Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Posts tagged “context

The best way to live

Applying the Bible to our lives

These days many of us get our sense of right and wrong from movies. Although some of our superheroes may act like a self-sacrificing Messiah in battles to save the world, the lessons in movies are usually determined by ungodly people who want to entertain us.

When I googled “How to live”, there were 20 billion results on the internet! If I took five seconds to read each one, it would take over 30 years of reading continuously! How can we know which is the best way to live our lives? These are all the subjective opinions of many people. We can save wasting a lot of time by following the objective opinions of the God who made the world and who knows all about us. And it doesn’t take years to find because He has communicated to us in the Bible. The Bible is often called “God’s word” or “the word” because it’s a message from God.

This blogpost, which is based on James 1:19-25, shows that the best way to live is to keep applying the Bible to our lives.

James says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (Jas. 1:19-25NIV).

The goal for our lives

The book of James was written to confront the readers about their sinful behavior. Although they claimed to be Christians, their behavior was worldly (3:9-12; 4: 4). We read about anger, immorality and evil. It was disgraceful.

James urged them to change their ways. So he gave them a goal, an aim, a target. It was to be spiritually mature and wise. Perseverance through trials would make them “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (1:4). And they could pray for wisdom; “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God” (1:5). Wisdom is the ability to cope with major difficulties. A person with wisdom makes good decisions. They have biblical common sense and can apply scriptural principles to their life. They use biblical knowledge correctly.

Jesus told His disciples, “follow me” (Jn. 1:43) and Paul said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). If we follow Paul and Jesus it will be best for us, best for our families, best for our friends and neighbors, and best for our churches.

And Paul said that the best way to live is a life that is spiritually fruitful, holy and pleases the Lord (Appendix A).

Rather than just following a list of rules, God wants us to be able to “find out what pleases the Lord” in all situations (Eph. 5:10). Inner guidance via the Holy Spirit is the chief means by which God guides His people today. And the chief external means by which He guides them is the Bible.

When I go hiking, I always take a GPS, a map and a compass. They help me to decide where to go and what to do. In a similar way, the Holy Spirit and the Bible can help us decide how to live our lives.

What’s our goal in life? Is it to please God, and be spiritually mature and wise like Paul and Jesus?

The steps towards the goal

The first step to find the best way to live is to:

  1. Trust in the work of Jesus for our salvation.

There are two ways to live: with God or without God. Trusting that Christ’s death paid the penalty for our sin brings us near to God. Living with God is better because it’s the first step towards the best way to live. It means we have eternal spiritual life and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit who can empower us to go through the other steps. Without God’s help we are on our own and limited to human wisdom. Before the Ephesians trusted in Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). It we don’t know the true God, then we have no hope because real hope is based on God’s promises. And we have no lasting purpose in our lives and no hope beyond this life.

If we haven’t taken the first step, we can’t get to the top of a ladder. If we haven’t trusted in Christ, we can’t find the best way to live.

There are also two ways to live as a Christian: with God or without God. It’s a contradiction to say that we trusted God once, but don’t have anything to do with Him now. And it’s not the best way to live.

Paul taught “the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27). He instructed people in not only the fundamentals of the gospel (the good news about Jesus), but in all that’s vital for godly living. And we will learn about this as we look at the other steps. The Bible has the most important message for us because it tells us about these steps (Appendix B).

The next step to find the best way to live is to:

  1. Pray to God.

That’s how we communicate with God. We can ask God for power and wisdom to live how He wants us to (Jas. 1:5-6). James says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (Jas. 1:5).

Do you text message your boss at work? They say it’s more personal than email. Do you pray daily? It’s more personal than public prayers.

James also says to “listen to the word [Bible]” (Jas. 1:22). So the next step to find the best way to live is to:

  1. Read the Bible.

The Bible says that “All Scripture is God-breathed” because its authors “were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pt. 1:21). What the authors wrote came from God. The words came from the Holy Spirit and not from human wisdom. That’s why all the words of scripture are useful in some way.

God communicates to us through the Bible. That’s how we can experience God personally. So we need to read it regularly. It takes about 70 hours to read the whole Bible. This could be done in a year by reading for about 12 minutes per day.

How long would it take to watch 70 hours of movies? If that was 35 movies and we watched one per week, it would take about 8 months. But if we watched two movies per week, it would take about 4 months. So most of us probably spend more time watching movies than reading the Bible.

This means that movies could be influencing us more that the Bible and hindering us from finding the best way to live. When do you read the Bible?

The next step to find the best way to live is to:

  1. Understand the Bible.

We need to study the Bible in order to understand it (see more about this topic below).

James also says, “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (Jas. 1:21). So the next step to find the best way to live is to:

  1. Accept the Bible as God’s word.

The Thessalonians “accepted it [the Bible] not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe” (1 Th. 2:13). The Bible has divine wisdom and it can help us live in a godly way that pleases God. It can save us from sinful living that displeases God.

Although it was written over a period of at least 1,500 years, the Bible has great unity and harmony. It addresses the biggest questions of life and its worldview explains reality like no other book. It’s historically reliable. It makes detailed prophecies that have been fulfilled. It has transformed people’s lives. It has withstood and outlasted all of its attackers. All we know about Jesus comes from the Bible. Jesus quoted constantly from the Old Testament. If Jesus accepted the Old Testament as God’s words, we can accept the Bible as God’s words. When we do this the Holy Spirit will give us a desire and a willingness to follow God’s guidance for us in the Bible. And we will willingly read the Bible in order to understand it. And we’ll memorize it and meditate on it. In this way it will be implanted in our lives (Jas. 1:21). How do you view the message in the Bible? Do you welcome it or are you skeptical about it?

James also says to “Do what it [the Bible] says” (Jas. 1:22). So the last step to find the best way to live is to:

  1. Apply the Bible to our lives.

Once we have trusted in Jesus as our Savior; prayed for God’s help; and read, understod and accepted God’s message in the Bible; then we need to obey what we have learnt. This means renewing our mind (Rom.12:2), stopping sinful actions and starting godly actions (see more about this topic below).

But how can we understand the ancient words of the Bible?

Understanding the Bible

God wants us to understand His message in the Bible and to use it for godly living. Because the Bible was written for common people like us, it’s not difficult to understand its main points. They are not hidden or secret.

Here is some information to help us find the main point of any passage in the Bible.

The Bible is a library

The Bible is the collection of 66 books comprising:
– The Hebrew scriptures (Genesis to Malachi), which are called the Old Testament.
– Jesus’ teaching and actions (Matthew to John), which are called the gospels, and
– The teaching and actions of those whom He delegated as apostles (Acts to Revelation).

The literary styles of the books of the Bible

The books of the Bible come in different literary styles. There is poetry and prose. Hebrew poetic books often have lines with repeated meanings (called parallelism) and may metaphors.

The Old Testament has books of history/narrative, poetry, and prophecy. Exodus to Deuteronomy are also Hebrew law. While the New Testament has history, letters and prophecy. Our passage in James is from a letter.

Many times a mixture of literary styles will be combined in one book.

Literary devices in the Bible

One of the most common literary devices in the Bible are figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, personification and hyperbole (exaggeration). These can occur in any book of the Bible, but they are more frequent in the poetic books.

Also, Jesus often used parables to teach a lesson.

There’ s a metaphor in our passage in James where God’s word (the Bible) is said to be planted like a seed in the believer. When we allow the Bible to grow (like a seed) in our lives, it replaces sinfulness and becomes part of our character. When it doesn’t grow, sinfulness is prevalent.

