Have More Fun and Less Stress in Preaching!

bad-church-signs-hell1Preaching is one of the most glorious and frustrating tasks in ministry. It feels great to invest in the preparation of a message, deliver it with confidence and clarity, and witness God apply it to the lives of listeners. It also feels a lot less than great to struggle in the preparation of a message, deliver it with fear and fumbling, and wish you could run and hide after it’s all said and done.

Preaching is physically depleting; you speak energetically and animatedly for a long time. It’s emotionally draining; you pour yourself out and the needs of others in. It’s spiritually demanding; you must remain close to and speak for God. It’s mentally difficult; you need to explain, illustrate, and apply Scripture correctly and effectively. It’s personally daunting; your ministry hangs on communication and you’re constantly evaluated.

How do we preach so God is glorified, listeners are edified, and we aren’t terrified? How do we finish a message feeling good and not feeling like sending a resume to the postal service? I’ve finished a lot of messages less than satisfied. Here are six culprits I’ve identified in my preaching that can give me a strong desire to hide in the closet after a message.

Forcing the Bible into my own framework. I have a great message I want to communicate so I cram it into an unsuspecting passage. When the main point(s) of my message is NOT the main point(s) of the biblical author I’m headed for trouble; even if my point is implied in the text or based on godly wisdom. I spend more time away from the Bible, trying to connect my point to it, filling up space with my wisdom, and justifying my authority instead of resting on Scripture’s authority.

Fearing man and not God. I want to impress people. I want their praise. I want to appease critics. I want to avoid offense. I want more and better opportunities. I want visitors to come back, perpetually upset members to recant, and particular sinners to repent. Because of pride, I make man bigger than I make God and worry more about people reflecting my glory back to me than reflecting God’s glory back to Him.

Failing to balance and prune the message. When people lose interest in the message, it’s often because I failed to effectively illustrate and apply the biblical text. I exposit and exegete so long I leave my less biblically fit listeners in the dust. Other times I am overconfident in my content and ability; failing to prune what is unnecessary. As the message drags on and loads up on information, everyone is worn out including me.

Forgetting God’s ongoing work in my life. I forget I’m not preaching by accident. The Holy Spirit has been at work in my life preparing me and my listeners. My sanctification has come a long way but still has a long way to go. My ministry is bigger than my preaching. While it may be the most visible, it is not the only fruit of my ministry. I must deliver my message with a humble confidence in who God is and what He is doing in and through me.

Feeling other concerns and distractions. Yogi Berra famously said, “90 percent of the game is half mental.” I think he meant focus and concentration were crucial to baseball. They are even more crucial to preaching. When distractions from the worship service, church, people, circumstances, and life cloud my mind the message gets lost in the fog.

Finding identity in preaching and not the gospel. According to Ephesians 2, I was a dead slave of sinful desires and a child of wrath. But God, because of His great love, made me alive in Christ so I might know the riches of His grace for eternity. I did not earn this identity, it was a gift. When I’m a great preacher and lives are changed I add nothing to my identity in Christ. When I’m a sorry preacher and I can’t wait to get out of the building I have subtracted nothing from my identity in Christ. If I fail to rest in Jesus, preaching becomes a plea for validation, approval, and significance. If I rest in Jesus, I am free to make preaching all about the glory of God and the beauty of the gospel.

Ultimately, God can take our weakest messages and use them for His glory and let our best messages fall on deaf ears. Preaching depends on Him. And yes, some crowds are tough, spiritual warfare is real, and some things are beyond our control. We can’t manipulate our way to success. Yet, I’ve found if I stay true to the Bible, cultivate a fear of God, balance and prune the message, remember the bigger picture of God’s ongoing work, stay away from distractions, and seek my identity in the gospel my messages are much more fun. Hopefully these observations I’ve made of myself will be beneficial (I especially hope you enjoyed the alliteration in my main points). God help us bear the weight of preaching with the power and grace only He provides!

