We view life through the lenses of our own experiences and culture.
When it comes to God and life in the spiritual world, it is natural that we proceed in a similar manner.
Over the past two millenniums, Christian traditions have developed that had significance for a group of believers with a cultural time frame. As a result, for the diverse language groups and cultures of our modern era, capturing the essence of the biblical message often requires a challenging expedition through centuries of doctrines and often conflicting interpretation of the Scriptures.
We have discovered that to understand the simple message of the Bible, sometimes we must read it through first-century eyes.
The Following is an excerpt from the book Living in the Spiritual World, which began as a six hour spontaneous conversation between Randy Smith and Michael Bagby recorded on September 14, 1999 at the studios of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem Israel. Here is a photo of Randy, Dottie, Laura and Maik taken the week of the recording.
Please join this round table discussion between Dr Randall Smith, Michael Bagby, Laura Bagby, and the Bagby Kids.
Pull up a chair …..
Lukas: I know I’m just a kid, but sometimes when I read my Bible, I don’t understand what they are talking about.
MB: It happens to me, too, Lukas. What helps me in times when the meaning of the passage of Scripture is unclear is to try to read the Scripture through the eyes of those first-century believers.
Lukas: Why do you do that?
MB: Often we understand the meaning of Scripture through our own culture in our own language, and sometimes this gives us a different message than what the writers of the Bible were trying to communicate. Let me give you one simple example. Mark records when Jesus went to His hometown, Nazareth, and began teaching His former neighbors, and extended family responded by saying:
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him. (Mark 6:3 nas)
The Greek word translated here as carpenter is actually the word τέκτων (tektōn), which in most dictionaries is given the meaning “builder; constructor.” Most of the translations of the Bible in the Middle Ages were done by Europeans, many of whom lived in cities of wooden houses. It was very natural that they would take the word tekton and translate in English as carpenter. As a result, we get many images of the word carpenter in our minds. Thus we see paintings done by European artists that show Jesus working with carpenter tools, making chairs, tables, and handicrafts.
When you travel to the Middle East, one thing you notice right away is most of the buildings there are made out of stone. There are very few trees in Israel. The Bible records that when Solomon built the temple, the lumber came from King Hiram’s country many miles to the north. For the Middle Easterner, tekton translates “stone mason” instead of the word carpenter.
Does this change the way we imagine Jesus to be? The stonemasons that I know in the third world are very broad-shouldered with muscular arms, backs, and necks. Their hands are rough and often cut from doing their work.
How does this image compare to many paintings of a frail, slender Jesus who often looks like He just stepped out of the beauty parlor? With this more realistic image of Jesus as a muscular, powerful man, I can understand what Luke describes happened at Nazareth when the crowd
got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, He went His way. (Luke 4:29-30)
Jesus, the stone mason, can power His way through the crowd better than the guy who just stepped out of the hair salon. This may seem like a minor point, but this modern cultural misinterpretation of the Scriptures can happen on a larger scale, resulting in doctrines and beliefs that would shock the writers of the Bible. The point is, when it comes to understanding the message the writers of the Bible were trying to communicate, often the best thing to do is to step back through centuries of our own cultural interpretations and try to understand the passage as the first-century believers read it.
It’s important to realize that God spoke to the people of the Bible in a way they could understand. They were different people who thought in a different way and spoke in a different language than we do today. It is important to remember this when it comes to understanding and applying the Bible to our own lives.
A foundational principle of ministry is telling people the good news about relationship with God in a language they can understand, using cultural expressions that have meaning to them. When I am in Nicaragua working with the Miskito Indians in our primary education program, Project Ezra, I explain the Bible using words and concepts I know have meaning there. When I am at my home church in Maui on the beach with some of my local surfing friends, I use other words that have meaning to them that express what God is saying.
I know it may sound confusing, Lukas, but don’t I talk differently to you than I do your three-year-old sister, Moselle? Have you noticed how Mommy changes the way she talks when we are in Hawaii? Once we arrive there, she falls back into the local pidgin language because she knows her family and friends will understand her best if she speaks to them in a language and through cultural expressions they all know.
This is an important principle of cross-cultural ministry. Anthropologists tell us themessage of the Bible must be communicated within the language and symbols of a culture. This is the example God gives us in the pages of the Old and New Testaments. Why is this important?
The Bible is the Living Word of God. Through it we know God better and how to live our lives here on planet Earth. It is our guide to spiritual living. It is the book of ultimate wisdom and gives us practical steps in carrying out God’s mission. The Bible prepares us for the life to come. This is the most important book we have!
Over the past two decades, we have worked in cross-cultural situations in the Middle East, Latin America, Pacifica, Europe, and North America. We have seen the amazing life-changing effects of believers discovering biblical truths and applying them to their personal lives and ministries. We have also seen the results of individuals and groups who read the Bible through their own “shaded lenses” and interpret the message in a convenient manner that supports their preconceived notions. One group experiences true relationship with God, spiritual growth, and abundant living, while the other dwells in religion, status quo, and the glory of yesterday.
The Bible was written many centuries ago to a different culture, in a different language, in another land. Our experience in reading the Bible through our “modern eyes” has often produced results that would have surprised the writers of the Bible. There are historical events, as well as events in our present spiritual environment, where biblical truth was skewed and misapplied, with sometimes comic and often tragic results.
When I first went to Central America in 1984 to work with Miskito Indian refugees, I immediately noticed many Miskito women wearing lace doilies on their heads when they were in a church. When I asked why, I was told simply that the Bible says a woman should not be in church without her head covered. After all, Paul told the church in Corinth that their women should have their heads covered. It seems there was something going on in Corinth that caused Paul to order this practice.
Research reveals that there was a prominent temple to the goddess Aphrodite in ancient Corinth. Aphrodite was the goddess of love, and her temple was at the top of the acropolis where hundreds of priestesses joined the men in a very sexual form of worship. The head priestess became the richest and most influential person in town, along with other temple prostitutes. Eventually, the women of Corinth dominated the men of the city. When families began to come to Christ, many brought this same attitude into the Church, which was out of God’s order. When Paul ordered the women to “cover their heads” (1 Corinthians 11), Paul was recommending a symbol of submission to God’s order (verse 3), “because of the angels.” When the missionaries brought the Gospel to the Coco River eighty years ago, women began wearing things on their head when they came to church without really understanding why.