And there’s a simile in our passage in James where reading the Bible is likened to looking in a mirror, and obeying the Bible is likened to remembering what we look like; while not obeying the Bible is likened to forgetting what we look like. Obeying the Bible is beneficial, while not obeying it is useless and a waste of time.

The Bible is a progressive revelation

The Bible is a progressive revelation. Truth gets added as we move from the beginning to the end. The first slope in the diagram is the Old Testament and the second slope is the New Testament. We can read it as those who have the whole book and know God’s whole program of salvation.

Our passage in James is in one of the early books written in the New Testament, so it’s near where the line moves upwards after the 400 year gap between the two testaments (where the line is horizontal as there was no new revelation).

Next we will look at three kinds of context.

The historical context

Here we look at questions like: Who wrote it?  When was it written? And, who was it written to? This is summarized in a diagram where time increases from left to right. The Bible was written to others—but it speaks to us.

Christianity started on the day of Pentecost after Jesus died, rose back to life and ascended back to heaven. So Acts to Revelation (after the day of Pentecost) was written to Christians. This means that they usually can be applied directly to us except we don’t have apostles today (Acts 1: 21-22). This is the case for our passage in James. The Old Testament was written to Jews who lived under the laws of Moses (the Old Covenant), which don’t apply directly to us. For example, they were required to offer animal sacrifices. Instead these laws need to be interpreted though the New Testament. Some are repeated in the New Testament, like 9 of the 10 commandments. And others are not repeated in the New Testament, like the command to keep the Sabbath day and the commands to offer animal sacrifices. So be careful when applying the Old Testament to today. It has many good principles and provides the background to Christianity, but it wasn’t written to us. We need to be careful when interpreting verses BC (before the cross). Jesus lived under the laws of Moses and the gospels include His teachings to Jews. But much of His teaching carries over into Christianity (where it relates to the new covenant).

The cultural context

Life was different in ancient times. Housing, occupations, transport, religion, and governance were often radically different to ours.

James lived in the Roman Empire. Although their way of life was different to ours today, human nature hasn’t changed. We are still sinful and need reminding to obey God’s words in the Bible. Our passage addresses anger, immorality, evil, and hypocrisy, which are topics that are not foreign to us. But if it was about food sacrificed to idols, we would need to change it into a modern equivalent.

The Biblical context

The verses and passages in each book of the Bible are set out in an order determined by God. Don’t try to understand a verse or passage in isolation. Look at the message in the whole book. Look at the message in the same chapter, in the previous chapter and in the following chapter. What happened before and afterwards? What’s the situation? Context is king because it reduces the possible meanings of a text to its most probable meaning.

Read it like any other book; don’t just read here and there. Proverbs is the only book of the Bible where the verses aren’t always related to each other.

The purpose of the book of James is to confront the readers about their sinful behavior. Although they claimed to be Christians, their behavior was worldly (3:9-12; 4: 4). James emphasizes that true Christian faith is expressed in a life of godliness, not of sinfulness.

Now we will look at what can happen if we ignore the context.

Don’t cherry-pick

Cherry-picking is interpreting a verse or passage without taking the context and the rest of the Bible into account. It’s selective use of evidence. For example, “I can do all things through Him [Christ] who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13ESV) was written by Paul while he was in prison because of his Christian faith. The main principle is that believers can learn to be content in difficult circumstances through Christ, who gives them strength. But it can be taken out of context to mean that with God’s help:
– I can do anything, or
– I can do miracles, or
– I will be successful, or
– My team will win the game, or
– I will win the contest

This gives people false hopes. That’s why the context is important. It gives the correct meaning, which is the one that the author intended.

Exegesis, not eisegesis

Exegesis is the process of discovering the meaning of a text from the context and the text itself. Exegesis means “to lead out of” – the meaning comes out of the text; out of the Bible. On the other hand, eisegesis occurs when a reader imposes their interpretation into the text. Eisegesis means “to lead into” – the meaning comes from the interpreter and is added into the text, into the Bible. Exegesis is objective, while eisegesis is subjective.

Last year, a theologian said in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that the Bible “never condemns same-sex marriage, partly because it simply does not address the issue directly”. This is an example of eisegesis. Their interpretation of scripture was poor. When we exegete the same passages in the New Testament, we see that the statement is untrue and deceptive. It’s true that the Bible doesn’t specifically address “same-sex marriage”. But it does condemn homosexual sexual activity, which is a broader subject than same-sex marriage! Therefore, by simple logic, same-sex marriage was condemned as a lifestyle for the New Testament church.

Those who practice eisegesis often change the context of Bible passages, or change the meanings of words in the Bible, or base their case on a single verse and ignore others on the same topic.

Avoid legalism and liberalism

Another problem to avoid is adding to the Bible or subtracting from it (see Appendix C).

Is it a command, a model or a report?

The contents of the Bible can be divided into commands, models to follow and reports of events. A command is mandatory (not optional) and prescriptive (not descriptive). Commands are instructions to be followed. Our passage in James is made up of commands as it mentions things they should do and things they shouldn’t do.

A model to follow is a practice that’s described and is worth following today. It’s descriptive, but doesn’t use mandatory language, like the practice of Christians meeting together on the first day of the week. Biblical models are examples to follow. Paul said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

Whereas, a report is a description of events (like in the news media) that’s not worth following today. It includes sinful behavior that’s not being endorsed by the writer like David’s adultery (2 Sam. 11:1-17), Solomon’s polygamy (1 Ki. 11:1-3) and the fact that Judas hanged himself (Mt. 27:5). Reports are not examples for us to follow.

After looking at the text, the context, and the literary devices, we need to find the author’s main point.

The author’s main point

This is the meaning of the text for the original audience. It’s what the author wanted to communicate. The main point is then converted into a principle which is a general truth, applicable in a variety of situations.

The main point in our passage from James is that godliness comes from stopping sinful behavior and practicing (applying, obeying) scriptural principles instead.

What has changed since then?

Here we compare between then and now by considering the culture, situation, and time in history. Were God’s people living under a different covenant? Was their situation unique? We also take into account all the scriptures written after the passage because God’s revelation is progressive. And is the scriptural principle consistent with the rest of the Bible? Fortunately we see that God and people don’t change throughout history: He is always divine and people are always sinful. As James was written to Christians living under the new covenant, it still applies the same way today.

Now we know what’s changed since then, we can determine what it means today.

The main point today

The main point in our passage from James is that godliness comes from stopping sinful behavior and practicing (applying, obeying) scriptural principles instead (Appendix D). It’s the best way to live.

A Tyrannosaurus rex fossil found in Canada is largest-ever found. It probably weighed more than 8.8 tonnes and it took palaeontologists ten years to separate it from sandstone rock. Fortunately it doesn’t take that long to discover the meaning of ancient words in the Bible.

Each passage of the Bible has one meaning and one main point. But each main point can have many applications today according to the different situations people can be in.

Applying the Bible to our lives today

The Bible is a practical book. It’s “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It shows us the best way to live. But it only helps us if we put it into practice.

Jesus told His disciples, “If you love me, keep my commands”, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me”, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching”, and “Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching”  (Jn. 14:15, 21, 23-24). So we show our love for Jesus by keeping His commandments. And God sent the Holy Spirit to be our Helper in this effort (Jn. 14:16–17). Knowledge of God’s principles for living in the Bible is not good enough, it should lead to action and change our thinking and character. How can we live out the meaning of the text in our lives? How should we apply these scriptural principles? What do we need to know, do, think and be?

This week a friend had to change the wheel of a car. He could have learnt how to do this from YouTube. The Bible is like the best YouTube video on how to live. But it doesn’t help unless we act on it. If there was no action, the tire (tyre) would still be flat.

