Reading Apocalyptic Literature Part 1: Mistakes We Make

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I was in the Seattle Art Museum (aka SAM) there other day. A gentleman came out huffing and puffing, “That was the biggest pile of rubbish I’ve ever seen.” We were at the Miro exhibit. Miro was a Spanish painter whose mastery of shapes and colors was renown. People were pouring in to see the exhibit, even when this gentleman was coming out disappointed. Although this exhibit did not feature the best work of Miro, it certainly was not rubbish. Most likely, this gentleman expected something else and was disappointed.

Apocalyptic literature can be equally annoying, if the reader does not understand what it is. For the purpose of reading Revelation, the following guideline must govern the way we read Revelation. First let me talk about the mistakes we frequently make.

1)    We can mistakenly think that we know better than the original readers because the book was talking about the future. The future is now! This assumption is incorrect. If our present is meaning is dependent on what the original readers did not know, then God has basically given a message to the original readers who did not receive it with any understanding. In other words, the fact that God revealed himself in history did not matter in the instance of Revelation because God had revealed nonsense to the original readers. This view of God’s revelation makes no sense at all theologically.

2)    We can mistakenly think that we can make up our own rules as we go along when we read. For example, if a number “seems” like it should be taken literally, we can do so. However, if a number seems to make more sense to interpret symbolically, we can read symbols into it. In other words, we read everything literally until it doesn’t make sense to which time we interpret it symbolically. Symbolism is the escape for our incompetence.

3)    We can mistakenly think that we read any and all parts of the Bibles into Revelation to give it meaning. Some would use parts of the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Daniel, Ezekiel) and see direct fulfillment in Revelation. Such an assumption may or may not be true, depending on whether the readers understood those texts. The same goes for the Gospels. Many people read many parts of the Gospels into Revelation. While I’m not against reading parts of the Jesus tradition as part of the background of Revelation, it is a mistake to think that ever part of the Jesus tradition could relate to all parts of Revelation. Every intertextual reading should be justified instead of assumed.

In the next blog, I will talk about the principles that will open up Revelation to all of us.

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: James 3.1-2 and Watching Your Mouth

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I’m now blogging about chapter twenty-five of my book.  When I was a kid, I hear parents threaten to wash out the mouths of my buddies with soap all the time.  Now that I’m an adult, I hear Christians quote James 3 all the time.  In this case, it’s the religious version of “wash out your mouth with soap” or with God’s word.  Is this really what the text mean?

In letter writing, usually a paragraph is an exposition of a major idea much like modern expositional writing.  Quite often, the main idea is at the head of the paragraph with the main clause.  The idea is not obscurely buried within the long paragraphs somewhere. In modern Bible studies, we often forget this principle and get ourselves quickly into a muddle by claiming supporting ideas to be the main idea.  It seems that James 3.1 is the main idea that addressed an ancient problem in the synagogue.  If that were so, then what would be the modern application?

By stating the above, I’m not suggesting that we all go out and start cussing like a drunken sailor, but surely, James 3 is not the place to cite verses to prevent abusive language.

As I always say, the texts are not at fault.  The interpreter is!

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: 2 Timothy 3.16 and All Scripture?

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I’m now blogging about chapter twenty-four of my book.  2 Timothy 3.16 has become the proof text bedrock of the inerrancy debate.  Typically, people quote this verse and then project to say that God has ensured that scripture is inerrant because God is inerrant.  This blog is not about that debate because the verse does not support that debate.

If we read in context, what Scripture was the author referring to?  From reading 2 Tim. 3.15, we find that “scriptures” (a different Greek word than 2 Tim. 3.16) is in plural.  Why is there a plural in 2 Tim. 3.15 while the following verse has a singular?  These and many such questions would lead us to a different debate than about inerrancy.  It leads us to discussion about formation of the Old Testament canon.  What Scripture was Timothy reading? How did he read it?  What were the results?  None of the answers to such questions have to do with the modern/modernistic debate at all.

As I always say, the texts are not at fault.  The interpreter is!

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: 1 Timothy 4.8, From Fit to Fat?

