We tend to place a high value on Jesus’ words – the “words in red,” and we should. But we should place the same value on the entire New Testament. After all, the source is exactly the same.
To listen to the sermon, click the play button:
To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Understanding the Bible Part 9
Understanding the Bible #9.
As we’ve gone through this series, I’ve heard a few questions people have asked that I think are worth delving into. Recently, someone showed me a post on Facebook. The caption said: “What Jesus said about Homosexuality” Underneath it was…nothing. That’s accurate, in a technical sense, but not the complete story. For one thing, Jesus’ apostles did say some things about the subject, elsewhere in the New Testament. In any case, the point, presumably, is that Christians should not be saying anything about it, since Jesus didn’t. A similar issue was raised by an Albanian man that I spoke with in Corfu, Greece last fall. He argued that Jesus never claimed to be God – instead, that claim was made by the apostles, not Jesus himself.
Both of these arguments depend upon the same kind of faulty reasoning, and the same silly and inconsistent approach to the bible. The first part of it goes like this: “It’s supposed to be all about Jesus, right? So I’ll listen only to the words of Jesus. What the apostles wrote doesn’t matter.”
Let’s look at this by using another issue, one that is not controversial today. Here it is, another thing that is technically true: Jesus never said anything about slavery. Think about that for a moment. What does that mean? Did Jesus endorse slavery? Does that mean we Christians should not call slave-trading wrong and sinful?
Now, class it’s time to see if you’ve been paying attention. Does anyone remember where the New Testament came from? How is that we know what Jesus said in the first place? The apostles heard it, taught it, and wrote it down. To put it another way, it is the apostles who gave us the words of Jesus. If you don’t want to pay attention to what the apostles wrote, than you cannot pay attention to what Jesus said either, since we got that from the apostles.
Let’s look at it another way. Earlier in this series, we found a lot of evidence to suggest that the apostles wrote reliably and accurately about real historical events and situations, and also about Jesus and his teaching. There is no legitimate reason to accept the gospels, which were written by his apostles, but not the other writings of the other apostles. If you believe that the apostles correctly recorded that Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” you have exactly the same reasons for believing that the apostles are passing on the teaching of Jesus when they tell us that slave-trading is evil (1 Timothy 1:10) – even though we cannot find Jesus directly saying so in the gospels.
To put it simply: the entire New Testament is the teaching of, and about Jesus. It all comes from the same source – the Holy Spirit, who inspired the apostles to remember and write. We know what Jesus said, because the apostles wrote it down. Although the letters of the New Testament are in a different form than the gospels, they are still the teachings of Jesus, passed on by the apostles. In other words, what Paul writes in Romans should be just as important to us as what Jesus says in the book of Mark.
There’s another thing. John makes it clear that his own gospel does contain every single word that Jesus ever said. The way he puts it, not even the other three gospels would suffice to write down everything Jesus did and said:
And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which, if they were written one by one, I suppose not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25, HCSB)
Jesus told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would remind them of what he said, and make it clear to them, and also tell them other things that they need to know:
“I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you. Everything the Father has is Mine. This is why I told you that He takes from what is Mine and will declare it to you. (John 16:12-15, HCSB)
We believe, as Jesus said, that the Holy Spirit reminded the apostles what Jesus said, and also revealed other important truth to them, and guided them as they wrote it down. That applies, not just to the gospels, but to the entire New Testament. In this passage, Jesus himself says that after he leaves this world, the Spirit would guide them into truth that they had not yet received from him. So, if you don’t believe the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write what Jesus thinks about slave-trading, why do you believe he inspired Luke to write that Jesus has concern for the poor?
The first answer to the person who claims that Jesus said nothing about a given topic is to see whether that topic shows up anywhere else in the New Testament. If it does, than you can be sure, it is the teaching of Jesus. Technically, it’s true that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not record any direct quotes of Jesus that use the word “slave-trader.” But Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit to share the teaching of and about Jesus, does say something about it.
Some people will argue that Paul did not know Jesus personally, and so his letters are not the real teaching of Jesus. We went over all that in part #3 of this series. Paul claimed that Jesus appeared to him specially, quite some time after his resurrection, and opened his mind to know and understand the Good News (Gal 12:1-16; 1 Corinthians 15:8-10; 2 Corinthians 12:1-7). The other apostles, the ones who had actually known Jesus, affirmed that Paul was preaching and teaching the true message of Jesus (Gal 2:6-10; 2 Peter 3:15-16; Acts 9:22-30; 15:1-35). In fact, all throughout the book of Acts we have ample evidence that Paul was accepted early on as an apostle of Jesus, and his teaching was in accord with the rest of the apostles.