-Brian

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Fox News & Awkward Jesus Debates

fox-newsLast week, Fox News anchor Lauren Green interviewed Reza Aslan, a scholar with multiple degrees in religion who is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. The subject of the interview was Aslan’s new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and the attitude of the interview was tense. Green couldn’t get past the fact that Reza was a Muslim writing a book about Jesus. She opens the interview with this question:

“You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

Aslan responds with a list of his academic qualifications and Green says again,

“It still begs the question though, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”

Later, Green again brings up Aslan’s Muslim faith by equating his book about Jesus with a committed Democrat writing a book about Ronald Reagan; it appears that in Green’s mind he is simply too biased to write an objective book. Therefore, the book and its conclusions should be dismissed. Aslan defends himself by repeatedly citing his degrees, knowledge, and academic positions which give him credibility to write such a book.

Needless to say, this makes the interview painful for any casual observer to watch. The site buzzfeed.com posted the video of the interview which promptly went viral with the title, “Is This the Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?” It attracted over 5 million views and was shared and liked by nearly 800,000 Facebook users. Zealot shot to number one on Amazon’s U.S. bestseller list and The Westbourne Press who publishes the book is now rushing to print more. If Lauren Green set out to marginalize Aslan’s perspective on Jesus (which she may or may not have intended to do) she has actually energized it for a few days.

Aslan’s assessment of Jesus in the interview (and by extension the book) is that he was:

“a real political revolutionary who took on the religious and political powers of his time on behalf of the poor and the meek, the dispossessed, the marginalized; who sacrificed himself in his cause for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves and whose death ultimately launched the greatest religion in the world.”

Those familiar with the Historical Jesus project probably hear echoes of John Dominic Crossan in Aslan’s response. In the end, Jesus turns out to be another left-leaning political revolutionary, organizing the down-trodden masses against the powers oppressing them. Amazon.com’s users are divided over the book; the vast majority gave it either 5 stars or 1 star.

Jesus is a real, historical figure. In fact, he is probably THE real, historical figure of human history. Therefore, he is accessible not only to Christians, but to Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, and eccentric rap artists. People are going to interpret Jesus according to their own worldview and preferences. Then they are going to take great delight in telling us that Christians have Jesus all wrong. This includes the professor who tries to shock his evangelical undergrads by trotting out tired and dubious “facts” showing Jesus to be a nice social activist who never thought of himself as God. It includes an author like Deepak Chopra who promotes Jesus as an inspirational spiritual guide and mystical teacher of peace and love. It includes news media that gleefully report on a new lost gospel or ancient shard of pottery that will reverse everything. It includes the Muslim who calls Jesus simply a prophet, the agnostic who calls him an ethical teacher, and the television prosperity preacher who calls on him for a blessing.

All misguided interpretations have two fatal flaws. First, they fail to produce a Jesus who fits the facts. Aslan’s social revolutionary Jesus may have had a winning personality and great influence, on par with Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Abraham Lincoln. But there is no way he could have led devout Jews to worship him as God,  inspired Christians to embrace death claiming his resurrection, and won followers from the nations for 2,000 years. Second, they ignore or marginalize the most ancient and accurate source we have on Jesus: the New Testament. They make much of spotty secondary sources, Gnostic writings dated centuries later, arbitrary scholarly opinions, out of context passages, and modern cultural preferences in creating Jesus. So it should come as no surprise that he looks different than the Jesus the church has preached for millennia.

As Christians, we should stop being shocked and upset when others interpret Jesus differently. It is going to happen. Because our faith is based on a real person, it is subject to investigation – even flawed investigation. We don’t need to marginalize or flee from those with differing views, but rest confidently in the Jesus found in the Scriptures. There have been thousands of interpretations of Jesus since he walked the earth, but only one has endured and will continue to endure – the Jesus of the Bible.

If you want to know who Jesus is, read your Bible. Even the most stubborn of scholars is forced to admit that the New Testament is the most ancient and comprehensive source we have on him; some books being written within 25 years of Jesus’ death. Zealot will fade from memory but the New Testament will remain because it is far older, far more accurate, and far more compelling than anything else we have. Our conversations with others who disagree with us about Jesus don’t have to be as embarrassing or as tense as the Fox News interview. If someone comes to you with a different Jesus, graciously listen to them and point them to the only Jesus that endures the ages, fits the truth, and changes lives.

