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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attribute of goodness.

We examined the fall of Satan last time, and we know that after his fall Satan tempted Adam and Eve to sin. But we didn’t have time to answer the question of how Adam’s sin affects the rest of us. I know that this is a question that has been controversial throughout the ages but, Dr. Spencer, what does the Bible say about it?

Dr. Spencer: The Bible is clear that Adam was acting as our representative, what theologians call our federal head. We briefly mentioned this in Session 45 when we were discussing hermeneutics, the science of how to interpret the Bible. And we noted at that time that God uses a kind of representative government for his creatures. While he treats every individual with absolute justice or rich mercy, it is still true that he sees all human beings as being in one of two camps. We are all either in Adam, or in Christ. They are the two federal heads and we are all represented by one or the other.

Marc Roby: As I remember, you quoted Romans 5 in support of this view.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I did. But we only took a brief look at a couple of verses. In answering this important question today, I’d like to take a longer look at Romans 5:12-21. In examining this passage I’m going to draw heavily on P.G. Mathew’s book on Romans. He points out that Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that Roman 5:12-21 is the key to understanding the whole book of Romans, but then Rev. Mathew states that “I would say this section is the key to interpreting all Scripture and all human history. If we want to know why people are bad and do bad things, or why a sinner cannot save himself, we should read this passage. If we want to understand why human salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, we should read this passage. If we want to comprehend the doctrine of union with Christ and be fully assured of our ultimate salvation, we must read this passage.”[1]

Marc Roby: Those are bold claims about the importance of this passage. I’m looking forward to getting into it.

Dr. Spencer: They are bold claims, but they are also true. The core of the gospel message is presented in this passage and it is often rejected by people because, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” [2] And, in 1 Corinthians 2:14 we are told that “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

Marc Roby: And therefore, this passage in Romans is particularly important for anyone who considers himself a Christian. If we cannot accept this teaching about God’s way of salvation, we need to cry out to God for his Holy Spirit to grant us understanding and salvation.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right. This passage is that important. And it fits in with a discussion of God’s attribute of goodness because I can’t think of anything that illustrates God’s goodness more than the gospel of salvation by grace.

Marc Roby: Nor can I.

Dr. Spencer: The passage begins, in Verse 12, by saying, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—”. The first thing we need to look at is the word “Therefore”.

Marc Roby: Which, of course, refers to what Paul had said prior to this verse.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And, certainly, in part it refers back to Verse 10, where we read, “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” This verse clearly states man’s problem, “we were God’s enemies”.

Marc Roby: And it is never a good thing to have the eternal, omnipotent Creator of all things as your enemy.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. You’re bound to lose. And Paul goes on to argue that we were God’s enemies precisely because we were still in Adam; in other words, he was still our representative. But, in Verse 10 he tells us that we were reconciled to God through the death of Jesus Christ and that, having been reconciled, we will be saved. So, the word “therefore” at the beginning of Verse 12 is pointing back to this reconciliation and salvation that we have in Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: Alright, let me read the verse again with that thought in mind. It says, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—”.

Dr. Spencer: And notice that this verse does not express a complete thought, it leaves you expecting something, expecting it to go on. And yet the next verse, Verse 13, starts a new sentence. In other words, Paul leaves his thought half finished. And this is indicated in some Bibles by ending Verse 12 with a dash or a colon. Also, in some Bibles Verse 13 begins with a parenthesis, indicating that it is the start of a parenthetical section that continues through Verse 17. Paul is doing what we all do often, he starts a thought and then realizes that he needs to explain it more fully before continuing. So, let’s look at the thought. He said, “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned”.

Marc Roby: That is a statement loaded with meaning.

Dr. Spencer: Which is why Paul realized it needed to be fleshed out. The statement makes three points. First, sin entered the world through one man. Second, death is the result of sin. And, third, all die because all sinned in Adam. Let’s deal with the second point first.

Marc Roby: And that second point is that death is the result of sin.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, but it is specifically the sin of Adam as we’ll get to in a minute. The apostle says that death came “through” sin. He says the same thing somewhat differently in Romans 6:23, where we read that “the wages of sin is death”. In other words, death is not natural. It is the punishment God promised Adam and Eve for sinning as we read in Genesis 2:17. And so, in Verses 13 and 14, Paul explains this further.

Marc Roby: Let me read those verses before you go on. Romans 5:13-14 say, “for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.”

