Before Anything Fails, Read the Directions

At a news conference on February 21, 1985, President Ronald Reagan, in mentioning his own recent return to regular reading of the Bible, announced, “ . . . the Bible contains an answer to just about everything and every problem that confronts us, and I wonder sometimes why we won’t recognize that one book could solve our problems for us.”

This is the wonderful discovery that lies before believers in Jesus Christ: the way that the Bible speaks to their lives. This is the discovery that so many have made: the way that the Word of God brings encouragement, comfort, direction and correction. Even more, they make the discovery that the more effort and time put into the study and meditating on the truth of the Bible and in following the command of the Bible, the greater is the blessing of God upon their lives.

A healthy and secure Christian life is the result of attention to the Bible as the inspired Word of God, as the ultimate source of what to believe and what to do. The antidote to the weak, superficial and secondhand faith of so many professed believers in Christ comes down to giving to the Bible the significance in their lives that it deserves as the Word of God. But much of the the spiritual weakness of North American Christians is due to their reverence for the Bible with little knowledge of the Bible. Up to 80% in surveys have expressed their belief that it is the revealed Word of God, but there is so much that is unbiblical about the lives of so many due to Biblical illiteracy and negligence. So there is the great need to call so many who call themselves Christ followers to give due attention to the Word of God, to find his strength, foundation and direction for their lives, beyond a hearsay faith of social conformity with others.

Paul’s words to Timothy are one of the best known witnesses of the Bible to itself as the inspired Word of God, and to its necessity and usefulness to grow believers to spiritual maturity and effectiveness. Paul stressed the necessity and centrality of the scriptures for the man in ministry, but his words also apply as well to any believer, so that he or she can grown in spiritual maturity, stability and effectiveness. So here is what Paul had to say:

“All scripture is God-breathed, and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (II Timothy 3:16-17).

The Bible itself states that it is the inspired Word of God. It is the message, written down, translated and circulated worldwide, which God specifically gave to the men and women of this world. And because it is God’s message to us, it must command our attention. And even more, it is the written message of God that will truly satisfy the spiritual hunger of those who have been truly born again by faith in Jesus Christ.

The divine inspiration of the Bible means that it’s God’s own Word. That’s what is meant by calling it God’s own Word. It means that it expresses the exact meaning that God intended to be expressed to mankind. This means that it is more than simply great human writing, even though some parts of scripture definitely qualify as literary masterpieces and others are maybe not great in literary terms. But rather, it means that the Bible is to be read, studied, followed and treasured not so much because God was behind the authorship of scripture.

In the simple statement of Paul, that, “All scripture is God breathed . . .” comes the basis of calling the Bible divinely inspired. Other translations render that, ‘inspired by God.’  It definitely means that scripture is more than simply great human writing; some parts of scripture are definitely literary masterpieces, such as the Psalms and Isaiah, but other parts are not so great by a merely aesthetic evaluation. With that statement, Paul was not denying that the books of scripture had human authors, and that they each had their own individual ways of expressing themselves and their own individual styles of writing.It definitely does not mean entire dictation, but certainly some dictation in some parts, where there is the explicit declaration, “Thus says the LORD.” But rather, this is the declaration that the personalities of the human authors were so empowered and directed by the Spirit of God that what was recorded was the exact message of God. And this then carries with it the conclusion of its inerrancy and infallibility through its being divinely inspired. But just to be sure, there has also been the statement that this does not mean that there have not been some scribal and typographical errors in different manuscripts or printed editions over the years, or that any translation is perfect – certainly, with his rabbinic background, Paul was aware of differences in manuscripts and the different translations into Greek of the Old Testament, as were the other apostles — but that what was originally given was the message of God and it continues to speak to us as such even with minor errors of transmission and translation.

The divine inspiration of scripture guarantees the constant relevance of the Bible. Scripture will never cease to be trustworthy in what it says to our faith and what it commands for us to obey. It remains the Word of a living Lord who inspired it and who continues to stand by it and work through it. It is meant to be our regular, even daily, guide to a present relationship with the Lord and Savior. And this is the basis of an informed reverence for scripture, which isn’t superstitious or based upon hearsay or tradition, nor do we regard it with spookiness or as magic writings or the physical book as a magic talisman. John Calvin once said, “We owe to scripture the same reverence owe to God,” and by this he meant that we owe it submission and obedience as the Word of the Lord, because through the Bible, God has spoken. This does not mean that we worship the Bible – described by that pejorative straw man phrase of Bibliolatry – but that we recognize that God has spoken in the scriptures, and because we worship and reverence him, we give reverence, that holy respect and submission, to what he has spoken.

But look — Paul didn’t just write that scripture is divinely inspired, but that all scripture is divinely inspired. By his statement, inspiration extends to the entire Bible. From this he meant that all of the Bible deserves our attention, faith and obedience, because divine inspiration extends to the entire Bible. All that is scripture is divinely inspired. This means that for every believer in Christ in every age all the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God. This inspiration occurred it happened when God inspired the writer of scripture to write down what was his will to write: “Understand this thing first, that no prophecy of scripture came about through personal interpretation; because no prophecy came about by human intention, but holy men spoke from God as they were carried by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:20-21).  Here Peter spoke about prophecy – direct revelation from God – and that is reflected in the teaching of the truth about God and what he commands. And this kind of prophecy can even be found in the historical books such as Samuel, Kings and Chronicles and in the gospels. In such books there was definite historical investigation, and the use and evaluation of other sources – see Luke 1:1-4, for example – but also definite revelation of God’s view on the events which took place – such as II Chronicles 32:31. And this same kind of historical account with divine interventions, divine explanations and divine commentary (with implications for all God’s people in all times and places – not just for the time they were written) took place even in the books of prophecy where there were a number of direct declarations of God, with an explicit ‘Thus says the LORD.” – see Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, for example.