When you apply a practice from the Bible apart from the principle behind the practice, there is a danger of becoming “religious.” Doing things to gain favor from God has little meaning, especially if not having a headcovering excludes you from coming to the house of God.
During my high school years, a friend took me to her church, which was across the street from mine. As I looked around while waiting for the service to begin, I noticed the absence of an organ or piano. When the worship leader got up to begin the singing, he leaned over and blew into a small pitch pipe. The singing began without using any musical instruments. We sang acapella, and it was very nice. Afterward, I asked my friend why they did not use any instruments, and she replied (quite proudly!): “We are a New Testament church, and there is no mention in the New Testament of the use of any instruments. That’s why we worship with our voices only.”
I had to think about that one for a while. David used musical instruments, but I guess that was “Old Testament.” Does it make a difference? I did notice an attitude of exclusivity among that congregation because of their “true” form of worship. There was very little interaction with other churches in the town.
In recent years, we have spent time at the School of Worship in Jerusalem and studied the culture of the early Church. The early Christians were worshiping God according to Jewish customs. One of the words in the Book of Psalms that is translated praise in English is the Hebrew word zamar, which means to praise the Lord by using a musical instrument (Psalm 108:1). Doesn’t this command still apply? Here is another example of modern men and women who love the Lord interpreting and applying Scripture in a “modern” fashion, ignoring or ignorant of what was happening in the early Church, and in the process, building walls, separating them from the rest of the body of Christ.
RS: Our objective is to reach the world for Christ, but we place ourselves on the margins of society with our strange religious behavior. We speak our own special “Christianese” language, have our own dress codes, and have rules of behavior, which usually begin withdon’t and can’t. Where Paul and the other first-century missionaries tried to blend in with the local culture (1 Corinthians 9), we seem to make an effort to stand apart in areas that are far from the heart of God. As a result, many of our evangelistic efforts are met with indifference, not because of the message, but because we have packaged the message in a container that looks strange and often irrelevant.
In studying the Scriptures, this is clearly not the biblical model. We are to be holy (distinct, set apart), yet Paul continually tried to “fit in with them as much as I can” (1 Corinthians. 9:21). Holiness in morality and character and cultural revelance are not mutally exclusive.
MB: Historically, there are many examples of dubious applications of supposed biblical principles that are very hard to explain and make our job as foreign missionaries extremely difficult. A few years ago in Jerusalem, I met the family of Una and Leonardo, two of our Israeli friends who live in Maui and had become followers of Jesus there through some pretty extraordinary events. We had a very enjoyable evening at Una’s family’s home (I later found out that we were the first Christians her parents had allowed in their home!). That night we became good friends with her parents, Eli and Iris.
The following week, after Una and Leonardo returned to Maui, we were invited to have dinner with her family. As we sat down to eat with her mother, father, and sister-in-law, the first question came from Eli, her abba. He asked politely, “Why did Christian armies come here a thousand years ago and kill everyone in Jerusalem?”
How do you explain the Crusades using biblical principles? Where does it say we are to go and conquer lands and kill all the inhabitants? Did Pope Urban II possibly mistake a narrative of what happened in a portion of the Bible with a command to go out and do the same, by which he then ordered the first crusade in 1094?
The advance of Islam through the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries provoked a reaction on the part of Christian leaders in Europe that can be explained in geo-political terms but not on biblical grounds. The resulting crusades of Christian armies to the Middle East over the next 400 years were a series of wars where many Jews and Muslims died. This is still an extemely sensitive issue.
How could I explain it to a Jew who was wondering what belief system his daughter now held in light of history?
A few hundred years later, the Church in Spain began the Inquisition, which was infamous for torturing and killing “heretics.” People with beliefs about Christianity that differed from official church dogma were questioned under torture, forced to “confess their sins,” and recant their “heretical beliefs.” If you look at the issues, it appears that many of us (including modern-day Catholics!) would have been on the torture rack!
Surprisingly, the major debate among the priests was not whether this torture was proper in accordance with God’s Word but rather that when it came to killing one of these “heretics,” could the priest actually do the killing or should the executioner be somebody else? After all, a priest has his role as a guide to life. Do you think these priests were missing major chapters and verses from their Bibles? How do we explain this torture and killing in light of the Scripture? More importantly, how do we avoid these modern and ancient pitfalls of understanding biblical truth and applying it to our personal lives?
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are continually given the opportunity to vocalize and live out our faith. In doing so, we are faced with a challenge of applying biblical truths to our lives and proclaiming the message of the Bible to those around us. How do we best do this?
Anthropologists tell us it is essential to understand the Bible within its own cultural and historical setting. This is the first step required 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 anthropology 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, we are in danger of proclaiming a message to other cultures that has no meaning.
The Bible is meant to be a breathing, living document that God uses to speak to all mankind and cultures in the here and now, even though we read words written two milinium ago. Long ago, a Bible refugee named Ezra, faced a similar challenge. He had the assignment of returning to his homeland with a group of Israelite refugees and rebuilding a physically and spiritually devastated nation. He knew the proper application of the Word of God was critical to the success of his mission. It was the misapplication that had caused the problem in the first place!
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)
For Ezra, it was a three-step process:
- study and understand the Word of God;
- put biblical truth in practice in his own life;
- teach it to the nation of Israel.
This process has not changed since the days of Ezra.
The challenge for us today is to:
- understand the Bible in its historical and cultural context;
- 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.
We have all been given the right to read and interpret the Scriptures and the responsibility to put biblical truth into practical application in our lives. How then are we to discern what the message of the Bible actually is? This is the challenge that continually faces us.
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. After determining the message, we are then challenged to extract the applicable principles for our own lives. This may involve jumping between our modern cultural context and the historical biblical context. As we do this, 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.”
