The bible has been proved historically reliable many times, but it does get misused an awful lot. Sometimes, people don’t want to believe it because they don’t really understand it. Too many people read the bible to use it in arguments, instead of reading it to get to know Jesus better.

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Understanding the Bible #5

We’ve learned where the Old and New Testaments came from. We know by objective, scientific criteria that the documents we have today are accurately preserved copies of what was first written or spoken. We understand from archaeology that both the Old and New Testaments are historically reliable. These things are facts, not religious opinion. Most of these facts were discovered by people who were trying to prove the opposite.

Though the bible is completely reliable in the history that it records, it isn’t simply a book of history. It tells us other things that we cannot verify with science; things about God, human nature, human relationships and human-God interactions. It even talks about things that we rarely see (if at all) in our lifetimes: the parting of the Red Sea, the feeding of the five thousand, healings and exorcisms. I think this is one of the main reasons people ignore the bible. These aren’t every day events. It’s hard to believe that stuff like that ever happened. Maybe you have struggled with the same thing.

Let me address that briefly. Consider a person whom you think is entirely reliable. If she tells you that chicken is only $0.99/pound at Kroger on Wednesday, you know that you can go to Kroger and find chicken for exactly that price. If she tells you that she once met the mayor of New York City, it does not surprise you at all when she produces a picture of her with the Mayor, and a signed note from him to her. If you ask her to give you the square root of 361, you can bet your next paycheck that she’ll say 19.

Now, suppose, one day, your friend tells you that she just found out she has cancer. You know she wouldn’t lie to you. You know she wouldn’t be mistaken. You absolutely believe she has cancer. A few weeks later, she tells you that she went to a prayer meeting, and people prayed for her healing. A few days after that, she went to the doctor, and found out she is now entirely cancer-free. She claims she has been miraculously healed. Would you believe her?

You would believe your friend about the price of chicken, the mayor of New York and square root of 361. You would believe her when she told you she had cancer. So why wouldn’t you believe her when she says she was miraculously healed?

If you would not believe in the miracle, I suggest to you that there is only one reason: you have a pre-existing bias against miracles. Your friend has proven many times to be reliable about things you believe in. The only reason to disbelieve her now is because she is saying something that you have already decided you will not believe.

Your friend is just like the bible. The bible has proven many times to be entirely reliable about things like the culture of the ancient middle east, the existence of specific cities and specific people. It has shown again and again to be a reliable record of battles, and kings and wars. We know it records the truth of those kinds of things. The only reason to doubt what it says about God, human nature and miracles is because we have already decided that we do not want to believe those things. This is a silly, irrational, illogical position to take.

I mean it: logic is on the side of miracles.

Having said all that, the bible does get misused an awful lot. Sometimes, people don’t want to believe it because they don’t really understand it. We began the last few weeks, to talk about how we actually understand the bible. The first step is understanding that the purpose of the entire bible is to reveal Jesus to us. We read it so we can know him, and know him better, and follow him more fully.

One thing that happens with the bible is that a lot of people do strange things with it. Mostly, it is pretty straightforward and easy to understand. However, there are some parts of the bible that are more difficult to comprehend. It doesn’t help that because it is a religious book, people seem to forget common sense rules of reading books. I want us to learn how to understand the bible properly. So, for the next few weeks, we will consider some common sense practices that we ought to use when we read the bible.


Read it in Context with the Surrounding Verses

Imagine that you are reading a book about penguins, written by one person, a penguin expert who spent years studying the birds in Antarctica. The book was written in 1965. Suppose in one section of the book, she writes “Penguins are large, flightless birds.”

Later in the book, she describes her feeling of joy and awe as she watches the birds “spreading their wings as they dive and soar through the open blue.”

How do you handle this apparent contradiction? Do penguins fly, or don’t they?

Too many people, if they treated this book like the bible, would say, “This book is full of contradictions. I don’t believe anything it says about penguins.”

