Choose your own adventure was a series of children’s books where the reader choose the main character’s actions and the plot’s outcome. This style of writing has been called gamebooks and interactive fiction. Today we are looking at choosing your own metaphors.
The key message of the Bible is the good news (or message) about Jesus, which includes:
– Our sinful state,
– Who Jesus is,
– What blessings God has promised to us, and
– What our response must be.
Various methods are used in the New Testament to communicate the message about Jesus including: parables, letters, speeches, sermons, conversations, and discussion meetings. Today God uses people like us to tell the message to humanity so that they can repent of their sin, trust that Jesus paid their penalty for rebelling and ignoring God, and follow and obey Him (Rom. 10:14-15).
The Bible gives us different ways to tell the message about Jesus to different people. To Jews, the apostles presented Jesus as the risen Savior and they quoted from the Old Testament. For example, Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Whereas to the Gentiles they talked about God’s providence (sending rain, making crops grow, providing food), His creation, and the universal human desire to worship a god. For example, Paul’s preaching at Athens (Acts 17).
Transgression and guilt
In the past we have often explained the gospel message like this. “We have all done things that we know are wrong, and if we break one law, it’s equivalent to breaking all of God’s laws. We stand guilty before God. We deserve to be punished by Him. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, God will forgive and justify us”. It describes how we can move from sinfulness to salvation.
This worked well in the previous generation for Billy Graham because people were familiar with the Bible. But many people no longer believe in absolutes and they aren’t familiar with the Bible. They see laws as just oppressive institutions, such as governments and churches, wielding power. So, we should probably be looking for other models of sin and salvation to this one of transgression/guilt and forgiveness/justification. Some other models for sin are given below.
Shame and dishonor
Smith, Warner and Bancroft brought shame and dishonor to the Australian cricket team last year for cheating in South Africa and were banned from playing for up to 12 months. They brought the game into disrepute and let down their teammates. When Paul preached to Gentiles, he said that they had been enjoying God’s general creation blessings but didn’t thank Him for them. Because they dishonored God, they needed to repent (Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-31). So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “We have not been honoring God” or “We have shamed God”. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, God will restore us.
Defilement and impurity
Women who suffer domestic abuse often feel defiled by what they have suffered. And those who are addicted to drugs can feel defiled and disgusted with themselves. So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “We feel defiled”. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, God will purify us.
All our relationships have some level of brokenness. This includes our relationship with ourselves, our relationships with others and our relationship with God. So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “Our relationship with God our Father is also broken”. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we can be reconciled with God.
We tend to look down on people that are not like us. If we care for the environment, we will look down on those who don’t care for the environment. If we are happily married, we will look down on those whose marriages have failed. So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “We are guilty of putting other people down and having an elevated view of ourselves”. We feel morally superior to them. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we can find our identity in Christ.
God gives us life, freedom, pleasure, success, health, sports, school, work, family, friends, wealth and possessions. But we can live for these instead of the God who gave them. So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “We become enslaved to what we live for and neglect the giver”. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we can find real freedom as we worship Him.
People are often urged to make the most of every opportunity and be the best they can to make a difference in this world. It’s a common message at school speech days. And we can do lots of good things, but we’re not good enough to be God’s children. So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “We need to admit we fall short of being a child of God”. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we become a child of God.
Because of fractured relationships at home and work, many people long for peace. Every aspect of our lives is affected by disharmony, disruption and despair. So instead of saying, “We stand guilty before God”, we could say “We need peace in our lives”. But if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we will have peace with God.
One commonly used definition is “Sin is anything that we think, say or do that is against what God says in the Bible”. It displeases God and separates us from God. And that’s right. But we can also use other words to describe sin. That’s what Jesus did in His parables. In the parable of the rich fool, it’s described as storing up earthly wealth but not having a rich relationship with God (Lk. 12:21). In the parable of the lost sheep, it’s being lost (Lk. 15:1-7). In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, it’s being confident of our righteousness and looking down on others (Lk. 18:9). Also, the meaning of the word “sin” has changed to the idea of a guilty, playful pleasure, like chocolates, ice cream, candy (lollies), or lingerie. It’s something that we have a delightful giggle about. Not something that can have serious consequences. So, some other ways to describe sin are: shame and dishonor, defilement and impurity, brokenness, self-righteousness, idolatry, falling short, and needing peace.