This declaration of the inspiration of all the Bible then brings up question of canonicity. How can we be sure that all the books in the Bible are inspired? First, the question of the canonicity of Old Testament comes both by prophetic attestation,  and it is corroborated by the personal citations and authority of Jesus and the apostles (see J.W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible, for one defense of this view). And contrary to modern historical fallacies, the New Testament canon is not  based on a report or a recommendation that done by an identifiable committee, such as the Council of Nicaea. (That view comes from a list of the modern list of the canon in a letter by Athanasius, who happened to have been part of the Council of Nicaea). For most of the New Testament, such as the four gospels, the book of Acts, the letters of Paul and I Peter, there was an immediate recognition of inspiration of their inspiration, and they were cited and circulated as scripture by the end of the first century A.D. Several books, such as Revelation, took some time and evaluation to be included, but they generally were recognized as such. Then the individual books took some time to be collected together and to be brought into unified bindings (called a codex or codices), though, and maybe more a development of the personal convenience of the codex and parchment to replace individual scrolls and papyrus rather than any less doctrinal conviction of their not being inspired any less than any other books of scripture.

So the divine inspiration of the Bible means that it is the most important thing that we will ever read in this lifetime.  If we are to live in consistency with a genuine belief in the inspiration of the Bible this will mean that we will live opposite to the inattention to and neglect of the Word of God that we see in the lives of so many in our churches who are in attendance at our services but woefully ignorant of many basic Biblical truths and in disobedience to many clear Biblical commands.

The truth is that very often attitude of a professed believer in Christ to reading and studying the Bible and meditating on the Word is an indicator of the quality of his or her present relationship to God. Generally, growing believers will be hungry to learn more and more of the Word of God, backsliders will avoid spending time in the Word of God, and unbelievers will be not put in any effort to learn the Word of God and remain content to remain ignorant. Generally, though, devotion to God will mean devotion to his Word over the course of one’s life and in the path of following Jesus Christ.

But this also means that there needs to be great care in interpreting the scriptures as a part task of preaching and teaching the scriptures and of reading and understanding the scriptures. This is the task of both the spiritual leader and the person who is to receive the preaching and teaching of the scriptures. Because the Bible is the Word of God the preacher and teacher must take great care in the interpretation of the scripture that is behind his or her preaching and teaching. The command goes to the preacher and teacher to present oneself as an unashamed worker who correctly uses the Word of truth (II Timothy 2:15 – the prior context to this passage under discussion). But the command to prove all things is laid upon the church, from the pastors and elders to every believer (I Thessalonians 5:21-22), lest anyone come under the bondage of distortions and deliberate misinterpretations. (See my earlier post on handling minor disagreements on how far to take this.)  Rather, even where there might be different interpretations of scripture on minor points, they should be  reasonable and based in sound, often centuries old, guidelines for scriptural interpretation, and interpreted in historical and literary context, and corroborated by agreement with other interpretations. And because of this,  over the centuries Biblical interpretation and exposition has been found in the churches of Jesus Christ worldwide to be an occupation that is worthy of the most careful scholarship and learning and an occupation of many of the greatest intellects of humanity throughout history. So, anyone that would seek deliberately from any reason to dumb down the intellectual demands upon a pastor or anyone who handles the scriptures is at variance with the reverence due to scripture as a subject and pursuit worthy of our every power of sanctified, reverent and prayerful intellect. And indeed it was the lifelong pursuit of the most pure, incisive and insightful intellect the world has ever known, that of Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God himself.

The inspiration of the Bible, moreover, also insures that it is the most reliable thing that you will ever read. It will mean freedom from and less attention to the opinions of other people, even fellow Christians, and therefore growing freedom from the fear of man. It will free a person just from listening to the teaching of others and repeating second hand nuggets (which may well be fool’s gold rather than the real thing). It will draw a person to the personal reading, study and meditation on the Word of God. It will rather mean the development of a habit of examining all teaching within the church, by whatever pastor or teacher, how ever much esteemed, by consistency with the Word itself. And that habit in eternity can gain nothing less than the approval of God himself.

Understanding that the Bible is inspired by God and therefore the most reliable thing anyone will ever read should then bolster our security in the scriptural gospel of justification by faith through the grace of God in Jesus Christ and in the central doctrines such as the Trinity, deity of Jesus Christ, personhood of the Holy Spirit. These central doctrines have withstood constant challenge in every age of the church, but have just as much been vindicated as the declarations of the Word of God reasonably and rightly interpreted. So, this unshakeable confidence in scripture can give the believer in Christ to assert alongside the apostle Paul, “For I am disclosing among you, brothers, the gospel with which I evangelized, that it is not of human origin . . . ” (Galatians 1:11).

