The Path to Understanding

April 4, 2017

A few years ago, I found the Bible I had as a teen-ager. I was interested in the notes that I had placed in it. Bible knowledge is not gained in a day. It takes a lifetime of study. Matters that today I probably wouldn’t need any help finding were concepts that back then I understood very imperfectly. For example in a note, I misspelled the word “Pentateuch”—a word which means 5 scrolls and is normally applied to the first five books of the Old Testament. I don’t believe that 1 Timothy has 15 chapters the last time I looked, but I have a written note for 1 Timothy 15.

Understanding takes time and repetition. I compare it to a net. The first time through a book of the Bible the mesh on the net is extremely course. Many things get by us. We struggle to understand. But as we continue to read, the mesh gets finer, and we notice and understand more and more. Alexander Campbell noted the same thing in his publication called the Christian Baptist. After observing that God revealed Himself in understandable language and that our approach to the Bible should be the same as for understanding any other book. He wrote:

You will then take, say, a New Testament, and sit down with a pencil or pen in your hand. Begin with Matthew’s gospel; read the whole of it at one reading, or two; mark on the margin every sentence you think you do not understand. Turn back again; read it a second time, in less portions at once than in the first reading; cancel such marks as you have made which noted passages, that, on the first reading appeared to you dark or difficult to understand, but on the second reading opened to your view. Then read Mark, Luke, and John, in the same manner, as they all treat upon the same subject. After having read each evangelist in this way, read them all in succession a third time. At this time you will no doubt be able to cancel many of your marks.

[Then] read Acts of the Apostles, which is the key to all the Epistles; then the Epistles in a similar manner; always before reading an epistle, read every thing said about the people addressed in the epistle, which you find in the Acts of the Apostles. This is the course which we would take to understand any book. You will no doubt see, from what you read, the necessity of accompanying all your readings with supplications to the Father of Lights….In pursuing this plan, we have no doubt, in getting even three times through the New Testament, that you will understand much more of the christian religion than a learned divine would teach you in seven years. Christian Baptist 1 (December 1, 1823)

Be patient with yourself. Learning takes time. Be assured that God has written an understandable message. What you first do not understand will become clearer in time. Read, pray, think. The path to understanding is taken one step at a time.

A Touchable Jesus

March 24, 2017

Jesus’ encounter with Mary after his resurrection is perplexing to some readers (see John 20:17). The King James Version reads: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” Yet Matthew 28:9 reads: “And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him” (Matthew 28:9, KJV). And later, Jesus instructs Thomas to touch him (John 20:27).

This has given rise to a speculative interpretation that seeks an explanation in the reason given in John 20:17, and so proposes an ascension to the Father before the ascension recorded in Acts. Something happens in this “first” trip to heaven that allows him to be touched later. However, this speculation is unneeded.

Several problems exist with this speculative interpretation of John 20:17. First, “touch me not” doesn’t necessarily imply that Mary has not touched Jesus. Sometimes we say “don’t touch me” after being touched. Even beginning with the KJV reading, I think this interpretation starts with an unwarranted assumption.

Second, “touch me not” renders a Greek verb that is present imperative (a command in the present tense). Prohibitions in the present imperative often convey the idea of stopping an activity in progress.* Several translations try to convey this idea:

  • Do not cling to me… ESV
  • Stop clinging to Me … NASB
  • Do not hold on to me… NIV
  • Do not cling to Me… NKJV

These translations are conveying the correct notion that Mary is touching Jesus, and he is asking her to stop. She doesn’t need to cling to him, for he hasn’t yet ascended to his Father — they still have some time left, although this also gives her a warning that their relationship is going to change with the ascension. He has a mission for her, and he needs her to let go and find the brothers and give them his message. This correct understanding of the verb completely negates this interpretation.

This speculation fails to take in account the chronologically close encounter with Jesus and the women who come to the tomb: “And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.” (Matthew 28:9, KJV) The time between this encounter and the encounter with Mary would have been very short. This too argues against this interpretation.

What I find encouraging about these scenes is that the resurrected Jesus is a touchable Jesus. I had a Greek professor who believed that the popular Christian conception of the afterlife was a little too much Plato and not enough scripture. I sometimes wonder whether when we hear “spiritual body” that our minds don’t go to something ghostly and insubstantial, yet scripture presents us with a touchable Jesus.

*Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 724; Friedrich Blass, Albert Debrunner, and Robert Walter Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, §336(3), p. 172.

The Father’s House

March 17, 2017

It is a famous line: In my Father’s house there are many mansions. However, the King James Version’s word choice is misleading to modern English readers. We hear the word “mansion,” and we are thinking of a big, manor house. But that is not the meaning of the word in this text in 1611.

