Dividing the Word

Words are weak – sounds which convey meaning only when both speaker and hearer understand them similarly. But words often convey different meanings in different contexts, and can be interpreted in multiple ways even when context is clear. If either an author or a hearer is inept, ignorant, careless or biased, communication can be very difficult.

The Bible comprises the most significant words ever composed: God’s Word, revealing the nature of God and Man, detailing how to walk with God. As important as this is, no two people appear understand it in exactly the same way. This isn’t a problem with the Bible; it’s a problem with us.

The Bible is evidently written in such a way that only the virtuous will understand it (2Pe 1:5); the self-seeking never will. (Jn 5:44)

So, if we come to the Bible dishonestly, with a bias or false presupposition, we invariably find verses to support our view and remain in error. (2Co 2:17) We’re untroubled by verses which appear to contradict us and simply ignore them, handling the word of God deceitfully. (2Co 4:2) In this way, the unlearned and unstable wrest scripture, taking it out of the whole biblical context, unto their own destruction (2Pe 3:16), and remain in darkness. (Is 8:20)

But when we’re seeking truth, we don’t presume to know a given claim is true until we can honestly interpret every relevant text of scripture in a manner that’s consistent with that claim. (Ps 119:6) Since most biblical texts can be interpreted in multiple ways without doing them injustice, we start with texts which are the most difficult to interpret honestly in any other way, and seek to understand the rest of scripture in light of them, in a manner that’s entirely consistent with all of scripture. Only in this way can we rightly divide the Word of Truth. (2Ti 2:15)

We trust that God doesn’t contradict Himself, and that He has inspired the Bible in such a manner that if we rightly divide His Word consistently and prayerfully, He will help us find the truth we need to walk with Him and serve Him well. (2Ti 3:16)

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Jesus Stooped Down

As Jesus is teaching in the temple early one morning, the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman to Him that they’ve captured in the very act of adultery. (Jn 8:2-3a) They set her down before the crowd, and start asking Christ if He’ll honor the Mosaic Law (Jn 8:4-5), which requires her to be stoned to death. (De 22:22)

Their motive in doing so is to accuse Him (Jn 8:6a); they’re setting a trap: if He sides with the woman, then the people will recognize He can’t be their Messiah (Is 8:20); yet if He sides with Moses, He’ll be in trouble with Rome. (Jn 18:31) No matter what Christ does, they think they have Him.

But Christ doesn’t answer them; He stoops down, ignoring their question, and begins writing with His finger in the dust on the temple pavement. (Jn 8:6b) His enemies, evidently energized by the thought of finally stumping Him, begin pressing Him for an answer (Jn 8:7a)

But then Christ does something striking: He rises up, publicly invites anyone who is sinless to go ahead and throw the first stone, and then He returns to writing in the dust. (Jn 8:7b-8)

Christ honors the Law, but in a way that’s fitting for their circumstance: lawful subjects of a foreign civil power. God gave the Law to Israel to enforce as a sovereign community, not as individuals living under pagan rule. But a sinless person acting on God’s behalf should be able to call on God to rescue them when the Roman soldiers storm the place. So, Christ effectively says, “If you feel you’ve got God on your side enough to defy Roman law, be My guest: go for it.”

As the accusers begin contemplating what He’s just invited them to do, and also noticing what kinds of things He’s writing in the dust, they scatter, every last one of them, being convicted by their own conscience. (Jn 8:9)

Exactly what Christ writes on the ground is a mystery, but the narrative suggests that He’s exposing the sins of the accusers, how they’re all presumptuously breaking God’s Law, and are worthy of death. (Nu 15:30) After all, they aren’t even following this particular law that they’re asking Christ to honor: in their ploy, they hadn’t incriminated the adulterous man, as the Law requires. (De 22:22)

The fact that Christ doesn’t enforce Mosaic Law here tempts many to claim this as evidence that He came to abolish it and give us a better one. Nothing could be farther from the truth: He Himself says so, explicitly. (Mt 5:17-19) Court is adjourned, not because God’s Law is obsolete, but because the community has opted out: there’s no one left to carry out the sentence. (Jn 8:10-11a)

Christ’s wisdom here lies in the fact that lawful punishment must only be carried out by recognized civil authority. Christ Himself is not obligated, as a single individual under Roman civil law, to enforce it, and He chooses not to. (Jn 8:11b) It’s the prudent choice, a testament to His infinite wisdom and discernment.