-Brian

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Loving Some Leviticus: Christians and the Mosaic Law Part 4

In the first part of our series we examined the problems Christians face when attempting to understand the Law of Moses found in the first five books of the Bible. In the second part, we looked at some false assumptions we bring to the text. In the third part, we explored the message of the first five books of the Bible – known as the Pentateuch. In this final part, we will discover what the specific laws mean to us.

One of the most important things any Christian can do is to read through the entire Bible. If the Bible is what we claim it to be – the Word of God – then failing to read through it as a Christian is either prideful arrogance or sinful laziness. If God has spoken, how can those who claim to love Him fail to devote themselves to knowing, treasuring, and applying what He has said? They simply cannot.

Most Christians would agree. The problem is when we begin to read the Bible we typically start in Genesis. Genesis leads to Exodus and Exodus leads to…well… a lot of complicated legal material that seems terribly irrelevant at some points and scandalously shocking at others. Many sincere Christians have attempted to read through the Bible only to get bogged down in the Mosaic Law and surrender. The excitement of the Exodus is replaced with tedious descriptions of rashes and sores which may or may not be a leprous skin disease. However, we must read and understand the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy). The rest of the Bible takes its cues from these books. Without the Pentateuch, the words of the prophets, the songs of the psalmists, the life and death of Jesus, the struggles of the church in Acts, and the letters of Paul will not make sense. So how do we read the Mosaic Law without ending up as confused as a husband buying clothes for his wife?

First, we must remember that the laws are part of the story Moses is trying to tell. They are not a randomly included list of do’s and don’ts, but a selection of laws to help the author of the Pentateuch make his bigger point about the importance of faith. The laws work to that end by teaching us how Israel related to God under the Sinai covenant. John Sailhamer says:

The laws give the reader a realistic picture of the nature of Israel’s worship and fellowship with God. The collections of laws give the readers an insider’s view of what God required of Israel. The sacrifices help demonstrate the nature of sin as a barrier to humankind’s relationship with God and what must be done about it. Hence, as can be seen by reading the various collections of laws, the notion of sacrifice and the analogous problem of sin are of central importance to the author.

The laws show us a genuine relationship with God was possible. They show us the holiness of God and the seriousness of approaching Him as sinful humanity. They demonstrate that all of life comes under God’s sovereign rule and His care extends even to the details of the lives of his people.

Second, the laws show us Israel’s falling into sin due to their lack of faith. In Exodus 19:6 God’s desire is for Israel to be a kingdom of priests who would believe in Him. This is a covenant resembling the one God made with Abraham in Genesis 15. But unlike Abraham, the people are afraid of God and lack the faith to approach him (Ex. 20:18-21), so God supplies the Law. Israel goes from a nation of priests to a nation with priests. Then the priests lack faith and fail by creating a golden calf in the absence of Moses (Ex. 32). Therefore God gives the priests the priestly code of laws (Ex. 33-Lev. 16). Then the people lack faith and make sacrifices to goat demons (Lev. 17:7). Therefore God gives the people the holiness code (Lev. 17-26).

As Israel’s faith fails and they fall into sin, God adds Law. This is why Paul says in Galatians 3:19, “Why then the Law? It was added because of transgressions…” The Law prevented Israel’s lack of faith from dissolving the nation into the sin of the cultures around them. However, the Law is unable to completely make up for their lack of faith (Num. 14) and the entire generation of Israelites – save two – perishes in the wilderness.

Finally, the Law demonstrates the justice of God. The individual laws are not meant to be read as instructions for all people in all times and in all places. Rather, they are the application of the justice of God to the specific situations found in Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. The lives of the ancients to whom the Law was given are so far removed from our own it is impossible to determine everything God intended to accomplish by giving these specific laws. Sailhamer explains:

…the laws in the Pentateuch show what divine justice looked like in actual situations…the goal was to allow the narrative context to disclose an insight into the way God sees our tangled lives. The laws do not answer the question “What should we do in cases like this?” but rather the question “What did God think about specific cases like these and how, or what, can we learn about justice from him?”