RS: Having stepped out of your North American culture into the Miskito culture of Central America, Mike, I know one of the startling things you learned right away was that these are not simply people who speak another language. They think differently.
MB: Yes, small gestures we think are totally innocent and harmless can cause major problems. I have to be very careful to ensure that I am communicating thoughts and concepts as well as words to the five men who manage our school project. We speak to each other in three languages: English, Spanish, and Miskito. A trilingual conversation across a huge cultural gap can result in profound misunderstandings. I know that you, Randy, during your first year in Jerusalem as an archeology student, created a serious situation when you innocently asked the daughter of your Arab cleaning lady if she wanted to go to a John Wayne movie playing at the theater. In her culture that was the same as proposing marriage! I know it took many gifts and social maneuvering for both of you to get out of that one unscathed.
RS: It did! What is important to understand is that because two people understand exactly what was said doesn’t mean that two of them have the same concept of what was being communicated. That happens in marriage and especially in cross-cultural communication. As I come to the Scriptures and try to understand what is going on in the pages, I have to realize when I open my Bible, I step out of my twenty-first-century world and into another culture in another time. There is a little more involved 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 the Bible, see what they did, and you can ask yourself “What does that mean to me and my family sitting here in the twenty-first century as I face all the challenges in my life?”
I think it is worthwhile to point out that when God spoke, He spoke to a specific people, at a specific time, in a specific place to benefit me much later, but it was not written to me.
Can I say it this way: There is not one word in the Bible that is written to me, but every word is written for me. I know that may be shocking when you hear it for the first time, but let it sink in.
God said things 3,000 years ago to another culture in another land in another language 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 teabag 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? What everlasting truth can I draw from this story that is relevant and applicable to my life today?
It is the principle behind the cultural practice that I am after. What truth was God communicating to those people then that I can apply to my life today in a way that makes sense? 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 an offering 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)
Obviously, I cannot go today to the tabernacle in the wilderness to offer my sacrifice (although I can go to the replica that we constructed near the Dead Sea a few years ago), 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. God wants me to return to Him some of the things that 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 that 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 go paint the widow’s house, He wants me to use the best paint I can afford.
I could throw out all of 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 and search 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.
MB: God wants to give us understanding. He wants us to have more than just “blind faith.” He wants to give us life. That is why He is inviting us into an intimate relationship with Him. That is why He gives us example after example of who He is and how He interacts with mankind in the pages of the Bible. Understanding biblical culture, language, geography, and even politics gives us greater understanding of God and how He is relating to us.
Remember the challenge for us is to first understand the Bible in its historical and cultural context. It is only then that we can draw out principles and everlasting truths to apply to our own lives. Once we do that, we can take the message to any place, into any culture, with any people.
If we don’t have understanding of what God is really communicating in the Scriptures, we can easily become “religious” and try to fulfill the letter of the Law without understanding the intent. You end up with Miskito women in Nicaragua wearing lace doilies on their heads because Paul told the ladies in Corinth to cover their hair when assembling together.
Paul was giving the women in Corinth a symbol to get their familial relationships in order—a symbol that was appropriate for their culture because of things going on in Greek society. This practice has no spiritual significance in Miskito culture as it did in Corinth, yet because a missionary told them to cover their heads without any cultural understanding, they do. It becomes a religious thing.
RS: Our experience working with indigenous people groups in Central America and the Middle East, along with our years of biblical and archeological studies in the Holy Land, has given us a more practical “principle approach” to understanding the Bible.
MB: This perspective and the following guidelines may be helpful as you approach the challenges of applying the principles of the Word of God to your own lives and ministry. As we pursue intellectual understanding, we must never lose sight of the most helpful element of Bible study: an intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. He is the teacher and will teach to anyone, anywhere, in any culture. He is the one who makes the text come alive in your life.
RS: When we open the Bible, we literally step out of the twenty-first century and back into time. The writers of the Bible wrote to a particular audience in another land and in another culture. One of the important guidelines to remember is that God speaks to mankind in a way they can understand. He paints pictures of Himself and His ways through cultural expressions that have deep meaning to His audience, even if they have little meaning to us today.
MB: We see an example of this in Genesis 15 in one of the most important narratives in the Bible. God makes a promise to Abraham, and Abraham responds with faith. It is an act that Paul mentions in the Christian Scriptures and one that Martin Luther later used to change the course of Church history. Why did Abraham firmly believe God was going to do what He promised? It was through a very unusual (in our modern eyes) practice that “God sealed the deal.”
And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. And He said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” 8He said, “O Lord god, how may I know that I will possess it?” So He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.
Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years . . . . Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. (Genesis 15:5-17)
- What significance did the split carcasses have for politicians and businessmen of Abram’s time?
Jeremiah 34:18-20 explains that in those days business men, politicians, and friends made pacts by cutting animals in half and walking together through the split carcass, pausing in the middle and looking at each other saying, “If I don’t keep my end of this deal, may I become like this dead animal.”
- What caused Abram to believe God?
When God passed through by Himself, Abraham knew that God’s promises did not depend on whether Abraham kept his end of the deal.
This is a great example of how God spoke to a person in a way he would understand, even though it makes little sense in our world. This is an important guideline for our lives and for our study of the Word. I am glad to know that God will also speak to me in a way that I will understand and get the message.
People in ancient cultures thought differently than us. When God walked by Himself between the halved animals, this gesture had a major impact on Abraham. It changed his world. He suddenly got very excited about what God was doing. But it makes no sense to us. We say to ourselves “What is going on here?”
RS: My passion is to help people understand what the Scriptures are about and how they play out in the cultural and historical context of the time in which they are written. As I said earlier, when you open your Bible, you step out of your twenty-first-century world into first-century Jewish/Greco-Roman culture.
There are major differences between their culture and ours when it comes to understanding the message of the Bible.
The first question to ask is “How do the Jews and Greeks think?”
Function vs. Form
Hold up a coffee cup and ask the first-century Greek and Jew to describe it. The Greek will tell you its color, the shape, how tall it is, how wide it is, and what the curve in the handle is like. The Jew will say simply: “With this I can drink coffee.”