Likewise, we can use other metaphors to describe salvation (see Appendix).
Let’s be creative and use these metaphors appropriately to present the message about Jesus to others.
Appendix: Tabular summary of metaphors for sin and salvation
|Sin or sinful state||Correct response||Salvation (blessings)|
|Recognize our defilement||Cleansed
|Recognize our brokenness||Becoming a child of God
Looking down on others Pride
|Calling on Jesus name||Have our identity in Christ|
|Idolatry||Worshiping God||God’s favor|
|Falling short (of God’s righteousness)||Calling on Jesus’ name||Reconciliation|
|Enemy of God||Ceasing our hostilities||Peace
|Following God’s ways||Being on the correct path Restoration|
|Recognize our blindness/disease||Healing
|Deafness||Recognize our deafness||Healing
|Deadness||Recognize our lack of spiritual life||Life
|Ignorant of God||Listen to Jesus||Know God personally|
|Not a child of God||Repentance
|Thirsting||Recognize our thirst||Contentment|
|Recognize our hunger||Contentment|
|Calling on Jesus name||Rescued
|Calling on Jesus name||Rest|
This blogpost was sourced from the following book,
Chan S (2018) “Evangelism in a skeptical world”, Zondervan, p. 63-101.
Written, November 2018
I have been asked the question, “In which situations did Jesus decide or know to use His miraculous power?” The Bible records that crowds of people were amazed at His miracles. For example, after Jesus healed a paralyzed man, “Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, ‘We have seen remarkable things today’” (Lk. 5:26NIV). That’s a healthy response to a miracle, like the disciples who worshipped Jesus after His resurrection (Mt. 18:17).
The Bible records about 36 miracles that were associated with the ministry of Jesus. When John’s disciples asked Jesus if He was the Messiah, Jesus said, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” and Luke commented, “Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind” (Lk. 7:21-22). The context of these miracles is given below.
The situations when miracles occurred
When preaching and teaching
Jesus healed the sick when He was preaching and teaching in the synagogue about the good news of the kingdom of God (Mt. 4:23-25; 9:35). When news spread about this, large crowds followed Him and He healed all those who were sick. When Jesus was preaching, He forgave the sins of a paralyzed man and healed him (Mk. 2:1-12).
Those who came to Him
Jesus also healed those who came to Him (Mt. 8:1-4). This included those who touched Him (Mt. 9:20-22; 14:35-36). He even raised dead people back to life (Mt. 9:23-26)! And He healed two blind men after asking if they believed that He could do this (Mt. 9:27-31). On a least two occasions, Jesus fed a crowd of people in a remote place when they needed food (Mt. 14:15-21; Mk. 8:1-9).
Those He was told about
Jesus even healed people when someone else came to Him on their behalf (Mt. 8:5-13). So the person didn’t need to be close to Jesus to be healed. Even the daughter of a Canaanite woman was healed in this way (Mt. 15:22-28). She was healed because her mother had “great faith”, even though Jesus’ ministry was to Jews and not to Gentiles.
Those He saw
Jesus also healed those He saw during His daily life (Mt. 8:14-15; 28-34). When confronted by a demon possessed man, Jesus delivered him from the demon (Mk. 1:23-26). Jesus told blind Bartimaeus, “your faith has healed you” (Mk. 10:46-52). And He knew the Samaritan woman’s life story (Jn. 4:18-19).
As a witness to His disciples
Near the beginning of His ministry, Jesus turned water into wine when the wine ran out at a wedding (Jn. 2:1-11). His disciples were at the wedding and because of this miracle they “believed in Him”. John called such miracles, “signs through which He showed His glory” (Jn. 2:11). So the miracles were evidence of His divine power as the Messiah (the Son of God).