Dr. Spencer: And notice Paul’s logic here. He points out that sin is not taken into account when there is no law. He doesn’t say that people didn’t sin during this period of time, because they most certainly did; in fact, he says “sin was in the world.” But he says that sin isn’t taken into account. Nevertheless, he points out that the people who lived between the time of Adam and Moses and “did not sin by breaking a command”, still died. This proves that these people died for Adam’s sin. He makes that explicit in Verse 15 where he says that “many died by the trespass of the one man”. In fact, he repeats this point several times so that we can’t get it wrong. He also says in Verse 16 that “judgment followed one sin” and in Verse 17 he says that “by the trespass of the one man” death reigned.

Marc Roby: I can hear many of our listeners just bristling at the thought that people would die because of someone else’s sin.

Dr. Spencer: I understand the objection. But let me put off dealing with it for a few minutes, there is a very good answer to it. We can summarize Paul’s argument as follows: sin entered the world through Adam and all people since the time of Adam are subject to death as a result of his sin. So far this doesn’t sound good for us, but then Paul ends Verse 14 by saying that Adam “was a pattern of the one to come.” And he goes on to explain that in Verse 15.

Marc Roby: Which says, “But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”

Dr. Spencer: And here is the gospel message! Adam was a pattern of the one to come, which is speaking of Christ, but there is a drastic difference, because we are condemned if we are in Adam, but eternally saved if we are in Christ. He was a pattern only in the sense that he was our head before and Christ is our head now.

Paul starts off Verse 15 by saying that “the gift is not like the trespass”. Salvation is a free gift. Paul also tells us that in Ephesians 2:8-9, where we read, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Marc Roby: And, of course, grace is unmerited favor. Or, we could even say, it is showing favor to those who deserve condemnation.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And Paul then explains further. He goes on in Romans 5:15 to say, “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” As I noted earlier, this verse makes it even more explicit that many died because of the sin of the one man, which refers to Adam. But the gift, which we are told came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflows to many.

Marc Roby: Praise God for his rich mercy.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, praise God indeed. And Paul goes on, in Verse 16, to say that “Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.” Here he again makes it clear that death, which is the just judgment for sin, followed “one sin”, which was the sin of Adam. But the gift, which followed many trespasses, or sins, brought justification. As he said in Verse 10, we are reconciled to God.

Marc Roby: And in Verse 10 it had said that “we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son”.

Dr. Spencer: Which, of course, refers to Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Then, in Verse 17, Paul says, “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” We again see the emphasis on the “one man” through whom death reigned, which is Adam, and the “one man” through whom righteousness and life reign, who is Christ. This passage clearly shows that the theological idea of Adam and Christ as the two federal heads is completely biblical.

Marc Roby: And it again speaks of God’s grace and gift. Salvation is clearly not by works.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that point is abundantly clear in this passage. And we have now finished the parenthetical comments that began in Verse 13, so Verse 18 finishes the thought that Paul started in Verse 12. Let me read both verses. Verse 12 says, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—” and then Verse 18 says, “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.”

Marc Roby: And I must praise God again. And I must point out that we have to be careful with this verse, when it says that this one act of righteousness, which is referring to Christ’s atoning sacrifice, “brings life for all men”, it is not telling us that every single human being will be saved.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. It means that all who are saved by the grace of God are saved as a result of this one act of righteousness. In fact, Paul phrases it differently in the very next verse. Verse 19 says, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” We have to interpret these verses in a way that is consistent with all of Scripture.

Marc Roby: The first principle of hermeneutics as you taught in Sessions 39 through 48.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is the most important principle of hermeneutics. And when you apply it here it is obvious the statements about death coming to all men and the many being made sinners both refer to every single human being who has descended from Adam and Eve in the natural way. Whereas, the statements about bringing life to all men and the many being made righteous do not refer to every single human being, but only to those who are born again and justified by faith in Christ.

Marc Roby: Now the last two verses, 20 and 21, then say “The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Dr. Spencer: We don’t have time today to deal with what is meant by saying that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more”, but notice again that sin reigned in death – in other words, death is the penalty for sin, but specifically for the sin of Adam. And then also note that grace reigns through righteousness and brings eternal life through Jesus Christ. Saying “through Jesus Christ” means that eternal life comes to those people, and only those people, who are united to Christ by true saving faith. We are all conceived with Adam as our federal head and we are, therefore, subject to death. But, praise God, if we place our trust in Jesus Christ, we are united to him by faith and receive eternal life. In Romans 8:1 Paul wrote that “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”.