Greeks think in terms how it appears: the form. Jews think in terms of what it does: the function.
This is helpful when it comes to understanding a particularly confusing passage found in the Song of Songs. Here the writer describes his beloved by saying:
Your belly is like a heap of wheat Fenced about with lilies. (Song of Songs 7:2)
Around my house, saying that would get me the cold shoulder or a quick slap. We are Greek thinkers. But the Jewish lover is saying his beloved will be very fruitful, bearing him many children from her belly, her womb, the heap of harvested wheat. This will result in a secure “retirement” for both in their old age.
This functional thinking causes God to describe Himself as:
I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. (Leviticus 25:38)
He is saying simply: “This is what I did and what I am going to do.”
When we read the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus describing Himself seven times as “I Am. . .”¾the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Door, the Good Shepherd, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. These are images that John uses to appeal to the Greek-thinking person. Along with these seven “I Am’s,” John also gives us seven miracles: Turning water into wine, healing at a distance, raising the paralytic, feeding the five thousand, walking on water, healing the blind, and raising Lazarus from the dead. This would appeal to the functional Hebrew-thinking person. Since John’s ministry was among both cultures, it is natural he would include functional and form descriptions of Jesus. This is what makes John’s Gospel so successful in its universal appeal.
Another area of different thinking is:
Acceptance and Obedience vs. Speculation and Application
Jewish rabbis taught that it was the duty of God’s people to accept the revelation God has given them and simply obey. They saw the pillar of fire and smoke at Mt. Sinai. This was God. As to what was above that pillar, they not only didn’t know, but they felt they didn’t have the right to even speculate about what God may or may not be. Their duty was to obey.
Greeks have a thing called logic, which is prominent in their culture, even today. They believe that if they know A is greater than B, and A is less than C, they can figure out the relationship between B and C. Remember they are the inventors of geometry! If they know some things about God, they can apply logic to figure out the rest. When the Greek-thinking people came into the Church in large numbers in the second century, theology was born, and speculation of who God is, what He is really saying, and how we are to respond began. Jews never really developed a theology of God. They didn’t feel they had the right to.
MB: When we study Church history of the third through sixth centuries, we see councils, schisms, and excommunications. Applying logic to God often had divisive and disastrous results.
When Emperor Constantine called the first major church council (fourth century), many survivors of the persecutions of preceding emperors were present. It was a scene of amazement that those who, a few years earlier, were official enemies of the State were now dining with the emperor in his royal palace. At one of the banquets, it was reported that Constantine approached one bishop who had lost an eye to torture and kissed him where the eye had been.
When these church leaders (mostly Greek) later began meetings to establish official church doctrines, they couldn’t agree, and many wanted to excommunicate each other. All agreed the Scriptures were inerrant, and many believed “inerrancy” applied to their logical interpretation of these Scriptures. That was a problem, and finally Constantine intervened, forcing the council to come to an agreement on some of the major issues. This was the result of “speculation and application.” The Church has never been the same.
RS: The first-century Church was a Jewish church, but in the second century, thanks to the work of Paul, Barnabas, Luke, Silas, and others, there were more Greek-speaking and Greek-thinking Christians.
This was when the church went through the Greek “car wash.”
The character of the Church changed, and issues that were not important to the first-century Church became paramount. There was an effort on the part of some of the Greek churches (in Alexandria, for example) to move away from their Jewish roots and turn to a philosophic approach. The Hebrew Scriptures were viewed as allegorical in nature, and there was an emphasis on including the teachings of Plato into Christian theology.
The end result was a guy like Marcion who eliminated all the Hebrew books of the Bible and any of the Christian portions of the Scripture that had any Jewish influences. He was left with a Bible containing the letters of Paul and portions of Luke’s Gospel. He believed that there was a different god in the Hebrew Scriptures. For this he was eventually excommunicated.
A third area of importance is:
Tribal Mentality vs Individualism
RS: Most Jews were raised in an environment that emphasized the collective (the good of the many) over the individual (good of the one). They thought of themselves as first, family members; then extended family (clans); next, members of one of the twelve tribes; and finally the nation of Israel. Their mentality dictated that what benefited the group was more important than individual gain and comfort. Thus the king could offer lifetime tax exemption to the families of the sappers (who crawled under the walls of the enemies’ cities and dug out under the rocks until they finally collapsed on top of them!) and have volunteers for this important but often suicidal job.
Greeks were more “individual” thinkers. Their literature portrayed the “lone hero” who overcame great odds or fell prey to the schemes of the gods or his own failings. Painting and sculpture focused on the individual male and female forms. The importance of the individual gave rise to a unique form of government¾democracy¾where every man had a voice in society. Democratic concepts didn’t really exist in Jewish society.
Greek influence was strong in Jewish society by the time of Jesus. In the first century, Jews began burying their dead in individual kochim-style tombs (where each body had its own separate chamber), instead of more traditional tombs where bodies were placed on a flat surface for decomposition; and, after about eighteen months, when the body decayed, the bones were place in a common ossuary (bone box) along with the bones of other family members.
MB: A major theme of Paul’s letters to the churches deals with a concept of the body of Christ (gr: soma) and the importance of leaving behind a self-centered individualism and of adopting a “tribal mentality” of Christian community. He used the term at least thirty times in his letters.
Under his direction, the whole body is fitted together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. (Ephesians 4:16)
He knew that this “collective” idea was a foreign concept to these Greek-thinking Christians, but he also realized the important value that God places on giving to and doing what’s best for others, even when we have to sacrifice our own interests. After all, this value of self-sacrifice is at the very center of God’s heart.
This is also a new concept to many modern “Western-thinking” individuals who come into the Church and become part of the body of Christ. We naturally model our lifestyles, our ministries, and our church government on democratic, individual-oriented principles, often without realizing that the biblical model points us in another direction. That’s why the Holy Spirit included at least twenty-one commandments for loving “one another” in very practical and selfless manner in the Christian Scriptures (see session 6).
Another good question: How did Jews learn?