Jesus calmed a storm when the disciples urged Him to save them from drowning (Mt. 8:23-27; Mk. 4:35-41). On another occasion, He walked on water so He could calm a storm (Mt. 14:22-33). Jesus showed His omniscience in obtaining money for the temple tax from a fish that Peter caught, and predicting Peter’s denial (Mt. 17:24-27; 26:33-34).
The purpose of miracles
Confirmation of Christ’s divinity
Many of these miracles were done publicly. On the day of Pentecost, Peter said “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through Him, as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22). So Christ’s miracles were well known.
The miracles of Jesus demonstrated His divine power over disease, nature, the spirit world, material things and death. These miracles showed that Jesus is the Messiah (Mt. 11:1-6; Lk. 7:18-23) and the Son of God (Mt. 14:25-33). The Jewish people were expecting their Messiah to perform miracles, such as giving sight to the blind (Is. 42:7). The apostle John witnessed most of these miracles and wrote, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (Jn. 20:30-31). This purpose can still be achieved today when people read the account of Christ’s life in the Bible. But some people still rejected the evidence of Christ’s divinity despite the miracles He performed.
Confirmation of Christ’s message
Jesus came to preach the good news that He was the Messiah through whom salvation is possible (Mk. 1:14-15; 38; Lk. 19:10). In a warning about returning to Jewish practices, the early church was told, “How shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those (the apostles) who heard Him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will” (Heb. 2:2-3). So miracles were God’s confirmation of the gospel message. Although this passage applies to the early church, the same principle applies to the time of Jesus – the miracles were God’s confirmation of Christ’s message. They confirmed that He was the Messiah and that His message was from God. That’s why miracles accompanied Christ’s preaching and teaching.
To help Jews accept Christ’s message
Christ’s ministry was to Jews who demanded to see miracles (Mt. 12:38; 16:1,4; Mk. 8:11-12; Lk. 11:16, 29; Jn. 2:18; 4:48; 6:30). They would believe a message was from God if a miracle was shown to them (1 Cor. 1:22). Christ’s miracles were “signs through which He revealed His glory” and because of these, “His disciples believe in Him” (Jn. 1:11). After the Jewish people saw a miracle, they believed that Jesus was the Messiah (Jn. 6:14-15).
To bring people to belief, repentance, and eternal life
A major purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to bring people to repentance (Mt. 11:20-24). That’s why He denounced the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. And He could not do any miracles at His hometown of Nazareth, except lay His hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith – they didn’t believe that Jesus could heal (Mk. 6:1-6). The Pharisees and Herod hoped to see Jesus perform a miracle (Mt. 13:38; Mk. 8:11; Lk. 23:8). And those who had seen Him feed 5,000 men asked for another miracle (Jn. 6:30). In these instances, Jesus didn’t do miracles because He knew they wouldn’t believe His message.
Large crowds followed Jesus because of His miraculous healing of the sick (Jn. 6:2). When Jesus used five small loaves of bread and two small fish to feed over 5,000 people, they thought He was a prophet (Jn. 6:14). Then Jesus told them that God’s will for the Jews was to look to Jesus (“the one He has sent”) and believe in Him to receive eternal life (Jn. 6:36, 40). So, the miracles were evidence that Jesus was more than a prophet. Instead He was the Messiah who had been sent by God the Father.
A blind man was healed to display the works of God (Jn. 9:1-38). Afterwards the man believed that Jesus was the Messiah and he worshipped Him. Lazarus was raised from the dead “for God’s glory so that God’s Son (Jesus) may be glorified through it” (Jn. 11:4). After this miracle, the Jewish religious leaders said that if they let Jesus continue to do such miracles then “everyone will believe in Him” (Jn. 11:47-57). So they planned to arrest and kill Jesus.