Or you may want to learn to play the guitar from YouTube. There will be no progress unless you pick up the guitar and start practicing. Like playing the guitar, being able to apply the Bible to our lives takes practice. But don’t worry; there will be plenty of opportunities.

Here we look for a situation in our lives that parallels the biblical situation. It must contain all the key elements of the biblical situation. In James it involved:
– Christians (v.19).
– They were involved in sinful behavior (v.19-21).
– They went to church and heard from the Bible, but they lived like everyone else and not like a Christian. The Bible had little impact on their way of life.
– They were told that godliness comes from stopping sinful behavior and practicing (applying, obeying) scriptural principles instead.

Here’s an application. Roy is a Christian who has been cheating in his tax return. But when he realizes that the Bible teaches honesty towards the government, he decides to stop cheating (Mt. 22:21). So he seeks a Christian mentor to provide encouragement and to help him mange his finances. And he shares with a friend his decision to be more honest with his money.

Or, Anne is a Christian who has been living with her boyfriend because that’s what other people do. But when she realizes that the bible teaches that sexual relationships are for (heterosexual) marriage, she decides to stop living together until they get married. She prays for help because it will be difficult to tell her boyfriend. And she decides to read more about what the Bible says about being single and being married.

Or, Ray is a Christian who hasn’t been doing his share of work in the family. His wife is overloaded with going to work, looking after the household, looking after him, and looking after the children. But when he realizes that the bible teaches us to care for one another, he decides to be more considerate and less selfish. So he decides to listen to his wife in order to know how he can help her. And he remembers that the Bible says that love is not self-seeking; it isn’t always “me first’; it does not insist on its own way  (1 Cor. 13:5). And that Jesus came to serve and He “gave His life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). That’s sacrificial service.

James gives a promise for doing this, “whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom [the Bible], and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard [or read], but doing it [applying it]—they will be blessed in what they do” (Jas. 1:25). But there’s a warning in the Bible about not implementing what we read there.

Warning against not applying the Bible to ourselves

Jesus told a parable, “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.
But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Mt. 7:24-27).

The first man’s work endured, while the other man’s work was destroyed. The house is like their life. It illustrates the importance of obedience. Jesus had just given the sermon on the mount. But it’s not enough to hear (or read) the message in Bible. Its truths must be put into practice. That’s the best way to endure the adversity of life. The second man is called foolish –  because of his disobedience, he can’t endure the difficulties of life.

Our way of life will be tested. Applying scriptural principles to our lives is the best way to live because it helps us survive the testing times. And in our passage in James it says that we can know the truth, but not implementing it is like forgetting what we saw in a mirror (Jas. 1:22-25).

Residents are angry about the lack of action to deal with radioactive waste in Nelson Parade, Hunters Hill in Sydney. The contamination from uranium processing is about 100 years old and residents were first alerted to the danger in 1965. Since then there have been many scientific surveys, a parliamentary enquiry and an Environmental Protection Authority order, which all say the waste must be removed. There were plans to dig it up and transfer it to a secure land fill, but this never happened. The latest plan is to bury it onsite within a concrete bunker. The State Government has known about this for decades, but has done nothing. Don’t be like them when reading the Bible. Instead, let’s put it into action in our lives.

Lessons for us

We have seen that the best way to live is a life of spiritual maturity and wisdom. It’s empowered by the Holy Spirit, is centered around the Bible, and results in God’s blessing. It begins with trusting in the work of Jesus for our salvation and continues with applying the Bible to our lives.

We need more than movie morals to guide us, because they lack the power of the Holy Spirit. Instead we need to be reading the Bible regularly. Are we reading it more than watching movies? When we read the Bible let’s look for the main point and work out what it means today and apply it in our lives.

After we hear the word of God at church, do we put it into practice like a wise person, or do we foolishly ignore it? Instructions and examples are useless unless we follow them. Let’s trust and obey and be known for our godly actions and living.

Appendix A: The goal for our lives according to Paul

After eleven chapters of doctrine, Paul told the Romans, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2). With God’s help, we will know how to live. And it won’t be in the pattern of our sinful world. But it will involve a new way of thinking.

Paul’s prayer for the Philippians was, “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-10). The Christian life is more than love, it includes knowledge, insight and holiness. And the motive is to be living like this when Jesus returns to take us to heaven.

And his prayer for the Colossians was, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please Him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:9-10). It’s living that’s spiritually fruitful and pleases the Lord. This is possible because it’s powered by the Holy Spirit.

So according to Paul the best way to live is a life that is spiritually fruitful, holy and pleases the Lord.

Appendix B: Why the Bible has the most important message for us

Not only does the Bible tell us the steps to peace with God, it also tells us the best way to live. When we trust in Jesus Christ’s death as the payment for our sin, the Bible says that we are given a new spiritual life. We are alive spiritually and dead to sin (Rom. 6:11; Eph. 4:22-24).

Paul’s final instruction to Timothy was, “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:14-17). The Bible is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so we can serve the Lord. It’s like God’s instruction manual for living our lives.

Paul justified quoting from the Old Testament by saying, “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The Bible as written for our instruction.

Paul said that the Old Testament has examples of what not to do, which are warnings for us: Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come” (1 Cor.10:6-11). Paul says, don’t repeat their mistakes.

Luke said that “the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). So the Bible is the standard for knowing what is right and what is wrong. We should check everything against the truth of the Bible.

Our thoughts affect our actions. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9). God wants us to be holy by putting into practice what we learn from the Bible.

Appendix C: The dangers of legalism and liberalism

Christians do not thrive outside God’s boundaries for living. Two ways of going off the road or out of bounds are to either add to or take away from what God has revealed to us in the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19). Legalism involves adding to the Bible and liberalism taking away from it. These are mindsets that come from the sinful nature; not from the Bible or the divine nature.

Legalism places rules and regulations between us and God and includes an effort to merit God’s favor. It involves salvation by good works and not Christ alone. It was a problem in the early church when some Jewish Christians insisted that Gentiles must follow Jewish laws if they wanted to become Christians. And it can become a problem today if Christian customs and traditions get confused with scriptural truths. Christians can avoid legalism by recognizing the freedoms inherent in God’s word.

Liberalism places the ideas and reasoning of humanism between us and the Bible. It makes people the authority instead of God. The risk of liberalism comes from our culture. We are exposed to news media, movies, the internet and advertisements that preach humanism, hedonism and materialism. Christians need to be relevant to the culture but not accept its values. Christians can avoid liberalism by recognizing the boundaries inherent in God’s word.

Appendix D: Application of James 1:19-25

The book of James was written in about AD 50 by James (the half-brother of Jesus and an elder in the church in Jerusalem) to Jewish Christians who had been scattered because of persecution (Acts 8:1; 11:19). As it was written to Christians, the message is still directly applicable to Christians today. The purpose of the letter is to confront the readers about their sinful behavior. Although they claimed to be Christians, their behavior was worldly (3:9-12; 4: 4). James emphasizes that true Christian faith is expressed in a life of godliness, not of sinfulness. After dealing with trials (1:2-12) and temptations (1:13-17), the topic of this passage is the Word of God (1:18-27).

There is a metaphor where the word (Bible) is said to be planted in the believer, “which can save you” (v.21). Did you know that God’s word is like a seed planted in your life? But is the plant fruitful or stunted? When we trust in Christ as our Savior, God uses biblical truths to save us from the penalty of sin. And if we continue to obey His words we can be saved from the power of sin today. This is an ongoing aspect to our salvation. When we allow the Bible to grow in our lives, it replaces sinfulness and becomes part of our character. When it doesn’t grow, sinfulness is prevalent.

