Posts Tagged ‘bible’

Hebrews the Evangelical Epistle

Hebrews Bulletin

I’ve been preaching through Hebrews and though we’re only up to the third chapter, I have been repeatedly impressed with how the author treats the scriptures he quotes. Right off the bat the author says “God spoke…by the prophets.” Now, you could read that and think that, sure, he believed that God spoke by certain people but that, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily say anything about the Bible. But the way that he introduces scripture quotes from there on out shows that he didn’t have only the prophets’ verbal pronouncements in mind but their written communication even more so. For example, in the rest of chapter 1 he quotes various passages, mostly from the Psalms, to support his contention that Jesus is greater than the angels. He doesn’t quote a Psalm and say “As David said” but rather “God said.”

In chapter 2 he does something even more interesting. In verse 11 he attributes the words of Psalm 22 to Jesus when he says, “This is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying…” Now really this makes a lot of sense because the way Psalm 22 begins is with Jesus’ dying words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The church has seen Psalm 22 as messianic for a very long time so she has long heard that Psalm as Jesus’ words.

Then in chapter 3 the author involves the third member of the Trinity in authoring the scriptures by explicitly bringing in the Holy Spirit. In verse 7 he quotes Psalm 95 and introduces it by saying “as the Holy Spirit says…” When he cites the beginning of that quote again in chapter 4 verse 7 he introduces it with “saying through David…” That’s pretty interesting but how is it Trinitarian? Because of what the author says right after that, “If Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day.” So who authored Psalm 95? God spoke it, the Holy Spirit said it through David. Ah, so God spoke by the prophets just like our author said!

So where do evangelicals get such a high view of scripture? From the Reformers? Sure. From the Church Fathers? You bet. But ultimately we get it from the scriptures themselves. We need to learn how to read the Bible from the Apostles since they learned how to read it from Jesus. Though we don’t know who the author of Hebrews was, we do know that he learned from those who listened to Jesus (Heb. 2:3) and so he is a faithful example of how to understand the Bible. The author of Hebrews was, essentially, evangelical.

Not A Handbook for Life

We can open our Bibles for all sorts of odd reasons–as a religious duty, an attempt to earn God’s favor, or thinking that it serves as a moral self-help guide, a manual of handy tips for effective religious lives. That idea is actually one main reason so many feel discouraged in their Bible-reading. Hoping to find quick lessons for how they should spend today, people find instead a genealogy, or a list of various sacrifices. And how could page after page of histories, descriptions of the temple, instructions to priests, affect how I rest, work and pray today?

But when you see that Christ is the subject of all the Scriptures, that he is the Word, the Lord, the Son who reveals his Father, the promised Hope, the true Temple, the true Sacrifice, the great High Priest, the ultimate King, then you read, not so much asking, “What does this mean for me, right now?” but “What do I learn here of Christ?” Knowing that the Bible is about him and not me means that, instead of reading the Bible obsessing about me, I can gaze on him. And as through the pages you get caught up in the wonder of his story, you find your heart strangely pounding for him in a way you never would have if you treated the Bible as a book about you. – Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity, 82-83

How to Understand a Parable

1. Don’t treat parables like allegory.

An allegory is most often completely filled with symbolic meaning. Every detail means something that can be traced to the overriding principle that is being illuminated. Parables usually have one basic, central meaning. Trying to oversymbolize them can have the effect of tearing them apart. A person doesn’t understand the beauty of a flower by disassembling it. Like a blossom, a parable is best understood by seeing it in its simple and profound entirety.

2. The Rule of Three.

Like all good storytelling, parables usually follow the Rule of Three. Do you remember the stories you heard as a child—such as “The Three Little Pigs” and “The Three Bears”? Both of these stories are filled with more “threes”: three wolves, three beds, three bowls of porridge. Jesus did this often in the telling of the parables. And is it any wonder that many parables deliver three important truths or that most sermons rest on three important points?

3. The Rule of Two.

Parable characters often follow the Rule of Two. There were usually two people who experienced tension between righteousness and sin, good and evil. When you look for these two elements you will find an important part of the development of the parable.

4. Code words and phrases.

Jesus’ parables used certain phrases and code words that communicated in subtly powerful ways to His audiences. For instance, “How much more” is used to build a bridge from temporal things to spiritual realities. “He who has ears to hear” calls people to critically important issues of spiritual life and death. “Verily, verily, I say to you,” means that Jesus is speaking with earnest intensity; don’t miss it. Look for these phrases and understand where they’re leading you.
Excerpt from What’s in the Bible?, R. C. Sproul (2011, Thomas Nelson).

That They Might Ponder

Bible translation is a tricky task. When you translate, to some degree, you select words that approximate the originals. You have to. For example, the word logos in John 1 doesn’t have an English equivalent that captures all of the meaning of the Greek word. Logos means “word” literally, but it also has a sense of the ultimate idea of things in Greek philosophy. But to make it even more complicated, John 1 begins with “In the beginning…” which would probably cause a Hebrew reader to think of Genesis 1. When he or she heard the word logos, he or she would think of how God spoke the universe into existence. So what John is doing is selecting a word that has various nuances of meaning to different members or his audience. All the meanings are true and intended, so what he goes on to say will most likely blow out the limited categories each audience has placed on the concept of logos. The logos became flesh and dwelt among us. Whoa.