We are better able to apply God’s justice to our own circumstances as we understand how it was once applied to the nation of Israel. This may be why the blessed man of Psalm 1 is the one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” As we meditate on the Law we become more aware of the character and holiness of God, our own sinfulness, and our need for His mercy and grace.

All Christians need to read their Bibles, but they don’t all have to get stuck in Leviticus. When we understand the place of the Law in Moses’ whole message about faith, the depth of Israel’s sinful failure to believe, and God’s character and justice as shown in the Law, the first five books of the Bible will take on new life for us. It will leave us longing for a new covenant of faith (Deut. 30:6) and the Prophet King who will change everything (Num. 24:7, Deut. 34:10, Gal. 3:19). When we begin to read and understand the Law this way, we may even find ourselves loving some Leviticus.

I want to be sure and give credit where credit is due! Most of my thoughts about this series have been formed through careful interaction with the Pentateuch itself and three books:

Sailhamer, John H. The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation. Intervarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL, 2009

 

 

Sailhamer, John H. The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary. Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992.

 

 

Meyer, Jason C. The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology. B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN, 2009.

 

 

 

-Brian

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The Message of the Law: Christians and the Mosaic Law Part 3

In our first post, we examined problems Christians face when trying to understand the Law found in the first five books of the Bible. In our second post, we unearthed some unfounded assumptions we have about the Law. In this post, we’ll look at the message of Genesis-Deuteronomy, the Pentateuch.

The Pentateuch is not a law code. Law codes do not begin with seventy chapters of stories. Law codes are not punctuated with poetic outbursts. Law codes do not look forward to the day when they will be no more. The Pentateuch does all of this.

The Pentateuch is a series of biographies; the most important of which are Abraham and Moses. Genesis begins with a sweeping vision of the creation of the earth, the fall of man, the flood, and the confusion of the languages at Babel. The story then narrows on one man through whom God continues his plan of blessing humanity (Gen.12:1-3); the plan He began at creation (Gen.1:28). God promised to bless Abraham and to bless all the families of the earth through him. In Genesis 15 God entered into a covenant with Abraham and promised him offspring. Abraham had faith in the promises of God. As a result, he was credited with perfectly keeping the law even though he lived hundreds of years before it was given. The Lord says in Genesis 26:5, “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” Abraham had faith in God and died inside the Promised Land (Gen. 25:9).

Moses and Israel begin with faith in God, like Abraham (Ex. 4:31). They come out of Egypt in faith (Ex. 14:31) and approach Mt. Sinai in faith (Ex. 19:9). But upon receiving the Law, their faith is weakened and they fail to believe in God. In Numbers 20:12, the Lord forbids Moses and Aaron from entering the Promised Land not because they failed to obey the Law, but because they failed to have faith in God: “Because you did not believe in me… therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” Moses, Aaron, and the whole generation of Israelites lacked faith under the Law and died in the wilderness outside of the Promised Land.

Thus, Moses – the author of the Pentateuch – compares a life of faith and a life under the Law. His message? Live a life of faith in God. John Sailhamer puts it this way:

The author uses the life of Abraham, not Moses, to illustrate that one can fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law. In choosing Abraham and not Moses, the author shows that “keeping the Law” means “believing in God,” just as Abraham believed God and was counted righteous (Gen. 15:6). In effect the author says, “Be like Abraham. Live a life of faith, and it can be said that you are keeping the Law.”

This is also Paul’s argument in Romans 4:13-14, “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the Law but through the righteousness of faith.”

Second, throughout the book are various poems. Like the songs in a musical, they summarize what has happened so far and communicate the message of the author. In these poems, the Pentateuch looks forward to a future King from the tribe of Judah who shall rule the nations in justice and righteousness.