There is a simile where reading the Bible is likened to looking in a mirror and obeying the Bible is likened to remembering what you look like, while not obeying the Bible is likened to forgetting what you look like (v.23-25). Remembering what you look like is beneficial, while forgetting is useless and a waste of time.

The main point of the passage is that in order to be godly (spiritually healthy) we need to be teachable (v.19), to deal with sin (v.21) and obey (or apply) the Bible in our lives (v.22). If we obey the Bible, our character develops and we are blessed (v.22, 25) and we have successful lives for Christ (v.21). But if we don’t obey the Bible, we deceive ourselves and we stay a spiritual baby. Obedience is beneficial, while disobedience is useless. In summary, applying the Bible to our lives (by obeying it) leads to godliness.

Written, April 2019

Also see: Understanding the Bible


What does “by his wounds you have been healed” mean?

figurative-language-1-400pxAll languages contain figures of speech where words have a figurative meaning instead of the literal one. The same is true for the Bible. It’s important to correctly recognize figurative language so we don’t treat figurative language as though it were literal, or treat literal language as though it were figurative.

The passage “by his wounds you have been healed” is mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24. What does it mean? From the context, “his wounds” refers to Christ’s suffering on the cross. Does it mean that through Christ’s death we can be miraculously healed from illness or injury? Or does it mean something else?

This passage is also alluded to in Deuteronomy 32:39NIV: “There is no god besides me. I (God) put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand”.
This verse is a part of the song of Moses which deals with the punishment of the nations which God used to punish Israel. Here God is shown to be sovereign over the nations. He can destroy them (“put to death”) and create them (“bring to life”). He can judge them (“wound”) and restore them (“heal”). So in this context, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech for restoring the fortunes of a nation. It has nothing to do with recovering from an illness or injury.

We will now look at Isaiah 53:5, followed by 1 Peter 2:24.

In Isaiah

The Hebrew word nirpa (Strongs #7495), which is translated “heal”, is mentioned in six verses in the book of Isaiah. According to the Appendix, in 80% (4/5) of these verses, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech. So what does it mean in the other verse, Isaiah 53:5? Is it figurative or literal?

Isaiah prophesied and wrote in Judea in about 700BC when there was great wickedness and idolatry amongst the Judeans. There are four “servant songs” in the book of Isaiah in which the servant is the promised Messiah (Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13 – 53:12). The fourth song describes a servant who would experience suffering and exaltation. Isaiah 53:5 is set in the following context.

4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Here the servant endured: pain, suffering, punishment, striking, affliction, piercing, crushing, and wounding. This punishment was from God and in this way the servant took the punishment that “we” deserve for “our” transgressions, iniquities and sin (v.10, 12). In this context the “we” and “our” were the faithful remnant of Judah (Isa. 10:20-23; 11:11; 37:31-32; 46:3). The result is that they experience peace and healing and justification (v.11). Their problem was that they “had gone astray” (v.6). They had sinned and transgressed the law of Moses. There is no mention of illness or injury. So in this verse “healed” means forgiveness of their sins and transgressions, not physical healing. According to the NET version, “Healing is a metaphor for forgiveness here”. It’s a spiritual healing, not a physical one. Brown-Driver-Briggs says that its figurative and addressing a nation or city like Babylon (Jer. 17:14). This means that the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech in 83% (5/6) of the verses where it is mentioned in the book of Isaiah.

In 1 Peter

The Greek word iaomai (Strongs #2390), which is translated “to heal”, is only mentioned once in the books written by Peter (1 Pt. 2:24). Most of the other instances of this word in the New Testament refer to physical healing. The exceptions are:
Acts 28:27, which is a quotation of Isaiah 6:10 in which the phrase “I (God) would heal them” is used as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival (see Appendix).
Hebrews 12:13 “’Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed”. The context of this verse is enduring hardship as God’s discipline (v.3-13). They are encouraged to persevere instead of giving up. The desired outcome is to “share in His (God’s) holiness” (v.10). This is a spiritual solution, not a physical one. So it was a spiritual problem, not a physical one. The “lame” is a weak believer (who had maybe drifted away, Heb. 2:1) and to be “healed” is to be built up, strengthened and restored (instead of stumbled). The NLT says “Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong”. So the words “lame”, “disabled” and “healed” are being used metaphorically in this verse.

So what does “heal” mean in 1 Peter 2:24. This verse is set in the following context:

23 When they hurled their insults at Him [Jesus], He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted himself to Him [God the Father] who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by His wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

After dealing with submission to authorities, Paul gives the example of Christ’s submission when He suffered for our sins. Then he quotes from Isaiah 53:4-6 to encourage believers to live godly lives: “so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right” (v. 24, NLT). The verse is referring to sin and righteousness, not sickness and disease. Therefore, being “healed” means to be forgiven and saved, not to be physically healed. According to Thayers’ Greek Lexion “by His wounds you have been healed” means “to bring about (one’s) salvation”. It’s a way of saying that Christ’s death brings salvation to those who trust in Him. So, it’s spiritual healing. This is consistent with the finding that Isaiah 53:5 is also addressing spiritual healing, which should be the case as that is the source of the quotation in 1 Peter 2:24.

Discussion

This study has illustrated how to use the surrounding context to distinguish figurative language from literal language in the Bible. The verses and passages in each book of the Bible are set out in an order determined by God. Don’t try to understand a verse or passage in isolation. Look at the message in the whole book. Look at the message in the same chapter, in the previous chapter and in the following chapter. Look at the message in the verses before and in the verses after. Read it like any other book; don’t just read here and there. Proverbs is the only book of the Bible where the verses aren’t always related to each other.

If a verse is quoted and explained without looking at the surrounding context, there is a danger of eisegesis (an interpretation that is imposed on the biblical text by the reader – it comes from the reader’s preconceived ideas) instead of exegesis (an interpretation that is obtained/derived from the biblical text).

In our everyday language the meaning of the words we use is mainly given by the surrounding context. The same rule applies when interpreting Scripture. It’s not good practice to select verses elsewhere in Scripture (i.e. “cherry picking”) to derive the meaning of a particular verse. Who decides which selection is best? But once the meaning has been explained, it’s OK to look for other passages of Scripture that are consistent with the meaning.

If this passage from Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 is not relevant to illness and injury, then what is a proper Biblical response to such circumstances? Paul prayed about his health problems, but when it was clear that that weren’t going to be taken away, he knew that God doesn’t promise to remove our ailments and problems (2 Cor. 12:9). Instead God can give us the strength to live with our ailments and problems, because human weakness enables the display of divine power. Like a parent trains their children, God uses suffering for our spiritual development (Heb. 12:4-13). It’s how our self-reliance, pride, and earthly wisdom can be replaced with godliness and a stronger faith. James taught that the purpose of such trials is to develop our endurance, patience and perseverance (Jas. 1:2-3). Because our problems can develop our Christian character, we should accept them joyfully instead of getting angry, complaining, giving up, having self-pity, or believing that God will take them away. That can be a challenge for us!

Conclusion

We have seen that the passage “by his wounds you have been healed” mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 doesn’t mean that through Christ’s death we will be miraculously healed from illness or injury. Instead it means that through Christ’s death our sins can be forgiven and we can be spiritually healed and revived. However, physical healing is promised in future when believers will be resurrected to experience no sickness, pain, suffering, or death (Rev.21:1-4, 22:1-3).

Paul’s response to his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:9), parental training of their children (Heb. 12:4-13), and James’ advice on trials (Jas. 1:2-3) are good examples on how to react to illness or injury.