Marc Roby: What a glorious promise that is. But I’m not going to let you forget the question you put off earlier. You said that you have a good answer for those who think it is unfair for them to be born subject to the penalty of death because of the sin of Adam.

Dr. Spencer: There is a great answer to that question. First, let me point out that God is perfect and all he does is perfect, so he chose the perfect representative for the human race. None of us would have done any better than Adam did. And so, if what you want is fairness, and you interpret that to mean that you should be judged on your own merits, you need to realize that we would all have fallen and would go to hell for our own sins if we were put in the same situation as Adam. God’s representative government is the only way anyone can be saved! It is only because we can be united to Christ as our federal head that salvation is possible. If you have a problem with being represented by Adam, then logically, you should also have a problem with being represented by Christ.

Marc Roby: Yes, I see your point. We like the one, but not the other.

Dr. Spencer: And, of course, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what we like. What matters is what is true. And God’s Word makes it clear, as we have just seen, that this is how he has chosen to deal with his creation. And who are we to complain?

Marc Roby: Well, we certainly shouldn’t, but unfortunately people often do.

Dr. Spencer: It is unfortunate, but it is also because we are sinners. Not only do we inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin, we also inherit his sinful nature. When Adam and Eve sinned, it produced a real change in their natures. We aren’t told exactly how that works, but it is clear that it did. They used to have perfect fellowship with God, but right after the fall we see them hiding from God.

Marc Roby: Sin always produces fear and animosity.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. And the sinful nature that is displayed by their fear and animosity is handed down to us. We aren’t told exactly how that occurs, but however it happens, the results are clear. Every single human being who has descended from Adam and Eve by the ordinary means of procreation is, conceived in sin, born in sin, and practices sin. As David put it in Psalm 51:5, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” And because we are sinners by nature, we sin.

Marc Roby: Which is abundantly obvious in the world all around us. And I think you have answered the question of how Adam’s sin affects us. Since he was our representative, we share in his guilt and all of the bitter fruit of his sin.

Dr. Spencer: The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it well. Question 16 asks, “Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?” and the answer is given, “The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.” But, praise God, in his great love and according to his attribute of goodness, he provided us with a Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: And with that, I think we are out of time for today. Let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’d love to hear from you.

 

[1] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Freedom (Volume 1), Grace and Glory Ministries, pg. 302

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

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Marc Roby: We have a question from one of our listeners to open our session again. Dr. Spencer, one of our listeners asked about multiple meanings of biblical passages. He wrote, “I believe you said that a passage of scripture has one meaning but several applications. Can Scriptures sometimes have two meanings? For example, sometimes I’m not sure if the Psalms are talking about the author’s situation, or if it is actually a prophecy about something in the New Testament. Is it possible for it to mean both?”

Dr. Spencer: That’s a very good question and I think it points out that I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. When we say there is only one correct meaning for a particular passage, we don’t mean to exclude, for example, typology or even allegory in some rare cases like the passage from Galatians 4 we examined in Session 46. The primary thing we wish to exclude is the old idea from the quadriga that every passage has, in addition to its literal meaning, some other hidden meaning, whether it be moral, allegorical, spiritual or whatever.

Marc Roby: But, as our questioner noted, some of the material in psalms and, I might add, a lot of material in the prophets as well, does have meaning beyond that which could have been understood by the people at the time.

Dr. Spencer: That is absolutely true. We discussed prophecy in Session 41 and noted that the first thing we want to do when reading a passage of prophecy is to ask ourselves what it meant to the people at that time. But we also noted that we don’t want to stop there. We live in a time of much greater revelation and the Bible itself points out many ways in which the life of Jesus Christ fulfilled prophecies. So, we should also seek to understand the deeper significance of these prophecies.

The same thing is true in some of the psalms, especially for the so-called Messianic psalms. We noted in Session 20 that some Old Testament passages were recognized by the Jews, way before the time of Christ, as referring to the promised Messiah. For example, in Psalm 22 there are a number of allusions to the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross. When David wrote this psalm, he could not have known all the details we now know unless they were revealed to him directly by God. We aren’t told what David knew in this specific case, but we are told that the Old Testament writers sometimes knew that they were writing about the future.