Moreover, this understanding of the entire inspiration of the Bible should draw us away from a modern tendency that I will call Biblical favoritism. This is where a believer approaches the Bible in piecemeal fashion and parks himself or herself in dealing with isolated portions, favorite verses, preferred books of scripture. We often may gush in the currently fashionable cliché that, “I LOVE this verse,” but for many this may rather be a symptom of a selective faith and selective obedience when it comes to the whole of scripture. This may even be a symptom of avoiding those portions of scripture which require some more digging and those which correct and challenge us. We need to understand that though there are difficult and challenging parts of scripture, this tendency is inconsistent with acceptance of the teaching of scripture itself that it is all inspired. Rather it is more consistent with ultimate belief in one’s own inspiration ultimately treating the Bible simply as source material for one’s own self directed moral inspiration and emotional encouragement (doctrinally a confusion of inspiration with illumination). The evangelical Anglican bishop J.C. Ryle saw this tendency in his own day, and frankly saw it for what it is: “. . . he is the narrow minded theologian, who pares down such parts of the Bible as the natural heart dislikes, and rejects any portion of the counsel of God.”

But if we give up this ‘childish thing’ of Biblical favoritism, this means the stupendous truth that in every book and in every chapter there are lessons to be learned, commands to be followed and promises to be embraced. Even more, it keeps in front of us the tremendous possibilities of discovering new things previously unknown to us and the reminders of truth which needs to be reinforced and deepened as we spend time in scripture.  This then can bring us to a constant humble, prayerful expectancy of learning from God’s Word, whenever it is read, studied, meditated upon, preached or taught. And this should motivate us to make sure that we have the right attitudes to come to scripture (I Peter 2:1-3, James 1:20-21, and see also Ephesians 1:15-23 as fulfilled through illumination of the scripture and the prayers of the Psalmist in  Psalm 119.) And even more if our task is the preaching and teaching of the scriptures, it makes even more plain the challenge of the apostle in II Timothy 4:1-2: “I charge you before God and Christ Jesus who is going to judge the living and the dead, and his appearance and his kingdom: Preach the Word, be ready when and when there are not appropriate opportunities, correct, rebuke, encourage, in all patience and teaching.”

But the inspiration of the scriptures is more than an assertion of doctrine. Moreover, there is a stupendous consequence for the believer in Christ in the divine inspiration of the scriptures. The Bible, as the Word of God, is the foundation of spiritual capability. It forms the basis of spiritual growth and usefulness. Knowing and following the Bible as the Word of God is the pathway to spiritual security, maturity and effectiveness. This is what we often miss in the modern church when we give undue emphasis to other authorities alongside the Bible even when we profess belief in its divine inspiration. And often we can find the basis of spiritual weakness, immaturity and ineffectiveness to be due to both the ignorance and hidden disagreements with the Word of God among believers. They may have internal, unexpressed conflict with the clear teaching of the Word of God which in turn sap their spiritual strength and vitality, and leave them weak and passive in the face of a world where their faith is often treated with disdain and hostility.

So let us define here spiritual capability. It is the preparation for every spiritual challenge. It is not knowing a list of facts and notions, but rather knowing what to do, what to believe, what to say, from the knowledge of the Word of God.

With the statement,  “. . . that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work . . . ” the apostle describes the intended result of scripture in the life of the believer in Christ. This is the result when the Bible is believed and obeyed entirely: thorough equipment for every spiritual challenge. This is the same kind of phrase that was used to describe a soldier who was fitted out with complete provision and complete weaponry and who was and completely trained for the battles and skirmishes ahead. Equipment for spiritual battle, not a head filled with fun facts or a heart filled with half understood but emotionally uplifting platitudes, is what the goal of knowing scripture is all about.

The intended result of being grounded in the Bible is therefore for the believer to be fully prepared for full faith in and obedience to Jesus Christ. This means scriptural preparation for every incident calling for exercise of faith and for every falsehood calling for refutation and for every opportunity calling for witness and for every situation calling for obedience to a command from the Word of God. Again, this will mean a believer avoids of the extreme of knowledge without obedience: this is the classic trap of head full of Biblical facts but a life lived in disobedience and unbelief. This will mean avoidance of the opposite extreme of spiritual naiveté, of attempted faith and obedience without the knowledge of the actual teaching of scripture or on hearsay knowledge that tries to be capable by watching what other do, social conformity to the opinions of the social group. It means personal communion with Jesus and  his personal teaching of his Word through his Holy Spirit to us. This is what Charles G. Finney explained to those new in the faith: “The Bible is the medium of introduction to him personally. What is there said of him is designed to lead us to seek after a personal acquaintance with him. It is by this personal acquaintance with him that we are made like him. It is by direct, personal [fellowship] with his divine mind that we take on his divine image.”

This growth in spiritual capability, then, comes through deep application of the Bible to our thoughts and actions. It yields immediate and excellent results, but still continues over the process of a lifetime. It is learning and doing the Word of God, and it is a long term process of acquisition, not a short term dabbling nor something that comes just through giftedness, talent or nature.

So this is how the spiritual capability comes about: because the Bible is inspired by God, it . “. . . is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness . . .”. The result of spiritual capability comes through application of the Bible in what it’s useful for, and this is the  result of patient, consistent study and meditation upon the Word of God, and reception of the preaching and teaching of the Word  and even through informal conversations. These are all ways of getting the nourishment of the Word of God into one’s life and building spiritual capability.