Appendix: Usage of the word “heal” in Isaiah

The Hebrew word nirpa (Strongs #7495), which is translated “heal”, is mentioned in six verses in the book of Isaiah. We now look briefly at the meaning of this word in five of these verses.

Isa. 6:10b: “Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed”. This verse is in a passage describing the results of Isaiah’s ministry to Judah. The people would be unresponsive (like being deaf and blind) and turn even further from God. It’s opposite to people turning back to God (being repentant). And opposite to a spiritual revival. And opposite to spiritual healing. So the phrase “be healed” is used in this verse as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival.

Isa. 19:22: “The Lord will strike Egypt with a plague; He will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the Lord, and He will respond to their pleas and heal them”. Here the Egyptians are able to pray for deliverance from the plague like the Israelites (1 Ki. 8:35-40). In this verse, the word “heal” is used for physical healing from the plague, which is a disease.

Isa. 30:26: “The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted”. This chapter describes Israel relying on political alliances instead of on God, which results in suffering and sorrow. The suffering and sorrow are referred to metaphorically as “bruises” and “wounds”. But they are promised blessing if they repent. The end of their suffering and sorrow is likened to a metaphorical healing. So the word “heals” is used as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival when the Israelites repent to obey God once again.

Isa. 57:18-19: “I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners, creating praise on their lips. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the Lord. “And I will heal them”. These verses are in a passage where God promises to restore the Israelites who turn away from idolatry. The meaning of the word “heal” is given as to “guide”, to “restore comfort to Israel’s mourners” and to bring “peace”. There is no mention of illness or injury. So the word “heal” is used here as a figure of speech for forgiveness and restoration.

So in 80% (4/5 of these verses, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech. The other verse that we haven’t considered here is: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed“ (Isa. 53:5). The meaning of “healed” in this verse is discussed above under the heading “In Isaiah”.

Written, February 2017

Also see: Goes God heal all our sicknesses? Part 1
Does God heal all our sicknesses? Part 2
Understanding the Bible


How to start reading the Bible

The Bible is a big book that was written thousands of years ago. Where do I begin to read it? And, what does it mean for a reader today? Here’s a simple outline of the Bible’s structure. It can be divided into two sections. The portion written before the 400 years of silence is called the Old Testament and portion written afterwards the New Testament.

The books of Psalms to Song of Songs are Israelite wisdom and poetry. Most were written 1000 – 700 BC.

Chinese bible 2 400pxWhere do I begin?

A history book or a story book is usually read from the beginning to the end. Stories usually begin with an introduction and then suspense builds up to a climax. The climax is the turning point of the story when the main problem is addressed. After the climax there is relief and it ends with a conclusion.

It’s probably best to begin by reading the introduction and the climax of the Bible.

The introduction of the Bible is a foundation for the rest of the Bible. So start with Genesis chapters 1 to 11. It begins with God creating a perfect universe (Gen. 1-2). But then the first couple, Adam and Eve, disobey God (Gen. 3), which brings conflict and evil into the world. This sinful pattern of behavior and its impact is demonstrated by the events described in the rest of the Old Testament. It is a characteristic of humanity that doesn’t change.

Because of their disobedience and wickedness, God punished mankind with a global flood (Gen. 6-9) and by dispersing people across the earth into different languages and nations (Gen. 10-11).

The climax is when God solves the problem of people’s sinfulness. He does this by coming to the earth and taking the punishment that we all deserve. There are four separate accounts of the life of Jesus Christ: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It’s a good idea to read Mark first because it is the shortest.

The Bible’s climax has two plot twists. Firstly, Jesus’ followers believe He is the Messiah, but their hopes are dashed when instead of setting up His kingdom on earth, He is executed as a criminal. So their great expectations are replaced by grief and loss. Secondly, a few days after His burial Jesus miraculously resurrects back to life and the grief and loss is replaced with joy! What a dramatic fluctuation in emotions!

What’s the main theme?

The Bible is all about God’s solution to the problem of people’s sinfulness. This is God’s promise or God’s rescue plan. It is fulfilled in the history of Israel, from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to king David and to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. It is now fulfilled in the Christian church, which includes all nations. In the future it will be fulfilled in the resurrection of God’s people and the restoration of creation back to its original state.

What does it mean?

In order to understand the original meaning of a passage of Scripture it’s good to know who it was written to. For example, the Old Testament was written to Jews living in Palestine, whereas Paul’s letters were written to Christians living around the Mediterranean Sea. It also helps to know where it occurs in the sequence of events shown in the table. For example, was it written before or after Jesus was on earth? The context is also important – what happens before and afterward the passage?

Other questions can be asked, such as – What does it say about God? What does it say about humanity?

What’s its conclusion?

Choose-your-own-path adventure story books and video games have multiple endings. At the end of each chapter/episode, there is a choice between various options, which determines the path taken and the eventual ending of the story.

The Bible has two conclusions. They are heaven (Rev. 21:9 – 22:5) or the lake of fire (hell) (Rev. 20:15). Which one will you choose as your destiny?

Written, January 2015

Also see: Understanding the Bible
Read the Bible in one year
How to read the Bible in chronological order


Understanding the Bible

Bonjour!

When we visited Europe recently, we were exposed to other languages and cultures. In order to communicate it helps to know some words in the local language. The Bible was written thousands of years ago when there were different languages and different customs and circumstances to today. Fortunately it has been translated into modern English, but how can we understand it? It’s more remote than Europe, coming from not only another place, but another time in history.

When Timothy was dealing with false teachers, Paul urged him to “correctly handle” the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). So there is a correct way to understand and explain and apply the Bible. God wants us to understand His message in the Bible and to use it for godly living. Let’s look at how we can do that.

A divine message

The Bible is often called “God’s word” (Heb. 4:12; 1 Pt. 1:25) because it is a divine message from God written by chosen people in their language and time. Firstly, it was a message to their generation.

Secondly it was a message to later generations. Ezra lived about 1,000 years after Moses. When he read to the people what Moses had written, the Levites made it clear “giving the meaning so that the people understood” (Neh. 8:8). The reason for this was that after their exile in Babylon, the Jews spoke Aramaic whereas the Scriptures were written in Hebrew. So the Levites explained the text by translating the language from Hebrew into Aramaic.

It is also a message to us who live thousands of years afterwards – John wrote his gospel so that his readers “may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God” (Jn. 20:31NIV). That includes us today. Also, after Thomas saw Jesus, he believed that He had risen from the dead. Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29). Here He is referring to people like us who didn’t see Jesus after His resurrection, but who would believe in His resurrection based on the Scriptural account.

We want to understand the meaning that God intended. There is a promise for doing this – we read “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29). In this instance it is a blessing for those who understand from reading the Bible that Jesus rose from the dead.

The Bible was written in ancient times. To read it is like visiting those ancient times. We are like tourists travelling to a different place where there is a different language, culture, situation, time in history and maybe a different covenant in God’s dealing with humanity.

Understanding the Bible 2We also need to know that the Bible is a progressive revelation. Truth gets added as we move from the beginning to the end. So we should also read it as those who have the whole book and know God’s whole program of salvation.

The method

The steps involved in understanding a passage in the Bible are as follows:

  • What was the meaning when it was written? This is the original meaning.
  • What were the original principles behind this meaning?
  • What has changed since then?
  • What are the universal principles for us today? Here we update the principles.
  • What is the meaning for us today? How should we apply these universal principles? Here we update the applications or practices of the principles.