Marc Roby: Your observation reminds me of Acts 2, where Peter addressed the crowd on the day of Pentecost. He quoted a portion of Psalm 16, which was also written by King David, and he applied it to Jesus Christ. Peter told the crowd, as we read in Acts 2:30-31, that David “was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: That is a great passage. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the apostle Peter tells us clearly that David wrote about future events in Psalm 16. So, at least for that passage we know for certain that it had reference to the promised Messiah. We are also told in 1 Peter 1:10-12 that “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”

Marc Roby: That is a very relevant passage. Clearly there were times when the Old Testament prophets did not fully understand what they were writing, but they wanted to know and had some understanding that they were speaking of the coming Messiah and God’s ultimate salvation of his people.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In fact, we see this kind of confidence based on partial revelation very early on. I think most everyone knows the story of Job, a righteous man whom God allowed Satan to test with extreme trials. In Job 19:25-27 we read that in the midst of his suffering, Job said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”  He clearly understood that God had promised his people a Savior, and that he would one day see this Savior himself.

Marc Roby: This is a clear illustration of the point we have made before, that there was a progressive revelation of truth throughout the Old Testament. Job knew enough, but not as much as people in later times.

Dr. Spencer: Very true. People in the Old Testament times knew of God’s promised Messiah to some degree, but the prophets and psalmists wrote things that they themselves didn’t completely understand. The passage in Psalm 16 that you noted is one such passage, and Psalm 22 has several. But, as with many of these passages, it is mixture of things that did have an immediate meaning and other things that may not have had immediate meaning. For example, in Psalm 22:11-13 we read David crying out to God, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.” These “bulls of Bashan” and “roaring lions” could certainly be figurative expressions for some of the serious troubles and opposition that David himself experienced, so they had an immediate application. But then, in Verse 16, we read, “Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.” It is hard to imagine that the reference to having his hands and feet pierced applied to David in any way, but it has long been recognized, along with other parts of that psalm, as referring to the crucifixion of Christ.

Marc Roby: And it might be useful to point out that crucifixion was introduced by the Romans, and therefore it was not a form of punishment known to David.

Dr. Spencer: That is useful to know. It might also be useful to point out that we have good biblical warrant for applying this psalm to Jesus’ crucifixion since he himself quoted from it while on the cross! His famous cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is a direct quote from Verse 1.

So, to summarize our answer to this question, let me say the following. There is only one correct meaning to a biblical passage, but it may have application both to the time it was written, say by an Old Testament prophet or psalmist, and an application to a later time. It may be a bit of a matter of semantics to some extent, but I would not call that having multiple meanings.

Marc Roby: Alright, so we are ready to move on with our topic of hermeneutics. We ended last time with an example of some truly awful exegesis, which attempted to show that homosexuality is not condemned by the Bible. Are there any other types of bad exegesis that it would be useful to examine?

Dr. Spencer: We could come up with quite a few very easily, but let’s just do one more really bad example, in fact, this one is blasphemous. But I think it is useful to look at this because those of us who are truly Christians need to know about this kind of terrible, deadly and demonic teaching and oppose it at every turn. This teaching has to do with what is called the “little god” doctrine of the so-called word of faith movement.

Marc Roby: That is about as unbiblical and illogical as any false doctrine I can think of.

Dr. Spencer: It most certainly is. I want to look at how one of these word of faith ministers attempts, with no success I might add, to exegete Genesis 1 Verses 26 and 27, which say “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Marc Roby: This should be interesting.

Dr. Spencer: It is interesting in a very twisted and sad way. In a Youtube video of the teaching of Creflo Dollar, who is the head of the World Changers Church, he was attempting to exegete that passage and said, “If everything produces after its own kind, we now see God producing man. And if God now produces man, and everything produces after its own kind [and he takes a long pause for effect here] … if horses get together, they produce what? [and the crowd answers – horses] And if dogs get together they produce what? [and the crowd answers – dogs] If cats get together, they produce what? [and the crowd answers – cats] But if the godhead gets together and say [sic] let us make man, then what are they producing? [and the crowd answers – gods, and he says] They’re producing gods.”[2]

Marc Roby: That is unbelievably bad and downright evil.

Dr. Spencer: It is so bad that it’s hard to know where to start in demolishing this supposed logic. God’s act of creation cannot be compared with the procreation of animals and human beings, they are not at all the same kind of process. These are totally different things, so the supposed connection made, I might add with a lot of knowing pauses and winking as though his answer should be obvious to all, this supposed connection is completely false. We are given a little more information about the creation of man in Genesis 2:7 where we read that “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Now, when animals and human beings procreate, we do not take some dust, mold it into our offspring and breathe life into it. So that verse alone ought to completely destroy this nonsensical conclusion. But, in addition, what on earth would cause any human being to think that he or she is a little god?

