. Even when there are more than two lines there is usually two parts to the parallel and the structure can be visualized as ____________/_______________//. There are a lot of technical subdivisions that scholars use to classify these parallels but generally they can be categorized as synthetic or antithetical.

Synthetic parallels are when the second line of the couplet is in “agreement” with or supports the idea of the first line. An example is Amos 1:7; “So I will send a fire upon the wall of Gaza, / and it shall devour her strongholds//. You notice that the second part of the statement is agreeing with the first. It is an amplification of the same idea. Often, just like we see here, the second statement takes the point further than the first to show emphasis. An antithetical structure is when the second line contrasts with the first. An example is Proverbs 29:18; “    Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, / but blessed is he who keeps the law//. Notice that in this case the second statement is the opposite of the first. The point of the first is emphasized by comparing it with its opposite. The implication is that those without prophetic vision are not blessed.

Understanding the use of these parallel structures is useful because this device is used often in both Testaments. In this tip, however, I would like to focus on a particular use of these kinds of parallels. The basic and most common literary unit used in Hebrew wisdom literature is the mashal. A mashal is a particular type of one-line two-part statement that was used for wisdom sayings. You could translate the word mashal as proverb; I am using the term mashal simply to avoid confusion between the type of statement and the book of Proverbs proper. In fact, the example above from Proverbs 29:18 is a mashal. While they are not technically riddles they are often enigmatic and their meaning is not always immediately obvious. I have found that people have a lot of confusion about what is being taught in many of these passages as the result of not understanding the structure of these wisdom statements.

They are not always easy but with a bit of thought most of them can be understood once you understand how they work. There are two major keys to understanding them. First, is that the two halves work together. They are not independent statements or teachings. There is often tension between the two statements but the key to understanding the point is to figure out how the two halves relate to one another. The second key is to realize that often rather than making a definite statement the writer will use the mashal to create a mental image that makes the point instead. You have to take the time first to understand the images and then take the time to see the connection between them.

Let’s walk through an example from the book of Ecclesiastes.

A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth.”     (Ecclesiastes 7:1 ESV)

The first step is to identify the two parts to the statement. Often there will be a clear indicator such as the words “but” or “and”. In this case the break-point is the word “and”.

A good name is better than precious ointment / and the day of death than the day of birth //

Next we examine each of the halves. It is often the case (just like in this example) that one half will be more obvious than the other. That is precisely why understanding the parallel structure is so valuable to interpretation. We can then use the more clear idea to help us understand the point of the less clear idea.

The first half, “a good name is better than precious ointment”, gives us a lot more to work with than the second half. We know that ointment was a valuable commodity in the ancient world. Indeed the text itself tells us that the ointment is precious. Anything highlighted is an important clue in these short statements. We know that prior to refrigeration, preservatives, and advanced medications things like herbs, salts, and oils/ointments played a very important part in people’s lives and were necessary and often valuable. We remember, for example, the story from John chapter 12 where the woman anointed Jesus with oil and Judas commented that it was valuable and could have been sold to help the poor.

In our example we have precious ointment which is a way of emphasizing the value. Any ointment would have been valuable but this ointment is not ordinary ointment, it is precious ointment. The text is highlighting the extraordinary value of a good name by emphasizing the value of the ointment which, though great, is of less value than a good name.

The second half is more difficult. It is not clear exactly what is meant by “the day of death [is better] than the day of birth”. Many commentators try to explain it by tying it in with some of the broader themes of the book of Ecclesiastes. They argue that this means that a funeral is better than a day of birth because it causes us to reflect upon our lives and put things into perspective etc. The problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the relationship of this statement to the previous one. The word “and” demonstrates that a comparison is in view. If we want to understand how or why the day of death is better than the day of birth we need to understand how that concept relates to the value of a good name being greater than precious ointment.

The primary emphasis of the first half is on the value of a good name so we can expect that this will be paralleled in the second half. Let’s think about the relationship between the images. What could a good name have to do with the day of death?

We realize that many people have a good name only to later have their reputation ruined. If, however, a person dies with a good name then they will keep it. If one has lived an honorable life to the end then they retain a good name as long as they are remembered. This is why the day of death is better than the day of birth. Starting with a good name does not guarantee that you will keep it. The verdict about reputation at death is lasting whereas at birth it is tenuous.

The second question though is how this relates to precious ointment? Here we see the power of the imagery to reinforce the point the author is making. Ointment just like a good name, though valuable, is easily corrupted. If it isn’t handled with care and the container is damaged it will lose its fragrance. If it becomes too cold or too hot it can become ruined. If it becomes contaminated it loses its value. A good name must be cultivated and protected throughout a person’s life. Just like precious ointment it is of great value but is also fragile and can easily become useless. To end your life with a good name, however, is of the greatest value because a good name in the final analysis… a good name at the day of one’s death is of the greatest and lasting value.