 

Understanding the Bible 1Understanding and obeying (or applying) the Bible helps us to live in a godly way – “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Let’s look at an example to see how this method works. In the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, the Israelites were told, “If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—if they unwittingly touch anything ceremonially unclean (whether the carcass of an unclean animal, wild or domestic, or of any unclean creature that moves along the ground) and they are unaware that they have become unclean, but then they come to realize their guilt; … they must confess in what way they have sinned. As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin” (Lev. 5:2, 5-6).

The original meaning

When each passage was written it had only one meaning. That’s what we are looking for. What did the people need to know and do? What is the core meaning of the passage? To do this we need to study the text (including any figures of speech), the historical-cultural context, and the literary context. Also, if the passage is obscure, we can use a clearer one to explain it.

The text. When they realized they had touched something that was ceremonially unclean, they were to confess their sin and bring a female lamb or goat to be killed at the tabernacle by the priest and they will be forgiven (Lev. 5:13).

The Bible has lots of figures of speech like metaphors and similes, but there are none in this passage.

The historical-cultural context. This was when the Israelites were travelling through the wilderness from Egypt to Canaan. They lived in tents, amongst tribes and kept animals. It was after the times of Abraham, but before the times of the Israelite judges and kings.

The literary context.
What genre or type is it? In the Old Testament there is narrative (story), law, poetry, prophecy, and wisdom. The book of Leviticus gives laws that were given to Moses when they were camped at Mt Sinai. So it is law that is set in the narrative of the journey to Canaan.

Is it a command, a model to follow or just a report of events?

  • It is a command. It says “they must” confess and they “must bring” an offering (Lev. 4:5-6). It is mandatory (not optional) and prescriptive (not descriptive) because the Israelites were to keep the laws given to Moses.
  • It’s not just a model to follow like the practice of Christians meeting together on the first day of the week or of deacons serving in the church (1 Tim. 3:8-13).
  • It’s not a report of events and descriptive like David’s adultery (2 Sam. 11:1-17), Solomon’s wives and concubines (1 Ki. 11:1-3) and the fact that Judas hanged himself (Mt. 27:5).

The surrounding context. The verses and passages in each book of the Bible are set out in an order determined by God. Don’t try to understand a verse or passage in isolation. Look at the message in the whole book. Look at the message in the same chapter, in the previous chapter and in the following chapter. Read it like any other book; don’t just read here and there. Proverbs is the only book of the Bible where the verses aren’t always related to each other.
With regard to our passage in Leviticus – In Exodus God makes a covenant with Israel as His special people and lives with them in a royal tent, the tabernacle. In Leviticus He describes how they are to be holy by being separate from sin and living for God instead. “Holy” is a key word, occurring about 80 times in Leviticus. The verses are in a passage describing how they could become pure after unintentional sin (Lev. 4:1 – 5:13). First it deals with the leaders and then with individuals. Lev. 5:2 says they are defiled if they touch any unclean thing such as dead animals or unclean animals. This means they are unable to approach God and worship Him. In chapters 11-15 they are told what is ritually unclean – what stopped them participating in the rituals God gave them. Here we see that spiritual holiness is symbolized by physical perfection. In order to be purified and forgiven after they are defiled they must confess their sin and bring the priest a lamb or goat for a sacrifice (Lev. 5:5-6). The priest would sacrifice the animal on their behalf and they will be clean again and able to approach and worship God once again. The verses afterwards say the poor could offer pigeons or flour instead of a lamb or goat.

Now we know the original meaning of the passage, what are the principles behind it?

The original principles

A principle is a general truth applicable in a variety of situations. For example, “love your neighbor as yourself” is a biblical principle (Lev. 19:18). Here we look at what did it teach them about God and humanity? What does it teach about God’s program of salvation?

The principle is that God is holy and when He lives with His people they must keep separate from sin and unclean things. If they fail and become unclean, they must be purified by the sacrifice of an animal offered by a priest.

Now we know the ancient principle behind the passage. But what about us today living a few thousand years later? We need to update the principle.

What has changed since then?

Here we compare between then and now by considering the culture, situation, and time in history. Were God’s people living under a different covenant? Was their situation unique? We also take into account all the scriptures written after the passage because God’s revelation is progressive. Fortunately we see that God and people don’t change throughout history: He is always divine and people are always sinful.

Our time in history, situation, and culture are different to then. We live in a city, not in the wilderness. We are under a different covenant and no longer under the OT law. We haven’t been given these commands to follow. We are not Israelites travelling to Canaan with God living in a tent; we are Christians with God living in us as the Holy Spirit. We don’t approach God through the sacrifice of animals, but through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Also through Christ we have direct access to God and no longer need priests as mediators. The book of Hebrews describes how the old Jewish system was superseded by the unique priesthood of Christ.

We are not defiled by touching dead animals but by impure thoughts and sinful actions – Jesus said “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather it is what comes out of a person that defiles them … For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mk. 7:15, 21-23).

Now we know what’s changed since then, what are the principles behind the passage for us today?

The modern principles

What does it teach us about God and humanity? The principle for Christians today is to be holy because the holy God lives within us. This means staying away from sinful actions and impure thoughts. If we fail, then confess the sin and receive forgiveness through the death of Christ.

As God’s people we have accepted that Christ’s sacrificial death was for our sins, and so the penalty for these has already been paid. But sin breaks our fellowship with God. This can only be restored by confessing the sin to God – “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).

If you haven’t accepted that Christ died for your sins, then you are spiritually dead and lack the power of God, the Holy Spirit, who enables us to engage with God. You miss out on our reason for existence. You are not part of God’s people and this passage doesn’t apply to you.

Now we know the modern principle, how can we put it into practice today?

The modern applications

How should we apply these universal principles? Each principle has many applications according to the different situations people can be in. What do we need to know and do? Let’s think of some real life situations for four areas mentioned previously in Mark 7:21-22: sexual immorality, greed, envy and slander.

Sexual immorality. What about internet pornography? Viewing this is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from pornography because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent of the sin and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.

Greed. The writer of Hebrews commanded, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5). Are we content with what we have or do we always want more? Always wanting more is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from greed because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.

Envy. What about when we jealously compare ourselves against others and wish that our life could be more like theirs? Envy is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from it because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.

Slander. What about when we put someone else down or spoil their reputation? Slander and gossip is a violation of God’s holiness and it hinders our ability to approach and worship God and to fellowship with God. Christians should stay away from it because it defiles us. But if we do fall into this sin we need to confess and repent and through the death of Christ, we will be forgiven and our fellowship with God will be restored.

We have applied this passage to sexual immorality, greed, envy and slander. What are the sins in your life that defile you and hinder your prayer and worship and fellowship with God? Let’s apply this principle to them as well.

What are the Lessons for us?

The Bible was written for common people like us. It is not difficult to understand. It doesn’t have hidden or secret meanings.

Understanding the Bible 1The Bible is not an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress where the more significant meaning is not the literal one but is hidden and you need to understand the symbols to decode the allegorical meaning. In the few passages where there is allegory, this is explained in the text. For example, Paul said that Hagar represented the old Jewish covenant made at Mount Sinai and Sarah the new covenant (Gal. 4:24-26). So don’t spiritualize everything in the Bible. Instead, let’s use the principles behind the biblical text to understand the Bible. See in the diagram how they help us move from the ancient meaning to the modern applications.

So let’s understand God’s message in the Bible by finding the original meaning, and then the principles behind this, and updating them according to what has changed since then, and applying these modern principles in our daily lives. This is important because God wants us to understand His message and to use it for godly living.

Au revoir!

Reference: J S Duvall & J D Hays (2012) “Grasping God’s word”, Zondervan.

Written, June 2014

Also see: The best way to live


What does the Old Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?

