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Archive for the ‘Bible interpretation’ Category

1

As a landscape can look quite different at different times of day or in different weather as the varying angles and hues of light on a terrain make different parts of that landscape stand out in sharp relief, so reading the Bible in a different cultural setting can highlight and bring out things you’d never seen before. I mentioned a few examples of this in an earlier post and here are a few more features of the Bible landscape that the preaching of Kenyan brothers has helped me see and appreciate in a new way.

Shame

It is sometimes said that African and Asian cultures are shame cultures (concerned about issues of public face and community rejection) whereas Western culture is a guilt culture (concerned about individual objective transgression of the law). Perhaps there is some truth in that but actually I think Western culture is a shame culture too just in a different way. Some things that would not be shameful in Kenya are shameful in the UK and vice versa. I’ll try to explore that more in another post. But what is certainly true is that when you are away from your home culture you notice the shame issue more.

When Ken Irungu was giving us an overview of 2 Timothy and preaching through the first chapter, one of the things that really struck me was how he brought out the theme of shame and being unashamed. In his time of trial Paul has been deserted (2 Tim. 4:16) and he calls Timothy ‘not to be ashamed of the gospel or of me his prisoner’ (1:8) but rather to be like Onesiphorus who was ‘not ashamed of my chains’ (1:16).

Challenging convention, being different, being outspoken can often be taken as shameful in a communal culture. To undergo arrest or punishment by the authorities, even when undeserved, will be seen as shameful. Even to suffer through illness, bereavement or some calamity can suggest that you under some sort of cloud of curse of misfortune. So for Paul to be suffering, and particularly suffering institutional persecution for the sake of his preaching, is a shameful thing and people will naturally respond by dissociating themselves and distancing themselves from him so as not to share the shame or pick the contagion. He will be rejected by the community, in itself a shameful thing, making him even more a figure of shame.

Being shown this theme has made the letter of 2 Timothy stand out in sharper relief for me. And I have also started to notice it all over the New Testament – the words ‘shame’ or ‘ashamed’ coming about 40 times. The death of Christ was a shameful thing (Heb. 12:2). The call of Jesus is to take up our cross (i.e. be willing to be shamed) and not be ashamed of me or my words else the Son of Man will be ashamed of him (Mk. 8:34-38). “Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore” (Heb. 13:13).

Elder brother

In African cultures the role of the firstborn is well understood. I remember being in a Bible study in the Gambia looking at Colossians 1:15 and the African brothers there had no problem understanding the significance of Jesus being the ‘firstborn’. They didn’t get distracted by the JW misunderstanding that this means that Jesus is a created being, they understood that just as the firstborn in a house is next to the father and has all the rights and authority and status of the father (particularly when the father is away), so Jesus is next to the Father and has delegated to him all the functions and power of the Father.

Then Stanley Wandeto was preaching on Luke 15 – the parable of the two sons – and he showed me something that I had never seen about the elder brother there. It’s a parable full of shocking (shameful) behaviour (e.g. the younger son asking for his inheritance, the old man running, the father begging his son) but the one I hadn’t seen was that the elder brother is shocking in that he doesn’t go looking for the younger son. Traditionally a responsibility of the firstborn is to look after his younger siblings, to keep watch over them, to care for them and keep them in line. When the younger son insults his father and goes off into a life of recklessness, it is the job of the firstborn (not the father) to run after his brother and plead with him to come back.

Now I think of it, I realise that this is the godly concern that many of my Kenyan friends and colleagues have within their own families, particularly those who are firstborns, to pursue and win back straying siblings.

This gives another level and depth to the characterisation of the elder brother in the parable. His hatred towards his younger brother does not start when he comes home and a party is thrown for him, it starts much earlier in his failure to search for him. The self-righteous Pharisees (who are the target of the parable) are at fault not only for their failure to welcome sinners but their failure to go out looking for sinners (cf. Jesus who welcomes and seeks the lost).

Dead dog

Before I came to Kenya I’m not sure I’d seen a dead dog before. Now I see one almost every time I go to the office, lying in the road. Africa is full of stray dogs. Mostly a yellow-brown colour, small to medium size, thin, feral, searching for scraps. They have a hard pathetic life and then they get hit by a truck or starve.