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Salvation Is of the Jews

When Jesus Christ challenges Nicodemus, a Jewish Pharisee, in  relating with God, He says, “Ye must be born again.” (Jn 3:7)

Since this is in the New Testament, and we never hear it taught from the Old, it’s easy to think that being born again is relatively novel, something Moses, David and Abraham knew nothing about.

But Christ is speaking before the Cross, before He dies and rises again, so nothing has actually changed since Mount Sinai, when God revealed His Law, or really even since Adam. There’s no New Testament scripture at this point in time, yet Christ acts as if Nicodemus should already know about being born again, as if it’s obvious from the Old Testament. (Jn 3:10) How significant! If we don’t see being born again in the Old Testament like Jesus expects, what makes us think we understand it?

In a similar encounter, Christ challenges a woman and says something just as striking. “Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.” (Jn 4:22) He’s saying that if we don’t understand the salvation presented in the Old Testament, the oracles of God committed to the Jews (Ro 3:1-2), then we don’t understand salvation at all; we’re worshiping in ignorance. Not a good place to be.

In a third encounter, Christ tells an equivalently insightful story of a rich man suffering in Hell, concerned that his family will follow after him into its flames. He asks Abraham to send an acquaintance back from the dead to warn them. Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” (Lk 16:29) The claim is that Old Testament scriptures are a sufficient witness of the gospel. But the rich man pleads, convinced that the Old Testament is insufficient; if someone they knew rose from the dead to warn them, then they would repent and be saved. But Abraham is firm: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

Not only is the Old Testament a sufficient witness of the gospel, it is so overwhelmingly sufficient that if one isn’t convinced through it, then nothing will convince them.

Salvation is of the Jews: accomplished by Christ, a Jew, and revealed by and through Jews, God’s chosen people, in the scriptures God has transmitted to us all through them. This doesn’t mean we have to become Jewish in order to be right with God (1Co 7:18-20), but it does mean that the gospel of the New Testament is exactly the same as the gospel of the Old Testament. If the gospel we believe in isn’t an Old Testament gospel, then it’s a false one. (Ga 1:8)

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Married to Another

Being married is being joined for life, two souls knitted together into a single living organism ’till death do us part. (Ge 2:24) Most of us, I think, are designed for this in earthly life, yet it’s a picture of God’s ultimate ideal for everyone: to be married to Christ. (Ro 7:4)

However, we all start out with a big problem here: any claim to marriage with Christ is illegitimate so long as justice has a claim on us through the Law. It’s like we’re born into life married to a man who doesn’t care for us, and the law of marriage means we’re stuck in that broken relationship with no way out. (Ro 7:2) If we act like we’re married to anyone else while this first marriage is still valid, then we’re committing adultery. (Ro 7:3a)

It’s an illustration of the fact that we’ve all broken God’s Law, so we’re not free to be married to God, to be joined to Him and in fellowship with Him, until that first relationship with sin is dealt with — justice must first be served. (Ro 7:3b)

Many think God solves our problem by putting the Law to death, as if the old husband we’ve been married to is the Law, keeping us in bondage while we’re trying to keep God’s rules in order to be accepted by Him. Since we can’t keep God’s Law well enough to please Him, they presume Christ’s work frees us from our obligation to obey it. They’re thinking God forgives us of all of our sins no matter what kind of life we are living, that no repentance or change of heart is necessary, so long as we’re willing to be forgiven and accepted by God. It’s a partial truth, the most dangerous kind of lie. (2Ti 3:5)