Looking at earlier English translations may help. Here is a list of early translations prior to the KJV with their publication date.

Wycliffe (1382-1395) dwellingis
Tyndale (1522) mansions
Coverdale (1535) dwellinges
Geneva (1557) dwelling places
Bishops’ Bible (1568) dwelling places

Tyndale obviously gave us the phrase mansions, but the earliest translation is of Wycliffe, and it is “dwellings” (if we update his spelling). And that rendering is followed by Coverdale, Geneva, and the Bishop’s Bible.

It is not that Tyndale or the King James translators were wrong in using mansions in this passage. It is a case of a word that has changed meanings over the years. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary provides the definition that readers in 1611 would have understood: “archaic:  a place where one remains or dwells.”

This is an image I understand as a father and grandfather. It is joyous to have all my children under one roof, in one house. (Although I must confess in this life, it is a little crowded and makes for difficulties in scheduling the bathroom.) The word picture which Jesus paints is one of being in the Father’s presence. As God’s children, he has room for us in his house.

When the RSV was released with its reading of “rooms” instead of “mansions,” some complained that the RSV had removed the glory from the Bible.* But the glory of a manor house for each of us was never in the text to begin with, it was only in a misreading of the text, a reading that was not intended by the King James translators to begin with. And unfortunately, it is a misreading that is captured in some of our hymns. Often, I’m unable to sing the line, “I want a gold one that is silver lined.” Besides being crassly materialistic, it misses Jesus’ point. Jesus is preparing a place for us to be eternally in the presence of God.

The translation of “rooms” or “dwelling places” instead of “mansions” does not remove the glory from the Bible. What could be more glorious than to have a place in the presence of God, a place in the Father’s house!

*Ronald F. Bridges and Luther A. Weigle, King James Bible Word Book (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 217. See this work for words that have changed meanings since 1611.

Handle with Prayer

March 10, 2017

Bills, sickness, bereavement, arguments, raising children, caring for elderly parents, pressures on the job, transfers — the pressures of life seem endless. Two modern observers have even developed a stress scale. If we score over 200 points in a given year, we are under a great deal of stress and may have difficulties. Their scale ranges from the death of a spouse, 100 points, to smaller things like surviving the Christmas holidays, 12 points.

It seems to me that Paul must have hit 200 stress points at times.

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23–28, ESV)

He not only had some calamitous things happen to him, but he also faced persecution for his faith.

Paul was no stranger to stress. When he wrote Philippians, he was under arrest (1:14). Some preached Christ to cause Paul problems (1:17). He faced his own death (1:20) as well as feeling opposition and suffering (1:28- 30). His friend had been sick and almost died (2:26-27). Doctrinal problems existed (3:2), and two friends disagreed (4:2). Paul’s words on handling anxiety came out of the crucible of real life.

Paul teaches us to stop being anxious by taking everything to God in prayer.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4–7, ESV)

Paul could say, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10, ESV). Paul could rely on spiritual resources to face the problems of life. He wasn’t just relying on his own strength.

Someone has also remarked, “There is nothing too great for God’s power; and nothing too small for His fatherly care.” Paul practiced this and discovered the peace of God which transcends all understanding. When we face the stresses of life, may we handle with prayer.


March 3, 2017

In the book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Richards and O’Brien warn us not to read the ethnic prejudices of our culture into the ancient world. One such passage is Numbers 12 where Miriam and Aaron complain about the Cushite wife of Moses. Several questions can be raised in this passage. Does Cushite mean Midianite? Is this woman Zipporah, or is this a second wife? Cushite normally means Ethiopian. Are Miriam and Aaron complaining that Moses married a black African? Unfortunately, commentators have sometimes read modern ethnic prejudices into this text.

Richards and O’Brien examine Cushites from an ancient world perspective and come away with quite a different, possible take on the passage.

The Cushites were not demeaned as a slave race in the ancient world; they were respected as highly skilled soldiers.’ It is more likely that Miriam and Aaron thought Moses was being presumptuous by marrying above himself. That makes sense of the tone of the passage. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they whined. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Num 12:2). In other words: Moses is not the only prophet here. Who does he think he is?*

Although I would view this as a possible reading of the text, it is at least informed by the ancient world. It avoids reading the text through modern ethnic prejudices.

Certainly, ethnic prejudices existed in the ancient world. A careful reading with cultural awareness can spot some of these. Greeks looked at everyone else as barbarians, their term for non-Greek speakers. It is an onomatopoeic word. To the Greeks, non-Greek speaking people sounded like they were going around saying “bar … bar.” Jews looked down on Gentiles. Hebrew and Aramaic speaking Jews could neglect the Greek speaking Jewish widows (Acts 6).