In most African cultures, for a person to be compared to a dog is an extremely insulting and shameful thing. For one thing the distinction between animals and humans is much sharper than in the West (where pets are part of the family and people get very upset over a gorilla being shot) and for another thing dogs are a particularly dirty and ignoble animal (in contrast to something more noble like a lion or a rhino).

So when Fidel Nyikuri preached Mark 7:27 to us and also reminded us of Mephibosheth in 2 Kings 9, it came home very powerfully what it means for us to be a dead dog – pathetic, despised, dirty, base, in the lowest place. And yet – the wonder of the gospel – we who are not entitled to anything are invited to eat at the king’s table and share the children’s bread (Mk. 8:1-9).

Water and milk

In parts of the world where water comes clean, clear, pure and cold straight from the tap and is basically never cut off, it is difficult to appreciate the preciousness of water. In parts of the world where milk is delivered to the door and is always there when you open the fridge, alongside three or four other beverages and fifteen food items, it is difficult to appreciate the importance of milk.

However in places where the climate is hot and dry and water is scarce, where it has to be searched for or brought up from the ground with effort, then there is much more impact when we read in Isaiah of drawing ‘water from the wells of salvation’ (Isa. 12:3), a ruler and renewal which is ‘like streams of water in the desert’ (Isa. 32:2; 35:6; 41:18; 43:20; 44:3), a shepherd God who leads his people ‘beside springs of water’ (Isa. 49:10). Similarly, in a community where milk (drawn by hand from your own animals) is a key part of the diet (in some pastoralist communities people survive purely on milk for days a time and even down-country in many villages the one animal you will own is a cow), then the land flowing with milk and honey is very meaningful picture.

Preaching from Isaiah 55 Gerald Mwangi helped us imagine working all morning on the farm, digging in the sun, drinking nothing, and then finishing your work in the early afternoon desperate for… water. Then to think of what we take from childhood onwards to make us strong, to give us energy, to build us up… milk.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.”

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sword1

We all love the armour of God. It’s such a great visual aid. Perfect for Sunday School sessions and all age services. Just Google a Roman soldier, find a worksheet to colour in, dress someone up. Perfect.

The armour of God is also a delight to commentators, whether scholarly or devotional. Each piece of armour invites pages of extrapolation on how the particularities of first century Roman armour help us to understand the spiritual point that Paul was driving at.

But what if the armour of God isn’t really about Roman soldiers?

  1. The armour of God is the Old Testament armour of God. As most commentators observe, the clearest allusion made by Ephesians 6 is to Isaiah 59:17 where the LORD God himself puts on his battle garments including righteousness as a breastplate and a helmet of salvation. The LORD has a sword (Isaiah 34:5-6; 66:16). Also in Isaiah the Coming Christ has faithfulness (truth) as a belt around his waist (Isaiah 11:5) and a mouth like a sharpened sword (Isaiah 49:2). Looking at the wider OT we find that the LORD is often found giving himself to his people as their shield (Gen. 15:1; 20x in the Psalms), even as their shield and sword together (Deut. 33:29).
  2. The armour of God is Christ the LORD. William Gurnall who wrote 1700 pages on the armour of God put the matter very succinctly when he commented: “By armour is meant Christ.” Paul’s whole letter to the Ephesians, as all his letters, has been dominated by Christ. Christ is the truth (John 14:6). Christ is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ is our peace (Eph. 2:14). Christ is our salvation (Luke 2:30). This is in continuity with the OT where we find that the LORD is our salvation and our righteousness (Ex. 15:2; Jer. 23:6) and it is perfectly consistent with Paul’s thought that we should put on Christ and clothe ourselves in him (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27).
  3. The words for the pieces of armour in Ephesians 6 are not technical terms for pieces of Roman armour. The word ‘belt’ is not actually there in verse 14. The phrase ‘girding round your loins’ has a Hebraic flavour and suggests getting ready for action. Breastplate (v14) and Helmet (v17) use common Greek words found 10 and 9 times respectively in the LXX (the Greek OT), including where they both appear together in the key passage Isaiah 59:17. Commentators are confident that the shoe Paul has in mind in verse 15 is the caliga, the Roman soldier’s battle boot, but Paul doesn’t actually mention boots. He says simply, ‘feet shod with readiness’ – the word readiness calling to mind the ministry of John the Baptist (Isaiah 40:3-4; Luke 1:17,76; 3:4-6). The shield might make us think of the famous rectangular red scutum of the Romans, used in their famous tortoise formation, but Paul uses a common word for shield found 19 times in the LXX (e.g. the shield of King Saul – 2 Sam. 1:21). The word for sword is one of two common Greek words for sword, both of which are used extremely frequently and often interchangeably in the NT and LXX. Sometimes a distinction is made between the short stabbing battle sword (machaira) of Eph. 6:17 and the long sword of justice but it is the machaira which appears in Rom. 13:4 as the sword of justice and in Isaiah 27:1 (LXX) as the sword of the LORD himself.
  4. Paul was probably not chained to a Roman soldier in battle armour. While it might be tempting to imagine Paul dictating his letter to the Ephesians while looking at the different pieces of Roman armour, Stott comments, “…it would be unlikely that such a bodyguard would wear the full uniform of an infantryman on the battlefield.” Certainly battle boots and a huge shield would have been strange for a prison guard. If Ephesians is written from Paul’s house arrest in Rome described at the end of Acts then it seems it was not a deep dark dungeon confinement. It may be that the chains are more a way of expressing his legal status and restriction of his freedom and liberty than literal iron chains (cf. 2 Tim. 2:9). There is a danger that we read the situation of Peter in Acts 12:6 into Paul’s references to his chains.

