Reaching This Generation Through Principles From The Book of Acts
The Bible: Mythology or History?
Many of our new friends at the Rio Coco Café come from a “post-Christian” culture, where the Bible is not held in high regard. That is because of the misuse of Scripture of many so called Christians over the years to justify their own economic or political agendas. One of the more infamous applications of Scripture occurred in the 15th Century Spanish Inquisition when this verse was taken out of context:
“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who parts from me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. John 15:5-6
Tomas de Torquemada was a Spanish monk who was appointed the Grand Inquisitor for all Spain in 1487. Apparently Tomás took this verse literally. He was deeply religious and zealous Catholic who felt that non-Catholics and insincere converts could destroy both the church and the country. He used torture to gain evidence and prosecute heresy, witchcraft, bigamy, and usury. About 2000 people were burned at the stake during Torquemada’s term of office. That offended many, and still does. The Spanish Inquisition often comes up in conversations with Europeans. This is one of many misuses of Scripture that has left a bad taste of the Bible in the mouths of many.
Because of misuse and confusion over the years, the Bible is not considered God’s infallible word, but rather a collection of often mysterious writings, men’s opinions, and Jewish mythology. Yet the Bible declares that
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right. 17 It is God’s way of preparing us in every way, fully equipped for every good thing God wants us to do. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
The key word here is “all”, not “some” or “almost all”. The entire Bible as we hold it contains God’s standards of right and wrong, His principles for our lives here on Planet Earth, and His plans for our future. We believe that all the answers to the critical questions of life are contained in the Bible.
However, we have three problems when we try to make sense out of the Bible:
- We have a False Division of the Bible- “Old” Testament and “New” Testament, and confusion over the meaning of the “New Covenant”. We think that mankind’s relationship with God changed somewhere between the last chapter of Malachi and the first chapter of Matthew. We even thing that somehow God changed from a punishing vengeful character in the Old Testament to a rather nice guy who we call “Daddy” in the New!
- We have a faulty interpretation: We try to fit Scripture into our culture and time. We ignore the cultural context, and pull out disconnected verses to make our points.
- We often have a false application: We forget that Scripture was not written to us, but for us- for our benefit. We forget it is the principles that we are to follow, not necessarily the cultural practices prescribed in the Bible, and end up binding people to restrictions that God never intended us to follow. We forget the heart of God that is revealed in the Scriptures, and focus on our list of convenient “rules”.
How do we avoid these modern and ancient pitfalls of understanding Biblical truth and applying it to our personal lives?
Anthropologists tell us it is essential to understand the Bible within its own cultural and historical setting. This is the first step if we are to draw Truth from the Scriptures for our own lives, and for the benefit of the people around us. Dr. Paul Heibert, professor of Anthrogology at Fuller Seminary, is one of many experts who points out in his classic, Anthropological Insights For Missionaries (p.14), the essential value of knowing the cultural-historical context of the Bible, as well as understanding the culture of the people we are trying to reach. Without these two essential elements, Dr Heibert says are in danger of proclaiming a message to other cultures that has no meaning. We agree!
The Challenge for us today is to:
- First: Understand the Bible in its historical and cultural context;
- Second: Extract Biblical Truth that we can apply to our own lives.
- Then we are qualified to proclaim this Message and give this Truth to those around us.
Long ago, a famous Biblical refugee named Ezra faced a similar challenge.
For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel. Ezra 7:10
How then are we to discern what the message of the Bible actually is? As Peter declares (1 Peter 2:9), we are a nation of priests. We have all been given the right to read and personally interpret the Scriptures. Our interpretation must be accurate and faithful to the Biblical text. It cannot be viewed only through our modern cultural perspective, but must be understood within the context of when it was originally presented. This has been the mistake of many ancient and modern church leaders, giving our society a very twisted view of Scripture. It is important to remember that the Bible has a culture of its own: the values, moral, and truths of the Bible stand alone and above all other “cultures”.
When we open the Bible, we literally step out of the 21st century and back into time. The writers of the Bible wrote to a particular audience. They never realized there would be people 2000 years later reading their books and letters. However the Holy Spirit did! This audience spoke a different language and thought in a different manner than we do. In addition, the writers assumed that you, the audience, knew certain things, many of which we have forgotten today.
For example, the lover in the Song of Solomon describes his beloved as:
“Your belly is as heap of wheat, surrounded by Lilies.” Song of Solomon 7:2
What do we do with this verse? I can see the response of my wife as I say to her tenderly: “Laura, your belly is as heap of wheat.” Would that get me in good graces with her? Not in her cultural context. She works hard to keep her body in shape! So what is writer saying?