Others might really want to believe that penguins can fly. They would say: “Penguins are birds – the book says so. Birds fly. Penguins have wings – the book even says that. Wings are for flying. To top it off, she writes about them soaring through the open blue. This book teaches us that penguins fly.”

What about the bit about them being flightless birds? “Maybe that was an error. Or maybe she just didn’t understand penguins as well as we do, nowadays. Science has come a long ways since 1965.”

Of course the whole idea of someone with those attitudes is silly. Most people, reading the book as they read most books, won’t even notice the contradiction, because they will read the book in context. In other words, they won’t just take a few sentences of it here and there from different chapters, and use those to make broad declarations about penguins, or broad declarations about the book contradicting itself. So, instead of reading an isolated sentence about penguins soaring through the open blue, they will read the entire chapter in which the author describes SCUBA diving while she watches the penguins swim around her in the clear, blue sea. In context, “soaring through the open blue” is clearly about swimming, not flying.

The problem is, too many people read the bible to use it in arguments, instead of reading it to get to know Jesus better. So, instead of reading it in context, they go searching for a verse or a few verses that seem to say what they want the bible to say. Others want to discredit the bible altogether, because they don’t like what it says, so they go searching for isolated verses which sound like they contradict each other. But to someone who knows the bible, it usually sounds as silly as someone trying to use a well-researched book about penguins to prove that penguins fly.

This is one reason I so strongly recommend that you work your way around the bible by reading in one book (say, Matthew) until you’ve read that whole book, and then pick another book and do the same. Maybe you only have time to read a chapter, or just a few verses each day. That’s fine. But read (however slowly) through one book at time, moving from the beginning to the end of the book (I don’t mean the whole bible – I mean a book within the bible). If you don’t, you will have great difficulty understanding what you read, because it won’t be in context.

If everyone in the world who quotes the bible did this, my blood pressure would be significantly lower. Honestly, I’d like to say that “Read the Bible in Context” is the first, second and third rule of common sense bible understanding.

Let me give you an example of context. Suppose a friend of mine claims to be a Christian, but he watches pornographic movies and visits nude-bars. He sees nothing wrong with doing these things. I might say to him, “You claim to follow Jesus. But the lust in your heart is something wrong, Jesus died to make it right. You shouldn’t continue to feed your lust that way. Jesus is calling you to repent.”

Suppose he replies to me (quoting the bible) “Jesus said, ‘Don’t judge others!’”

Do you know the context for those words of Jesus? He said it in Matthew 7:1, during the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” Do you know what else he said in that very same sermon? He said he had not come to abolish the law, and anyone who relaxed the standards of the law was in trouble (Matthew 5:17-20). He also said lust was wrong (Matthew 5:27-30).

In fact, let’s look at the entire section where Jesus supposedly told us not to judge.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.

The context of “do not judge” is the whole sermon on the mount, as I mentioned. In that context, there is simply no way that my friend can defend his activities as righteous and OK. “Judge not” does not make him free to do whatever he wants. But it doesn’t even have to silence me. Even in this smaller context, we can see that it is not as simple as “don’t judge.” Jesus actually says we should examine ourselves first, and then we will be able to help someone else who has a problem. He says we should recognize that the same standards apply to us, as well as the other person. In other words, we need to be humble, and recognize our own faults before we approach someone else to help them with their problem. But Jesus’ words here (in context) assume that we should still approach the person, once we are appropriately humble.

The last sentence gives us some additional information. Jesus seems to be saying that it is pointless to “judge” where the person is not interested in receiving it. It’s like giving jewelry to pigs – you are wasting your time. Such people will not appreciate the precious words of God, and instead will get angry at you. In context then, “Do not judge,” means:

· Be humble, and willing to acknowledge your own faults before you talk to someone else about his. You should still talk to the other person, once you are appropriately humble.