Spiritual capability not simply achieved by growing older or by how long a person has spent warming a pew or being associated with a religious group. Rather, it comes through the Word of God. It comes through learning the Word of God, as it rebukes, corrects, guides and trains us. It comes as the Word of God is distilled into the life through spiritual experience and moral direction. And this can be at times both hurtful to us and extraordinarily uplifting. Again, Charles G. Finney has an incisive remark on this: “I have long been satisfied that the higher forms of Christian experience are attained only as a result of a terribly searching application of God’s law to the human conscience and heart.”

Therefore, the believer who wants to please his or her heavenly Father, will find his or her capability to do so in relation to his or her knowledge of and obedience to the Word of God. Attention to the Word is the first step to  address any immaturity, incapability or spiritual and moral dysfunction on our part. This will mean that we find not only scriptural answers to our problems, but also scriptural wisdom for the assistance of others, and this will answer the great demand for those today who are able to help others with the love, acceptance and compassion of Christ.

So many within our churches profess the belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. This belief calls for our respect for it as the Word of God. This respect will be real when we start to give it the attention that it deserves as the living and active Word of the living God, and  believing what it says, obeying what it says and communication of what it says both among ourselves and to the lost and dying world around us, that needs the good news of Jesus Christ which is found within its pages.

So, then, let each one of us personally invest our time and effort in reading, studying and meditating upon the Word. This will be an investment in spiritual capability, and it will mean a tremendous benefit upon ourselves, and our family and friends. But most of all, it will be a life invested in learning what is pleasing to God, who gave us the Word for our ultimate and eternal good. This means setting aside the time to spend in the Word and making systematic effort to learn the Word, acquiring and using proper helps certainly, but most of all reading with a reverent, submissive attitude and recording and sharing our observations and lessons. And since the Word will never fail us, this means seeking to understand and receive what the Word promises to us, to follow its commands.

In our churches, then this means that the guide for the fellowship is always the Word of God first and foremost. How little the Word of God guides so many of our churches can be seen in how shocking that statement would be to so many who attend our churches and so many long time members. But the Word of God supersedes all traditions and routines for the church, and we need need to make and keep it first and foremost as the way that we live as a church fellowship to be in any way a church which can claim the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

But most of all, the Bible as the Word of God is the Word which contains and explains the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. There is no gospel which saves which is not faithful to the Word of God. But even more, having a Biblically centered gospel is behind having the spiritual capability to witness powerfully and articulately among those in this world that need the gospel of salvation.

God’s Take on Dirty Fighting and Underhanded Tactics

The Old Testament has many passages which are difficult for many in contemporary congregations to understand. Many do not go much into the Old Testament in their personal reading, and thus do not get the wealth of what the Old Testament, the Bible of Jesus and the apostles, has to say about the God of the Bible and his ways.

Some of the most difficult passages may take place in the civil regulations of the Pentateuch. Here is one such passage: “If two men are fighting and the wife of of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12).

This passage may seem to be senseless for someone reading it now, but through the Holy Spirit God inspired these passages as much as the passages that someone may gush over in public in the currently fashionable cliché, “I LOVE this verse.” This passage might have offended Victorian modesty if it had been preached over a hundred years ago, but that’s hardly a problem for congregations nowadays. It seems harsh by modern standards of justice, and it might play into some false idea, played upon both in liberal churches and by Gnostics in the past, that the God of the Old Testament was somehow harsher, more unreasonable and somehow different than the way that God was revealed to be in the New Testament by Jesus Christ.

There are some guidelines from scripture itself on how to look at these passages. First, much of the civil law of Israel was in fact an expansion on the Ten Commandments, as some modern preachers and teachers do recognize. This passage, though, does not seem to be one of these. Second, the comparison of the civil law of Israel with the laws of other nations shows that pretty much always the civil penalties are not nearly as harsh and often the civil regulations command compassion. Moreover, it’s reasonable to understand, as many rabbis claimed, that the penalties which seemed to prescribe mutilation were in fact civil fines of a set value, such as a set value for loss of an eye. In this way the penalties would resemble modern tort law, with a certain set financial liability for harming another person. It’s reasonable to see the penalty in this passage in this manner, although the way in which it was worded would have a strong deterrent effect. The complete absence of known mutilations for crimes in the Old Testament does seem to point to these laws not having been enforced with actual mutilation and perhaps not having had to have been enforced much at all.

This law is an example of what appears to be ‘case law,’ and God seems to use these to teach wider principles than the exact circumstances of the particular statutes. There is in fact scriptural guidance for this, in scripture interpreting scripture, in the path of progressive revelation. The apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 9:9, takes the law about not muzzling the threshing ox as meaning much more, as pointing to a greater principle, which he applied to a New Testament apostle having the privilege of being supported by churches for full time ministry. Moreover, in I Timothy 1:8-11 he cites the civil penalties of the Old Testament Law as demonstrating what punishments are due to different kinds of sinful acts. So, the principle that this passage seems to point to seems to be to some lines that are not to be crossed in personal disputes, and that God takes a personal interest when these lines are crossed.