Although prejudices exist in the ancient world as well as the modern, scripture is consistently against such prejudices. We are called to see every human being from God’s point of view. All are created in the image of God. God loves the whole world and wishes that none should be lost. With Paul, we must exclaim: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11, ESV). We must sing like the heavenly scene found in Revelation: “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9–10, ESV). We must check our cultural blinders, and behave as God would have us treat one another.

*E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Kindle Locations 602-605). Kindle Edition.

Finding Words of Comfort

February 24, 2017

All of us face death. We are confronted with times when we search for words to say to a friend who is bereaved. Sometimes people say things that are insensitive. Others with few words may convey great comfort.

Grief is a difficult process. A person feels shock and numbness at hearing of a loss. A sense of denial or unreality may come next. It’s common to feel like the lost loved one may be in the house with us or will walk through the door at any minute. Powerful emotions come with grief. We need to allow people to cry and express their feelings. Comforting the bereaved is not to cheer them up. Rather, we are willing to be there for someone, to be emotionally supportive, while allowing them to express the full range of emotions that come with their loss.

It is important never to minimize someone’s loss. Allow them their feelings. Don’t come across as if you know exactly how they feel, instead use words that invite them to express how they feel. I ran across a list of some alternative statements when confronting the crises of grief. Maybe these will help us in finding words of comfort.

    INSTEAD OF: “I know exactly how you feel.”
    TRY: “I can only imagine what you’re going through.”

    INSTEAD OF: “At least he doesn’t have to suffer anymore.”

    TRY: “He suffered through a lot, didn’t he?”

    INSTEAD OF: “It’s God’s will.”
    TRY: “One comfort I find is God’s promise never to abandon us.”

    INSTEAD OF: “Don’t you think it’s time to get on with your life.”
    TRY: “Everyone has to grieve in their own way, don’t they?”

    INSTEAD OF: “She wouldn’t want you to grieve.”
    TRY: “It’s hard to say good-bye, isn’t it?”

    INSTEAD OF: “Don’t cry — you’ll only make it worse.”
    TRY: “Sometimes tears are the best way to express our feelings.”

    INSTEAD OF: “This death is a victory for God.”
    TRY: “Even with the promise of the resurrection, it hurts to give someone up.”

    INSTEAD OF: “You’ve got to be strong.”
    TRY: “I want you to know it’s OK to be yourself around me.”

    INSTEAD OF: “You can’t be angry with God.”

    TRY: “God understands even when we’re upset.”

I do not remember the source of these sayings at this point in my life, but I believe they contain wise counsel. The point is not so much to memorize the better sayings, but to catch the spirit of them. We don’t want to minimize someone’s grief, artificially attempt to cheer them up, or tell them how they should feel. We want to be there for them and allow them to express their grief even though it means sharing in their pain.

Why Read the Old Testament?

February 17, 2017

If I am a New Testament Christian, that is I’m under the new covenant, why should I read the Old Testament? As a reader of the entire Bible, I recognize that the question is short-sighted. It fails to listen to the testimony and evidence of the New Testament. Many reasons for reading the Old Testament alongside the New can be given.

  1. The New Testament quotes the Old Testament 96 times without indicating that it is a quotation. We are simply supposed to be familiar enough to recognize it. It cites the Old Testament 238 times with indications of it being a quotation, and it alludes to the Old Testament 1640 times.* Many times, it is helpful for us to be familiar with these passages in the Old Testament context to understand them in the New Testament. The New Testament also mentions by name over 100 people from the Old Testament.
  2. Luke reports of Jesus, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, ESV). We cut ourselves off from some of the evidence for Jesus being the Christ, the Messiah, if we do not know the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Christ.
  3. Paul writes in Romans 15:4, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (ESV). The Old Testament scriptures still serves the New Testament people of God in encouraging endurance.
  4. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:11, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (ESV). Paul had just surveyed some of the history of the Exodus and Wilderness Wanderings. These Old Testament examples still instruct those under the new covenant. We see good examples to follow, and bad examples that warn us of the paths not to follow.
  5. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (ESV). He has reminded Timothy of the sacred scriptures that he had been acquainted with from his infancy. This is a clear reference to the Old Testament scriptures. So, all scriptures would include both the old and the new. The Old Testament still has a teaching, reproof, correction, and training role in our lives.

Clearly, we must distinguish between the covenants so that we properly understand our covenant obligations. Christians don’t practice animal sacrifices for example. But the New Testament itself gives us ample reasons to continue to read the Old Testament.

*Jeffrey Glen Jackson, New Testament Use of the Old Testament