An expression of compassion
Jesus healed people when He had compassion on them (Mt. 14:14; 20:34). He fed a hungry crowd when He had compassion on them (Mt. 15:32). And He raised her son from the dead when He had compassion on the widow of Nain (Lk. 7:13). In these examples, He was relieving people of suffering. So, although the spiritual needs of people are paramount, we see that Jesus was concerned about their physical needs as well. But Jesus only healed one of the many disabled people at the pool of Bethesda (Jn. 5:2-9). So Jesus was selective in using His miraculous power.
We have seen that the Bible says Jesus used His miraculous power when preaching and teaching, when people came to Him, when He was told about people, when He saw people, and as a witness to His disciples. And He was selective in the use of His divine power. The purpose of these miracles was to confirm Christ’s divinity; to confirm His message; to help Jews accept the message; to bring people to belief, repentance, and eternal life; and to show compassion. So Jesus used His miraculous power when these purposes could be achieved
Written, November 2016
Also see: How did Jesus do miracles?
For preachers and teachers
When we were travelling to Cornwall in southern England, we got in a hire car at Heathrow airport and followed a map to a roundabout. But we didn’t know which was the right exit! The signs weren’t obvious and it was raining, so we couldn’t tell which direction was south by the position of the sun in the sky. So we went around the roundabout a couple of times and then took an exit and pulled over as soon as possible. Then we got out a GPS and followed it to Cornwall. It helps to know where you are going! You key in the beginning and the end and the GPS works out the route between the two.
Giving a message is like a journey. You are taking people on a journey from the start to the end. Your job is to get them there safely. You don’t want to get lost along the way! And you don’t want them to leave before getting to the destination! As a GPS helps our journey, preparation helps our message.
Near the end of his life, Paul’s gave this command to Timothy. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:1-4NIV).
So a preacher or teacher is to “be prepared” (v.2). We need to allocate time to prepare our messages. We also need to explain Scripture – we do it with “careful instruction” because it needs to be understood clearly (v.2). Furthermore, we need to apply it to the listeners (“correct, rebuke and encourage”). They need to know what to do.
So let’s go on a journey looking at three main components of a message:
- Explanation – What is God telling us?
- Illustration – How can we remember it?
- Application – What is our response?
Because they involve God, preaching and teaching messages are not just ordinary human speeches. Whether it is based on a passage from the Bible or on a topic, we want to know what God says and what it means. That’s what gives authority to our message. That’s why the listener needs to understand and apply the message.
In order to include God’s viewpoint, in our message we need to explain something from the Bible. Otherwise it’s just a subjective human opinion. The Bible is God’s message to us. So selecting the main Bible passage or the Bible verses used is very important. It should follow much prayer and Bible study.
We have two main tools to explain a Bible passage. These are the written text and the context. Read the text many times to understand it yourself. Summarize it. Does it divide into a few sections or aspects that can be the sections of the message? I use subheadings to divide a message into sections. In each section I include explanation, illustration and application. It’s like a sandwich.
What is the main point? (In this case it was to always be ready to “preach the word” or “proclaim the message”). What did it mean to the original readers? In view of subsequent Scripture and our place in history, what does it mean to us now? I mention the main point in the introduction and the conclusion of the message. That’s what I want people to remember. So it is repeated. Don’t clutter the message with lots of other detail or too many Scripture references.
Are there figures of speech in the text? Explain these.
The context helps us understand the text. Here’s the context of 2 Tim. 4:2
- Paul is in a dungeon in Rome when Emperor Nero is persecuting Christians.
- Paul had trained Timothy. He was his mentor. They went on many missionary trips together.
- Timothy was in Ephesus where evil and sexual immorality were prevalent. Christians were in the minority and Christian faith was denounced and ridiculed.
- What happens before and after the passage? In our example, after describing the evil of the last days, and because God was watching and the coming reward (v.1), Timothy was to “preach the word”. This is followed by the reason for preaching – because people are rejecting the truth for myths (v.3-4).