The first thing to consider is the situation which gives rise to the regulation. Two men have come to a fist fight over something. This could have been over possession of a lamb or a goat, a boundary stone, an agreement or even an insult or remark which was taken the wrong way. It’s much likely not to be a fight to injury or to the death; Exodus 21:18-19 prescribed that the one who dealt a disabling blow to the other would have to pay a penalty, and a fight to the death could have come under murder law, and the best result for the one who survived would have been to spend years in an Israelite city of refuge far from his home and family. It might even have been a sanctioned physical contest to decide the winner in a dispute, since these were not unknown in the ancient world, just as they are not unknown in the modern world. It may in fact be referring to a fight under definite rules, such as the staged fight between John Wayne and Victor McLaghlen in the movie The Quiet Man, which was characterized as a private fight under the Marquis of Queensbury rules. Many times these kinds of fights led to the participants settling their differences and becoming fast friends, as happened in the movie. The setting would have been the multitude of Israelites in the Exodus, or in their villages and farms after they had settled in the Promised Land.

So, in the midst of this physical contest, the wife of one of the men attempts to intervene. This does not look from the passage to be a blow intended to incapacitate but to hold or even to mutilate the man fighting against her husband.  It would be considered to be dirty and unfair fighting even today. If the fight were over property or the wife feared the defeat of her husband, she might have been tempted to some kind of intervention like this. But I don’t think that we’ve come yet as to why God put this incident under a severe civil penalty. Again, it’s hard to say whether this law ever had to be enforced, and the most likely case would have been a wife intervening for her husband, but this statute would have sufficed as precedent to decide the penalty if there was ever an intervention in the same way against a fight which involved a woman’s father, uncle, or brother. It may even have been a known tactic in ancient disputes settled by fighting that some women would attempt to have the contest decided in favor of their husbands. This passage would then be not a sanction of violence but a restraint upon something particularly offensive to God that may have been taking place already. And this is also how many of the case laws in the Old Testament do apply and how they may serve as a guide to what God finds offensive.

The tactic that this wife would have chosen struck directly at the manhood of the other man. It could have led to his being unable to father children or a physical defect sufficient for exclusion from the assembly of the Lord, as in Deuteronomy 23:1 (although that may rather refer to deliberate emasculation or castration of an Israelite for pagan cultic reasons). It would have represented an attempt to win at an expense to the other person which God would not allow to go uncorrected and unpunished. In the civil laws God allowed physical punishment but not humiliation to the point of utter degradation of the other person (Deuteronomy 25:3), and took murder personally as an attack against the image of God which was in mankind by creation (Genesis 9:5-6). Here, by analogy, it could also be taken as an attack of female against male and against the created order of male and female (Genesis 1:27).

So then, what’s the significance of this? Well, to dispose of the most obvious understanding, I don’t think that it would forbid a temporarily disabling blow against the crotch in self defense if a man or woman’s life is in danger, since these disable by pain and are not aimed to mutilate or permanently harm the assailant. I have some memories of several such blows delivered against myself by sneaky and unscrupulous fighters in junior high, and the blows temporarily disable by the pain but normally do not cause long term disability – but I would still counsel parents and teachers to deal strong discipline against any child or teenager that would ever try to deal such a blow, which is, in legal terms, assault, against another person in the course of teasing, taunting or any other kind of childish interaction. But even more, I think that this sets a principle that is well to repeat, that God has and will pronounce his judgments against those who use any and every tactic to win, and who would strike against the humanity, manhood, or womanhood, in an effort to gain an unfair advantage and to win a disagreement, an argument or a dispute. This would put this passage clearly in the context of creation, of progressive revelation and under the principle of scripture interpreting scripture, and it would furnish an illustration of the kinds of things that we human beings might do that offend God deeply. So, does this passage speak more clearly now?

So, does this happen nowadays? I don’t think that it’s impossible that the literal event might happen nowadays if there was to be a fight in the parking lot of a restaurant or bar nowadays, but I don’t think that that the civil law of Israel would apply in that case, but rather, the civil law of the locality. Rather, the application of this passage to present conduct would be to examine our ways and understand the ways in which those in our culture and we who claim to be followers of Christ and who regularly attend our churches might attack the manhood or womanhood of others and use underhanded tactics to win disputes, fights and disagreements which may well be petty and superficial. It would be to understand that God understands our humanity and that we will disagree and fight with each other, maybe not physically, and that there are tactics in personal disputes which God finds most offensive and worthy of his special mention and harsh penalty.

So, in the course of personal disputes, do men and women in our culture try to strike out at the manhood or womanhood of another man or woman in an attempt to cripple or incapacitate that person and get an unfair advantage to win in a situation? Definitely – but they use words rather than physical blows. That is actually the point of many of the insinuations of homosexuality or lesbianism that some people in our culture dish out against others – sometimes against single or divorced men and women who love Christ with all their hearts and who are seeking to follow him in all that they do. The rapper Eminem, who actually dishes out a lot of the anti-gay rhetoric nowadays, admitted as much in an interview with MTV once that that was his tactic to attack the manhood of another man whom he saw himself in some sort of conflict. It is also what happens when someone insinuates against another person that he or she isn’t a ‘real’ man or woman – a demanding parent or coach, for example. So, I think that we may look at this Old Testament regulation and easily see ourselves there, as saying and doing the same kind of things that God finds reprehensible.