RS: Typically, Hebrew children grew up memorizing portions of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. They used the Torah for all their academic classes. The Scriptures were divided up into portions, or parshioth, and students memorized these entire sections. The first book the rabbis taught children was Deuteronomy, because it was easy to read, understand, and memorize. Notice that Jesus quotes more from Deuteronomy than any other book in the Bible; it’s because He knew His often poorly-educated audience would at least recognize scriptures from this book.
The rabbis used a technique called remez in teaching their students. Remez means “hint.” They would speak a line or two of a portion of Scripture, knowing the students would be able to complete the rest. It would be like me saying, “Mike, it’s because God so loved the world . . . ” and very naturally you would complete the thought: “that He sent His only Son,” etc.
In Matthew 11, Jesus uses this technique to answer the question John’s disciples came to ask: “Jesus, are you really the Messiah, or are we to expect another?” Jesus responds byremez. He quotes a portion of Isaiah 35: “Tell John that the blind see, the lame walk,” and so on, knowing that the rest of the passage says: “God is coming to destroy your enemies. He is coming to save you,” a passage clearly referring to the Messiah, and one which John would be familiar with.
Next, Jesus asked the crowds: “Who was this man in the wilderness that you went out to see?” referring to John. He goes on to quote from Malachi 3:1: “Look, I am sending my messenger before you, and he will prepare your way.” Jesus knows many in the crowd will remember the rest of the passage that says: “Then the Lord that you are seeking will suddenly come to His Temple.” This is another passage that is certainly referring to the Messiah. Jesus is, in a cultural way, without inciting the religious and political authorities, declaring Himself to the crowd to be the Messiah. Understanding this style of learning can be helpful when it comes to passages that don’t seem to make sense. (For example: Matthew 11:12, probably referring to Micah 2:13.)
MB: Remember that the writers of the Bible wrote to a particular audience. They never realized that 2,000 years later people would be reading their books and letters. However, the Holy Spirit did! The writers assumed you, the audience, would know certain things, many of which we have forgotten today. Understanding the background to the writings¾the cultural, political, linguistic, and geographical contexts¾will allow us to more accurately draw godly principles to apply to our lives and to the lives of those we are ministering to.
The challenge for us is to first understand the Bible in its historical and cultural context. It is only then that we can draw out principles and everlasting truths to apply to our own lives. Once we do that, we can take the message to any place, into any culture, with any people. If we don’t have understanding of what God is really communicating in the Scriptures, we can easily become “religious” and try to fulfill the letter of the Law without understanding the intent.
Context is everything!
RS: Here are some examples of how knowing the background (or context) of the passage of Scripture might change the way you interpret it and apply it to your life.
How Bible-time people lived provides insight into the message of the Bible. Here are some relevant points:
- The Greek culture was a “missionary” culture that sought to capture the hearts and minds of the world. Alexander the Great had Aristotle as his tutor. He was as interested in spreading the superior Greek culture as he was in conquering nations! Gymnasiums, athletic competitions, drama, and worship of the Pantheon were the usual means of dispersing Greek culture, and it was successful in most of the places where Alexander and his armies went.
- Jewish Culture clashed heavily with the Greeks. Worship of many gods and morality were big issues. For a Jewish boy to go to a Greek “gymnasium” meant that he would have to discard much of the biblical morality, as athletic competitions were done in the nude.
- Religious Jews lived apart from the Hellenistic (Greek-thinking and speaking)Jews and would not go into a town where there was a pagan temple. This may explain why Peter, James, and John moved from their hometown, Bethsaida, where a temple to Julia, the mother of Caesar Augustus, was recently discovered, to Capernaum.
Understanding Greek culture helps our understanding of the Scriptures. Paul wrote to a church in Greece:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a sounding brass (noisy gong) or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)
We have various understandings of this passage, but to Paul’s audience, the message was perfectly clear: He was using terms familiar to Greek drama presentations.
- Sounding brass (gr: ēcheō chalkos): a metal drum that was used by Greek actors backstage to simulate the voice of a god.
- Clanging cymbal (gr: alalazō kymbalon): a piece of copper sheeting that was dropped to simulate the sound of thunder.
Paul says, “If I do all these things without love, I ‘simulate’ being a Christian,” just as thosehypocrites (Greek word for actors) simulated being gods. His audience in Corinth understood the conventions of Greek drama. They received very clearly a message that often gets muddled in our modern interpretations of this famous passage.
MB: What is the number one reason why people don’t come to church? It is because of thehypocrites, those who act like Christians in church but outside display a different morality and character. This was the issue Paul addressed in this portion of his letter to the Corinthian church. Obviously, they had a similar problem. His solution was to display genuine love toward others¾all others.
There are significant Jewish cultural symbols that help our understanding of some important parts of the Scripture.
Jesus told His disciples:
“You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it useful again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless.” (Matthew 5:12)
Salt had a special significance to Bible-time people. It was used for flavoring food and for “salting” fish and other meats to prolong their shelf life. If you go into a Bedouin tent today, you will find a bowl with salt (often clumped together with dirt) on the table. You reach with your hand, crumble the salt, and then sprinkle it over your food. When there becomes more dirt in the bowl than salt, the woman of the tent comes over, takes the bowl, and throws the contents out of the tent. Then she brings a fresh clump of salt to the table. Archeologists often identify the street of ancient cities by the salt content of the soil.
Salt has a deeper meaning to Middle Eastern people. In a modern Bedouin marriage ceremony, salt is placed between the hands of the bride and groom as they are pronounced husband and wife. To the Bible-time person, as well as the modern Middle Eastern, salt has the significance of loyalty and fidelity.
“Salt is good for seasoning. But if it loses its flavor, how do you make it salty again? You must have the qualities of salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other.” (Mark 9:50)
Jesus was instructing His disciples to be known by their loyalty to their friends and family. This is consistent to other biblical teaching about relationships, gossip, and disunity. Paul instructed the believers in Colossae to:
Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person. (Colossians 4:6)
RS: The form of the land, the climate, roads, trade routes, and vegetation play a big part in understanding the message of the Bible.
- Weather patterns are wet and green in the north and west, brown and dry in south and east. Elijah confronted the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel, in the wet green corner of the country.
