Part 3- ‘Who’ is ‘You’?
When I graduated high school I was a pretty heavy guy; I weighed in at just above 300lbs. During my college years I began a journey that led me to get healthier through getting in better shape, eating healthier, and learning about how health and wellness works. I worked hard to lose 140lbs in 3 years. I even went so far as to as to become a certified personal trainer and work part time at a gym for a couple of years in the evenings. Fitness and health became a passion that I still work on.
Along the way I have heard many success stories of how people have lost weight and have been inspired to continue my fitness journey even when it is hard (doughnuts are my weakness). What has struck me over the years is how every person’s story is different. There may be some similarities (exercise programs, diet changes, etc.) but the actual process is different over time because every person is different physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
A sad but common occurrence I have seen happen too many times is that when someone tells their story that those who hear it think that they need to follow the same process. They think that by doing what worked for one person will work the exact same way for them. For some reason this is contagious and has been the impetus for fad diets, famous home gym programs, and very expensive dietary supplements. Those who hear a description (an explanation of an event or thing) automatically take that as a prescription (a plan of action) of what they need to do. This far too often results in a huge let down when things don’t go according to plan. They forget that fitness plans need to be designed around the individual and that what was intended for one person is not always intended for the group.
A very similar thing has happened in the idea of interpreting the Bible. Readers have come to take parts of the Bible that contain a description of an event and take it as a prescription for what they should do in their own lives. This is dangerous as it makes the text of the Scriptures tell us something that it really isn’t trying to. We saw this in my last entry as we looked at some examples of why it is important to read the Bible in context asking ourselves whether the passage being read is something describing an event or prescribing a rule of life we should follow. We examined how people have twisted some parts of the Bible to make it prescribe a life situation that is, when the passages are read in context (the passage as a whole, historically, intentionally, etc.) we can clearly see the error in the interpretation of those passages.
In this entry we will take it a step further from just understanding the importance of reading any piece of literature in context to realizing that there is a major difference between reading something and taking it as a prescription or a description. The basic question for this entry makes us ask ‘who’ is ‘you’ when we read a section of the Bible. Here are a couple of real life examples. Let’s say you are in a restaurant and someone starts choking on a piece of food. You don’t know how to conduct the Heimlich maneuver but you see a chart in the back of the room.
By reading the chart and following the directions listed on it you successfully dislodge the chunk of food and the person’s life is saved. You did not try and do the Heimlich on everyone in the room but just on the person it applied to. You asked the right question: who is you? The ‘you’ in this situation was the person choking and not all the others in the room.
Let’s change it up by pretending that you read a news article of how a person, while driving down the road, saw a person lying on the side of the road. After further examination they found out they had no pulse and the driver had no clue how to do CPR. Wanting to do something they took their jumper cables, hooked them to their car battery, touched the cables to the man with no pulse, and shocked their heart back into pumping again and saved the person’s life.
What could easily occur (especially in the deep south where I live) is that a person could read that article and think that describes a great way to save someone’s life. Instead, they could cause even more damage by failing to realize that the article described a a crazy incident that should never be replicated and instead try to actually perform this act on someone else. By asking ‘who is you’ the person reading the article can understand that what happened in an isolated incident is not a way they should treat every situation where CPR is needed.
Thinking about these two examples they each cause the reader to seek out what the true intention of the author is rather than trying to make it a universal teaching. The first one showed a prescription of how a person could read the directions on a chart and successfully perform the Heimlich maneuver. The second one, however, is not a safe way to try and save someone’s life. It would be very foolish for me to read that article and think that using jumper cables and a car battery is a smart and safe way to help get a person’s heart beating again. This fails to ask ‘who is you’ and instead causes the author’s intentions to be twisted out of place.
Yet, many people (including myself at times) have taken passages of Scripture and tried to turn a singular event in the Bible into a universal way for how life should be conducted. Here is an example I have often seen: there is a passage in 2 Chronicles where God gives a promise to Israel. He says, “Then if my people who are called by name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from Heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT) I have heard this passage taught many times as a promise that Americans can claim telling people that if they will turn back to God that he will heal America as a nation.
This brings us back to the powerful question we must always ask when we study the Bible; we must ask who is ‘you’? When a passage in the Bible references people that God makes a promise to we must ask who that promise is made to and see if it is implied to the reader or to someone else. People are quick to claim this verse as a promise to modern day Americans in hope that God will do a mighty work in America and draw people in America back to him. The problem is, this passage is to a specific person (King Solomon) to a specific group of people (Israel) in a specific place (Solomon’s Temple), in a specific point in history (the dedication of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem). When this passage is read in context the reader can clearly see that this promise is not a promise to America but to Israel during the time of Solomon’s reign as king.
The reason it is tempting to take this passages out of context and claim them in a modern sense is that it raises the hope of Christians in America that God will supernaturally draw people back to him if they follow the instruction in the passage. What would happen if everyone in America followed the steps included in that passage? Would God then have to heal the land of America? What would happen if he didn’t? Many people would feel cheated and believe that God doesn’t really exist and that the Bible is not trustworthy. All because a teacher/preacher took a single passage out of context.
Here is the counterpoint to this problem; why don’t these same preachers/teachers seek the negative promises given to Israel from God? God promised through many of his prophets to bring death, pestilence, slavery, and destruction to Israel. Why don’t they try and claim those promises as well? The reason is simple; they want to claim the positive promises and not the negative ones. This is what myself and some of my close pastor friends have begun referring to as ‘Bible Buffet’. Like going to eat a buffet where people eat the foods they like and leave the one they don’t people, in this case, take the parts of the Bible they want to claim and leave alone the ones they don’t.