The full picture is that, in our natural state, inclined to and joined to our sinful ways, we aren’t at all fit to be married to God. It’s not that we’re married to the Law; we’re still hooked up with our carnal nature, our old man. (Ro 7:5) The law of sin, that relentless tendency toward disobedience and rebellion within us, has dominion over us as long as we serve it (Ro 6:16); we must die, become dead to the law, dead as far as the law is concerned, having satisfied its just demands, before we’re free to marry God. (Ro 7:4)

So, it isn’t the Law that God must deal with, it’s us. Our sin nature must be dealt with for good; our alignment with it and our commitment to it must end, before we can walk with God. Though we are required to break off this relationship with sin, this isn’t something we’re willing to do. (Ro 3:11) We need God to intervene; we need a new heart.

Christ solves the problem by crucifying our old nature in and with Himself (Ro 6:6), applying the death penalty to that part of us through His innocent death on our behalf. (1Pe 3:18) Through His resurrection (1Pe 1:3) He actually gives us a new kind of divine life (Ro 8:2), and begins to destroy our sin nature (Ro  6:14), creating a new nature within us that is aligned with Him. (2Co 5:17) It’s a work in progress, to be sure, but in those that belong to God, the life pattern of sin gets progressively weaker, less influential, less potent, less dominant over time. It’s a supernatural work, a transformation from within by the Spirit of God.

In being our sin (2Co 5:21), our propitiation with God (1Jn 2:2), Christ serves justice for us, submitting Himself to endure the death penalty on our behalf, and taking our sinful tendencies to the grave with Himself. This frees us from the dominion of our old nature; we no longer have to obey it or act as if we’re married to it – because we aren’t: it’s dead. (Ro 7:4) We’re free to obey God and be intimate with Him without violating the demands of justice (Ro 8:12), as Christ creates us anew in Himself unto good works. (Ep 2:10)

There’s no assurance of salvation for those who aren’t experiencing this supernatural transformation into a life of holiness (He 12:14); Christ not only saves His own from the penalty of sin, He also saves us from it’s power (1Jn 2:4), purifying a Bride for Himself in us. (Ep 5:25-27)

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Continual Sorrow

What’s the proper response to all the sinfulness and brokenness about us? When others aren’t walking with God, asleep in dead works, should we be concerned that they’re heading for an eternal, fiery Hell?

Clearly, sorrow and concern is warranted: Paul felt great heaviness and continual sorrow over Israel’s rejection of Messiah (Ro  9:1-3), and wept over the worldliness of false teachers. (Php 3:18-19) But there’s a vast difference between grieving over sin, and grieving over God’s response to it; the former’s a concern for the pleasure of God, the latter an indictment of His character.

The godly grieve over wickedness (Je 13:17) as God’s Law is violated (Ps 119:136), but not over God condemning and punishing rebellion. Those in Heaven aren’t weeping over the suffering of the wicked (Re 19:1-2), knowing God’s perfectly righteous and just in everything He does (Ps 55:15); the problem is with Man, not God. (Re 15:4)

All the works of God should move us to worship (Ps 145:10), even His response to the lost. (Lk 10:21)

Concern for others springs from love, praying that they’ll turn from their ways unto God.  God is grieved when people neglect Him, and invites all to come to Him. Father, help me weep for the lost, and to do so for the right reason.

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Examine Yourselves

The questions we ask reveal our hearts. Are we asking, “Which of God’s law must I obey?” Or are we asking, “Which of God’s laws am I allowed/permitted to obey?”