Marc Roby: You have to have a very strange idea of who God is.

Dr. Spencer: You most certainly do. Now, to be fair, they claim that they are gods with a little ‘g’, but what on earth does that mean? The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God. That is, admittedly, a difficult thing to fully explain. But we are not little gods. In fact, this little god doctrine sounds eerily similar to Satan’s original lie to tempt Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3:5 we read that Satan told them that if they ate the forbidden fruit they would not die but that “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Marc Roby: It didn’t work out so well for Adam and Eve when they listened to that lie.

Dr. Spencer: And it won’t work out well for people who listen to it today either. If any of our listeners have fallen prey to this false teaching, I want to exhort them to read the Bible themselves, carefully, from beginning to end. The creator-creature distinction is central to the entire Bible. In Isaiah 43:10 we read, “‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.’”

But these word of faith preachers take being gods – even with a little g – seriously. They talk about being able to control the weather and change their physical circumstances with their words. That is simply nonsense. If it were so, why do any of them need to ask for financial donations? Why do any of them ever get sick and die? The reality is that they are liars and they deceive people, and they abuse the Word of God by trying to claim that they are believing what it says. But they pull verses out of context and interpret them without any concern for what the rest of the Word of God says.

Marc Roby: I might add that in Deuteronomy 4:39 we are told, “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other.”

Dr. Spencer: And if you search in the 1984 NIV for the phrase “there is no other”, you will find twelve verses that say essentially the same thing. This teaching could not possibly be more in conflict with God’s word. And, I might add, it could also not be more in conflict with common sense and observable facts either. Can these people truly control the weather? I think we’ve spent more time on this than it deserves already. There are many places on the web where you can find detailed refutations of this heretical and blasphemous teaching, so I really don’t need to say any more.

Marc Roby: Very well. We’ve been through a couple examples of bad exegesis, but is there anything more that you want to say about hermeneutics so that we can avoid exegetical mistakes?

Dr. Spencer: Before we summarize the most important points, I would like to make one more observation.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: There are passages in the Bible that are deliberately enigmatic, meaning that they are difficult to understand. I’m not referring to topics that are in and of themselves difficult to understand, but I’m speaking about sayings that are deliberately enigmatic, independent of the complexity of the material.

Marc Roby: Why would God want to make anything difficult for us to understand?

Dr. Spencer: There are different reasons, but certainly one is that if we have to struggle a bit to understand something, we will remember it better and understand it more completely. It is a bit of an old joke among professors that if you explain something too clearly the students are deceived into believing that they understand it. But if you botch the explanation a bit they are forced to think it through and have a better understanding.

Marc Roby: Now that sounds like something a professor would say to justify a poor job of teaching!

Dr. Spencer: That is how it is always used in a joke of course, but there actually is an element of truth to it. I can remember some of the best teachers I had explaining something in class so well that I really thought I understood it. But then, when I went to apply it myself, all of a sudden, the understanding just seemed to vanish. In any event, when we come across something that forces us to slow down and think to figure it out, it is a really good way of emphasizing the material.  In fact, if I understand a sentence immediately, I may read it so fast that it doesn’t sink in at all and I won’t remember it. But, if I have to stop and re-read it a few times to figure out what it means, I’m more likely to remember what it says.

Marc Roby: I can certainly agree with that, although we want to be careful to not use it as an excuse for sloppy writing or poor explanations. You said that there are different reasons though, what is another?

Dr. Spencer: A second reason is to make the heart of the listener manifest. In Matthew Chapter 13 we are told that Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked him why he spoke in parables. He replied, in Verses 11-14, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.’”

We see from this that Jesus was, in a sense, making it difficult for those who had no interest in understanding what he said so that they would not bother to figure things out and would remain willfully ignorant of the true gospel, but those who wanted to understand would take the time to figure the parables out, or would ask that they be explained, and would thereby be enlightened.

Marc Roby: In other words, by using parables, Jesus revealed the heart attitude of his hearers.

Dr. Spencer: That is a good way to put it. In his book Interpreting the Bible, Mickelsen[3] has an entire chapter on what he calls opaque figures of speech. He includes in that chapter riddles, fables and enigmatic sayings.

Marc Roby: What else do you want to say about hermeneutics?

Dr. Spencer: We go could go on and on, but I think this is good enough for an introduction to the topic and hopefully to whet our listener’s appetites to study more and to be very careful and systematic in their own Bible study.