- The prominent geographical features in Israel are a flat coastal plain, a rolling piedmont, a high central ridge, and the deep Jordan Valley riff. Going “up” to Jerusalem means walking uphill. From Jericho to Jerusalem is less than fifteen miles with a 4,000-foot elevation gain.
- Trades routes and the location of tax stations help us understand why Jesus chose to locate His evangelistic headquarters in Capernaum.
Here is one example of an important geographical context:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” (Matthew 16:13-18)
This was the famous final exam of the disciples. Jesus took them to a Gentile region, away from the religious Jews. Caesarea was the site of temples dedicated to Pan and other gods. Behind the ancient city is a huge rock formation that has carved-out ledges where the statues of the idols stood. Inset in the rock is a huge cave from which flows one of the four tributaries of the Jordan River. This cave was so deep that the locals referred to it as the “gates of hell.” Rabbinical writers also referred to Gentile cities as the gates of hell.
This famous statement: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overpower it,” has led to many doctrinal controversies. The Roman Catholic Church claims this is where Jesus declared He would build His church on Peter as the head guy. Later, Reformation Protestants declared “the rock” was not Peter but rather the truth Peter had uttered that Jesus was the Messiah.
However, when you stand in the ruins of Caeserea and gaze at this huge rock formation where intense idol worship took place, the meaning seems obvious: Jesus was going to build His church right on top of this culture of idol worship, and the Church would be such an offensive force that nothing could hold it back.
What does that do to the often-held conception of the Church as a defensive fortress holding out the influences of the world¾a place where we can retreat once a week to get healed and ready for the next onslaught of Satan and the world?
The message: God’s Church is to be an awesome offensive force.
The political environment is an important background in the biblical story.
- Herod the Great was a ruthless ruler who was paranoid of anyone who might try to usurp his throne. He slaughtered thousands of his own subjects during his long reign. Josephus records that as Herod neared his death, he ordered all the leading citizens and priests to be jailed at the hippodrome in Jericho and that on news of his death, his soldiers were to kill all these prominent members of Jewish society so that there would be “true mourning” at the time of his death, since he knew that no one would mourn his passing! Fortunately, his children did not carry out this final command.
- Pax Romana (Roman peace) was often cruel and oppressive for the average person. Taxes were heavy, and Jews were always subject to forced labor and confiscation of personal property. In court, they had fewer rights than Roman citizens.
Understanding this political climate helps us discern the meaning of a very familiar event:
On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel.” Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your King is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” (John 12:12-14)
MB: Palm branches? This always mystified me as a young boy trying to visualize what was happening on Palm Sunday in Jerusalem. Was this a sign of worship? Or was it a hot day and this was the first-century version of an umbrella?
The palm branch appears on many coins minted during the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66-70 a.d. It appears that the palm was their national symbol¾a national flag. I have held many of these coins in my hand in shops along David Street in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Hosanna? Was this an Aramaic word for “Praise the Lord”? Hosanna is a Hebrew phrase that means “save us now!”
What was happening this first Palm Sunday? It was a political demonstration! A crowd of Jews who were tired of the heavy yoke of Roman rule was welcoming their Messiah (who they thought was going to be a political leader) into His capital city, with encouragement to use His divine powers to destroy the Roman legions. They waved the national flag and shouted, “Give us our freedom now!” But Jesus didn’t meet their expectations of a political messiah. This explains how a disappointed crowd could call for His execution only a few days later.
Actually, this day was the first day in the Passover week, the most holy Jewish holiday. It was the day pilgrims and locals alike streamed into the city to select their animals for sacrifice on the following Friday. It was the day the Lamb of God chose to present Himself to His people as the ultimate sacrificial offering. They didn’t get it, as they expected instead for Jesus to be the conquering king.
Understanding the meaning of the original words of a passage of Scripture may change your application.
Praise (Hallal) the Lord! Praise (Hallal) God in his heavenly dwelling; Praise (Hallal) him in his mighty heaven! (Psalm 150:1)
There are seven Hebrew words used in the Book of Psalms that are translated “praise” in English. In Psalm 150, the word praise is actually the word hallal, the word we gethallelujah from. Hallal means to praise the Lord by celebrating, by dancing, by shining forth, by acting clamorously foolish. It is a very robust, liberating kind of praise.
How does this translation affect the way you worship the Lord? For many of us brought up in churches where we were told “quietness is reverence to God” and to talk softly, not get excited, or move too quickly, this gives a new meaning to the word praise.
I have “hallaled” when my team scores at the football game. There is a lot of that going on at many sporting events and concerts. It seems God wants me to “hallal” when I worship Him as well.
The Scriptures are to be read as a whole, not as disjointed paragraphs or sentences.Here’s an example: We could say, “According to Psalm 14, the Bible says there is no God” (There is no God [Psalm 14:1]), when the entire verse actually says: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1).
We often read a portion of the Bible apart from the surrounding chapters and verses and then attempt to make a doctrine out of the portion. This would be like taking one of the many letters that I wrote to Laura from Honduras before we were married, cutting out a paragraph from the middle of the letter, and then defining our relationship on that one paragraph. Letters are written as a whole, with introductory remarks and summary comments. It would be unrealistic to simply read a paragraph somewhere in the middle of our letter and use that to define the relationship.
It would be the same if we recorded a random five-minute conversation between us during the course of the day and used that out-of-context moment to define our relationship¾“They are always discussing who is going to change the baby’s diaper!” or “They are always hugging and kissing!” The truth is we do both and more!
Sometimes we read a verse or chapter of Scripture and come away with an incorrect impression of what the writer was communicating. We then incorporate this disjointed interpretation of Scripture into our thinking, which results in traditions and church practices that are inconsistent with the whole of Scripture. Denominations and cults are born out of this practice.
One common example of a disjointed interpretation:
“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
“Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:15-20 nas)
Does verse 20 mean that Jesus is not present unless we are with another believer? This is the meaning often assigned to this passage; that it takes a small group of believers for Jesus to be present. That thought is not consistent with the rest of Scripture.
What is this passage of Scripture referring to? It is about discipline within the church.