I use that example to make the point that Bible translation is a complicated task. Because of that, there are various approaches to doing it. You can start with a literal, word-for-word translation that then tries to make the sentence make sense in English. But even then, you have to take into consideration the context to decide which English word best fits the Greek word you’re trying to translate. Still, you’re going after each and every word. Another approach is to read the entire unit (sentence/paragraph/phrase) and get the idea of it and then translate it into English. Don’t worry so much about the individual words, get the thought. The first translation approach is called “essentially literal” and goes for word-for-work accuracy. The second is called a “dynamic equivalence” and goes for thought-for-thought accuracy. The ESV and NASB are essentially literal translations and the NIV and NLT are dynamic equivalence translations.

Jim Hamilton, a trusted Bible commentator, recently reflected on his problems with the dynamic equivalence approach. Pay attention to his qualifications first:

Let me be clear: the particular practitioner of the method of dynamic equivalence is not the problem…Moreover, my concern about this issue does not primarily arise from the treatment of gender language. This post is not me ranting against the NIV 2011. This post is me stating that I reject dynamic equivalence translation theory because of the logical outcomes of the method. The method is the problem.

The crux of the problem for Hamilton comes down to this, and I agree: “The method bothers me because God inspired the biblical authors to write certain words, and translations can only be identified as the word of God insofar as ‘they faithfully represent the original’ (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article X).” Evangelicals believe that God inspired not just the concepts behind the Biblical text but the very words themselves therefore Evangelicals should translate the Bible that way.

Hamilton goes on to give an interesting example from John’s gospel. He focused the issue on John 9:24 and the word “glory”.  After looking at how a dynamic equivalence translation handles it he notes:

The problem is that the translator has decided to render what (he thinks) the text means rather than translate the words of the author. In doing this, the translator has eliminated one of John’s key words, removing this occurrence of glory, and created a non-existent instance of another one of John’s key words by putting truth in the text when John did not have it there.

“But,” the argument goes, “the _____ (fill in the blank with your favorite dynamic equivalence translation) is much easier to read and understand! I have a hard time following the _____ (fill in the blank with any essentially literal translation)!” Hamilton’s answer to that honors God and man:

Human beings are made in the image of God. They have enormous capacity. Give them a literal, wooden translation, and they might be forced to slow down and think as they read. They might ponder. They might begin to recognize certain Johannine styles of phrasing things–if translators would give them John’s actual words.

Okay, so he overstates the point. To give the readers John’s actual words, you’d have to leave the text untranslated. However, Hamilton’s final words are wise and worth taking literally: “Learn the Biblical languages if you can. If you can’t, stick with the literal translations, and be suspicious of the experts who tell you that words like ‘literal’ really aren’t that helpful.”

Bible: Thoroughly Human, Thoroughly Divine

I’m going to use a comic book reference to make a point. If you’re not a comic book kind of person, just stick with me for a moment, I think it will be worth it.

Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly and most recently Dollhouse but my favorite is Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blogthinks he knows why DC Comics tank but Marvel’s do pretty well these days. Here’s how it is summarized:

“Because, with that one big exception (Batman), DC’s heroes are from a different era. They’re from the era when they were creating gods.” Whedon explains to Maxim that DC’s characters, like Wonder Woman, Superman and Green Lantern, were “all very much removed from humanity.”

From Whedon’s perspective, the stories that succeed these days are those that are more human than superhuman. We don’t want to hear about people who are not like us. People who don’t have problems. We don’t want Greek gods anymore, we’re more interested in special humans. Midas over Hercules.

When Mohammad received the Koran, an angel came and forced it upon him. Mohammad dictated the Koran from Allah. He would sit in a cave and the angel would come upon him and he’d start talking. His friends with him would write down what he said on whatever they had at hand. Skins, clothing, bone fragments, whatever. When Allah’s word came, it came.  Later these writings were gathered together and put on paper.

Wait, come back! I’ve actually got a point to make here! Honest and I’m about to make it now.

The Christian Bible is a thoroughly human document and a thoroughly divine document. Here’s how Peter put it:

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. – 2Pt 1:21

First, the context of 2Pt 1 is bigger than just oral prophecy, it includes the scriptures as well. Next, notice he says. “Men spoke.” Man. Humans. People spoke, people wrote. They didn’t repeat what they’d heard. They spoke. The Bible is a human document. It is written by people, in their time and culture, from the personal perspective, in the language they spoke.

At the same time, these men spoke “by the Holy Spirit.” The Bible is also a divine document. These folks didn’t write just any old thing, they were “carried along” in their speaking and writing by God. God had them speak what he wanted them to say because prophecy is never generated by human will.

We need to keep the two together, the human and the divine. Does that sound familiar? It should, we have that same struggle with the person of Jesus. His is 100% human (minus sin) and 100% divine and he is the Word (Jn 1). God’s word is like that too.

So what does this have to do with Joss Whedon and the Koran? To me the fact that the Bible is a human document as well as divine makes it much more appealing. More personal. God didn’t drop it from the sky or force the words out of a prophet’s mouth. As he was writing history, he was also writing his word in history. Men spoke as the Spirit carried them along.  In Jesus, God entered time and walked in our sandels, felt our pain and disappointment, he can “sympathize with our weaknesses” because he “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15). His word isn’t removed from our difficulty and disappointment and struggle either. Job speaks honestly from his pain and confusion. Jeremiah laments with real tears and is really heartbroken. Solomon is sincere when he looks back upon a life wasted in self-satisfaction in Eccelsiasties.  Solomon also experience real romantic love and desire for his wife in Song of Songs.

Were God to drop his word into our world, etched on a onyx stone in a language so unlike ours, we’d worship the stone rather than listen to the words. The medium would eclipse the message. Instead, God speaks in such common forms that we’re left with nothing but the message to heed. It is comforting to me that the Bible is a human as well as a divine document. It doesn’t lead me to doubt its trustworthiness because human’s wrote it. It shows how intimately God is involved in his creation, not distant from it.