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good to very briefly summarize the most important points we’ve covered.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s a great idea. The first, and by far the most important, rule of hermeneutics is that we should allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. Remember that we said you can also express this rule by saying that Scripture is a unity and cannot contradict itself. This idea is also well stated in Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is entitled, Of the Holy Scripture. In Paragraph 9 of that chapter we read that “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”

Marc Roby: As always, the Westminster confession does a great job of stating that idea. What else is important to remember?

Dr. Spencer: First let me add something to the first rule. I want to point out that it is dependent on our having a very high view of Scripture. In fact, the first rule is a necessary result of and depends on our belief that the Bible, in its entirety, is the infallible Word of God. Then, in addition to the first rule, I would have to say that I think your attitude in studying the Bible is most important. You must have an attitude of humility and you must truly be seeking to know God’s will so that you can go out and do it. Thirdly, we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to help us. Remember what it says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Fourthly, I would say to make use of the existing creeds and confessions, and to study systematic theology. Fifthly, I would remind our listeners that we must all be in a good church under the authority of godly leaders. If these things are all in place, you will do well and avoid the many theological ditches out there.

Marc Roby: This has been an enjoyable introduction to the topic of hermeneutics and I am really looking forward to next time, when we start into systematic theology.

Dr. Spencer: I’m looking forward to it as well.

Marc Roby: I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Quoted from a video clip of the teaching of Creflo Dollar, shown in the video The Devilish Puppet Master of the Word-Faith Movement by Justin Peters (start around 26 minutes and 13 seconds in) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOTrMSOrYew&list=PL-ofi4letEUkH6jD268Q7F5Lp-1WxPqPh, also available by itself at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YwBroSyWuQ

[3] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974

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Marc Roby: Before we resume our study of hermeneutics today, we have a question we’d like to address. One of our listeners asked about the origins of John’s baptism. This question was engendered by our discussion in Session 43 of the meaning of Jesus’ statement in John Chapter 3, where he said that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” [1] Our listener wrote, “I have always wondered how John the Baptist’s baptism came to be.  I don’t recall anything from the Old Testament mentioning baptism, yet it is different from the believer’s baptism.” Dr. Spencer, you and I looked into this a bit, what would you like to say about that?

Dr. Spencer: It is an interesting question and I’ve also heard different things over the years myself about the topic. For example, in touring Israel we saw several of the ritual baths, called Mikvehs, used by Jews for ceremonial washings. And we were told that these were also used for ritual cleansings of Gentiles converting to Judaism and that this was the origin of John’s baptism of repentance. That sounds reasonable and is mentioned in an article in the Zondervan Pictorial encyclopedia as well.[2] But, I’ve also read other reasonable sources saying that the practice didn’t start until after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.[3] If that is true, it certainly could not have been a precursor to John’s Baptism. I don’t know or have any reasonable way of finding out who is right on this point, but I don’t think it is a critically important part of the answer.

Marc Roby: We do, of course, see references to ritual cleansing with water in the Old Testament. For example, as we noted in Session 43, in Numbers 19:9 we read about the “water of cleansing” which “is for purification from sin”.

Dr. Spencer: We also noted Ezekiel 36:25 where God says that “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.” So, the idea of cleansing someone from the impurity of sin using water is certainly present in the Old Testament. But I don’t know of any Old Testament passages that specifically tie water with repentance. After reading a number of different things I could find on the topic I have to conclude that we don’t know for certain about some of the background, but we can say a few things for sure.

Marc Roby: OK, what are those things we can be sure of?

Dr. Spencer: First, we are sure that the Old Testament does relate cleansing with water to the removal of impurity resulting from sin as we just noted. So, that idea was known to the people at the time of John the Baptist, although we do not see this specifically tied to the idea of repentance prior to John. John’s baptism, however, was clearly tied to confession of sin since we read in Matthew 3:6 that “Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Second, we also know from John 1:33 that John the Baptist himself said that God sent him to baptize with water. And, in Matthew 21 we read about the chief priests and the elders asking Jesus “By what authority” he was doing the things he was doing. Instead of answering them, he showed their duplicity by asking them a question he knew they would not be willing to answer honestly. He said, in Matthew 21:25, “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” Now, this is far from proof since this was a rhetorical question of sorts, but Jesus’ question implies that John’s baptism came from heaven, which would agree with what John himself said.