I don’t think that we can see it in the light of the justice and compassion of the God of scripture that he takes it in any other way than extremely seriously when one of the men or women he has created attacks the humanity, manhood or womanhood of another man or woman not only with acts of physical violence but also with malicious words. Could such words crush and humiliate a person? Definitely. Could such words form a barrier to a person’s finding love and marriage in the will of God? Possibly. But these kinds of insinuations do happen in Christian circles and break hearts unnecessarily in many cases – because someone thought that he or she could use this tactic to try to enhance his or her reputation at someone else’s expense or to undermine, incapacitate or destroy a perceived rival.

But even more, I think that this passage demonstrates an underlying principle that warns against a win-at-all-costs (to another person) or a protect-what’s-mine-at-all-costs (to another person) mentality. Is that around today? Definitely! How many proud, stubborn and self sufficient people are there who approach personal relationships with a ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’ mentality, and will say or do anything to ‘win’ and not to ‘lose’ in a situation’? It would be extremely naive and dismissive to deny that there are those around like that today, and some of them call themselves Christians, and may even be in positions within churches and denominations.

That there are some things a person simply does not do in a disagreement, dispute or conflict to gain an unfair advantage without coming under the extreme displeasure of God would seem obvious to anyone who has come to know the God of the Bible, but, with the Biblical illiteracy and superficial discipleship of many in our churches, many never seem to have looked at their personal conduct and relationships with others very deeply in the light of scripture, and the ways of the God of the Bible. Even more, it’s hard to say if there has been a time than now since before the Reformation when evangelicals have been so unaware of their personal responsibility before Jesus Christ and the fact that they will face him one day in person to give account for their lives, for everything that they have ever thought, said and done. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:10). So then, what someone says or does now to ‘win’ in a situation may in fact be something for which Jesus Christ will call that person to account before the whole universe, and for which that person may suffer loss in eternity.

Cultural Diversity in the New Testament World

Not too long ago I heard a pastor whom I respect greatly on the radio preaching from Ephesians and mentioning the role of the pater familias in Ephesus. The classical historian within me cringed, because the pater familias was a Roman custom, already archaic in Rome in the time of the New Testament, and not generally emulated in the provincial cities such as Ephesus.

This highlights something that I’ve seen too often neglected in the interpretation of the New Testament in its historical background: the precise national and cultural background of the people involved. In general, there are four different cultural spheres in the New Testament world.

  • The Palestinian Jewish culture: this would be the primary cultural sphere of the gospels. The language would primarily be Aramaic, though it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus could also speak Greek (and the Palestinian disciples certainly could), since they were in close contact with Greek speaking Gentiles. This world would be dominated by the religious hierarchy – the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes – and the common people of artisans, merchants, fishermen and farmers.
  • The Jewish Diaspora (Greek for “Dispersion”): the Jews who lived outside Palestine in the cities and towns of the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. They would primarily speak Greek, be more influenced by Greek philosophy and religious practices than Palestinian Jews, and be employed as artisans and merchants. These would be the Jews to whom Paul preached in the synagogues outside Palestine. They often intermarried with Gentiles – Timothy was the product of one of these intermarriages. In the past century Greek papyri have shown much more about their lives. They often rubbed elbows with Gentiles who were interested in Judaism – the proselytes and God fearers such as Cornelius (Acts 10-11).
  • The Hellenistic Gentiles: these would be the Gentiles who lived in Palestine, Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Greece and Egypt. They were part of the empire of Alexander the Great, and had taken on Greek customs, literature, philosophy and language. This was why the term Greek in the New Testament may refer to a Greek speaking Gentile rather than someone who lived in Greece. These would be the Gentiles to whom Paul was sent, and to whom of the New Testament epistles were generally addressed with the Jewish Christians in their cities. Each of these cities, though, had their own customs and history which may have some relevance for the New Testament books which mention them.
  • The Roman and Latinized Gentiles: these would be the Gentiles who lived in Rome, Italy and the western Roman empire. Roman customs and the Latin language would become more prevalent here than in the eastern Roman empire, though in the time of the New Testament some of these lands (Gaul and Britain) had not been conquered long, and were still taking on Roman culture and the Latin language. This cultural sphere was actually the least relevant for the New Testament; the Romans ruled the Mediterranean but had not greatly influenced (and would not) the eastern half of the empire in a linguistic and cultural sense as compared with the influence of the Greek culture. There is some slight relevance for the background of the letter to the Romans but generally the Palestinian Jewish, the Jewish Diaspora and the Hellenistic Gentile cultures are more relevant for the background of the New Testament.

Generally, the key for the interpreter is to know which culture is dominant when reading the New Testament. For instance, Roman marriage and family customs are generally culturally irrelevant when reading I and II Corinthians and Ephesians, but a knowledge of Hellenistic Gentile customs along with knowing that there was some Jew-Gentile intermarriage may aid understanding what Paul was writing. Just as much, that Paul worked primarily among the Jewish Diaspora and Hellenistic Gentiles and Jesus among Palestinian Jews accounts for much of the differences of situations that they addressed and emphasis. Jesus did not address specifically some situations that the Old Testament and Paul addressed simply because they were not issues among the Palestinian Jews – and likewise Paul addressed situations that Jesus did not specifically address because they were issues among the Jewish Diaspora and the Hellenistic Gentiles, and probably also among the Roman and Latinized Gentiles of the western empire.