This creates two problems. First, it forces the Bible to do things it was never intended to. Second, it makes God out to be a liar when these claimed false promises don’t come true. In both cases it will drive people away from both God and the Bible because it ruins their reputations and reliability in the eyes of those who place their trust in these false teachings. It is a very dangerous problem and it must be well stayed away from by Christians. This is the very real danger of taking a descriptive portion of the Bible and making it a prescription of what should happen in the lives of Believers today.
Let me give you another example. After Jesus had raised himself from the dead he appeared to his followers and he sent them out to spread the Gospel. He then promises them that anyone who believes will “cast out demons in my name, and they will speak in new languages. They will be able to handle snakes with safety, and if they drink anything poisonous, it won’t hurt them. They will be able to place their hands on the sick, and they will be healed.” (Mark 16: 17-18 NLT) I have seen and read about those who use this passage as a promise that if a follower of Jesus gets bitten by a snake or drinks poison that God will not let it hurt them. If one were to do some investigation, however, they could find many Christians who have been poisoned or bitten by snakes and died. Did this make Jesus a liar? Does this mean that Mark did not accurately record the words of Jesus in his book?
The answer is emphatically no. What it means is that people took a promise to a certain group of people (new believers who were tasked to spread the Gospel to the world) and try to apply it today. Now don’t misunderstand me, we should share the Gospel with everyone we can because it was the heartbeat of Jesus. What we shouldn’t do is feel the need to test God by drinking poison and handling snakes simply because Jesus promised a certain group of people they would not be harmed if that happened to them. When we pay Bible buffet we can make the Bible say what we want it to when the context teaches something radically different.
Let me give you another example; Jesus told his followers that “If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in Heaven will do it for you.” (Matthew 18:19 NLT) I have heard numerous preacher/teachers take this single verse and tell their listeners to ask God for money, health, and prosperity and that God will have to give it to them because they ask for it in faith. I even heard one pastor say in a sermon that his congregation needs to go down to the Mercedes dealership and sit in a new car claiming it in the name of Jesus and that God would give it to them.
Now think this through; what happens when I go that car dealership and speak in faith agreeing with my wife that we ask God to give us that new car and God doesn’t miraculously give it to us? We obviously can’t afford a brand new Mercedes on our own. When that car doesn’t come to us does God become a liar? Does the Bible become untrustworthy because I didn’t get a new car? Not at all. Instead, I go back to Matthew chapter 18 and read the context. I then see that Jesus is teaching his followers how to handle a follower of Christ who is not living in obedience to God. He tells them to meet with them one on one first, then (if there is no change) to meet with them in a group of three Believers, and then (if there is still no change in that person’s life) to treat the disobedient Christian like they were an unbeliever.
The context of what Jesus is teaching is how to handle Church governance. Jesus knew that one day in the future he would go back to Heaven and that his followers would have trouble with Believers who stopped living like they were following Christ. Jesus gave them his directions on how to treat them to try and bring them back to a life of obedience. It is was not a command to make God a magic genie who would give us anything we ask if we use the magic incantation of praying ‘in Jesus’ name’. We must not play Bible Buffet and twist the Bible to fit what we want to believe.
Let me give you one last example and then I’ll begin to make some closing applications. We read in 1 Samuel chapter 17 the familiar tale of David and Goliath. We all know the story of how the young teenager Daniel was upset that the army of Israel allowed this one man, Goliath, to scare them into believing they could not defeat their enemies. David challenged Goliath to a one-on-one fight in which God gives David victory over the giant. I have heard so many preachers/teachers use this passage to teach that God wants us to face the giants in our lives and to deliver us from our enemies if we confront them in faith.
Once again, let’s put this in a real life setting. Let’s say there is a young woman who finds out she has breast cancer. In fact, it is very advanced and she will most likely die in less than 3 months. Her pastor comes to her and tells her that God is just placing this giant in her life and that, like David, God wants her to confront this giant (cancer) and defeat it in his name. What happens when, 3 months later, the woman passes away from the cancer and God did not save her from it? Where was God when he promised this woman that, like David fighting Goliath, she would defeat this giant in her life?
The answer is once again simple when the passage is read in context. This is a description of an event in history and not a prescription of how Christians should live their lives. People die every day from a large variety of reasons. Followers of Christ will continue to die until Jesus returns and death is thrown into the Lake of Fire (cf. Revelation ch. 20). The passage from 1 Samuel shows how God uses the unlikeliest of people to accomplish his mighty works; it does not show us that God will deliver us from all of the ‘giants’ in our lives that we want to overcome. When we take a description and make it a prescription we make the Bible teach something it never meant to and make God into a liar.
This has been a longer than normal post but I wanted to drive my point home. The Bible is God’s word and is filled with wonderful stories, teachings, and promises of how God wants to work mightily in our lives. What we must be careful to do is to read it properly and not take passages out of context. We must not allow false teachers (no matter how good their intentions are) to force us to twist the Bible to fit our beliefs rather than twist our beliefs to fit the Bible. We must take the time to study the Bible rather than just simply read it and to do this by reading it in context. It may mean doing extra work. It may mean reading less in quantity and digging deeper in quality. This will safeguard us from false teachers and false interpretations of the Bible.
To close this entry up, I double-dog-dare you to read your Bible this week differently than you may have in the past. Take the time to look up the 5 A’s that I gave you a few weeks ago. Use the internet, commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and history books to get the passages into their proper settings. Then ask yourself whether what you have just studied is something God prescribed for you to apply to your life or if it was just a description of what happened in history. If you do this, I promise you will receive a richer experience when reading God’s word and you will grow in the knowledge you will need to teach others who will ask you about your faith.