In Defense of the Faith
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
If I said, I'm going to study the Bible 'till the cows come home', would you look for a herd of longhorns? No! It's an idiom, a phrase that says one thing but is understood to mean something else. The same thing could be said about ''Bible Study''. And that does involve cows.
Way too many churches today define “Bible Study” as getting a roomful of saints together to discuss the latest Christian pop theology book or self-help bestseller: Radical, Crazy Love, Wild at Heart, Power of a Praying Wife, Every Day a Friday. Whatever. The fact is, there are lots of great books out there, and there are lots of not so great books. But there’s only one Good Book. And the Bible makes the distinction between itself and all the rest pretty clear.
It calls them milk. (Really?) Well, OK. Nowhere in either the Old or New Testaments does it say Radical is milk. But think about it. Milk, by definition, is nutrition that someone else put in their mouth, someone else chewed, and someone else digested.
And someone else spit out for you to swallow.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with milk. It’s protein. It’s nutritious. But an adult whose entire diet consisted of milk would not be a very healthy individual. And if you are a Christian whose entire spiritual diet consists of Christian radio, devotionals, sermons, and how-to books on the Christian life, all you are consuming is milk.
And it’s time to moooooooove on. (Sorry. I just couldn’t help myself.)
It’s time to become a carnivorous Christian. Just you and your Bible, fed from God’s word. But that can be kind of intimidating. Where do you start?
I was taught, as a brand new Navigator, to approach God’s word in this manner: read a passage a day and ask yourself questions like this: "Is there a verse for me to obey?" "A promise for me to claim?" "A sin for me to avoid?" "An example for me to follow?"
You get the drill.
And that’s fine. Nothing wrong with that. It’s not milk. But is that really high-quality nutrition?
The problem with that kind of Bible study is that it’s the Bible seen through 'me'-colored glasses. Everything is about me. It’s kind of like spiritual bacon. Tastes good, but it's nutritional value? Not so much.
It only really works for the Epistles, letters written specifically for the church.
And the pitfalls of this approach are many with regards to proper Bible interpretation.
Exhibit A: Joel, chapter 2 and verse 25:
“I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten.”
How many Christians have you heard claim this verse? I admit it, looking through the lens of me, I did too, before I knew better.
But before asking what the verse says about you, you have to figure out what it would have said to its primary audience, the group of people God was talking to when He spoke it into the human being. The church was not the intended audience for this promise. What is its context?
God is addressing Israel, with regards to a very specific time in their future. The Battles of Armageddon.
"Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble; For the day of the Lord is coming, For it is at hand: A day of darkness and gloominess, A day of clouds and thick darkness, Like the morning clouds spread over the mountains. A people come, great and strong, The like of whom has never been; will there ever be any such after them, Even for many successive generations. A fire devours before them, And behind them a flame burns; The land is like the Garden of Eden before them,And behind them a desolate wilderness; Surely nothing shall escape them.… The earth quakes before them…, For strong is the One who executes His word. For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible;
Who can endure it?"
God then tells Israel,
“Turn to Me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”
So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the Lord your God… Let the priests, who minister to the Lord, Weep between the porch and the altar;
Let them say, “Spare Your people, O Lord, And do not give Your heritage to reproach, That the nations should rule over them. Why should they say among the peoples,‘Where is their God?’”
And then comes the promise:
"Then the Lord will be zealous for His land, And pity His people…But I will remove far from you the northern army, And will drive him away into a barren and desolate land, “So I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten…You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, And praise the name of the Lord your God," (Joel 2:1-26 NKJV)
This is a specific promise to the nation of Israel, who was consistently promised an earthly kingdom. A promise that though God will bring desolation on the land of Israel during the campaign of Armageddon, He will keep His promise to restore the kingdom in prosperity. He will repay them for the years the locust have eaten, in context, the seven years of Armageddon, even defining the locust as the “great army that he sent among them.” A specific promise for a specific time and a specific audience. And that audience is not the church.
The second problem is that, claimed by a New Testament believer, the verse kind of contradicts what the rest of the Bible tells us. As the church, we’re promised, not an earthly reward, but a heavenly one. We’re promised that in this world, we will have tribulation.
Look at the church in Smyrna. God’s promise to them was essentially this: you’re going to die. (But, in the words of Jesus Christ Superstar, "to conquer death you only have to die”.)
My current pet peeve with this the 'me' method of Bible interpretation is a song called “Savior King" by Hillsong. Actually it is a great song but the lyrics just bug me. It starts out with,
“And now, let the weak say I have strength”.
I understand the sentiment. It is when we recognize our weakness that we are strong. But the context is Joel too:
"Beat your plowshares into swords And your pruning hooks into spears; Let the weak say, ‘I am strong'. Assemble and come, all you nations, And gather together all around. (Joel 3:10-11)
It's the same gathering of the nations described in Joel 2. A gathering of the nations also, described in Psalm 2:
"The kings of the earth set themselves, And the rulers take counsel together, Against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying,“Let us break Their bonds in pieces And cast away Their cords from us.”
A gathering of the nations, at the end of Tribulation, with the intention of destroying Israel and thereby rejecting God's authority finally and forever.
The Psalm goes on to say,
“He who sits in the heavens shall laugh."
That laughter is recorded in Joel 3, when God says "now let the weak say I am strong". He’s mocking the pathetic defiance of the gathered nations.
Translation: God is saying “You think you can take me? Bring it on! Let the weak say "I am strong.”
And there’s my issue. Maybe it’s just me, and I’m being too too much of a "church lady" with my panties in a wad. . But God says that He elevated His word even above His name. And we’re not to take God’s name lightly.
I think His word deserves a little more respect than we’re giving it.
"When Your words were found, and I ate them, And Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart; For I am called by Your name, O Lord God of hosts." (Jeremiah 15:15)
You can't "eat" milk. And it's only when you get past looking at the word for information about you that it becomes the fascinating treasure that the Bible describes.
I think Carly Simon wrote a song about this kind of Bible Study:
"You're so vain, you probably think this Psalm is about you…"
Wasn't that how it went?
About Wendy Wippel
Last week: Looking for God in all the Wrong Places
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