This type of mashal structure is quite frequent in the Bible, especially in the wisdom books and understanding how they function can be very helpful as we study. The key to interpreting them is to understand the way that the two halves work together. Take the time to think about how the image they create connects the ideas expressed. The second half often escalates the point made in the first either as a comparison or as a contrast. I pray that a careful analysis of these statements will enrich your Bible reading and study.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Book Review: Michael Williams, How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens: A Guide to Christ-Focused Reading of Scripture

By Michael Williams / Zondervan
331651: How to
Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens: A Guide to Christ-Focused Reading of
Discover how each book of the Bible has an identifiable theme that is ultimately fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. In this accessible resource, Williams clearly defines the unifying idea of each book; explains how it relates to Christ; suggests contemporary applications; and more. 256 pages, softcover from Zondervan. Also available as an ebook.

This book is an excellent introduction to recognizing the place of Jesus Christ as the unifying theme of the entire Bible. Williams give a brief 2-3 page overview of each book of the Bible. For every book he explains the main theme, gives a key verse, and then introduces the way that these themes culminate in Jesus as well as some thoughts on the importance of these themes for contemporary Christians. The book is well organized and very easy to read.

Of course, it is impossible to write a book like this without some level of oversimplification. Advanced students may point out a number of themes and connections that might just as well have been introduced. Others might point out that Williams skims over a lot of issues regarding the proper relationship between the Old and New Testaments that any student of Biblical theology must eventually wrestle with. These criticisms are accurate but Williams is not writing for those whose interest is in those subjects. The book is an introduction to the thematic unity of the Bible in the person of Christ. More advanced students who are interested in scholarly issues will not find much here of interest and would benefit more from reading one of a number of other works written to address those issues.

Williams’s goal was to avoid an overly academic discussion of these issues and instead offer a helpful starting point for a Christ centered reading of the entire Bible and he has done that. This is an excellent book for those who are either new students of the Bible or who have difficulty understanding what Numbers and Leviticus have to do with the Gospel. If you are looking for an easy to read and highly focused introduction to the centrality of Jesus to all of Scripture then I recommend this book to you. It is a great starting point for those who are curious how to “see Jesus” in every book without ignoring the themes found in those books and simply imposing the Gospel on to them. I pray that this book would be an encouragement to further Jesus focused study the Word for all who pick it up. I am confident that it will.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

C.H. Spurgeon: The People's Preacher

A few days ago Justin Taylor posted this video about Charles Spurgeon. I enjoyed it and thought I would share.

May the Lord raise up in our time such men who love His word and who preach it with power.

(The video is just over an hour long)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Recent Discovery of 1st Century Bible Manuscript

Recently the blogosphere has been buzzing with news that a 1st century copy of the Gospel of Mark had been found. The news first broke in a debate between well known textual scholar Dan Wallace who was defending the accuracy of the Scriptures and Bart Erhman, author of Misquoting Jesus and many other similar texts, who was arguing against the textual accuracy of the Bible. During the debate Dr. Wallace mentioned the new discovery. If confirmed, this will be the earliest known fragment of the New Testament that we have. The importance of such a find for Bible scholars is obvious. 

Dr. Wallace has released a statement that you can read HERE to provide some clarification as to what has been found. You can also read Dr. Wallace's summary of the debate with Dr. Erhman that prompted the revelation HERE.

It is amazing to think that there are still such treasures hidden away waiting to be found. The greatest treasure, however, is that which can be found in the Gospel... namely our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Former Speaker Pelosi Says the President is Courageous for Opposing Her Church

Recently the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the Hosanna Tabor case that the government cannot interfere in religious communities’ decisions about who will be their teachers, leaders, and ministers. This was rightly seen as a major victory for religious liberty against government intrusion. This battle was won but the war is far from over. The limit of government intrusion on religious institutions and personal convictions is still being attacked from many angles.

What constitutes a religious organization is emerging as the next great battleground and it is important that Christians are paying attention to what is happening. The recent birth control mandate by the President highlights the kinds of issues that will be raised.

This mandate requires that organizations opposed to birth control and sterilization pay for these services as part of their health care plans. Many religious organizations are outraged by this and a number of Catholic Bishops have asserted that they will not comply. One of the supporters of this mandate has been the minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who identifies herself as Catholic. When a reporter tried to get her to address the obvious conflict between her support of the President’s mandate and the Catholic faith she proclaims she tried to muddy the water by mentioning that there were other Catholics who also support the mandate. This is a classic deflection that never worked with my mother but always seems to be effective for politicians… not sure why.

Pelosi may think that the President’s mandate is courageous but regardless of how many other Catholics she can find who agree with her there is no question that this mandate is contrary to a core belief of her Church. I recognize that in the U.S. our political leaders represent a much wider demographic than just Christians and in order to faithfully represent their constituency they may vote in ways that we might not like. Pelosi, however, did not take this angle. Rather she chose to point out that there were others as well who are in practice rejecting a core commitment of their Church. Now I do not expect that people will be in complete agreement with every single position of their pastors, elders, or bishops. There is something dishonest, however, about not simply saying that. The language that she uses in her response seems to imply that this is a debatable issue within the Catholic Church. So far as I am aware the Catholic Church has been rather consistent on this issue despite the protests of some members.

I am not Catholic and I am not surprised at Pelosi’s position but I do think that we need to stand with these bishops on the issue of government forcing religiously managed organizations to make choices that contradict their convictions. The principal at stake here is even broader than just abortion and birth control (not that those aren’t pressing enough). We need to understand how our representatives vote on these matters because we are at the beginning of a long process where many are trying to redefine the relationship between the United States government and our churches and religious organizations.