Fortunately there is an explanation. Hebrews think functionally while Greeks think in terms of form. If I showed a Biblical Jew and a Greek a coffee cup and asked them each to describe it, the Greek would tell us the color, the shape, and where the handle was. The Jew would say simply” “I can drink coffee with that.” It is important to understand the difference between how the two cultures of the Bible think. The Jewish lover is describing his beloved in terms of function, and not shape. Her belly is the place where all the children will be produced- children who will work and provide for the couple in their old age. This indeed is a beautiful thing! Cultural context is often important in understanding the message of the Bible.
But can we trust it? That is THE Question! Listen to our friend Dr. Randall Smith describe how he looks at the Bible.
It is important to understand that just because two people “understand” exactly what was said doesn’t mean that the two of them have the same concept of what was being communicated at all. That happens in marriage and especially in cross-cultural communication. As a young archeology student, I innocently invited the 15 year old daughter of the Arab cleaning lady to see the John Wayne movie playing at the theatre in Jerusalem. That invitation in her culture was the same as a marriage proposal, and it took months of very careful strategizing for me to extract myself from that situation while protecting her reputation!
As we come into the Scriptures and try to understand what is going on in the pages, we have to realize when I open my Bible, I step out of my 21st century world and go to another culture in another time. So it is a little more than just reading it and believing it.
Mark Twain is the one who said, “We know a lot of things that just ain’t so.”
You can read it, and see what they did and you can ask yourself “What does that mean to me and my family in the 21st century as I face my life and all the challenges?”
The reality is this: There is not one word of Scripture written to me personally, but every word of Scripture was written for me.
When God spoke, He spoke to a specific people at a specific time in a specific place to benefit me much later- but not to me. He said it to them in a way that they would understand it. I’ve got to do something more than just read it and believe it. It’s like putting a tea bag into hot water- I’ve got to allow the Scripture to permeate my “water” and change who I am by the principles involved in it. I’ve got to squeeze out of the story of God with Abraham, God with Moses, and God with David specific things: Who is God in this story? What does He want from David or Moses? It is the principle behind the cultural practice that I am after. What everlasting truth can I draw from this story that is relevant and applicable to my life today?
Let me give a example of this Principle Approach to Scripture. Leviticus 1 says:
Then the Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When any man of you brings anoffering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of animals from the herd or the flock. ‘If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer it, a male without defect; he shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord. Leviticus 1:1-3
I cannot go today to the Tabernacle in the Wilderness to offer my sacrifice, so what is in this passage of God’s everlasting Word that He commands me to know and accurately handle (2 Timothy 2:15) that can apply to my life today?
In verse one, we see God calling out to Moses. From this I know God often takes the initiative in His fellowship with mankind. This is an important principle for me to remember when I am feeling far from God.
In verse two, God orders the people to bring an offering from their own herd or flock. I can conclude that God wants me to return to Him some of the things He has freely given me. This is a good principle of relationship between God and me, and an important principle of God’s economics.
In verse three, God says to bring an animal without defect. From this I see God wants my best; He will not be happy with a half-hearted response from me. If He asks me to give $100 to the missionaries, He will not be pleased if I give only $50. If I am to paint the widow’s house, He wants me to use the best paint I can afford.
According to some teachings, I could throw out Leviticus by saying “We are not under the Law!”, but I then would miss many of God’s Truths that apply very well to my life today. If we read the Scriptures, searching for the principles and truths behind the specific cultural practices, then we begin to receive life from the Word of God, not just dusty, out-of-date commandments.
Randy and many other prominent historians know that it often takes more than a simple glance at Scripture to understand and apply it in an appropriate manner to avoid the mistakes of the past. But the first question to consider is this: Is the Bible an accurate historical document?
As a student of history at Miami University Luxembourg, I was trained in how to evaluate the veracity of ancient works of literature. Historians give three tests to determine where a document is authentic and true:
- Manuscripts: How many copies of the document do we have and what is time between the original writing and the document we are holding in our hands;
- Internal Evidence: Are there contradictions within the document or is all the information presented consistent?
- External Evidence: How does the information presented in the document line up with external sources- archaeological evidence, pottery, monuments, & other writings.
In my studies, I have discovered that many historians, archeologists, and scientists have concluded that in fact the Bible is good history. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 only confirmed the manuscript evidence- that we are indeed holding in our hands what was written by the 39 authors over 2000 years ago.
Are there contradictions within the Biblical account? If you take into consideration that the historical writers were giving “partial information” (only the data they needed to tell their story), and if you read the Scriptures in the original languages, then the apparent contradictions disappear! I often ask anyone who says there are contradictions in the Bible to name one. Just one. It is difficult.
Archeologists have never found anything that contradicts the Biblical record. Those are the words of Prof. William Albright, considered the “dean” of Middle Eastern Archaeology. That is not to say there are not any problematical areas, yet continuing research again and again resolves the issues.