This is not to say that it is impossible that Paul was not thinking at least partly of the Roman soldier or that his first readers might not have thought of a Roman soldier. But it is to say that the most important background to Ephesians 6:10-20 is not the first century imperial legionary or centurion but the Old Testament and also Pauline and NT thought.

So what?

  1. Scripture Alone. Scripture interprets Scripture. You don’t need to be an expert in first century Roman warfare to understand Ephesians 6. Certainly the Bible was written by humans in particular cultures at particular times but again and again we find that all the background we need to know is in the Bible itself. We know what we need to know about Ephesus from Acts 19. We know what we need to know about the armour of God from the OT. Even the flaming arrows of the Deceiver are there (Prov. 26:18-19). The approach that leans heavily on external sources and historical reconstructions a) takes us into uncertain territory (Which expert do you believe? Which rank of Roman soldier are we talking about? Did they all have plumes in their helmets? What if another historical source turns up that changes our understanding of the context?); and b) takes authority away from the text and the reader and gives a dangerous amount of power to the ‘expert’ as he tells me what I could never have known on my own. This has even more important implications in other parts of the NT where the historical reconstructions of liberal scholars tell us, “I know that it looks like the Bible is saying this but if you really know the culture and politics in first century Ephesus then you would know that it actually means the opposite of what it looks like it means.” Scripture is our guide to Scripture.
  2. Grace Alone. The Roman Soldier analogy tends slightly towards seeing the pieces of armour as passive instruments with the soldier (me) as the active fighter. In contrast, if we see the armour of God as the OT armour of God – The LORD himself, Christ the Lord – then it is closer to the mark to see us as the passive ones and God as the active one. He is giving us his armour, he is giving us himself. He is surrounding us as a wall of fire and a fortress and shield. Yes there are imperatives to ‘Put on’ and ‘Take up’ and ‘Stand’ – we need to walk in the calling we have received (Eph. 4:1) but it is first and foremost something received, gift. So let us not turn Ephesians 6 in to a series of things for us to do. That is fig leaf armour. We need the armour of God. We need to put on Christ and glory in his sovereign grace. “According to Ephesians 6 believers need to be armed with God’s own righteousness if they are to be protected against the blows and arrows of their spiritual enemies… The position of power and authority with Christ to which they have been raised is greater ‘than that possessed by their mighty supernatural enemies’. As they appropriate this salvation more fully and live in the light of their status in Christ, they have every reason to be confident of the outcome of the battle.” (Peter O’Brien)
  3. The Church of God. The Roman soldier analogy tends towards making us think of an individual centurion or an army of individuals each putting on their own armour. But the letter of Ephesians has been about the church. In Ephesians 6, as throughout the letter, the address is second person plural (it comes out better in Kiswahili than in English). It’s not addressed to the Lone Ranger solo Christian. It’s not little me being called to stand firm and put on my armour and fight. It is the whole church being called to clothe themselves in the gospel armour. The song, O Church Arise gets it just right. The one new man (Eph. 2:15) – the Church – must put the armour on. The armour of God himself. So that, as the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD will surround his people, both now and for evermore (Psalm 125:2).