Have you ever viewed a video that explains something? I have seen ones that explain more about word processing. It’s not enough to see the buttons and icons on a screen; we need to know how to use them. “Explain Everything” is an app that helps teachers record lessons and demonstrations. It’s used to make these videos. Explaining a Bible passage is like one of these instructional videos.
We explain so our listeners can understand the message. How well are we explaining? It’s good to aim your message at teenagers. Can they understand it? Can they get the message? If not, then I suggest that many of our listeners will miss it as well. Use simple language so people can understand. And don’t be too technical.
Like the route of a journey on a GPS, a message needs a beginning and an ending. So after determining the main point and the subheadings, I write the Introduction and the Conclusion. These give the framework to the message and stop us going off the topic.
Now that the people understand our message, we need to help them remember it.
We use illustrations to catch attention and help people remember our message. A picture (or image) is worth a thousand words. That’s why images are powerful in Facebook, Instagram, and advertising. Facebook uploads six billion photos per month and YouTube uploads 72 hours of video every minute.
The Bible teems with illustrations. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are visualizations of great spiritual truths. I use an illustration to catch attention at the beginning of a message and try to illustrate each section of the message.
The main point in our example was to always be ready to “preach the word” or “proclaim the message”. Imagine in ancient times when a town crier brought a message from the king. He gathers a group of people and says, “Here ye, hear ye, by royal order of his highness, the king, this town has been granted 100 soldiers to protect you from the rebel bands who plunder the king’s subjects”. Everyone cheers. And he continues, “Furthermore the cost for this protection shall be born not by taxation but by the king from his royal treasury!” More cheers! “Moreover, the king would have you know that he loves you, his loyal subjects, and will use all his royal counsel and power to defend you and supply your wants”. More cheers. “And lastly he sends his royal blessing. Blessed be the people who trust the king!” (Adapted from John Piper). That crier was always ready to proclaim the king’s message!
We illustrate our messages so people stay alert and remember them. How well are we illustrating? Are we using visual images from the Bible, or current events, history, personal experience, nature, science, or the arts? Drama or video is another form of illustration.
Now that the people understand and remember the message, we need to help them respond to it.
Even though it was written thousands of years ago, we can always learn something about how to live for God today from the Bible. These applications can be divided into three categories.
First, what is necessary? What applies to us all? In our example, all believers should be ready to explain their Christian faith to someone else.
Second, what is possible? What applies to some people sometimes? In our example, if you are giving messages at church, you need to put enough time into preparing these.
Third, what is impossible? How the passage cannot be applied? In our example, it doesn’t mean that everyone at church should be preaching and teaching to the rest of us.
Computers have hardware (which are the physical components) and software (which are the instructions programmed into the memory). An application is a kind of computer software that helps us perform activities. For example, a word processer helps us produce documents and a spreadsheet helps us manipulate data. Applications on smartphones and tablets are called apps. A message without application is like a computer without these programs or a smartphone without apps. It’s not much use.
We apply our messages so people know what to do and can respond. How well are we applying? Are we applying to unbelievers? Are we applying to Christians whether they are backsliding or fruitful? Are we applying to youth, middle aged and the elderly? Are we applying to singles, marrieds, and families? Are we applying to the lonely, the disappointed, and those struggling? What should these people stop doing, start doing or continue doing?
We have looked briefly at the use of explanation, illustration and application in the preparation of a message. Let’s use these to proclaim God’s truth effectively. As a GPS helps our journey, preparation helps our message.
Written, August 2014
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.
We 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 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 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.
The 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.
Reference: J S Duvall & J D Hays (2012) “Grasping God’s word”, Zondervan.
Written, June 2014
Also see: The best way to live
Recently the world received messages from the planet Mars that came in the form of photographs taken by Curiosity, the NASA Mars Rover. Psalm 19 contains two messages from God, about His power and His love.
In the first, the songwriter, David, personifies (gives human attributes to) the universe: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4aNIV). When David was a shepherd, he lived outdoors and would have seen God’s creation power in the sun, moon and stars (Ps. 8:3; 19:4b-6).