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel. – Genesis 3:15

Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. – Genesis 49:9-10

The Lord will reign forever and ever – Exodus 15:18

His King shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted…I see him but not now, I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel. – Numbers 24:7, 17

Hear O Lord, the voice of Judah, and bring him in to his people. With your hands contend for him, and be a help against his adversaries. – Deuteronomy 33:7

In these poems, the Pentateuch looks forward to one who will crush the head of the serpent; who will be a king from the tribe of Judah that will rule the nations. This king is identified with the Lord and is the fulfillment of God’s plan of blessing the nations through the offspring of Abraham (Gen. 18:18-19).

Finally, Moses anticipates a day when the covenant of Law will be no more. In Deuteronomy 30:1-3 he says:

And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.

What’s fascinating about this passage is that Moses assumes the Israelites will not keep the Law. He assumes the failure of the Covenant at Sinai. He doesn’t say “if” the curses come upon you or “if” you are driven into exile, he says “when all these things come upon you”. The Pentateuch doesn’t teach obedience to the Law, it looks forward to the day when it will be no more and God’s people will return to a covenant like Abraham had – a covenant of faith. Moses goes on to say in verse 6, “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

The Pentateuch leaves the reader in anticipation of a better covenant (Jer.31:31-34). This will be a covenant founded on faith which fulfills the requirement of the Law (Rom. 3:31, 8:4) – like Abraham fulfilled the law by living a life of faith. It will come with a king from the tribe of Judah who will rule the nations and crush the serpent in the last days.

The Pentateuch is not the Law given at Mt. Sinai, but a commentary on that Law that anticipates something and someone better. Reading the Pentateuch leaves Philip saying about Jesus, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45)

-Brian

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Whose Law Is It Anyway? Christians and the Mosaic Law Part Two

In our last post, we tackled problems Christians face in trying to understand and apply the Law of Moses as found in the books of Genesis – Deuteronomy. In this post, we’ll unearth a faulty assumption many of us carry.

First, let me share an important fact that will guide us.  The first five books of the Bible are one book. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are not five books which happen to be placed side-by-side but are in fact one book beginning in Genesis 1:1 and ending in Deuteronomy 34:12. They are commonly called the “Pentateuch” – which means five-fold book or a book in five parts. Moses is the author of the Pentateuch and meant it to be read as a whole. In our attempt to understand what the Mosaic Law means to Christians we will consider the entire Pentateuch and not just the Laws recorded in the middle of it.

An assumption many Christians share is that the Law of Moses recorded in the Pentateuch is meant to be obeyed by the reader of the Pentateuch. When Leviticus 19:28 commands, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves; I am the Lord” we assume Moses was telling the reader not to go down to D Money’s Tattoo Parlor and get a dragon etched on their bicep. But is that what Moses was saying by including this law? A strange thing happens when we read the Pentateuch which is full of commands; we make arbitrary assumptions about which ones God gave to the characters in the story and which ones He gave to us. Even the strictest biblical literalists among us make judgments about which commands apply and which ones don’t.

God commanded Noah to build an ark (Gen. 6:14). Should I go to the Home Depot and start building my own?

God commanded Abraham to pack up his house and go to the land He would show him (Gen. 12:1). Should I sell the house, buy a Winnebago and drive until I feel led by God to settle down?

Most of you are probably ready to protest: of course we don’t follow those commands! They were given by God to specific people in a story! Exactly. We find the same thing in the Law of Moses. The Laws are a set of commands handed down by God – a specific character in the story – to the people of Israel who are a specific people in the story. In other words, the commands are not meant to tell us what to do but to teach us how Israel was to live under the Law. They were not given to us; they were given to the people of Israel in the wilderness. They were given for us; that we might learn from what God did with Israel after the Exodus. The laws are part of the unfolding drama of the Pentateuch which Moses included to teach us something. Dr. Robert Cole explains it this way:

“Each individual command to men is to be interpreted in light of the message of the entire work, not as injunctions to be obeyed to the letter at that instant by the reader. We could say that the [Pentateuch] is not a legal code but rather a narrative or drama that includes within it selections from a law code.”

