The key to understanding the Bible is reading it

“You need to become a first century Jew.”

Oh, how many times I have heard this kind of thing from people discussing the New Testament. And it’s not, of course, entirely incorrect. The Bible was written for all of God’s people in every time and place, but it was not written to all of us. Each book was written to a particular ancient audience very different from us today. So, often enough, we can understand a book of the Bible better if we learn to put ourselves in the original audience’s place, to think and feel like they did.

My problem is with what people who say these kinds of things tend to mean. They don’t just mean we need to learn the perspective of the people the Bible was written to. They often mean we need to learn this perspective by studying a bunch of technical background stuff about history, anthropology, archeology, and everything else. And this is where I start feeling a bit uncomfortable.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying these studies are bad or useless. No, they are great and very useful. I think the work done in these fields is invaluable. And they work: the findings of historians and others actually do make tons of things in the Bible clearer. But do we really need them to get the majority of the Bible? Can we never know the real, original meaning of it all without the help of our scholarly magisterium? To put it another way, is the average Martin doomed to get everything wrong without top-notch commentaries to hold his hand? I can’t help but suspect the answer is “no.”

See, the key to understanding any text is to think the way that the author expected the reader to think. That’s the whole point of studying the historical and cultural context of the Bible. We can use what we learn to shift mental gears into the same configuration as that of ancient Israelites. But there’s more than one way to neutralize a Dalek, so to speak, and I think Martin Luther had the right idea.

Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone,” is the Protestant belief that, ultimately, everything we really need to know about God can be found in the Bible. We don’t need a magisterium, Holy Tradition, or N. T. Wright’s marvelous book The New Testament and the People of God, however helpful they might sometimes be. Cue the ironically-named doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, or the clarity of the Bible. Not everything in the Bible is equally clear, but the good stuff we most need to know can be easily found and proved.

I think this extends further than some people give it credit for, and not as far as others do. I don’t think this means that any Martin can just crack open a Bible and get any particular thing, even the Gospel itself, right at first glance. But on the second, or the third, or even the fourth time… Scholars put a lot of historical work into finding the worldview of the Bible’s first readers, but we can’t forget that the Bible contains its own worldview, at least implicitly. And the Bible is big. There is enough stuff in there to actually build an entire way of thinking, feeling, and doing. This is stuff that we absorb without even realizing it as we read. So if we absorb more as we read more, then our hearts will be filled more and more with the real Bible.

My point, then, is that this rare and mythical process—you know, reading—can actually give us the perspective we need. The more we consume the Bible, the more it becomes a part of us. “You are what you eat,” it is said, and this applies mentally as much as physically. Just like we digest food and use its parts to build our bodies, so we digest books and use their parts to build our minds. So if you read enough Bible, you will, perhaps slowly, begin to understand it more accurately.

Still, consistency, willingness to learn, and comprehensiveness are vital. Many people read the Bible their whole lives without learning to read it well. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course. But, for many of these people, their reading has often been scattered, blocked by presuppositions they couldn’t give up, or neglectful of certain parts. This last one is a biggie. I would say without hesitation that many Christians get a lot of the Bible wrong because they don’t pay enough attention to most of what’s in Genesis 4 to Matthew 1, or don’t read/skim over books like Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Chronicles, Lamentations, or the Minor Prophets. Few Christians really get to know the Psalms, except for a few of their favorites, or the ins and outs of Jude. They’re scared of Revelation (except when they’re not and run over it like a toddler on a bulldozer) and Ezekiel. They’ve only read 3 chapters of Job, the first two and the last one. Yet we need all of these parts in order to learn to think like the Bible thinks, and so even get our favorite parts right.

So, in the end, my proposal is simple. If you read the Bible enough—and I mean seriously, not just like daily devotional material—you’ll learn it deeply. It will enter the crevices of your heart. Doing this over a long enough period of time can, when done well, truly make you a competent reader, up there with the scholars. You’ll be that first century Jew, just by a different route.

(P.S. I’m not claiming to have scaled these heights yet. I’ve cheated by reading excellent Bible-readers like N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, James Jordan, and Alastair Roberts, among others.)

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Yay for Backups!

Good news! I have found sitting somewhere on one of my computers a backup of most of my posts from Being in Christ. I don’t remember exactly why I had made it or saved it there, but I’m very happy that I did. I am restoring them to this blog now, so feel free to peruse the salvaged material.

A Blogging Saga Continues

So, a grave misfortune has fallen upon me. In the process of switching web hosts, I lost my blog. The Nicene Nerd, of course, is still up and running, but you will find that Being in Christ is gone. I had probably not even hit 20 posts yet, but it is still disappointing. Having a blog set apart specifically to be a little more personal and accessible is valuable to me and (I think?) at least some of my readers.