Marc Roby: We can, of course, question exactly what is meant by saying his baptism came from heaven.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good question in fact, it isn’t completely clear. Nevertheless, it is clear that cleansing with water was known to be related to purification from sins in Old Testament practice and it is known that in some way God himself commissioned and sent John the Baptist with the specific mission of baptizing people who repented of their sins. John is often correctly called the last of the Old Testament prophets. Not because he lived in Old Testament times, but because he was the last prophet to function as an Old Testament prophet, meaning that he pointed forward to Jesus Christ. Then, when Christ completed his work on the cross, we were given the more complete idea to which John’s baptism had pointed, and that is Christian baptism.

Marc Roby: OK. We are now ready to resume our study of systematic theology by continuing to examine hermeneutics, that is the principles that we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we discussed the use of allegory in the Bible and ended with a discussion of the place creeds, confessions and systematic theology have in helping us interpret the Bible. What do you want to discuss today?

Dr. Spencer: The discussion of creeds, confessions and systematic theology leads immediately to thinking about the place of human pastors and teachers. There is no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christian. We will talk about this more in a later session, but for now it will suffice to say that all Christians should be in a local church under the authority of a pious and learned man, or men, of God. The Bible itself is the only thing that has inherent and absolute authority to govern our faith and conduct, but we all have need of trained pastors and teachers to help us, especially those God has placed over us in our local churches. We all need accountability and we need each other.

The authority of pastors and elders is never absolute, and it is not inherent, it is delegated. But it is, nonetheless, real authority and, like all authority, is meant to bless us. If I am unsure about how to interpret a passage in the Bible, I should study it carefully myself first. Then I should look to various commentaries by good scholars, and then I should also check with the leaders in my church. It is their God-given responsibility to interpret and apply the scriptures to the people under their care.

Marc Roby: People get real nervous about this idea of being under anyone, especially in our anti-authority day and age.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, but the danger comes from unbiblical teaching, which leads to unbiblical practice. And it isn’t usually very difficult to spot unbiblical teaching. We’ll give some examples later, but for now let me just say that good pastors and teachers are a great help in understanding and applying the scripture and we should make use of that resource and we need to come under their authority. We are told in Ephesians 4:11-14 that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.”

Marc Roby: That’s a vivid picture – if we don’t participate in a good church we can remain infants in Christ. Can you give an example of when the authority of the elders would come into play in interpreting the Scriptures?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. I have an acquaintance who had to move to North Carolina for work a number of years ago. He is a serious Bible-believing Christian and he put a lot of effort and time into looking for a good church. He had young children and, after looking for quite some time, the very best church in his area was one that practiced infant baptism, which he didn’t agree with. He asked me what I thought about the situation.

Now I happen to agree with him that believer’s baptism is the biblical norm, but I do not think it is an essential issue. I suggested that he talk to the elders about this and if they were adamant that his children be baptized if he and his wife became members, he should go ahead and do so out of deference to the church leadership and to avoid causing divisions. I must also say that he already knew for certain they did not believe in baptismal regeneration, they understood baptism to be the sign of the covenant, equivalent to circumcision in the Old Testament. Had they believed in baptismal regeneration the question would never have come up because that is a serious doctrinal error.

Marc Roby: That’s an interesting case. Are we done with discussing the authority of elders in interpreting and applying the Bible?

Dr. Spencer: I think we are for now. But I would like mention that we discussed delegated authority in the state, home and church at greater length before, in Sessions 28 through 33. And, since I can easily imagine some of our listeners might be wondering where it is proper to draw the line on delegated authority in the church, I would refer them to Session 33 on the limits and abuses of authority in the church. I would also add the comment that the most common abuse of authority by far is the abrogation of the biblical responsibility to exercise authority for the good of the church.

Marc Roby: Very well. What do you want to look at next with regard to hermeneutics?

Dr. Spencer: I want to make a general statement about our attitude in studying the Bible. We must be very careful that we come to our study of the Bible with the right attitude.

Marc Roby: And what attitude is that?

Dr. Spencer: We must sincerely desire to hear from God. As Paul says in Romans 12:2, we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We need to see that we are sinners and cannot trust our own ideas. Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” One of the worst things we can do in studying the Bible is to have an attitude of arrogant certainty that we know what it says.

Marc Roby: But, of course, a mature Christian can be very solid in his beliefs on many different points of doctrine.

Dr. Spencer: Oh, he definitely can be. I don’t mean that we are constantly doubting our understanding of the Bible. Nor do I think that it is common for a mature Christian to have his views altered in any dramatic way as he studies a given passage for maybe the twentieth time. But I mean that we must always have an attitude of humility that is open to being taught by God’s word and Spirit. For a mature Christian who has studied the Bible carefully, the most common thing is that what you are reading ties in with what you believe to be true and you see new connections, different nuances and new applications that you hadn’t seen before.