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I’m now blogging about chapter twenty-three of my book.  I love 1 Timothy 4.8 mainly because it’s so often misused by so many people.  Many know that I lift weights, play soccer and practice martial arts religiously.  It’s been part of my lifestyle for years.  A little known fact is that I actually competed at a high level of lifting in my late 30s and even held a sub master lifting record in California for a time.  During that time, people were especially concerned that such activities would distract me from my ministry, even though I probably pulled more hours than my well-meaning detractors had.  What then is the problem?

The problem is a translation problem.  The word for “physical training” is where we get our English word “gymnasium” from but such an anachronistic understanding hurts rather than help our causes.  If we look into the meaning of that word, it includes many things other than working out.  It also includes dieting and so on.  So, there’s your clue.  You need to look within context to see what Timothy had to face.

The Bible has been used for all sorts of things even including the neglect of exercise or living a healthy lifestyle.  So, for goodness’ sake, please go exercise and eat healthy.  You don’t have to look like me (pictured above, photo by Laree Draper of DaveDraper.com ) but you also don’t have to misquote scripture to justify your bad lifestyle choices.  A final observation is this.  Everyone who has ever quoted this verse to me either looks sickly skinny or has a few spare tires around the waistline.  Coincidence? I think not.  Misapplication of scriptures can have dire consequences (I’m only half joking).

As I always say, the texts are not at fault.  The interpreter is!

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: Philippians 2.5 and a Christ-like Attitude?

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I’m now blogging about chapter twenty-two of my book.  The verse, Phil. 2.5, has been quoted as the model answer for Christian attitude so much so that it has become cliché, much in the same way as 1 Corinthians 11.1.  When we hear it quoted in a topical sermon, the natural question we should ask is, “What attitude?”  Do we have the same attitude as Christ when he went into the temple, threw down chairs and threw out people and animals?  Or how about when Jesus called the religious leaders dead man’s bones (Matthew 23.27)?  I bet that would go over real well when we have disagreements in church meeting.

The problem turning this verse into a stupid cliché comes from the way we read.  The sentence of the verse does not end at Phil. 2.5.  Rather, it ends at Phil. 2.8.  Biblical verses are not standalone truths, no matter what popular preachers tell you.

As I always say, the texts are not at fault.  The interpreter is!

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: Ephesians 6.10-18 and the Armor of God

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I’m now blogging about chapter twenty-one of my book.  The passage of Ephesians 6.10-18 has been preached to death by preachers.  In fact, one of the Puritans wrote an entire book just on these verses.  An entire publishing industry and speaking circuit have been built around these verses.  Spiritual warfare is good business, but is it good exegesis?

For this installment, I make one observation to aid my reader in interpretation.  The full armor is in singular while the command to put on is plural.  In other words, the verse in Southern-speak would translate to something like this, “Y’all put on that singular armor of God.”  Well how do all these people put ONE armor on?

The key to understanding this passage is in the numerical aspect of the singular armor.  Once we learn to answer that interpretive question, our whole idea about spiritual warfare changes.  What passes for teaching of spiritual warfare today from these verses is  superstition.  It is time for the church to wrestle with the text rather than spending all its money and time on quick fixes dreamed up by bad interpreters.

As I always say, the texts are not at fault.  The interpreter is!

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: Ephesians 2.20 and Today’s Prophets

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I’m now blogging about chapter twenty of my book.  Wherever I go, there’s always someone who asks this question, “Do you think prophets still exist today?”  Usually I inquire as to what they mean by prophets.  In a biblical sense, prophets do not only foretell like some kind of fortuneteller, but they primarily tell forth God’s message.  The futuristic stuff occupies less than we think.  Still, do they still exist today?

People often point to Eph. 2.20 as the evidence that prophets exist today.  On the surface, Eph. 2.20 might just be enough to give as biblical evidence.  First, we need to ask what kind of prophets these are in Eph. 2.20.  Before you jump up and down, raise your hand and shout, “OT prophets,” you should look closely at Eph. 4.11 where the prophets were clearly the NT prophets. So far so good, but do they still exist today though?