Common Linguistic Fallacies in Biblical Word Studies

Word studies are a common Biblical study, teaching and preaching method. Most of the time the data from these studies arise from a faulty methodology, so that the conclusions may well be invalid.  Most of these fallacies arise from an inadequate theory of human language that continues among the older Biblical reference works and many of the more recent word study reference works.

In linguistics itself, an isolated word carries only limited meaning: the normal usage, other idiomatic usages, and the connotation (the emotional impact) and the denotation (the definition). Rather, the sentence itself – the series of words in syntactical relation to each other that convey a complete thought — is the primary carrier of meaning. Therefore, for Biblical study in the original languages, grammatical relations among the words in a sentence are as important as the actual individual words themselves. So, when Francis Schaeffer referred to the Bible as propositional revelation, he was not only philosophically but also linguistically accurate.

The most common linguistic fallacy is etymologizing. Etymology is not the same thing as the meaning of a word; rather, it is a history of the various meanings that the word has had throughout the time of its usage. Current usage is the real determinant of meaning in a sentence. One of the most common examples where a word’s meaning has shifted from its original etymological meaning is the English word nice. The word is derived from the Latin word nescius, which means ignorant, but calling someone nice in current usage is not usually considered to carry any meaning of ignorance. In the 18th century, nice meant ‘precise,’ but neither does calling someone nice in current usage carry any meaning of precision.

Rather, the chief usage of etymology in linguistic study is to illuminate the meaning of rarely used words. This is most useful in classical / Biblical Hebrew, since rarely used words tend to have insufficient usage to establish a definite meaning.

So, the upshot is that those who study the Bible and those who listen to Biblical preaching and teaching should carefully evaluate any arguments based on etymology of a word. Unfortunately, it is much, much easier for a pastor or teacher who is not fluent in the original languages to look up a word in a Greek or Hebrew dictionary and to give some appearance of scholarship than to wrestle with dealing with the grammatical and semantic relations of the sentences of the text – in other words, translating the text on his own, and noting connotation and idiomatic usages of the original language.

The next most common linguistic fallacy is appeal to meanings far away in time, distance and culture from the original writer to establish a meaning for a particular word. For instance, a Biblical scholar, preacher or teacher may appeal to usages in classical Greek and authors that most New Testament writers, with the possible exception of Luke, would not have read. In other words, Paul would most likely never have used a Greek word with a conscious awareness of how Homer used it and intended it to be understood in the same way. Moreover, it is also most likely that Paul would never have used a word with a meaning that is not attested until several hundred years later, when there was a well attested contemporary meaning and usage.

Here are the main fields of usage to establish meaning for Biblical words, from closest to furthest in validity:

  • Usage with the Biblical book itself.
  • Usage within the works of the same Biblical author.
  • Usage within the Biblical books of approximately the same date.
  • Usage within the same Testament.
  • Usage within the other Testament in the same language – namely, the Septuagint for the New Testament usage.
  • Usage within the common language of the time.
  • Usage within the entire lexical stock – the entire known and attested vocabulary – of the language of the book.

The closest field of usage establishes the meaning of a word with the best validity. The furthest – which is unfortunately often the one which someone uses to try to get support for an unusual interpretation – is the one with the least validity – and it is a semantic fallacy to try to use it to contradict any of the closer field of usage.

Another source of linguistic fallacies are the ignorance of polysemy (the same word with different meanings) and ignorance of synonymy (different words with the same or similar meanings). These can mean the inclusion of irrelevant data or exclusion of relevant data.

For an example of ignorance of polysemy, I once heard an attempt to give a discourse on pastoral visitation based on the usage of the word visit in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, it was difficult to keep a straight face during the discourse, since the word visit in the Old Testament was used to express God’s visitation of judgment, and not with his coming in any manner appropriate to a pastoral visit. The polysemy of the word visit was thus ignored, and a ludicrous application to pastoral visitation only narrowly averted.

Another case where synonymy was ignored was in an etymology of the Greek word daimon, which is usually translated in the New Testament as demon. Its earliest attested meaning is deity, and one scholar tried to derive it from the word daio, which means to cut and cleave. He came up with an ingenious explanation that this derivation was due to the cutting done during animal sacrifices. Rather, this etymology ignored the synonym daio, which means to shine, and a daimon – deity – would be a shining one in its earliest derivation if the synonymy of the word had been followed.

One more area where synonymy may be ignored is where different words with the same meaning are used close together, perhaps even in the same context. This is often simply a matter of writing style rather than an attempt to use a word with one slightly different nuance of meaning and another with another slightly different nuance of meaning. It would definitely be a thin argument to try to make much of what may simply a stylistic variation in vocabulary.

Linguistic fallacies often occur when dictionaries and translations miss idiomatic usage. Thus, mistranslations and misinterpretations come when there is ignorance of colloquial usage. For this, the New International Version mistranslates Mark 7:37 as “He has done everything well” when it should be, “He has made everything well.” This makes the meaning of the passage much clearer: the people are marveling at the  healing ministry of Jesus, who has healed all kinds of ailments. One of the most common places where idioms are missed are where Biblical authors cite common sayings and proverbs.