RS: Reading this passage in its entirety often gives us a very different interpretation of its meaning. Paul’s letters were meant to be read and understood in their entirety. Reading only a portion of one of his letters to a church may give you the wrong impression of the man and his message.
In Luke 15:1-2, the Pharisees complain that Jesus is associating with despicable people (even eating with them). In response to these complaints, Jesus tells them the story of the lost sheep and lost coin, both of which were found. This resulted in great joy by the shepherd and woman at the recovery of something that was lost. Then He tells the story of the lost son (prodigal son).
Reading this parable alone (out of its textual context) would lead one to believe that the point of the story of the prodigal is the great joy that the father has to see his lost son return. Yet verses 25-31 reveal the real message that Jesus was communicating to the complaining Pharisees:
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the calf we were fattening and has prepared a great feast. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’
“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve worked hard for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the finest calf we have.’
“His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you and I are very close, and everything I have is yours.
‘We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’” (Luke 15:25-31)
The parable of the prodigal son is really about the hard-hearted attitude of his older brother. Where he should have felt joy that his brother returned, he felt anger. In the same way, the Pharisees should rejoice that those who were far from God (prostitutes, drunks, tax collectors) were now coming back into relationship. This is the obvious message of Jesus that becomes apparent when we read the entire portion of Scripture.
Remember the challenge:
- understand the Bible in its context;
- incorporate biblical truth to my life;
- teach biblical truth to others.
MB: Many modern Christians focus their reading and study on the New Testament, but it is hard for me to appreciate what God was doing then, unless I understand what He did in the pages of the Old Testament.
RS: Not only that, the writers assume you know the backdrop of the Old Testament to fully understand what they are describing in the pages of the New Testament.
When you read Acts 2:1-42, the birth of the Church, it says, “and when the day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all in one accord and in one place”. The story is the sound of a mighty rushing wind, tongues of fire on their heads, and they begin to speak in known and unknown dialects, and people around them begin to accuse them of being drunk. Peter says that it’s early in the day, and they are not drunk, but that this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel about an incredible move of God, and he begins to speak a message.
At the end of this message, 3,000 people are broken in their hearts and ask, “What shall we do?” And Peter replies “Repent, and be baptized for the remission of your sins”. That day 3,000 people are baptized added to the Church.
The writer tells this wonderful story about what happened in Jerusalem that day, but he expects you to understand verse 1: “When the day of Pentecost had fully come . . .”
What was Pentecost?
The first Pentecost took place in the wilderness with Moses and the ex-slaves from Egypt at Mt. Sinai. Moses brought the people out of Egypt, and Exodus 19 tells us that they arrived at the Mountain of the Law, fifty days after Passover. Moses goes up to the top of the mountain to meet with God, and he is there for forty days. There is incredibly strange weather, fire, and thunder. Moses comes down the mountain with the Law, and what does he see the people doing? Are they waiting patiently for him saying, “Oh, that we would hear from our God?” No! They are having a party¾a wild sexual party. Moses tells the Levites to strap on their swords and go out to kill all who are involved in this party. That day 3,000 people died.
When Luke writes this in Acts 2, he assumes that you understand the common elements with the first Pentecost story¾wind, weather, all in one accord, fire, 3,000 people¾ so that you will understand the second story. The point is very simple: With the going up on Sinai and the coming of the Law came knowledge of my sinfulness and death. But the coming of the Spirit brought a new revelation of God to write the Law within my heart and it brought life everlasting. And Luke thought the point was so obvious, assuming you understood the significance of Pentecost.
MB: Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:1-18 has a similar quality. Here is this learned teacher of the Jews coming to speak to Jesus at night. Jesus tells him he must be “born again”. Nicodemus is confused, and asks if he must crawl inside his mother’s womb again. Jesus says, “No, I am talking about spiritual things¾a spiritual birth.”
Then Jesus, as all good teachers do, brings the student (Nicodemus) to a point of reference¾of understanding. This point that Jesus refers to was, to me when I first read it, one of the most bizarre scenes in the Bible¾Numbers, chapter 21.
It was the time when Moses was leading the people through the desert, and they were grumbling about their food, about water, about almost everything. Finally, they spoke out against Moses’ leadership, saying “Why have you brought us into this desert to die?”
At this point, God has had it and sends venomous snakes into the camp. People get bitten and die. The people realize their sin and ask Moses for forgiveness and God for help. God says OK and tells Moses to make a snake out of bronze and attach it to a pole for all to see so that anyone who looks at the snakes will be healed of the snakebite. When I read that as a young Christian, I asked myself, “What is going on here?” It appeared as if some ritual cultic activity was happening that does not fit in with the rest of the Bible.
But Jesus brings it all together for me and Nicodemus when He says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert (John assumes we know Nicodemus knows that as those stricken people looked at the serpent the fatal poison injected by the snake into their body was removed)¾I, the Son of Man, will be lifted up,” implying that anybody who looks upon Jesus with faith will have that poison called sin removed from their body and they will have eternal life”.
How can we appreciate Jesus on the cross unless we understand this picture that God gave His people over a thousand years before in the desert?
When I read the Gospels, I look back at what happened in the Old Testament to have a full appreciation and understanding of what is actually being communicated; otherwise, I might get lost, I might not catch the full flavor or have the greatest appreciation God wants me to have, or I might even get off on some weird doctrine, which happens all the time to those who don’t understand the historical and cultural context of the Scripture passage.
Mikaela: What does it mean when you say “Old” and “New” Testament? Why even bother reading something old?
MB: The first reference to the Hebrew Scriptures as the “Old” Testament comes from an un-named Egyptian writer in a second-century document. Remember that in the church in Alexandria there was a movement to allegorize the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and to marginalize the Hebrew cultural influences. Many Greek Christians tried to distance themselves from Hebrew culture, and like Marcion, minimize any Hebrew influence over Christianity.