What message does the universe “declare”, “proclaim”, “reveal” and “voice” to us? That all of it is “the work of His hands” alone. God created the universe. Great knowledge and power would be required to provide the countless stars, the immense distances and the warmth of the sun. By looking at the universe, we see abundant evidence that God is a very powerful Creator.
When the songwriter David turns to describe Scripture (which at that time comprised portions of the Old Testament written before 1000BC), he changes the title of God from “El”, which means the powerful One behind creation (Strong’s #410), to “Yahweh”, which means the personal loving One who cares for His chosen people (#3068). Scripture is a written message from God to us: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
David’s Scripture message largely contained God’s dealings with the Jews and their ancestors. He said that His words were “refreshing” and “wise”, “giving joy” and “light” and “great reward” (Ps. 19: 7-11). In particular, God made covenants with the children of Israel in the days of Abraham, Moses and David (Gen. 12:2-3; Ex. 19-24; Lev.; 2 Sam. 7:5-16). In these He showed His love for them. Although they would reject Him, He would not reject them (Lev. 26:43-44). When we read the Old Testament, it becomes evident that God lovingly cares for His people, the descendants of Abraham. When we read the New Testament we discover this same care is ours as Christians.
Lessons for us
Today we still have the visible message of the created universe and the written message of the Bible. We have no excuse for not knowing what God has done for us: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
In the New Testament Paul quoted Psalm 19:4 when he wrote that people had heard the message of God’s power and love as shown by Jesus: “Did they not hear? Of course they did: ‘Their voice [of the heavens, declaring the glory of God] has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Rom. 10:18; Ps. 19:4).
Seeing God’s power and love in Psalm 19 should bring us to say with the psalmist, “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care” (Ps. 95:6-7)?
Written, August 2012
Sometimes when I want to remember something I write it on the palm of my left hand. Of course, this message only remains until it is washed off.
When the Jews were being attacked by their enemies they thought God had forgotten them. But they were told, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me” (Isa. 49:15-16 NIV). This was a permanent message, like a tattoo. Jerusalem, was surrounded by walls. Although they were destroyed in the Babylonian conquest, God knew the situation. So, whatever the circumstances, God always remembered them.
David knew that God knows all about us and watches us constantly: “O Lord, You have searched me and You know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; You are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue You know it completely, O Lord” (Ps. 139:1-4).
After His death and resurrection, Jesus had the marks of the crucifixion in His hands. Body piercing is a fashion statement today, but these were evidence of cruel mistreatment and great suffering. Thomas would not believe it was Jesus unless he saw the nail marks in His hands and put his finger where the nails were (Jn. 20:25-28). But he believed when he saw the marks. Jesus still bears the marks of crucifixion in His resurrected body – they are permanent. This means He will always remember us as those He suffered for. We will never be forgotten and shouldn’t fear the dangers around us. As His wounds are visible to all who will see Him, His great act of salvation will be remembered for eternity.
A different kind of Christmas message
A Climate Extreme
Eastern Australia experiences periodic droughts usually associated with El Niño, an extreme of the Southern Oscillation climate phenomenon, which was named by fishermen in Peru, South America. Usually they catch plenty of anchovy fish, because cold water from deeper in the ocean brings nutrients to the surface. These nutrients support lots of plankton – small animals and plants that are food for the fish.
But sometimes a warmer ocean current arrives near Christmas, devastating the fishing industry. It is like a famine in the ocean with few nutrients, few plankton and few fish. The Peruvian fishermen called it El Niño, – Spanish for “the boy child” – because it came at Christmas, the time they remembered “the Christ child.” The name El Niño is now used to describe this extreme in the climatic cycle across the whole Pacific region.
El Niño events occur every four to seven years and typically last for 12-18 months. A measure of this climatic event is the Southern Oscillation Index, which is calculated from the difference between the monthly average atmospheric pressure at Darwin in Australia and Tahiti in the mid-Pacific. The 1982-83 El Niño was the strongest in the last 100 years.