A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or other reasons. Tattooing is a tradition among indigenous peoples around the world. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. We are looking at this topic because it gives us an example of how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives.

The Bible

God has communicated to us in words that are recorded in the Bible. The Bible is a progressive revelation of God’s dealings with humanity, which is divided into two main parts: the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament (OT) records events up to the birth of Jesus Christ (B.C.) and was written in the Hebrew language to the Jewish nation. It begins with the creation of the universe and the first people Adam and his wife Eve and the fact that they disobeyed God. Because this rebellious pattern has been inherited by us all, we are all under God’s judgement. According to the OT, God chose the Jewish nation to be His special people, but they were unfaithful.

The New Testament (NT) records events after the birth of Jesus Christ (A.D.) and was written in the Greek language to Christians. It describes Jesus as the Son of God who came to pay the punishment for our rebellion by giving up His life. All those who recognise that He died for them and accept His offer of a future eternal life in a world without sadness, sickness, decay or death become His followers who are called Christians. The NT contains principles for living as a Christian.

The Jewish Bible is the OT, while the Christian Bible is the OT plus the NT. So, although the OT was not written to Christians it is the first part of their Bible, which provides the context for the NT.

In order to understand the meaning of any words we need to understand the text or words themselves and the context or how they are used.

The Text

The only specific mention of tattoos in the Bible is a command given to the Jews about 3,450 years ago; “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Lev. 19:28NIV). The text is clear; it says don’t get tattoos. If that’s the complete answer to our question, we can stop now and finish early!

If you think that is the answer, then you would also need to obey the following commands which occur in the same chapter:

  • “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material”, which would require removing many items from your wardrobe (Lev. 19:19).
  • “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”, which would require the cultivation of bushy sideburns and beards (Lev. 19:27).
  • “Observe my Sabbaths”, which would require keeping the Sabbath day as in OT times (Lev. 19:30).

So, in order to understand the context of this verse we will look at when it was written and why it was written.

The Context

When was it written?

The book of Leviticus is a series of commands that ends with; “These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites” (Lev. 27:34). It contains instructions given to the Jews as they travelled from Egypt to Canaan. As they were to be God’s people in that age, He gave them the ten commandments and many other instructions on how to live. The book of Leviticus was an instruction manual for the Jewish priests, who were from the tribe of Levi and so were called “Levites” (Ex. 32:25-29; Num. 8:5-22). That’s why it’s called Leviticus.

As Christians are God’s people today, and as God doesn’t change, the instructions in Leviticus may apply in some way to Christians today. However, as this was over 1,400 years before Christ lived on earth and founded the Christian faith, we would also expect that these instructions may apply in a different way to Christians today compared to how they applied to the Jews, or they may not apply at all.

Why was it written?

In order to understand the reason and circumstances for a verse, we can look at the verses nearby. Two main reasons are given for the instructions in Leviticus 19. The first reason was the requirement to be holy and the second reason was to not follow the wicked customs of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-24, 26). They were commanded to “Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them” and to “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 18:30; 19:2).

The Hebrew word translated “holy” (Strongs #6918) is an adjective that describes something or someone as being “pure” or “devoted”. God is holy because He alone is pure and sinless. The Jews were to be holy in the sense that they were to be devoted to God. They were to show this by obeying His commands given in the OT (Ex. 19:5-6).

They were to be a nation that didn’t worship idols or offer child sacrifices or practice sexual immorality like the other nations (Lev. 18; 19:4; 20:1-5). Holiness is the key theme in Leviticus and it was to characterise the Jewish nation.

The Meaning for the Jews

What did “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” mean when Moses was alive (Lev. 19:28)? A similar verse says, “You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be His treasured possession” (Dt. 14:1-2). Self-inflicted wounds were symbolic of self-sacrifice as an extreme method of arousing a pagan god to action. For example, the 450 prophets of Baal in Elijah’s day slashed themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed (1 Ki. 18:28).

So the tattoos were associated with people cutting their bodies and with pagan gods. As the “tattoo marks” described in Leviticus 19:28 were related to false religious practices, they were prohibited because God did not want the Jews to be identified with idolatry. The principle associated with this command is that God’s people were not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which was backsliding and deserting their Jewish faith.

Examples, Warnings, Encouragement and Hope

How should we interpret the OT today? According to Scripture, Christians are not required to obey Old Testament laws.  Because Christ has fulfilled the law by paying the death penalty for everyone’s sin (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4), the Old Testament laws have been set aside and are obsolete (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:18; 8:13) and believers are not under the laws received by Moses, but under God’s grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:23-25).

The following verses throw more light on the purpose of the OT. When Paul wrote about the need for self-discipline and self-control in the Christian life to be rewarded for faithful service, he thought of the examples and warnings from the history of the Jewish people (1 Cor. 10:1-13). “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” and “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). Also, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Rom 15:4TNIV).

So, when OT laws are interpreted in terms of their context and the doctrines of the New Testament, useful principles and examples may be derived from these laws (1 Cor. 10:6-11; 2 Tim. 3:15-1). They can also be a source of encouragement and hope (Rom. 15:4; Heb. 11). In this sense, the OT has a message for Christians. A test of the examples, warnings, encouragement and hope we find in the OT is that they must be consistent with the teachings of the NT. It’s like looking through polarised sunglasses, where only light in a particular plane is transmitted. Of course, the OT also contains references to the coming Messiah, which we can see by hindsight (Col. 2:17).

What examples and warnings can we learn for our everyday life from the Jewish prohibition on tattoos?

The Meaning for Christians

Text

As it is not mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of tattooing is not specifically prohibited for Christians today. However, a comment on Revelation 13:16-18 and 19:16 is given in the next article in this series.

Context

We are Christians living in 2009, not Jews travelling from Egypt to Canaan many years ago. Also, believers are under the new covenant, not the old one.

The two main reasons for the instruction in Leviticus were: the requirements to be holy, and not to follow the wicked customs of other nations. The first reason is repeated in the NT: “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pt. 1:14-16); which quotes from Leviticus 19:2. Christians are also to be devoted to God and to show this by obeying His commands in the NT.

The second reason is also repeated in the NT. The Bible teaches that true believers display the fruit of the Spirit instead of the acts of the sinful nature and do not sin continually and habitually (Gal. 5:19-23; 1 Jn. 3:4-10).

So the overall reasons for the instruction still apply today. They are universal timeless principles. However, today a tattoo is usually a means of self expression and a personal decoration that is not associated with idolatry.

The meaning of Leviticus 19:28 for Christians is that God’s people are not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which would be backsliding and deserting their faith. In this case, the faith is the Christian faith, not the Jewish faith. This is consistent with the New Testament teaching that believers are to have nothing to do with idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21) and not desert their faith, which is apostasy (Heb. 3:12).

Lessons For Us

What to know

There is a difference between the OT and the NT. Because the verses in the OT were written primarily to Jews and not to Christians, they may have no direct application to us today. As God communicates to us progressively through the Bible, OT verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the NT (Lk. 24:25-27).

What to do

When reading the OT, look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope that are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, the questions that could be considered before a Christian gets a tattoo are: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?

These are factors we should consider when applying the OT to our daily lives.

Written, August 2009

See the other articles in this series:
What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
What does the Bible say about Christians getting tattoos?


Putting Christmas In Context

Preparing for the holiday

Christmas is coming! It’s a great time of festivity, celebration, exchanging gifts and expressing love and goodwill toward one another. It’s when Christians remember the birth of Jesus Christ. Everyone is friendly at this time of year.

The Christmas story is in the context of a bigger story. We learn about it from the Bible, which is God’s historical message to humanity. Some would ask, “Why bring God into Christmas?” Because He was behind the special Babe born in Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago.