Much of what has been written and taught from the illustration of the Roman soldier is spiritually true and edifying. But let’s say the right things from the right texts. And let’s rejoice in what Ephesians 6 is clearly saying about the divine armour that we the church have been given and let us put on Christ.

 

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Job cover

I’ve absolutely loved Christopher Ash’s Preaching the Word series commentary on Job. So many things I’d never seen. Deep, paradigm-shaking stuff on God’s governance of His universe. A real preacher’s commentary. Great on the detail. Great on the big picture and the flow. Great pastoral sensitivity and compassionate insight. Here’s a taster:

God gives us a forty-two-chapter book… Not an SMS… A journey… Why? Because there is no instant working through grief, no quick fix to pain, no message of Job in a nutshell.

About 95% of the book of Job is poetry… We cannot sum up a poem in a bald statement; we need to let a poem get to work on us.

Job has integrity; he is not so sure about his children.

There is something dark in human hearts, and Job knows it.

A whole burnt offering… pictures the hot anger of God burning up the animal in the place of the worshipper… We can imagine Job doing this for [his children] one at a time: “This one is for you,” and he lights the fire, and the animal is consumed… And so on until all the children were covered by sacrifice.

The Bible portrays for us a world that lies under the absolute supremacy and sovereignty of the Creator, who has no rivals… And yet he does not govern the world as the sole supernatural power. He governs the world by means of and through the agency of a multiplicity of supernatural powers, some of whom are evil.

The book of Job is not about suffering in general… Rather it is about how God treats his friends.

The Satan, for all his malice, is doing something necessary for the glory of God. In some deep way it is necessary for it to be publically seen by the whole universe that God is worthy of the worship of a man and that God’s worth is in no way dependent on God’s gifts.

Empathy may be inarticulate… But comfort must be articulate and active. Empathy may be silent, but comfort must include speech.

[Job] has been taken away into a different realm, a realm of suffering so deep [his friends] cannot reach him… To them Job is no longer a living person.

A true Christian believer may be taken by God through times of deep and dark despair… We need to recognise that there may be times in the life of a believer when the future appears utterly blank and all we can do is look back with regret.

How do you and I respond when the wild world breaks into the farm, when the disorder and chaos of a dark world invades our ordered world and makes mincemeat of our plans and hopes? Come outside the farm, says the Lord to Job, and have a thoughtful tour of the wild world outside.

We are forced to consider the strange but wonderful possibility that evil is created to serve the purposes and glory of God.

Satan, the Leviathan, is a horrible monster. But he cannot go one millimetre beyond the leash on which the Lord keeps him.

The normal Christian life is warfare and waiting and being loved and humbled by God and being justified by God… The blessings we get now are just a tiny foretaste of the blessings to be poured out at the end.

 

 

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We’re all aware of the challenge of the prosperity gospel in our context but perhaps there is another, more subtle threat on the horizon. Here are the notes and Powerpoint from a seminar/workshop I did at the Renew Conference at Brackenhurst yesterday (incorporating some feedback and contributions from the discussion):

More feedback welcome…

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The teaching that we are all “little gods”, based on Psalm 82:6 and John 10:34, has been around for quite a while and seems to be on the rise particularly in Kenyan universities so perhaps it’s worth making a couple of comments and links here.

The key verses are quite tricky in a number of respects but particularly for two reasons:

  1. Who are the ‘gods’ in Psalm 82?
  2. Why exactly is Jesus quoting the Psalm in John 10?

But what is abundantly clear is that these verses cannot possibly mean what many popular teachers today use them to mean – that Christians (those who are in Christ) are gods in the sense that we can speak things into existence, we can speak with the authority of the Creator to rebuke diseases, declare blessings, bind disasters, change reality.

Apart from the fact that this is patently bonkers (when is the last time you stilled a storm or created a galaxy?) and sounds very much like the original temptation in the garden (Genesis 3:5), a good look at the context shows that the overall tone and message of both Psalm 82 and John 10 is 1) condemnation of the ‘gods’ and 2) the exalting of the one true God.

  1. The ‘gods’ here are being judged not applauded. The emphasis is on their guilt and powerlessness not their greatness and strength. Precisely the opposite of the way the texts are used by Word of Faith preachers.
  2. The only one being exalted in both passages is the true God. In Psalm 82 He is the one who judges (v1) and who will judge (v8). In John 10 the one in the spotlight is Jesus Christ making a unique claim to be God from God, the Son who is one with the Father, a claim for which he is very close to being stoned for blasphemy.