As God writes Torah into the minds and hearts of His own (He 8:10), He’s revealing that Torah is holy and just and good (Ro 7:12), such that we “delight in the law of God after the inward man.” (Ro 7:22) As He transforms us we’ll be obeying every law that we’re able to obey as well as we can, and continually asking Him to help us obey Torah better, more perfectly. (Ps 119:35)

But if we don’t delight in Torah, we’ll be looking for excuses and explanations that relieve us of any sense of duty (Ec 12:13), and most any deception will do. (2Ti 4:3) This is the posture of the carnal mind (Ro 8:7), enmity against Torah, and ultimately against the heart of God. (Ps 119:136)

So, ask yourself the question: “What kinds of questions am I asking? What does this reveal about my heart?” Examine yourself (2Co 13:5): does your life reflect the things that accompany salvation? (He 6:9) If our questions don’t reveal a delight in Torah, then something’s wrong with our inward man.

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Dead Works

One of the first principles of spiritual life is repentance from dead works. (He 6:1) What are dead works? How do we repent of them?

Dead things are missing that life force from God, the energy and vitality He gives to all living things (Ac 17:25), making them sentient, aware of their surroundings, causing them to change and grow and function as they ought.

To repent is to start believing the truth about something, and to start acting differently as a result. (2Ti 2:25-26)

So, repentance from dead works must be to start thinking differently about our lives, understanding why we’re living as we are, identifying what sort of works we’re doing, and to stop doing things which are not energized by God, activities that are apart from and outside of Him.

Christ says that unless we’re abiding in Him, we can do nothing that’s worth doing (Jn 15:5); unless we’re aligned with Him, seeking to honor and obey Him, we’re working against Him. (Mt 12:30) In other words, if we’re willing to continue living our lives apart from Him, out of fellowship with Him, for our own pleasure, then we’re the walking dead (1Ti 5:6), having only the outward appearance of life (Re 3:1): we’ve yet to begin the spiritual life. (Ep 2:1)

Everything we do, we choose to do; to repent of dead works is to start making different choices, in every choice we make. It’s a fundamental life change, a transformation, living for a different reason than we’ve been living, living for God instead of for ourselves.

If there’s something we’re thinking that Christ can’t be thinking, that He would find distasteful or repugnant, let’s stop thinking that; if we’re going where Christ wouldn’t go, let’s stop going there; if we’re speaking words He wouldn’t speak, let’s stop speaking them. Let’s be thinking what Christ in us is thinking, doing what He’s doing, and going where He’s going. If Christ dwells in us, let’s let Him live as He will in us, incarnating Himself again in this evil world through us. Everything we do, let’s do it in Christ’s name (Col 3:17) and for God’s glory. (1Co 10:31)

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These Signs

Christ tells us supernatural signs will follow believers. (Mk 16:17-18) Does this mean we should all be healing the sick, casting out demons, babbling in foreign languages we haven’t learned, and handling deadly vipers without harm? That if we aren’t walking in the sensational then we’re carnal, or worse?

No; we don’t each have all the gifts, and this is by design. (1Co 12:29-30) Christ is speaking here about the body of believers as a whole over time; the supernatural has indeed been observed among the saints through the ages, but each believer has unique gifts based on the needs of Christ’s local body at any given time and place. (1Co 12:18)

The intent of God’s gifts is evidently not to entertain, or to inflate our egos, or make us appear super spiritual. The greatest mere man who ever lived (Mt 11:11) never performed a miracle (Jn 10:41); the Corinthians pursued supernatural gifts (1Co 14:12), yet remained carnal, babes in Christ. (1Co 3:1) Pursuing the supernatural for ungodly motives gets us nothing. (1Ti 1:5-6)

God gives gifts to help the church become more like Christ (1Co 14:26), to know Him as He is. (Eph 4:11-13) He also bears witness with evangelists (He 2:4) to enable them to proclaim the gospel to those who are seeking Him. (Ac 8:6) In themselves, even the best miracles don’t move those who aren’t seeking God. (Jn 12:37)

In a world full of churches little different from the world, and bibles seldom read, at least in 1st and 2nd world countries, where is the miraculous needed? (Mt 16:4) Can’t those who’re seeking God today find Him without signs and wonders? I, for one, didn’t need them, at least the kind most are seeking.