So, to deal with this tragedy, I start another blog. In Whom Christ Plays will be basically the same kind of thing as Being in Christ, but hopefully this one will stick around. The title, if you are wondering, comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ short but delightful poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” I will quote it here in full for your enjoyment:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Being in Christ means Christ is in me. He is the image into which I am being molded, the pattern into which God is weaving my life, the music which plays on the instrument of my flesh. Thus this blog reflects my thoughts and experiences as I try to be one in whom Christ plays, or, as Paul put it, to live so that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I am now living in the flesh, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

To be like Jesus, be despised but not despicable.

“Jesus said we would be despised.”

I hear Christians say this all the time. Usually it comes in the context of offering controversial opinions based on the Bible or Christian tradition. And technically they are correct. Jesus did tell the disciples that His followers would be ridiculed, persecuted, and hated for His sake.

But… This isn’t all there is to say about the matter. Too often people use this as an excuse to present biblical teachings in an inappropriate, rude, or even wicked way. (And sometimes they’re not even biblical teachings so much as cheap caricatures of them.) Doing this is unacceptable. Truth can and sometimes must be offensive, but its offense must never be wielded as a club.

Being clear: rudeness is not Christian. Name-calling and slandering are not Christian. Treating people as though they did near bear the image of Christ is not Christian. And Jesus did not tell us to do any of those things. Truth can be very offensive, but this offense can be made worse or better by how, when, why, and where we preach it.

Jesus promised that we would be despised, but He only blessed those who are despised for His sake. When we misbehave, acting arrogantly or abusively in our truth-telling, we will be despised not for Christ’s sake but for our own. In fact, adding rudeness to truth turns the truth into a kind of lie, since it gives off the signal that the God—who is Himself truth—approves of our behavior.

So in the end this really is just a rant against abusing the truth as a club with which to be jerks to other people. We can be despised for our message and for our love and still be like Jesus. But when we are despised for being obnoxious, inflammatory, cruel, or disrespectful, our own Scriptures condemn us. For we are called to be witnesses characterized by love, compassion, gentleness, a good reputation, and blamelessness before the world, in peace as much as it depends on us. To adapt from Jesus:

“What good is it if you speak the truth but harass and disrespect others? Do not even the most rabid SJWs do the same? And if you preach the offense of the cross but add to it your own offense, are you not a stumbling block to your hearers? Therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

P.S. This Babylon Bee article ties in perfectly with my point here.

Nicene Nerdcast: Can the Lord’s Supper fight white supremacy?

In the wake of recent racially-charged events, I’ve done a little thinking about racial issues in the Church. I’m not hugely experienced with these things, so I’m don’t think I’m qualified to say that much about race.

That said, I have spent some time researching the doctrines of the Church and the sacraments. And these are relevant to racial issues, because in Christ’s Church all peoples and races are formed into “one new man” (Eph. 2:15) and are bound together as one body by the one loaf (1 Cor. 10:16-18).

This is the subject of my very first podcast. My new podcast is called The Nicene Nerdcast, and episode one is about racism and Communion. Listen below and give me your thoughts.

Download this episode

Some say the eclipse means the apocalypse. Does it?

Jesus is nearly here! Or something. Whenever something like an eclipse (solar or lunar) happens, there are people who insist that it is connected to the book of Revelation, or to Jesus’ prophecies about the coming of the Son of Man. Divine judgment is imminent! Next thing you know the Church will be Raptured, and Jesus will split the eastern sky. Might they be right? Is the eclipse a sign that Jesus right around the corner?

No.

There is no particular biblical reason to believe that a random total solar eclipse (which happen in different places really every few years) is connected to the apocalypse. Some of the prophecies do mention the sun going dark, but this has happened thousands of times since Jesus left. The only way to make this eclipse special is to root through all sorts of obscure astronomical minutia to create patterns out of nowhere. It’s just an exercise in fantasy.

But!

That’s really not all there is to be said. While we have no reason to associate this eclipse with Jesus’ return, we do need to remember that creation is by nature always symbolic. The heavens never stop witnessing to God’s glory and work. There is biblical symbolism connected with the sun and with its darkening, and it applies as much today as it did in the days of the prophets.

Biblically, the sun symbolizes two related things. First, it symbolizes God, particularly His face. Here’s how I put it on Facebook the other day:

The sun represents the face of God. It is too glorious for us to behold directly, but it gives light to everything else. It warms the earth and is the source of all life on its surface. It sits in heaven, gazing down upon all people. It shines upon the just and the unjust, blessing both. Yet it also can scorch and burn, and we need some degree of protection and distance lest we be consumed. We can see it, and truly receive its light and heat, but it is removed from us by a great distance and is completely incomparable to us.

