It seems that whenever I'm given opportunity to teach a Bible study, it inevitably becomes necessary to first discuss interpretation . . .
That's undoubtedly because 1) the Bible is an amazing collection of literature, and 2) it isn't quite as simple or simplistic as many would like to believe. This isn't to suggest that its principle message of redemption in Christ is difficult to understand because, well, it isn't. God has made a way through faith in his son's finished work on the cross to deal with our separation from him and give us a hope of eternal life.
There is a brilliant and unparalleled wisdom within the Bible's pages that can only come from a matchless, living, all-powerful, and all-knowing God. Through its narratives, poetry, and teaching, we are given the opportunity to see an unfolding plan and purpose - a purpose ultimately fulfilled through the staggering reality of the eternal God becoming man in Jesus Christ.
That said, it is because the Bible comes to us from God himself, it is also very dangerous. Dr. Walter Brueggemann has rightly referred to the biblical accounts as “dangerous narratives,” because “they are so profoundly counter-cultural.” Throughout Christian history, many who have embraced these narratives have done so at the cost of their status, reputation, livelihood, homes, families, and, in many cases, even their lives.
Just as they are dangerous from cultural, religious, and ethical, perspectives, they are also theologically dangerous. In addition to the personal sacrifices just mentioned, there are those who have suffered loss within the church for sharing the truth of God. I think this is often a result of a misguided view of God that arises from a humanistic perspective rather than the biblical text itself. As long as we keep man and his well-being at the center (humanism), all is well. When we try to remove him, well, let's just say it may initiate unpleasant consequences. This man-centered perspective has been aptly described as the "therapeutic gospel."
I have all too often (and sadly) observed how we, as saints of God, so quickly seem to frown upon – or tune out – anything that is not immediately relevant (and beneficial) to our own lives and circumstances. The teacher is expected to apply the Word for us as if it were a kind of therapeutic, self-help guide. If that is not the outcome, the message or series is not considered to be of central importance to the hearer. Fading from our Christian heritage are those who take an interest in the beauty of biblical literature, its poetry, intertextuality, symbolism, and grammatical-historical context; those who find the pure joy of building a foundation in God's book over years of study.
This long-view approach to the sacred text allows the Spirit to create a well within us, one that is informed by Scripture, from which he may draw up into our conscious mind in the moment it is needed. He, the Spirit of God, is the one who applies the truth to our lives. But alas, in our impatience and lust for constant stimulation and immediate gratification we much prefer the short-cut of an electronically generated "verse for the day," regardless of its context. This is evidenced by the popularity of the therapeutic gospel that this mindset permeates and unfortunately characterizes our present time. The thinking (and it is not my intent to be judgmental) goes like this: good stuff comes from God, bad stuff comes from the devil, and God's main agenda (as set by man) is to ensure our well-being and happiness.
But take heart, this way of thinking did not start in 21st-century western culture. Consider Jacob arising from his dream sleep in Genesis 28:
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." . . . Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father's house in safety, then the LORD will be my God. "This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God's house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You" (Gen.28:16-22).
Sounds pretty noble, doesn't it?
But if I may ask a question: Who decided to set the conditions of the relationship? God? or Jacob? Notice the "if" and "then" conditions. Jacob's service (as he defined it) was conditional upon God accommodating his journey, supplying him with food and clothing, and keeping him safe. It appears to me that beneath Jacob's pious-sounding vow was an expectation that God was to ensure certain outcomes, and Jacob would respond with service to him - and that on his own terms. Jacob had just had his first real encounter with God, and God promised to be with him. Now Jacob assumed to know how to serve him based on his idolatrous understanding of how gods should behave, one that was common in his time.
This kind of reciprocation was very common in ancient pagan relationships between people and their gods. Jacob assumed that Yahweh behaved the same way other gods behaved in their interactions with humans. I may not be the sharpest pencil in the box, but I don't think that's the way it works. Maybe it was okay for pagan deities, but God, throughout the Scriptures, identifies himself as the one who sets the conditions. People are his servants, called to obey his conditions and purposes. Yes, he offers grace and incredible promises, but he also sets the conditions for worship and service.
Unfortunately, the "Jacob-like" perception of God may leave us unprepared in the face of unanticipated difficulties, crises, and disappointments that arise during the course of our Christian experience (remember Jesus' words in Luke 7:23: ". . . blessed is he who is not offended in me."). Jesus spoke those words to John the Baptizer's disciples. It was in response to John's inquiry sent by them (I offer a paraphrase): "If you're the promised one, what am I doing in this hell-hole?" (see Luke 7:20-23).
Why would we possibly be offended by him, unless our expectations of him are ill-founded? Unless we expect God to fulfill his promises in the manner that we predetermine? Such was the delusion of the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus, even among those who followed him. It was the delusion that resulted in his crucifixion.
God has his own way . . .
I have discovered over the years that the text of Scripture has a way of shattering the personal norms, beliefs, and confidences of even the sincerest “Bible-believing” Christians. Many of these norms are often carried in from our pre-Christian worldviews or cultural environment. Oh yes, we carry the text in our Bibles, tablets, and cell phones. We grab our “verse for the day” on our way to work, or keep a list of texts that remind us of God’s faithful promises through the course of our busy day. But something more meaningful happens when apply the brakes to that approach and enter the world of the text daring to read the Bible in its literary, historical, and cultural contexts. Things we thought were true are challenged. Statements appear that we never realized were there. Things we would never have believed now appear reasonable-even probable.
God's words and behaviors should, at times, rattle our cages. Our seemingly safe, secure lifestyle and theological precommitments periodically need to be confronted as biblically questionable. Over the years some popular notions that I once treasured have been challenged to an incredible extent. I've also learned that there remain sacred cows (unchallengeable doctrinal opinions and ideological allegiances) among us that we dare not challenge because doing so will likely bring a proverbial hammer down upon our heads.
We all tend to be selectively orthodox. We are experts at finding texts to support our way of thinking. We, therefore, must ask God to show us our misconceptions and be willing to set them aside to make a way for new pathways provided by the Holy Spirit and through humility and thoughtful negotiation with other saints, realizing that we all see through a dark glass.
God has a way of continuously bringing new and different insights and perspectives, especially when his people participate in loving, intelligent dialogue. As we come together to engage one another as the family of God, especially outside of our comfortable and familiar circle, we should do so always being reminded that we are celebrating his victory at the cross of Christ - not our own culture-saturated brand of theology and obedience.
Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. 17 “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, on the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. 18 Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him (Mal. 3:16-18).