The miracles I experience enable me to navigate a perilous world without getting all tangled up in it; they help me live as I ought, facing an incessant stream of spiritual enmity. (Ep 6:12) It isn’t glamorous; no one can see it but me, but it’s what I need to live for Him.

As we seek God, wherever we are, and gifts from Him to help ourselves and others find Him, know Him and walk with Him, He will empower and enable us as He wills. In any case, to be safe in our pursuit of the supernatural, we must ever be seeking the Giver Himself, and not merely His gifts.

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He Hardeneth

Scripture teaches God controls us all, even deciding our eternal fate, having mercy on a few of us and hardening the rest. (Ro 9:18) Is God then unfair to condemn us, since He controls us? (Ro 9:19)

This seems so obviously wrong, even asking the question is embarrassing. But obviousness is often the enemy of correctness; in the end, how can any complaint against the goodness of God be rational? (Ro 9:14) Perhaps an illustration will help.

Single block ice sculpture, World Ice Art Championship, Fairbanks AK

Suppose we dwell in a frigid climate where we enjoy three things: lounging in a hot tub under crisp, starlit heavens; ice water bathing; and competing in the annual ice sculpture festival. Being thrifty and innovative, we design special panels we can assemble into water-tight tubs of various shapes and sizes. When we want a steamy evening outside, we put one together, fill it with water and drop in a heating element. When we want our ice bath, we back off the heat to just above freezing and take the plunge; and at sculpture time we pull the heater, let it freeze, pull the panels and put our genius to work.

With a reliable water heater we can control the state of the water in our tub as we please, from steamy to frozen solid, by precisely controlling the heat we supply. In making ice we could say we’re “hardening” the water, but we’re really just withdrawing heat and leaving the water alone; where we live, water hardens naturally all by itself, and very predictably.

In the same way, God controls us by resisting our fallen, sinful nature (Ps 19:13), either reining in our depravity (De 18:14) (i.e. heating the water), or giving us up to pursue our own evil ways as He sees fit (Ps 81:12) (i.e. letting the water freeze). God never actively causes anyone to sin (Ja 1:13-14), or forcefully hardens anyone; we do that all on our own whenever He lets us.

God’s hardening is passive, simply letting us go our own way (Pr 1:31), not forcing us; when left to ourselves, we obey the law of sin operating within us (Ro 7:23), so we’re as predictable as the law of gravity. God knows exactly what we’ll do in every circumstance if He withdraws His grace from us. Just as we can control an object‘s elevation by only pushing it upward, never causing it to fall, God can precisely control us by restraining our evil nature without causing us to sin. (Pr 16:9)

God isn’t unloving or unjust in letting us sin; it’s the essence of free will, and we’re no less guilty because we always want to sin as much as He allows. (Ro 3:19) Neither is God unfair in restraining us, some much more than others: it’s all His mercy(Ro 9:23)

God’s purpose in all this is ultimately to glorify Himself by revealing His amazing nature(Ro 9:22) He could do it all differently and save everyone from themselves, but the end result would evidently not be as glorious. He’s doing it all perfectly.

The key to resolving one of the deepest spiritual mysteries, how God can be absolutely sovereign, yet also loving and just, evidently lies in the depravity of Man, the puzzle piece most of us overlook. Depravity is simply what happens when God let’s do our own thing (Ge 6:5), and nothing obligates Him to override everyone’s natural will. His choice to intervene and only quicken and transform some of us isn’t unfair, it’s brilliant. (Ro 9:16) Anything else is lackluster at best.

God is rejoicing in how He’s responding to sin (Mt 11:25-26), and we should be too (Php 4:4): He’s always in perfect control of it. (Ep 1:11) Exactly what it will all look like in the end remains to be seen, but I expect it will be amazing, like everything else He does. (Re 15:4) In seeing all of life from God’s perspective, we can give thanks always for all things with joy(Ep 5:20)

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Grafted In

God’s kingdom isn’t divided into factions (Mk 3:24); it’s a holistic, integrated organism(Jn 17:20) What comprises this kingdom? What does it look like?