· Do not bother to judge those who are proud, unwilling to admit to their faults, or uninterested in what the bible has to say. One thing I take away from this, is that is pointless to try to get people who do not want to be Christian, to stop sinning.

There is more to be said about this passage, and more we can learn from other bible-reading techniques, but merely reading the context makes this often-misused quote much more clear and understandable.

Read the Bible in Cultural/Historical Context

The most important thing, is to read the context in the bible itself, as described above. However, the historical situation and the cultural context often shed a tremendous amount of light on a given passage. Therefore, we should also read the bible in historical and cultural context.

For instance, let’s talk for a minute about when Jesus said, “Do not judge.” Would it make a difference whether the people he was speaking to were inclined to be judgmental? Would it matter what they were inclined to make their judgments on? Of course.

If we know something about 1st Century Judaism, we would realize that the Jews Jesus was speaking to were generally very religious and legalistic about silly little rules. In fact, we would find out that often times, they condemned others for not following man-made rules, rules that had nothing to do with what God actually said. For instance, Exodus 20:8-11 says to remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. By the time of Jesus, the Jews had made up an extensive list of rules which detailed exactly how they were supposed to keep the Sabbath holy. The problem was, those rules did not come from God, or the bible. The Jewish rules were made up by human beings, and added to the inspired word of God. So, the Jews said, you can only walk a certain number of steps on the Sabbath. You can do this, but not that. The Jews judged others based on how well they followed these kinds of rules. But those rules didn’t even come from God in the first place. It is to people like this that Jesus says “do not make judgments.” This is why Jesus talks about logs and splinters in the eye. The Jews were concerned about how well others followed man-made rules, while they ignored what the bible said about the Messiah, and faith, and real sin, forgiveness and relationship with God.

So, the “log in your own eye” that Jesus refers to is the tendency to completely ignore Jesus himself, while focusing on petty little things that aren’t even in the bible.

Knowing the cultural/historical context, we now understand that Jesus isn’t saying that we should not tell a fellow Christian that lust is sinful. He is saying that we should keep our priorities straight, and not judge others for meaningless things. Some Christians have made up rules – you must dress a certain way, or avoid certain kinds of movies, or avoid drinking even one glass of wine with dinner, or listen only to certain kinds of music. These are specks that some people try to pick out of the eyes of others. But the log in the eye is this: how do you respond to Jesus? How do you respond to his message of sin and redemption?

Do you see how the historical context can help you understand a passage more fully?

People often ask me, “Tom, where do we find out historical and cultural information like that?” The bad news is, there isn’t just one easy source for it. But the good news is, I was once asking the same question, and I over the years, I have learned a lot.

If I was starting out, the first thing I would do is get a good, high quality study bible. I highly recommend The ESV Study Bible. There are helpful notes and commentary at the bottom of each page. Not all of the commentary is about the cultural background, of course, but often there are helpful things about the culture there.

You might also google “Manners and Customs of Bible Times” there are several good resources that will show up. Unfortunately, some people create these resources with a theological axe to grind, so to speak. For example, I was personally disappointed by the Inter-Varsity Press Bible Background Commentary. Generally, the older the publishing date, the less biased one way or the other it is likely to be. “Manners and Customs of Bible Times” by Fred Wright is available online for free. I’ve used that from time to time. Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible is another good general resource, as is Halley’s Bible Handbook.

It will take time to work your way through these resources. That’s OK, you have your whole life to study the bible. It is also helpful to listen to sermons. Many pastors, like me, have spent a great deal of time learning this stuff. Pay attention to the preachers that explain the historical and cultural context, because, as I’ve been saying, it’s important. If you think you might forget it, make notes of the things you think are significant. Over time, you will build up your own body of knowledge about bible history and culture.

Remember, read the bible in context. Understand that each book within the bible was written as a whole, and read it the same way. Also, read the bible in historical and cultural context. When we do these things, the verses that people use to prove contradictions look as silly as the claim that penguins can fly.


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