Second, the sun symbolizes the highest rulers and authorities, both in the spiritual and the physical realms. The sun represents kings, councils, emperors, and heavenly powers (think angels and demonic gods). This theme shows up all the time in the Psalms and the prophets. This is connected to the sun’s symbolism of God. Since God is the highest authority of all, He is represented by other high authorities. So the same sun which represents God also represents other rulers.

We see, then, eclipses in the Bible do symbolize divine judgment on a double level. On the divine level, when the sun goes dark, this symbolizes God hiding His face. God turns away, and instead of shining the earth in blessing, He puts the world in darkness. On the lesser level, when the sun goes dark, it symbolizes turmoil among the powers of the world. Rulers and authorities are put in chaos, and in the prophets this often resulted in a king, emperor, or dynasty being overthrown.

So what does this mean? Does an eclipse visible over the United States today prove that America is about to be judged in some way? It may not; biblical symbols are not always directly connected in time and space to what they represent. Natural symbols are often general reminders which do not point to specific events. That said, it’s not hard to imagine that the eclipse does represent a coming judgment on America, simply because we are obviously ripe for catastrophe. There is already loads of political, social, and military turmoil in our country. Trump, trans, racists, radicals, inequality, ISIS, Korea, killings, etc. have filled up the news with more tension than we’ve seen in several years. People on all sides of all issues have been at fault in all sorts of ways. Rare are the poor in spirit, the meek, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, especially in the places where are most needed.

I’m not saying this proves that the eclipse foretells an impending catastrophic judgment on us. Symbolism is complex, and not all signs point to something nearby.

But let’s just say nothing which could appear in the news over the next year or two would surprise me. America is ready to fall apart, and none of us need to see an eclipse to know that.

Step outside and see the world biblically

A few weeks ago I read James B. Jordan’s book Through New Eyes, and it did indeed leave me with new eyes to see. The book is essentially a primer of biblical worldview. This is not, Jordan explains, the same as Christian worldview in a philosophical sense. Rather, it is about how the Bible portrays the world we live in, all on its own terms. This involved two main categories: symbolism and history.

As Jordan explains, the world is designed to reveal God and His glory. This isn’t a secondary function, or frosting on the cake of creation. It’s what the world is at its heart: a symbol of God. And every part of the world symbolizes God in its own way. Through New Eyes uses the Bible to show demonstrate how certain different parts of creation symbolize God, so that you can go outside and see, instead of just matter, a world on fire with the glory of God.

While Through New Eyes looks at lots of different symbolism, I just want to highlight here some of the stuff that stuck out to me the most and has had the largest impact on my own vision. So here are a few natural symbols in biblical perspective:

Sky
The sky is called “heaven/the heavens” in Scripture, and it’s not a coincidence that this word is also used for the realm of God and the angels. The two are not the same place, but the sky is the image of heaven. It is above us no matter where we are, symbolizing that God and His host are watching over everything. Being higher also symbolizes God’s authority. The sun symbolizes the face of God, which shines on the righteous and the unrighteous, giving light, heat, and glory to the world, yet also scorching and burning. The sun, the moon, and the stars together also symbolize the rulers and authorities in the world, both earthly and heavenly. The clouds also represent the weight and glory of God, along with His double-edged comings of blessing and judgment.
Trees
Trees represent people, as can be seen throughout the Bible, such as in Psalm 1. Trees and men both come from the earth, and both grow up toward the sky which represents heaven. Those which are healthy and well-watered flourish, creating shade and fruit as a blessing, just as the Christian is given new life when baptized by the Spirit, which leads him to a life of love and fruit which blesses others. Unhealthy trees represent the wicked, who are dry and lifeless and good for nothing but to be cut down and thrown into the fire. People tend to surround homes, apartments, schools, and other such places with trees, and these trees represent the intended flourishing of the people who populate those places. Trees also represent a ladder to heaven, reaching from the earth to the sky, something which men are meant to become by the Spirit.
Animals
All animals are designed to represent God in various ways. They variously represent strength, power, beauty, sight, or other things which God has in abundance. Most interestingly, the animals which were unclean represented death. This is because the curse of human death was bound up with the cursing of the ground and its dust.
Rocks and stones
The Bible calls God a “rock.” He is strong and hard and massive, and this has two edges. On the one hand, rocks represent the safety God gives to His people. In the cleft of a rock a man can find shelter and shade. On the other hand, rocks represent the danger God poses to unbelievers. Whoever falls upon the rock will be broken, and if the rock comes falling down, whoever is beneath it will be crushed. The rock of the kingdom of God grows into a mountain, which elevates God and His people, Christ and His Church, above the whole world. It will stand and never be shaken. Smaller stones, like rubies and diamonds and the like, represent by their inner glint God’s fire of purity and holiness, and His Holy Spirit. By their brilliance they represent the glory of God, the shining and luminescent aspect which beautifies Him and His world.

So go out, look at the world, and see God. He is behind it all, and it all is meant to be a picture of Him.