This idea that Moses included the Law in the Pentateuch not to tell the reader what to do but to teach the reader about God’s covenant with Israel is scary at first. We live in a time when the authority of the Bible is under attack. Pastors, scholars, and whole denominations are reworking the text of the Bible to accommodate every cultural trend. To say part of the Bible, even the Mosaic Law, wasn’t written to command us but as part of a larger story to teach us seems to undermine its authority – unless that’s the way Moses meant it to be read. Christians have been so caught up in arguing over the authority, accuracy, and truthfulness of the Pentateuch they forgot to think about what it was actually saying. O.M.T. O’Donovan put it like this:

If, as I walk down the street, somebody in a blue coat says, ‘Stop!’, I shall have to ask, first, ‘Is he speaking to me?’ – the question of claim – and, then, ‘Is he a policeman?’ – the question of authority. And so it is with the commands of the Old Testament: we must ask, ‘Do they purport to include people like us in their scope?’ – the question of claim – and, ‘If so, ought we to heed them?’ – the question of authority. In the patristic church…the question of authority was not really open to discussion; Old Testament commands were evaluated entirely in terms of their claim. Our own age, conversely, has been so dominated with the question of authority that the question of claim has been obscured and forgotten.

We automatically assume Moses wrote the Pentateuch to tell his readers to obey the Law when he actually intended to use the Law in his unfolding drama to teach us something much greater.

In Exodus 20:24-25, the Law says an altar is to be made of earth or stones and can be set up in any location. In Exodus 27:1-8 the Law says an altar is to be made of acacia wood, overlaid with bronze and only placed in the tabernacle. If Moses wrote the Pentateuch as a law code for the reader to obey, why would it have conflicting laws? Did he want to confuse the reader? Did he fail to proofread his final draft? Moses wasn’t a confusing or lazy writer. Rather, he selected laws – from larger law codes – as examples to teach his readers about God’s covenant with Israel and life under the Law. The Law was for Israel in the wilderness, the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) is for all of God’s people for all time.

In the next post, we’ll look at the unfolding drama of the Pentateuch, the place of the Mosaic Law in that drama, and the message Moses wrote into its pages.

-Brian

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Am I Committing an Abomination? Christians and the Mosaic Law Part One

One of the most vexing questions Christians face is what to do about the Law of Moses in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Is it still binding on the people of God or was its burden removed by Christ? Are parts of it still binding – such as moral laws like prohibitions against homosexuality – while other parts have been fulfilled? Is there value to studying it or should we spend our time in New Testament passages?

Attempting to follow the Law will run a Christian into a host of problems. Leviticus 19:19 commands us not to sow a field with two types of seed. If you have a backyard garden with peas, potatoes, and pumpkins you are in violation. The same verse commands us not to wear a garment made up of two kinds of material; polyester and nylon blends that make up much of athletic clothing would be forbidden. Deuteronomy 24:15 would turn the economy upside down since it commands God’s people to pay their employees on the same day they do the work. Should we demand five pay checks a week? Leviticus 15:19-20 indicates a woman in her cycle is unclean and must not be touched for seven days. How would we practice this in our churches? Do we print a bulletin roster of all unclean ladies so we can avoid shaking their hand? The Law also forbids the eating of pigs, shellfish, rabbits, and catfish, though it does allow for the eating of locusts (Lev. 11).

The problems of literally following the Law were illustrated by A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire magazine who attempted to obey all the rules in the Bible, including the laws that command stoning. He writes:

The most commonly mentioned punishment method in the Hebrew Bible is stoning. So I figure, at the very least, I should try to stone. But how? …I figured my loophole would be this: the Bible doesn’t specify the size of the stones. So…pebbles. Here’s the thing, though: Even with pebbles, it is surprisingly hard to stone people…after a couple of failed passes, I realized it was a bad idea. A chucked pebble, no matter how small, does not go unnoticed. My revised plan: I would pretend to be clumsy and drop the pebble on [someone’s] shoe. So I did. And in this way I stoned. But it was probably the most polite stoning in history – I said ‘I’m sorry,’ and then leaned down to pick up the pebble.

The problem is further illustrated by a popular clip from the show “West Wing” in which President Bartlett confronts a right-wing talk radio host who uses Leviticus 18:22 to condemn homosexuality. Bartlett says to the host:

I wanted to ask you a couple questions while I have you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7… what would a good price for her be?… My chief of staff… insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it ok to call the police? Here is one that’s really important because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves can the Washington Redskins still play football? …Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, will you?