Let me say it again: the entire New Testament, including the letters of Paul, is the teaching of Jesus, passed on by the Holy Spirit, through the apostles. We have all sorts evidence to affirm this, and none to contradict it.
Saying “I only believe or follow the words in red [Jesus’ words],” is in fact, silly and illogical. The “words in red” came from the same place as the rest of the New Testament – the apostles. If you don’t believe the apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit and the memory of Jesus’ teachings to write what they wrote in their letters, there is no reason to believe that they got the words of Jesus in the gospels correct either. Of course, I’ve already shared, earlier in the series, the many reasons I think the apostles got it all right.
This series has been here to answer questions you might have about the bible, or how to understand it. Because of that, I want to explore one more side of the “Jesus didn’t say anything about this…” question. Last week, in a small group meeting, I pointed out that Jesus never said anything about slavery. One of our excellent teenagers said, “Yeah, but doesn’t the golden rule kind of cover that?” In words, though he didn’t specifically talk about slavery, Jesus did say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, according to the teaching of Jesus, if you don’t think you’d like being a slave yourself, you shouldn’t make slaves of anyone else.
This is a great point. Jesus did not overtly condemn prostitution, child-pornography, or incest, either. But you don’t have to be a trained theologian to recognize that Jesus often said things that apply to a whole host of different situations. In Matthew 19:1-6. Jesus made a broad, sweeping statement about human sexual relationships. He said that God created sex for marriage between a man and a woman. Any kind of sex outside of the marriage relationship is called, in Greek, “porneia.” The most popular English bibles translate this “sexual immorality,” or “immorality.” Jesus didn’t name all the possibilities included in “sexual immorality,” but he made it clear that he meant anything sexual outside of one-woman/one man marriage. In Matthew 15:19, among other places, he makes it clear that all sexual immorality creates a problem with God’s moral law. Now, Jesus fulfilled the moral law on our behalf, and if we trust him, we are forgiven. If we really do trust him, he is now living inside us, and he doesn’t want our lives to be used in that way anymore – it goes against his Holy nature, and he has placed that Holy nature inside of us. Therefore, as Jesus-followers, we are supposed to stop it if we’ve done it, and stay away from it from now on. If we need help to do so, we can receive that help from the Holy Spirit and from other believers. The rest of the New Testament affirms all this.
The point is not to condemn anyone who has sinned in this way. The point is, Jesus did in fact teach about all human sexuality, even if he didn’t specifically name certain sins. If we claim to follow him, we should at least be heading in the direction he points, even if we follow imperfectly.
This turns out be the case concerning most of the other things that Jesus did not specifically talk about. And, as we have said, even when Jesus didn’t say something specifically in one of the gospels, we have the rest of the New Testament which also reliably passes on the teaching of and about Jesus.
A completely different question was raised in one our discussions in our house-church. Some people wanted to know more about what we call “apocalyptic prophecy.” I mentioned this kind of scripture briefly in part six of the series. We’ll go over it again here with a little more depth because some folks had further questions about it, and truthfully, apocalyptic prophecy represents one of the most misunderstood and misused parts of the bible.
Apocalyptic prophecy is fairly rare in the bible. Most of it is found in parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah and revelation (and a few other chapters, scattered throughout some of the other prophetic books). This genre features vivid imagery, key numbers and tends to be extremely confusing. Apocalyptic often reads like someone’s strange dream. The apocalyptic parts of the bible often appear to be talking about the “end times” (the period of history right before the end of the world), and they are frequently used by cults to come up with all sorts of weird doctrines.
We have to read it in context. Particularly important is to understand the historical and cultural context in which the prophet lived. We need to understand that the language of apocalyptic is definitely not literal, or teaching or even narrative. It is poetic and even mystical. We need to hold firmly to the clear and easily understandable portions of the bible, and use those to aid our understanding of apocalyptic prophecy. With apocalyptic, I am even willing say that we should be open to the possibility that we won’t completely clearly understand what is meant. We should never use apocalyptic in a way that contradicts what is already clear in different parts of the bible.