The answer depends on whether you understand metaphor the author of Eph. 2.20 used.  The author used a building metaphor and the prophets were symbolized by the foundation that also included apostles.  The church then grew on top of it towards a goal.  Now, you tell me which makes more sense of the metaphor? A) the prophets still exist today B) the prophets no longer exist today.

As I always say, the texts are not at fault.  The interpreter is!

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: Ephesians 2.14 and God’s Peace

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I’m now blogging about chapter nineteen of my book.  Peace is what we desire in our lives and peace is what we often ask for.  Ephesians 2.14 can be quoted for its value in discussing peace.  Yet, we can see that this verse has nothing to do with the “feeling” of peace.

When looking at this verse, a lot of people see the discussion of the cross in 2.16 automatically points to the direction of peace between God and humans.  Yet, if we look closely, the author was not talking about peace between God and human in 2.14 at all.  The book context is important to determine the meaning.

Besides book context, we have to also look at how people in the first century construe peace.  Would the word “peace” evoke the idea of a psychological state?  In all the words associated with psychological state in that world, peace was probably not one of them.  In many cases, peace was a political word (e.g. Pax Romana).

As I always say, the texts are not at fault.  The interpreter is!

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: 2 Corinthians 6.14 Unwittingly Invoked

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I’m now blogging about chapter eighteen of my book.  This one popularly misquoted verse almost always makes me choke whenever someone invokes it for the way Christian marriage or even dating relationship should work.

The faulty logic goes something like this.  2 Corinthians 6.14 has Paul telling his congregation not to associate with unbelievers.  Therefore, since our closest association is normally our marriage (unless you’re going steady with someone in a dating relationship), we should not marry unbelievers?  Make sense?

There’s only one slight problem with this usage of scripture; it is used out of context and from the wrong sphere.  Paul repeatedly analogized the problem with the temple and idol worshipping.  He contrasted righteousness with wickedness.  The word for wickedness can also mean “lawlessness”.  It is a strong word Paul used elsewhere (Rom. 6.19) for something that is the very opposite of purity.  On the surface, this verse could apply in broad principle to marriage, but then Paul went further to talk about the temple and God’s people.  He was talking about the religious sphere, the public worship life of the church.  What in fact would this way about the application of the verse?

Therefore, when we apply our verses, we must look at one important question, “Where would this verse be applied when the writer wrote it?”  Asking the right question of the text can often yield fruitful corrections to our misunderstanding.

As I always say, the texts are not at fault.  The interpreter is!

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: 1 Corinthians 11.1 and Imtatio Christi?

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I’m now blogging about chapter seventeen of my book.  The great cliché “WWJD” (i.e. “What would Jesus do?”) is so well worn that many unbelievers are actively making fun of it by coming up with alternate sayings.  Besides the ignorance of most evangelicals of the question coming from the social gospel movement, the frequent usage of this phrase itself has become the running mockery of the evangelical faith.  Coming on its coat tail is the often quotation of 1 Corinthians 11.1 to “imitate me as I imitate Christ.”  Some preachers would personalize the “me” (i.e. apostle Paul) as themselves.  After all, it is easier for the congregation to listen to us when we identify with the “good guys.”

Such is not the meaning of 1 Corinthians 11.1 at all.  At the very least, this verse belongs to the bigger section of 1 Corinthians 10.14-11.1.  The overall topic is about how to navigate the sticky issues of a non-Christian society specifically with the area of eating idol meat.

1 Corinthians 11.1 is the conclusive remark of the great section. In other words, Paul’s command was the solution to the problems the Corinthians faced regarding idol meat.  In what way would imitating Christ becomes the solution of facing such gray area of life?  In what specific way should a believer imitate Christ to find such a solution? Would the believer imitate Christ in making water into wine? Would the believer imitate Christ by going into the temple and kicking out merchants?  Would the believer imitate Christ’s kosher diet?  Obviously, not all these solutions are workable.  Then what?  As long as the solution does not solve Paul’s problem, it is not the right interpretation no matter how well-intentioned and how traditional the meaning is.

As I always say, the texts are not at fault.  The interpreter is!

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