But what about those initial two questions? What exactly is going on in Psalm 82 and John 10? Well I’m not sure but here are a few things I’ve found and gleaned from others (you’ll need a Bible open at this point).

  • The main choices for the ‘gods’ in Psalm 82 are a) bad judges; b) fallen angelic powers; c) all Israel under judgement. The first choice seems to fit well with the accusation (v2-4) and with the context in John’s gospel where ‘the Jews’, usually referring to the Pharisees and synagogue authorities (see John 9), are doing something very similar to the ‘gods’ of Psalm 82 – not judging rightly. The second choice (dark heavenly powers) makes sense of the opening line about the gods being in the divine council and is the interpretation taken by John Piper. The third option (all Israel) notices that Psalm 82:6 goes on to say “sons of the most high” and notes that the language of God as the Father of Israel begins in the book of Exodus (cf.  John 8:41). So the judgement in Psalm 82 may be talking about the Wilderness generation who were destroyed. This is Don Carson’s understanding. Notice, none of these options for the ‘gods’ is ‘faithful Christians’.
  • More important than the ‘gods’ in Psalm 82 is the God mentioned at the beginning and end. I’m seeing a lot of connections with Psalm 2. You have a God who sits in heaven (Ps. 2:4; 82:1), you have wicked rulers (Ps. 2:1-3; 82:2-4), you have a judgement declared from heaven (Ps. 2:5-6; 82:6-7) and you have one who will judge and inherit the nations (Ps. 2:8-9; 82:8). So I’m increasingly thinking that maybe the God at the beginning of Psalm 82 is the Father, the Most High, and the God at the end of the Psalm is the Son. Which then gives a lot of bite to Jesus’ quotation in John 10 and fits with his claims there.
  • In John 10 Jesus seems to make some kind of linguistic connection between himself and the ‘gods’ of Psalm 82 – the simple point being that it is possible for Scripture to use elohim beyond just referring to the Most High God. But more importantly he contrasts himself with the ‘gods’ in that he is not merely one ‘to whom the Word came’, he is The Word who has come (John 10:35-36). – Jesus is making a how-much-more argument – a claim beyond being one of the ‘gods’, that he is the Son of God, one with the Father. And so the ‘gods’ continue to try to kill him for making such a unique claim to be God.

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David and Goliath

 

When we read 1 Samuel 17 we surely need to see a fulfilment of Genesis 3:15 – the enmity between the forces of the Serpent and the forces of the LORD, a seed of woman who strikes the head of the seed of Satan (notice the emphasis on Goliath’s head – verses 46, 49, 51, 54, 57) – and a pointer forward to the perfect fulfilment in our representative who goes out (in weakness) to fight for us at the Cross while we stand helpless and quivering on the sidelines.

But… surely, we might say, there is also an emphasis on David’s faith in this story of 1 Samuel 17? Surely his great speeches of confidence are supposed to inspire us to have such faith in God in all our trials?

The danger here is that the idea of ‘faith in God’ becomes very vague.

when we look at David, for example, we don’t say that he just had ‘faith in God’ in some vague sense. He didn’t exist in some pre-Trinitarian time. He was very conscious that he had the Spirit (Psalm 51:11) and spoke by the Spirit (2 Sam. 23:2), he was well aware of the difference between the Father and the Son (Psalm 110:1) and his Lord was specifically Jesus (Matt. 22:41-45). So if we were preaching on 1 Samuel 17 (David and Goliath) we would want to bring out the big point – that this is a pattern of Jesus’ victory over the Great Enemy, but we might also speak of David’s faith in the very-present Deliverer LORD (1 Sam. 17:37; 45-47) and make clear that this was faith in Jesus.

(From forthcoming Utumishi wa Neno book)

David is a type of the Greater Christ to come but he is also already trusting in that Christ who is present with him to save. And then even this faith of David becomes typological – a type of Jesus’ faith in his Father. As the Great David goes out to face the Devil in single combat he goes for the glory of the Father (John 17:4) confident that the Father delivers the plunder into his hand (John 6:37-39; 10:29).

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On structure the consensus seems to be something like this:

sos structure

 

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