RS: The name “Old Testament” is actually a misnomer. I usually refer them as the “Hebrew Scriptures,” because when you say “old,” you suggest that it is something out-of-date. The term “Old Testament” is misderived from that passage in Hebrews 8, which says:
When God speaks of a new covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date and ready to be put aside. (Hebrews 8:13)
If you look at the context of this passage, the author is talking about Levitical sacrifices versus the sacrifice that is Jesus. The Levitical sacrificial system was obsolete and out-of-date¾the Romans even removed the place of sacrifice in 70 a.d.!
In my view, both testaments are new and alive, sharper than any two-edged sword, and are busy in my life. Whether Abraham is being directed to do something or Paul is writing to Timothy; to me, my understanding is that there is one Author of all this and that is the Spirit of God, a God who desires to draw me to Himself. And He does that in different ways in different places in the Scriptures. Understanding that helps pull it all together in a cohesive manner. So I don’t use the term “old” and “new” in regard to the Scriptures. Instead I refer to the two major portions of Scripture as “Hebrew Scriptures” and “Christian Scriptures.”
MB: Are there differences between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures?What about the character of God? Did He really change? Some think that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a harsh, strict character, demanding obedience and ready to smash us when we step out of line. The God of the Christian Scriptures is seen as one of grace who says “call me Daddy” and invites us to jump in His lap. However, Psalm 103 (in the Hebrew Scriptures) declares:
He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases. He ransoms me from death and surrounds me with love and tender mercies. He fills my life with good things. My youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:3-5)
It is obvious that many Old Testament people viewed God as merciful, loving, and the Giver of all good things.
For the Lord God is our light and protector. He gives us grace and glory. No good thing will the Lord withhold from those who do what is right. O LordAlmighty, happy are those who trust in you. (Psalm 84:11-12)
Regarding the perception that the God of the Old Testament is one that demands obedience, it is the “God of the Christian Scriptures” (Jesus) who declares:
“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)
Notice the order: “If you have a relationship of love with Me, where you trust Me for everything and know I have your best interests at the center of My heart and that I will do anything for you, even die for you, then from your heart you will attempt to obey the things I tell you to do.” It’s not: “Obey Me and I will love you more.”
In regard to salvation, how was a person in the Hebrew Scriptures saved? Many thought it was strict observance of the Law. Yet David declares:
You take no delight in sacrifices or offerings. Now that you have made me listen, I finally understand—you don’t require burnt offerings or sin offerings.
Then I said, “Look, I have come. And this has been written about me in your scroll: I take joy in doing your will, my God, for your law is written on my heart.” (Psalm 40:6-8)
David knew it was all about a heart surrendered to God and not about sacrifices and offerings.
Some believe that “salvation by faith” is a Christian Scripture doctrine, yet the Hebrew Scriptures state plainly:
And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord declared him righteous because of his faith. (Genesis 15:6)
A close examination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures reveals a consistency in important areas like worship, importance of the Word, the relationship between mankind and God, and between each other. That’s because it is the living, unchanging God who is the Author of both. Paul told Timothy:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 nas)
It’s important to note at this point in history, only the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) were the considered “Scripture.” Of course, that was changing, but the point was well made to Timothy and to us: The Hebrew Scriptures “are” (not “were”) important in defining and directing our spiritual lives.
RS: I think the beauty of the Scriptures is not only that they really show God’s long track record of working with people but also that they reflect His heart for them, and the Scriptures show “real” people just like you and me. We always talk about Peter and give him a hard time because everything in Peter’s life is in threes¾he gets three calls: “Feed My sheep” (John 21); and three times, “Arise, kill, and eat” (Acts 10). Peter is the cranially-challenged disciple, but the thing is, this guy is so much like me, I can’t believe it! Like the early apostles, I have to be moved by God’s work. The models God gave us in Scripture are “real people” that have His heart. I am pleased God closed out the Scriptures with snapshots of leaders caring for their communities.
MB: I see a thorough revelation of God through these pages of the Bible¾through the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. I have descriptions, the Law, interactions, and prophetic messages in the Hebrew Scriptures, but I can still miss it. Suddenly, I have God Himself showing up in the flesh in the pages of the Christian Scriptures (just in case I did miss it). It is the ultimate contextualization. I don’t have to wonder about God and what He said. He showed up in a specific location on my planet, dressed in the mind, body, and emotions of my own species; and He spoke very clearly and precisely in a way I can understand! It’s not like in the “olden days” when one would have to go to the desert for forty days, fasting to hear from God. No! In the Gospels, He’s standing on the steps of the temple speaking to everybody!
RS: It’s like what the writer of Hebrews said:
Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. But now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. (Hebrews 1:1)
In essence, He said: “I am going to put on skin and come down there Myself and tell exactly what it is I meant by what I said. You heard Me, but you didn’t catch My heart. And I am not interested in the outward appearance of cutting the lamb’s throat with the knife in a certain way and putting the blood in the proper place. I am interested in that, but to Me it is a means to an end. The end is that you understand My heart and walk with Me.”
Many theologians, rabbis, and Bible scholars look at the technical details of the Law, the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and the histories; and they get so focused on those details that they never step back to see God’s heart. The Bible is the presentation of God’s heart.
MB: God’s heart is simple: “Hey, you guys, I want you to be members of My family. I want to have relationship with you. I want our relationship to be so tight. I am a loving heavenly Father that can give you all good things, and I want to do this! Please step forward and take My hand.” You see this over and over again, and it’s only understanding this that allows the minute details to have significance.
RS: I am always impressed with pastors, teachers, and fellowship leaders who are able to communicate past the details and into the heart of God. People don’t come to our meetings to hear a great message¾they come to meet the Living God. And short of meeting Him, they haven’t done what they came for. People come looking for the hot coal that comes right out of the throne room of God to touch their lips, cleanse them, and give them a sense of direction.
I’m not advocating eliminating the detail, but I think we all have to get past just knowing where the furniture in the tabernacle sat. That is not whole issue. The issue is “What is the heart of God for people?”
In the end, one could read the Hebrew Scriptures and conclude that it’s all about doing the right thing. But it’s clear that it’s not only about doing the right thing¾it’s about doing the right thing with the right heart and walking with God.
That is what is has always been about. Abraham knew that. So did Moses. So did Paul.