El Niño can have a dramatic influence on the weather and the economy in different parts of our world. It can lead to heavy rain, flooding, landslides and mosquito plagues, and can ruin the fishing industry in the west coast of Central and South America. On the opposite side of the Pacific it results in drought, water shortages, wildfires and poor crops in eastern Australia. The other extreme in the Pacific climatic cycle, a cooling of the eastern Pacific ocean, is known as La Niña, which is Spanish for “the girl child.” La Niña can lead to droughts in South America and floods in eastern Australia. So the same climatic event can lead to different types of weather in different parts of the world.
The Christ Child
The real Christ child came to earth about 2,000 years ago and there were also different responses to this event. Some welcomed it and some hated it. The shepherds were joyful at the birth of the promised Messiah, and they praised God (Lk. 2:8-20). Simeon and Anna also praised God as they had waited a lifetime to see the Messiah (Lk. 2:25-38). Wise men came a long distance to worship the king of the Jews (Mt. 2:1-2). But king Herod was so disturbed when he heard of the Christ child’s birth that he gave orders to kill all boys under two years old (Mt. 2:3,16). The Christ child was protected from this tragedy when His family fled to Egypt (Mt. 2:13).
The Christ Man
Of course, a boy child grows up to be a man. There were also different responses when the Christ child grew up to be a man and revealed that He was the Messiah. Some welcomed it and some hated it. Large crowds followed to listen to His words and to see His miracles (Mt. 5:25). When He healed people they praised God because they had never seen anything like this before (Mt. 9:8; Lk. 17:15). They thought He taught with much more authority than their religious teachers, and were delighted when He criticized them (Mt. 7:29; Mk. 2:12; Lk. 13:17). He was welcomed into Jerusalem as the Messiah, riding on a donkey (Mt. 21:1-11). A woman even poured expensive perfume over Him in an act of adoration (Mt. 26:7).
To some He was a prophet, while His followers thought He was going to free their nation from Roman dominion (Mt. 16:13-14, Lk. 24:21). The disciples considered Him to be the Son of God, as did the soldiers who were terrified at His death (Mt. 14:33; 16:16; 27:54).
However, those of His home town took offense at Him and tried to throw Him over a cliff (Mt. 13:57; Lk. 4:29). The religious leaders opposed Him fiercely and said He was satanic and demon-possessed, and plotted how to kill Him (Mt. 9:34; 12:14, 24; 26:4; Lk. 11:53). They asked questions to trap Him (Mt. 22:15). He was betrayed by Judas Iscariot (Mt. 26:48-49). Finally, He was falsely accused, mocked, spit on, struck repeatedly and executed by the religious leaders (Mt. 27:30-31; Mk. 14:58; Acts 7:52).
There were also different responses when the good news of forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ was preached. Some welcomed it and some hated it. When Paul preached in Athens that Jesus was raised from the dead, some sneered, some accepted it, others were apathetic (Acts 17:32-34).
Jesus recognized this when He said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household’” (Mt. 10:34-36 NIV). He also said, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Lk. 12:51-53).
This is figurative language; the results of His coming are stated as the apparent purpose of His coming. Jesus really came to bring peace and to rescue people from the coming judgment (Jn. 3:17; Eph. 2:14-17). But there are different responses to this – some accept it, while others ridicule and oppose it or are apathetic.
So families can be divided; some members being Christians while others are not. Jesus warned that when people became Christians, their families might persecute them. If family members oppose us, remember that faithfulness to Christ with a submissive spirit is what’s important. Our testimony can lead to their salvation (1 Pet. 3:1; 1 Cor. 7:14).
What is your response to the Christ child who grew up to be the man Christ? The Bible says that He came to give us an abundant new life (Jn. 10:10; 2 Cor. 5:17). I hope El Niño (the boy child) reminds you of the Christ child and the reason He came.