This library of 66 books written over a 1500 year period on three continents in three languages is the most unique book in existence. It contains at least seven forms of literature: Biography/History, Poetry, Wisdom writings, Lamentation, Prophecy, Legal Code, and Personal Letters(Epistles). These books contain God’s timeless principlesfor our relationships, community life, government, businesses, and science. It is these principles that we are after as we study God’s Word.
Remember that the Bible is not necessarily written to us, but for us. We are not Hebrews walking through the desert with Moses toward the Promised Land. We are not attending the church in Corinth when Paul wrote his letter addressing certain issues. The Cultural Practices prescribed by the authors (and Holy Spirit) are a reflection of God’s everlasting principles to address issues within the timeframe and culture of the Bible. Where sometimes these cultural practices are out of date, and no longer applicable, the principles behind these “prescriptions” remain current.
A good example of a cultural practice that reflects an everlasting principle is found in Exodus 23:19.
You must not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” Exodus 23:19
One of the tenets of the modern Jewish kosher diet is to never mix dairy products with meat. We discovered what Kosher meant the first time we went to the McDonald’s Hamburger Restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, just a few blocks from our apartment. There were no cheeseburgers on the menu. That was strange! When my son Lukas ordered a McFlurry (a milkshake) he was directed to a room off to the side by a guard, where he was forced to stay until he finished his milk product. For McDonalds to keep their Kosher certification, he could not be in a room with us eating our meat sandwiches.
Religious Jews understand Exodus 23:19 (and Ex 34:26) to mean that God forbids a meal with dairy and meat served together. As a result, most Kosher kitchens have two refrigerators, two sets of dishes, and two sets of flatwear (forks, spoons, knives). They also have separate sinks to wash the meat dishes and the dairy dishes.
Not cooking a young goat in its mother’s milk was a commandment that God gave to Moses to pass on to all the people. It is a cultural practice with a principle behind it that must have some relevance to my life since it is in the Bible. After all, Paul told his disciples Timothy that “All Scripture is God-Breathed and useful to teach us… (2 Tim 3:16)”
When Paul wrote these words to Timothy, the only “Scripture” in existence was the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament was in the process of being written. So what is in this strange commandment that is useful to teach me what is true and to do what is right? This is where it helps to understand what was going in the neighborhood when God gave this commandment to Moses.
Maybe if I have the “context” of the command, I might understand the principle behind the cultural practice, and then be able to apply that principle to my life in the 21st century.
According to Alec Motyer (The Story of the Old Testament p.13) and other historians, a common practice among Egyptian and Canaanite people was to produce a magic fertility potion by killing a young goat by boiling it in its mother’s milk. Then all would drink this magic elixir and the result would be an increase in the flock, which would result in great prosperity.
In the Miskito culture along the Rio Coco in Nicaragua and Honduras, a common practice is to have a “sukia” (spiritual medicine man) kill a chicken and sprinkle its blood on your rice or bean field, which would cause the deity which controls such things to make your crop grow more abundantly. Killing a young calf by boiling it in milk or cutting a chicken’s head off are two techniques to manipulate a spirit to cause your economy to improve. One is from 2000 BC and the other is from 2000 AD.
However it is clear that the principle behind the command to “not boil a calf in its mother’s milk” when placed in the cultural context is simply that God’s people must not seek prosperity by occult means or glorifying the gods of fortune.”(The Story of the Old Testament p.12) God says simply “Don’t be like the Canaanites or the Egyptians who do such things to improve their economy. Just trust Me, and I will take care of all your needs.”
This is consistent with what Jesus commanded in Matthew 6:
“So don’t worry about having enough food or drink or clothing. 32 Why be like the pagans who are so deeply concerned about these things? Your heavenly Father already knows all your needs, 33 and he will give you all you need from day to day if you live for him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern. Matthew 6:31
How do we apply this “not boiling a goat in its mother’s milk” in our 21st century culture?
What about the lottery tickets that we see everywhere? Should a follower of Jesus participate in the state lotteries? The payoffs are huge, and we might hit a good number! Imagine what we can do for the Kingdom with all that cash!
But is playing the lottery really trusting God with our economy, or are we glorifying the gods of good fortune? It’s the “boiling a goat” principle with a modern application.
Another good example of the Cultural Practice/Everlasting Principle is has to do with an issue that will pop up in our ministry at the Rio Coco Café. What does the Bible say about tattoos? Many have heard that these are prohibited, and that anyone who has a tattoo cannot be a follower of Jesus. What does the Bible actually say in its cultural context? What is the everlasting principle behind the command? It is found in Leviticus 19.