We all start out with a bad father, children of the wicked one. (Ep 2:3) But when God quickens us, from being dead in our sin, becoming our sin and giving us His resurrection life (Ep 2:5), everything changes: we’re transformed and adopted into His family (Ep 1:5), such that we become part of Him (Ep 5:30), and He becomes part of us. (Jn 17:23)

To illustrate, God uses the grafting of an olive branch into an olive tree. (Ro 11:17) He cuts us off from our original trunk, makes a deep slit in the host tree to expose its vascular system, fixes us into this new host and stabilizes our connection until the two of us begin to grow into and out from each other, becoming one life together.

In this allegory, it’s easy to mistake the root, the olive tree that we’re grafted into, for Israel, God’s chosen people. Consequently, many think redeemed Gentiles should somehow emulate the Jewish people, and adopt Jewish language, traditions and rituals into their worship and obedience. However, God says Israelites are natural branches of the olive tree (Ro 11:24): Gentiles aren’t grafted into branches, but into the tree trunk. (Ro 11:18) If Jews are natural branches, they aren’t the tree.

So, what does the olive tree itself represent? God says Gentiles partake of the root and fatness of the olive tree, along with the Jews, the natural branches. (Ro 11:17) Christ Himself is the One we partake of (He 3:14); He’s the vine, we’re branches. (Jn 15:5) We’re not partakers of Israel, but of the divine nature (2Pe 1:4), partakers of the Holy Spirit. (He 6:4)

God’s kingdom doesn’t necessarily look Jewish, or eastern or western, or anything in particular. It’s distinctive is not in its likeness to any particular race or culture, but in it’s amazing cultural diversity, all blended within a single family, comprised of souls from every race and culture. (Re 5:9) The commonality lies in conformity to God’s law, which doesn’t prescribe or forbid any particular culture; it even protects culture by forbidding the imposition of extra-biblical tradition. (De 4:2)

Israel isn’t the divine nature, nor its wellspring; she is in fact, for the most part, entirely void of divine life (1Jn 5:12), and does not have a proper understanding of divine things (Ro 10:1); though beloved of God, she is still His enemy. (Ro 11:28) She does not honor the Son; she has persistently (Ro 10:21) and flagrantly dishonored Him (Jn 8:49), so her worship cannot glorify either the Father or the Son. (Jn 5:23) Only a remnant will ever know Him (Ro 9:27), so why emulate her ways, or pattern our worship after hers, especially in her liturgy? In teaching her tradition as God’s command, she’s corrupted her worship such that it’s largely empty and lifeless. (Mk 7:7) How can this, in itself, be pleasing to the Godhead? (Ps 2:12)

Salvation is of the Jews (Jn 4:22), in the sense that God’s revealing Himself and His salvation to the world through them (Re 21:12): the adoption, the covenants, the giving of the Torah, and the promises all pertain to them. (Ro 9:4-5) But it isn’t all just for them (Ro 9:17): there is one law for us all. In no sense do we become part of physical Israel in salvation, nor do we obtain salvation through them. We come to salvation just like Israelites always have (Jn 3:7), and we become part of God, just like they do. (2Co 6:17-18) There’s no difference between Jew and Greek here (Ro 10:12); in this, neither circumcision helps, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature(Ga 6:15)

The Jews certainly have an advantage in that they’re custodians of God’s Word, so it’s embedded more deeply in their culture, and as a rule they’re much more familiar with it. (Ro 3:1-2) We can certainly learn much from them, and it’s not necessarily wrong to adopt parts of their tradition that aren’t inconsistent with God, but hoping this will bring us closer to God is a mistake: they’ve actually missed God Himself. (Mt 8:12) Supporting Israel and praying for her as God’s chosen nation (Ro 11:29), we must filter everything she says and does through the lens of Scripture, staying as true to the Word as we can.

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