One of the worst abuses of apocalyptic prophecy is to use it as kind of a road-map, or detailed timeline of the end-times. It is most definitely not intended to be anything like that. Concerning the end of the world, and his return, Jesus said,
“Now concerning that day and hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son — except the Father only. (Matt 24:36, HCSB)
That is clear. Therefore, we should not interpret apocalyptic prophecy as a definitive roadmap to the end times. If it clearly gave us a timeline to the return of Jesus and the end of the old world, then Jesus would have been wrong in saying that no one can know for sure when it will be. Apocalyptic prophecy may tell us the types of things that will happening, but it certainly can’t be specific enough so that people will then be able to say “Aha! According to Revelation, the world will definitely end within the next three to five years!”
The main apocalyptic parts of the bible were prophesied to God’s people when they were severely oppressed by powerful foreign empires. Ezekiel and Daniel spoke to those who lived as captives under the Babylonians, Persians and Medes. Zechariah, not long after, prophesied to people who were trying to re-establish a colony of Jews in Israel, surrounded by powerful and lawless nations around them. John wrote Revelation at a time when the Roman Emperor, Domitian, pursued the active persecution of Christians. Domitian was aided in this by some Jewish communities who saw Christianity as blasphemy, and wanted it destroyed.
Because virtually all apocalyptic prophecy was written in similar historical circumstances, there are certain features that we can learn about all of it. Because it was written to people under foreign oppression, it contains images and pictures that would have been understandable to those who heard them, but almost incomprehensible to outsiders. In other words, apocalyptic was a kind of code language to people in persecution. The code is not about some secret key to the end-times – what the code hides are words of judgment upon the oppressors, and encouragement and hope for the oppressed.
The problem is that we today, are mostly outsiders. It’s hard for us to understand the significance of the weird visions and dreams of apocalyptic literature. The first step in understanding is to realize that we do not understand, and we need to investigate a lot more before we can see these prophecies the same way the original hearers understood them.
But here is one thing that can help: The main message of the apocalyptic prophecies is consistently one of hope; God has not forgotten his people, and he will take steps to deliver them and to bring justice against those who have persecuted them. He is still active in history, he still has plans, and he intends to carry them out.
We get caught up in what, specifically, those plans are. But the point is more that God has them, than that we are supposed to know them in great detail. Take, for example, the book of Revelation. It was written to Christians who were suffering under the oppression Roman government, which was aided by angry Jewish communities. When we look at the book from a big-picture perspective, we see that again and again, it repeats these messages:
- · The Lord knows that you are suffering, and he hasn’t forgotten you.
- · Those who oppress you will be judged for what they have done
- · God has a plan to redeem and save you
- · God hasn’t stopped acting in history. He has plans to bring human history to the place where he wants it to be
- · Death, and the end of history are things for believers to look forward to – God’s plans for you are wonderful, and go far beyond this life on our present earth.
These are the main things we are supposed to get from Revelation. Often we fail to get these wonderful messages of grace, because we are too caught up in things like trying to figure out which individual the anti-Christ is. But all we really need to know is that the anti-Christ is bad, and God has plans for defeating him and protecting you from him. While he does that, you will not be forgotten, and the Lord will be with you in your trials.
Let me try and give you an example of understanding apocalyptic prophecy. Revelation 13:1-10 describes a “beast.” I’m almost certain that the first readers of Revelation would have understood that the “beast” was a code word for the Roman Empire and its emperor, Domitian. Domitian demanded that everyone in the Roman world worship the Emperor as a divine being. He severely persecuted everyone who refused to do so (Jews were exempted from this, but not Christians). The first Christians to read Revelation would easily have identified what John’s vision described.
But in this day and age, the same message could apply to Christians who suffer under Islamic persecution. In such places, Muslims demand that everyone must confess: “Allah is God, and Mohammed is his Prophet.” Like the beast of Revelation 13, Islam has authority in many places to blaspheme (according to Christians) and to persecute those who do not agree with them or worship as Muslims.
In this way, we can see that apocalyptic prophecy can remain relevant and encouraging to Christians throughout history. My advice is to consider apocalyptic prophecy in this way, and abandon any silly attempts to use it as a timeline of the end times.
Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground this time. Hopefully, it all helps as we learn to understand the bible.