But hasn’t science explained everything without the need to bring God into it? No! It can’t explain the complexity of life. We live in a world of many living things, so complex that science is unable to create it from non-living matter. Scientists can’t even manufacture a single living cell, like an amoeba. Furthermore, living organisms have the unique ability to continually repair and maintain and reproduce themselves – an ability that cannot be replicated by science and technology. Also, the origin of the “software” of the DNA molecule can’t be explained by science. The origin of life is beyond the realm of science, as is the origin of matter, energy and time. Why is there anything at all? These “why” and “origin” questions are beyond the realm of science.

The Big Picture
In the beginning of time God created life on earth. The first people, Adam and Eve, lived in the Garden of Eden. It was utopia, but it didn’t last long. God tested their obedience by telling them not to eat from one of the trees in the garden. But they were tempted to eat from this tree and when they did, they disobeyed God. This brought evil and rebellion into the world, and we have all inherited this sinful nature. The world changed completely when God cursed it; He introduced death and put a barrier between people and God. That’s why we live in a tough, disappointing and decaying world – a world of disease, suffering and injustice. That’s why life is a struggle and our relationships are fractured – with each other, with the physical environment and with God. No one can have utopia today. If that was the end of the story, then there would be nothing lasting to live for and we would be disillusioned, depressed and pessimistic.

Fortunately that’s not the end of the story. God had a rescue plan for mankind; it’s recorded in the Bible by eyewitnesses. Here’s a summary of that plan. God would send His Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to fix the relationship between us and God. He entered our world in a personal way. He’s on our side and did everything possible to rescue us. Jesus lived like a human being, except without being sinful since He was the divine Son of God. He lived a perfect, sinless life in obedience to God; something that Adam and Eve didn’t do. Then He was killed to rescue us – to take the punishment for sin that we deserve. Only a perfect person could do that. This plan took about 33 years – from Jesus’ birth until His death. We remember His birth at Christmas and His death at Easter.

These occasions remind us that Jesus had a unique birth and a unique death. To show that He was not an ordinary person, after He was buried He came back to life and then went back to be with God. Only the God who created life has such power. People are given the opportunity to accept or reject God’s rescue plan. This has been happening for almost 2,000 years. Finally, God will return to judge the world and restore it to be like paradise. All who accept the rescue plan will enjoy God’s new creation. When God personally steps into His creation, big things happen. He has done this once and will do it again. The rescue plan gives us Someone and something to live for with purpose, confidence and optimism.

The big picture is visualized in the diagram. God created a perfect world. This world was changed and spoiled when humanity sinned. God sent His Son to take the punishment by dying for us so that those who accept the rescue plan can enter into God’s new creation. That’s the background to the Christmas story.

The First Christmas
All these things are real historical events; we acknowledge Christ’s existence whenever we write the date. The current year is 2008 AD, which means 2008 years since His birth. The word “Jesus” is not just a swear word, but the name given to this baby before He was born. “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua” which means “God saves” – because “He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21 NIV). God sent Him to be the Savior of the world (1 Jn. 4:14). Like a lifesaver rescues those who are drowning, Jesus can rescue us from God’s eternal judgment. His name reflects the fact that He is the most important part of God’s rescue plan.

After His birth, an angel told the shepherds, “I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody. The Savior, who is Messiah and Master has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David” (Lk. 2:10-11 MSG). Christ’s birth was announced as good news of great joy for everyone because this baby was the Savior and the promised Messiah. He was God in human form – “God with us” – the Messiah that the Jews were looking for (Mt. 1:23). That’s why His birth, life and death were unique. He’s also called Master and King because He is the leader of God’s new creation.

Angels sang the first Christmas carol: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (Lk. 2:14). They praised God for this Baby who would enable people to have peace with God and be rescued from the coming judgment (Jn. 3:17; Eph. 2:14-17). The most important thing we can do is make peace with God by admitting that we’re less than perfect, deciding to turn away from our sins, asking God to forgive our sins and control our life. When we accept His gift of pardon, forgiveness and reconciliation with God, we gain inner peace and can look forward to the paradise of God’s new creation (Rom. 5:1). It’s like being reborn into a new life. Then we have a real reason to celebrate Christ’s coming to the world.

Your choice
God doesn’t force any of this on us. It’s like a gift that can be accepted or rejected – Jesus is God’s gift to us (Jn. 4:10-14). We have a choice. God lets us manage our own lives, but we receive the consequences of our choices. We will all face God one day. Will you face a lifesaver, or a judge?

Published, November 2008


Was the “breaking of bread” – mentioned in Acts 2:42, 2:46 and Acts 20:7, 20:11 – the Lord’s Supper or a shared meal?

The phrase “breaking of bread” is used in the New Testament to refer both to the Lord’s Supper and to eating an ordinary meal. The meaning in a particular case should be determined from the context. The Greek word artos means “bread” or “loaf”; the word klao means “to break” or “to break off pieces”; and klasis refers to the act of breaking. So, “breaking of bread” signified the dividing of bread cakes or loaves into pieces.

Some instances of “breaking bread” clearly refer to the Lord’s Supper which was instituted by Christ on the night He was betrayed (Mt. 26:26; Mk. 14:22; Lk. 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:23-24). Another passage refers to the cup as well as the bread and explains the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:16-17 NIV).

Other instances of “breaking bread” clearly refer to an ordinary meal. It was the duty of the host providing the meal to divide the bread into pieces and give thanks. For example, Christ miraculously used a few fish and loaves of bread to feed large crowds (Mt. 14:19; 15:36; Mk. 8:6,19). After the Resurrection, He ate a meal with two people at Emmaus (Lk. 24:30, 35). When Paul was about to be shipwrecked, he shared a meal with the 275 people on board (Acts 27:35). In each of these instances, God was thanked before the bread was broken and the meal eaten.

The interpretation of the other instances of “breaking bread” in the New Testament is not so clear. After the day of Pentecost, the early believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). As it is unlikely they “devoted themselves” to a meal, this breaking of bread was probably the Lord’s Supper. And the context suggests that this prayer is more likely associated with the Lord’s Supper than with a meal.

The early believers also “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). As most Greek–English interlinear Bibles place a comma between these two clauses in the Greek language instead of “and”, they seem to refer to the same event, a shared meal. This means that a better translation may be that they “broke bread in their homes, eating together with glad and sincere hearts.” But the New Living Translation believes it refers to meeting in homes for both the Lord’s Supper and sharing meals.

Paul stayed in Troas for seven days in order to break bread on the first day of the week: “But we … joined the others at Troas, where we stayed seven days. On the first day of the week we came together to break bread” (Acts 20:6-7). Was this the Lord’s Supper or a shared meal? After Eutychus was miraculously brought back to life, Paul “went upstairs again and broke bread and ate” (Acts 20:11). As most interlinear Bibles have the word “and” between “broke bread” and “ate” in the Greek language, this would imply two meals during the same evening if the breaking of bread meant a shared meal. Therefore, the best interpretation would be that after Paul took part in the Lord’s Supper he ate a meal. According to the NLT, “Then they all went back upstairs, shared in the Lord’s Supper, and ate together” (Acts 20:11). So, in both Acts 20:7 and 11 the writer Luke refers to the Lord’s Supper.

It should also be noted that in the early Church a fellowship meal was often held with the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20-22, 33-34; 2 Pet. 2:13; Jude 12). So, the answer to the question is that the context tells us that the “breaking of bread” is the Lord’s Supper in Acts 2:42 and 20:7 and 11, but a meal in Acts 2:46.

Published, July 2008