Here’s how to evaluate linguistic arguments which are found in Biblical reference works and preaching and teaching:

  • Is the author appealing to the etymology of a word that is not a rare word? The author’s point may be valid on other grounds, but the linguistic evidence is probably being misunderstood and misused, and this is probably unintentional.
  • Is the author appealing to authors far removed from the Biblical writer when data from other writers is available who are closer to the Biblical author in time and culture? Usually a good dictionary will carry indications of time of different usages and representative authors.
  • Is the author ignoring polysemy, synonymy, homonymy, or idioms? Again, a good dictionary, used with awareness of polysemy, etc., can be of great help.

Here are some guidelines for more valid word studies:

1. Make use of good dictionaries and concordances. Unfortunately, the best works may be too technical or call for greater fluency in the original languages than many pastors and teachers can or will attain. The large and expensive Liddell and Scott dictionary of ancient Greek, or Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker for New Testament and patristic Greek are well worth the expense for anyone who can gain fluency in ancient Greek. Also useful are Moulton and MIlligan’s Vocabulary of the Greek Testament as Illustrated from the Papyri. Beware of extensive use of Thayer’s Greek Lexicon or Gesenius’s Hebrew Lexicon, since these are basically pre-archaeological, and do not have the kind of relevant linguistic data available from papyri and inscriptions that the later works do.

2. Master the alphabet of whatever language you are using! Most problems that people have learning Greek and Hebrew start with inadequate familiarity with the alphabet.

3. Along with reference works, pay attention to the various modern translations. Anyone not familiar with the original languages should beware of coming to any conclusions contrary to the united testimony of the Revised Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, etc.

4. Nouns and verbs find themselves studied the most often; adjectives and adverbs less often, and prepositions and transitional particles least of all. Unfortunately, the New American Standard Bible Old Testament suffers greatly from misunderstanding of the Hebrew prepositions, especially in the Psalms. Prepositions also tend to add meanings throughout time, so the New Testament usage can be quite complex. Again, check the dictionary!

Too often commentators ignore grammatical relation – syntax – or misunderstand it. Blass—Debrunner – Funk is probably the best for the New Testament.

Here are some works that I found helpful.

Moises Silva. Biblical Words and Their Meaning (Paperback)

Moises Silva. God, Language and Scripture (Paperback)

James Barr. The Semantics of Biblical Language (Paperback)

G.B. Caird. The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Paperback)

Anthony Thiselton. The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein (Paternoster Digital Library) (Paperback)

How to Get Started in Studying the Bible for Yourself

God has given his Word as the infallible guide to our daily living. It not only tells us how to come to Christ for salvation, but it also tells us how to live the transformed life after we have received eternal life.All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17).

Because the Word is inspired, and intended to guide us to a full and useful life with Christ, we need to be open to its directions. It is intended to teach us, to instruct us in the truth of God, and we need to be willing to change our ideas and opinions from what we thought before to what God has actually said in his Word, that is, to be teachable by the Word. The Word also rebukes and corrects us: it defines what sin is for us, what displeases God, and why and how to stop. We need then to change our thoughts, words and actions when the Word corrects and rebukes us, that is, to be correctable by the Word. Then the Word trains us in righteousness: it guides us to be fully disciplined and prepared to do what God’s will is for us as disciples of Christ. We need then to be trainable by the Word of God.

God wants you to understand his Word. Pray first of all for him to guide you as you begin to read his word. Ask that the Holy Spirit would give you understanding of what God is saying to you through his Word (see the prayer of Paul in Ephesians 1:15-20). Understanding the Word of God also means being careful not to misinterpret the Word of God. We misinterpret when we add to or subtract from the meaning which God intended to convey.

1. First be sure that you have an understandable translation. There are several good modern language translations. Also an English dictionary is helpful to understand some of the terms such as justification, sanctification, and atonement.

2. Get a good Bible dictionary. The Bible is an ancient book, and it needs to be interpreted in light of its historical background. Look up people and places that you see for an idea of what this is.

3. Interpreting the Bible properly also means interpreting each phrase and book in terms of its grammatical context. This means each word and phrase in the sentence in which it stands, each sentence as it stands in the paragraph, and each paragraph as it stands in the book in which it is written. Ignoring what comes before a verse and after it, that is, its context, is the most consistently violated rule of scriptural interpretation, and has been used by many to try to make the Bible say something that it really does not say.

4. Interpreting the Bible properly means learning from the teaching of the Bible as a whole. Each genuine teaching of the Bible is repeated elsewhere, and one part will clarify what may seem hard to understand in another part. The Bible really does not contradict itself, and understanding what may be less clear in the light of what is more clear may make such apparent contradictions understandable.

5. Once you understand what the Bible was saying to the people of its times, we need to think about what it means for us now, on how to apply the Bible. This thinking and praying about how to apply it to our lives is called meditation on the scriptures. This is where blessing starts to enter our lives: “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth” (that is, reading out loud the portion of the Bible which Joshua already had, which was the normal way people read in that time): meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it” (Joshua 1:8). Memorizing certain helpful verses will mean that you can have the Bible on the tip of your tongue when you need it. “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). This means that it will be there for you when you might need it: to resist temptation (like Jesus did in Luke 4:1-13), to witness to Christ, to encourage someone else, and to remind yourself of God’s great promises for you. Learning and following the Word of God means that you have made the right start on the life of following Jesus Chist, and that is the kind of life that will never be shaken (Luke 6:46-49).

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.