“Do not practice fortune-telling or witchcraft. Do not trim off the hair on your temples or clip the edges of your beards. Never cut your bodies in mourning for the dead or mark your skin with tattoos, for I am the Lord”. Lev. 19:25-28
There we have the prohibition against going to Psychic Mary and her friends who charge you for a session of hearing from the spirits. God Himself will speak to you if you are listening. He will take care of your economy as well! The next is a bit strange- “Don’t cut your hair and don’t make marks on your body.” If you have ever seen a Religious Jew, you know immediately by the curly locks hanging from the sides of their head and their beard that they take this one literally. And tattoos? Forbidden! (Photo is at the Western Wall with a Religious Jew walking in front of Pierre, Craig, & Michael)
Now let’s step back and take a look at the context of this command. It may change the understanding of the principle, and our application of this principle in the 21st century. God begins this conversation with Moses by saying this at the beginning of Chapter 18:
Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 “Say this to your people, the Israelites: I, the Lord, am your God. 3 So do not act like the people in Egypt, where you used to live, or like the people of Canaan, where I am taking you. You must not imitate their way of life. 4 You must obey all my regulations and be careful to keep my laws, for I, the Lord, am your God. 5 If you obey my laws and regulations, you will find life through them. I am the Lord. Lev. 18:1-5
It appears that God is being very clear to His people. “Don’t be like the people around you who do things that displease me. Follow my commands and you will have life through them. Be distinct in whatever culture you find yourself. I am your Creator and you are my people.”
Earlier in this conversation with Moses recorded in the book of Leviticus, God says it in very plain language:
“You must be holy because I am holy”Leviticus 11:44
The word holy in the Hebrew language is “Qadowsh”. According to the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains this word means:
pertaining to being unique and pure in the sense of superior moral qualities and possessing certain essential divine qualities in contrast with what is human.
God’s command to His people is to be “Qadowsh”. We are to live our lives displaying a higher morality that reflects the character of our Heavenly Father. We are to be examples of Him and His ways. Many times, that will cause us to act differently, dress differently, speak differently, and think differently than the people around us.
Apparently the Egyptians and Canaanites were cutting their hair short in their religious practices to their gods. They were also making cuts and tattoos on their bodies in ceremonies for the dead. God said not to do such things.
So what about tattoos? Can we have a tattoo and still be “Qadowsh”?
A few years ago, we took the leaders of our school project in Nicaragua, Truman and Myrna, on a cruise to celebrate our 20 years of working together. Our assigned waiter at dinner was a young man from India named Geromino, who is seen in the photo serving Baked Alaska to Lukas. I realized that with a name like that, he might be from Goa, which used to be Portuguese colony. That might also tell me his religious background. Since I was spending some time with him every evening, I wanted to make the most of the opportunity and use my time with him for Kingdom purposes. I wanted to be intentional.
So one evening I asked: “Geronimo, are you by chance from Goa?”
“Yes I am!” he replied.
“Are you Hindu or Muslim?”
“I am Christian” he said proudly as he set his hand on the table in front of me
I noticed a cross tattooed on his hand between his thumb and forefinger.
“Do all Christians in Goa have that mark on their hand?” I asked surprised.
“Yes. That is what makes us to be Christian!” Geronimo said.
In his cultural setting, having a tattoo of a cross on his hand is what made Geronimo and other Christians in Goa “Qadowsh”. In this case, Geronimo was obeying the principle in Leviticus 19:26 by having a tattoo! It is what made him distinct from the Hindus and Muslims in his neighborhood. Geronimo taught me something that night, and we had many conversations over the next week about our faith, and the challenges around us to be “Qadowsh”.
As you read Leviticus 18:6-23, you will notice many prohibitions against sexual practices that were common among the Egyptians and Canaanites. Having sex with your sister, mother-in-law, an animal, or someone of the same sex is a cultural practice that reflects the principle of sex being something that God created for a man and woman in a marriage relationship. Here the practice and principle are inseparable. Interestingly, God tells why these practices must be avoided:
24 “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the people I am expelling from the Promised Land have defiled themselves. 25 As a result, the entire land has become defiled. That is why I am punishing the people who live there, and the land will soon vomit them out. Leviticus 18:24-25
Being “Qadowsh” somehow relates to the success of God’s plans for His People.
In the Rio Coco Café ministry, our mission is not to simply copy Biblical cultural practices, and present a list of rules to our new friends, but rather to understand and apply these Biblical principles to our relationships and ministry there. We must avoid “religion” and stick to a living relationship with our God and His People. This is why we must devote ourselves to studying and understanding God’s Word.
Work hard so God can approve you. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15
Like Paul’s disciple Timothy we too must be prepared to understand, correctly explain, and put into practice the things God has given us. Then we must teach these principles to the people God brings us through our ministry at the Rio Coco Café .
You have heard me teach many things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Teach these great truths to trustworthy people who are able to pass them on to other. 2 Timothy 2:2
We have an opportunity to help the Bible come alive to our guest at the Café. Through our understanding of it principles, and the application of these principles in our own lives, many will discover the riches of the Bible, and the beauty of God Himself.