Now we could answer President Bartlett by pointing out that the slavery laws in Exodus 21:7 prevented the exploitation of poor families, that Leviticus 11:7 forbids touching the carcass (not the skin) so the Redskins can play as long as they’re using a football and not the body of a dead pig, and that planting different crops and wearing garments with different threads are not punishable by death. But this still puts us in the difficult position of having to explain the reasoning behind every law to modern people who cannot begin to fathom the thoughts and lives of people who lived 3,500 years ago. Even though Bartlett’s little speech is riddled with errors, it still exposes the difficulties Christians face when trying to understand and live out the Law of Moses.

Some artificially divide the Law into ceremonial, civil, and moral laws and argue Christ fulfilled the ceremonial laws, the civil laws ended with Israel, and the moral laws are the only ones still binding. The problem is the Law doesn’t separate itself into these categories and many of its laws don’t neatly fit into them. Take Leviticus 19:27, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” Is that a moral, civil, or ceremonial law? Did Christ fulfill it by having a beard? Did God want Israel to be a bearded nation and now, since we don’t live there, we can shave? This solution is helpful, but doesn’t ultimately solve our problem.

Some simply pick and choose what they want to believe in the Bible. They accept the parts they like and agree with and reject the parts they dislike that offend them. This allows them to dismiss the Law and not worry about it. However, this is only crafting a religion to one’s own liking. Christians who believe the Bible to seriously be the Word of God and who desire to follow all of it cannot just dismiss the Law; they must deal with it.

Some claim that in Christ, the Law is fulfilled and done away with so we need not concern ourselves with it. Paul said in Romans 7:6, “But now we are released from the Law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” So we are free from the Law, but does it then become irrelevant to Christians? This answer is true but unsatisfying because it turns the books of Genesis – Deuteronomy into a lifeless appendage to the rest of Scripture.

Could there be a better way? I believe there is. If the books of Moses (Genesis – Deuteronomy) are strictly law, why are there 70 chapters of biography before the giving of the Law? If these are simply laws to be follow, why does poetry shape so much of the book? If the purpose of the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy) is to teach the Law given with the Sinai covenant, why does Moses look ahead to a new covenant (Deut. 29:1, 30:1-10)? We’ll explore these themes in the next post.

Brian

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Is There a Right Way to Interpret the Bible? One Woman Lives “Biblically” for a Year

Now revealing number one on our list of most-viewed blog posts of 2011! Thanks to a number of websites – friendly and not so friendly – who linked their readers to this article, it became the most popular one of the year. Not only did it take a look at the dubious attempt of an author to be a “biblical” woman, it also had the boldness to suggest there is a right and wrong way to read the Bible. So check it out and we hope you join us back here at Entire Gospel for 2012!

What is biblical womanhood supposed to look like? Rachel Held Evans, author of Evolving in Monkey Town, has committed one year to following the Bible’s instructions to women as literally as possible. She has blogged about her experience and intends to publish a book with Thomas Nelson in 2012. She interviews women with differing views, camps in her backyard following Levitical laws, and grows out her hair. Nine months in, she said this about her experience:

I had long questioned the notion that the Bible presents one uniform prescription for how to be a woman, and these past nine months of research and experimentation have confirmed the fact that the whole concept of ‘biblical womanhood’ can be terribly misleading.

In any project involving research and experimentation, one’s methods will largely influence the results. For example, suppose I want to discover which weight loss program – Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, etc. – is most effective for my body type. I decide to try each for one week and whichever sheds the most pounds I will crown as “most effective”. At the end I will have a new perspective, but it is determined largely by my method. One program may be effective for a week, but another may be more effective if practiced regularly. One may benefit from the achievements of last week’s program and skew the results. The amount of exercise I engage in may affect the results in ways I have not measured. My method of research and experimentation will lead me to a result, but it may not be the right one.

The same holds true with Rachel Evans’ research into Biblical Womanhood which prompted her to view the concept as “terribly misleading” and to declare “none of us is actually practicing biblical womanhood.” Her method, while it entertains and will attract an audience, ignores basic practices of interpretation. It has the effect of making Bible interpretation seem utterly hopeless; the best we can do is try to make sense of it for ourselves and not judge others who see it differently. Thankfully, one of the long-held doctrines of the Christian faith is the “clarity” of the Scriptures. The Bible is written so its teachings are able to be understood by all who read it, desiring God’s help, and being willing to follow it (Ps. 19:7, 119:130, Matt. 12:3-5, 21:42, 22:31, Luke 16:29-31, etc.). The Bible is not a hopelessly confusing book leading different people down different paths but a clear book that rewards faithful study with the truth God has revealed.

This will make some uncomfortable, but there is a right and a wrong way to interpret the Bible. We already believe this to be true of other documents. We are not free to interpret our bank statement, a restaurant menu, the tax code, an algebra book, or a Hemingway novel however we wish. While interpretations may vary, there is a right and a wrong way to read those things. It is the same with the Bible. While individual interpretations will vary, there is a right and a wrong way to interpret it. Let’s take a look at some of Evans’ comments and see three practical things to keep in mind in our own interpreting.

She says her most eye-opening experience was turning Proverbs 31 into a to-do list and finding it impossible. Of course it’s impossible! It’s a poem, not a list of commands. When interpreting the Bible, always keep in mind the genre of literature you are studying. The Bible is composed of narratives, laws, poetry, letters, apocalypses, prophecies, and wisdom. Each genre has its own rules and must be read on those terms. If I write a poem to my wife and say, “If I don’t see you my heart will stop beating” she doesn’t assume eye contact will prevent my death. She knows it is an expression of longing. In the same way, Proverbs 31 is an acrostic poem depicting the excellent wife. The author literally intended it not to be taken as a to-do list.

She also camps in her backyard to observe her “time of impurity” as prescribed in Leviticus. While this makes for good reading, it ignores a basic principle: the parts of the Bible are understood in light of the whole. I recently assembled a bookcase using a manual with ten steps. I couldn’t imagine trying to assemble it using only step three! I can only understand the bookcase in light of the whole manual. Similarly, I can’t understand Leviticus without understanding the whole story of the Bible. Paul declares in Romans 7:6 “But now we are released from the law…” So the laws guarding against impurity have been fulfilled and done away with in Christ. In forming our biblical view on womanhood or anything else, we must take into account all of what God has revealed in the Bible.

She also makes this statement: “…technically speaking it is ‘biblical’ for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt, ‘biblical’ for her to be forced to marry her rapist and ‘biblical’ for her to be one of many wives!” She also researches woman in the Bible who “defy what many people perceive to be the traits of a biblical woman.” The problem with basing your views off of stories and characters in the Bible is that narrative is not normative. There are certain things the Bible reports and certain things the Bible teaches. Because something happened does not mean God approved of it or prescribes it for us. The Bible teaches marriage is between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:5-6) yet through the stories of the patriarchs and their multiple wives shows how denying this teaching leads to suffering. The characters of the Bible are not mythic heroes to emulate but sinners used by God to bring about redemption through Jesus Christ.

What methods guide your interpretation of the Scriptures? If we simply take into account literary genres, attempt to understand passages of Scripture within the context of the whole, and distinguish the events in the Bible from the teachings of the Bible we can be more effective interpreters.

Does it mean we won’t disagree? No.

Does it mean we won’t struggle to understand? No.

Does it mean we’ll always get it right? No.

It does mean we can faithfully, humbly, and obediently pursue truth God has revealed.

After perusing Rachel Evans’ blog I found her to be thoughtful and well-informed, though I often disagreed with her. Her book will likely be entertaining and insightful. But our goal in interpreting the Bible isn’t to entertain or even to unearth shocking new insights. If we’re willing to set aside the humor of modern day attempts to follow Levitical laws and understand the text on its own terms we can know its truth and it will transform our lives, provoking even more beneficial discussion. Truth matters – about biblical womanhood and anything else. Let’s pursue it.

-Brian

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