But, for a new Christian, or one who has never studied the Bible carefully before, it may very well happen that you find something you believe is simply not true. It is unbiblical. There is a lot of very bad theology out there – what the passage we just read in Ephesians 4 called “every wind of teaching” – and if you haven’t studied the Bible carefully yourself you can easily absorb that teaching. But, serious study with a humble attitude of wanting to know what God says, not what men say, will help you to escape such bad teaching.

Marc Roby: Can you give us an example?

Dr. Spencer: Certainly. Some professing Christians today are convinced that homosexuality is not a sin. Let me quote from an argument made by Jimmy Creech, a former United Methodist pastor. His argument is fairly representative of the kind of terrible stuff you see when people try to make biblical arguments to support a position that is entirely unbiblical. He wrote that “There are references in the Bible to same-gender sexual behavior, and all of them are undeniably negative. But what is condemned in these passages is the violence, idolatry and exploitation related to the behavior, not the same-gender nature of the behavior.”[4]

Marc Roby: That statement is simply untrue. Leviticus 18:22, for example, says “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” There is no reference whatsoever to violence, idolatry or exploitation, it is a very simple and straightforward statement.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right. We can also look in Romans 1, where the apostle Paul tells us that people inherently know God exists, but suppress that knowledge. In Verses 25-27 he writes that “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

Marc Roby: That seems very clear, and there is again no indication anywhere in the passage or its context that Paul is referring to violent, idolatrous or exploitive behavior. Does Mr. Creech have other arguments?

Dr. Spencer: Oh yes, it gets far worse. He also writes that “There was no word in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek for ‘homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality.’ These words were invented near the end of the 19th century when psychoanalysts began to discover and understand sexuality as an essential part of the human personality in all of its diversity. Consequently, it cannot be claimed that the Bible says anything at all about it. The writers of the Bible had neither the understanding of it nor the language for it.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is amazing. It’s hard to believe that anyone would take such nonsense seriously. Does he really believe that it was only in the 19th century that people “began to discover” that sexuality is an essential part of human personality?

Dr. Spencer: It is very hard to understand that. You have to have your mind made up and simply be looking for some way to try and justify what you want to be true, rather than having any sincere desire at all to find out what the truth is. I would have a lot more respect for someone who simply said “I think being homosexual is fine and so I dismiss the Bible as having any authority.” At least that is honest. But to try and make an argument that homosexuality is not prohibited by the Bible requires this kind of stupidity and flat out dishonesty.

Let’s take a minute to look at his argument though. As far as I can determine, he is correct about the etymology of the English word homosexual, it comes from the 19th century. But to say that “The writers of the Bible had neither the understanding … nor the language” to describe homosexual behavior is unbelievably ignorant and just plain wrong. Anyone who has ever studied ancient Greece knows that homosexual behavior was absolutely understood and described. All you have to do is look in Wikipedia and you can find all sorts of references if you want to read about such things.[6]

Marc Roby: And, of course, the New Testament, written in Greek, condemns homosexual behavior too, the passage in Romans 1 that we mentioned a couple of minutes ago is one place, but not the only one.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Paul wrote, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Marc Roby: Again, I don’t see any direct connection between the homosexual offenders that Paul mentions and violent, idolatrous or exploitive behavior.

Dr. Spencer: You don’t see it because it isn’t there. And the Greek word that is translated as “homosexual offender” in this verse also appears in 1 Timothy 1:10, where in the 1984 NIV it is translated as pervert, but in the ESV it is translated as “men who practice homosexuality”.

I could go on, but to be honest, we’ve already spent more time than this transparently disingenuous and fallacious argument deserves.

Marc Roby: And yet, surprisingly, there are a significant number of people out there who call themselves Christians and who believe this kind of nonsense.

Dr. Spencer: Yes there are, but it isn’t really surprising when you consider that most professing Christians today are biblically illiterate, which is why this podcast is so important. I must also emphasize how dangerous such teaching is. If someone believes this false teaching, he is being led down the broad road that leads to eternal destruction. In other words, he is being led to hell. That is what Jimmy Creech and others like him are doing, they are leading people straight to hell.

Marc Roby: That’s a serious statement to end on, but our time is gone for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Zondervan, 1976, Vol. 1, pg. 464

[3] E.g., F. Godet, The Gospel of St. Luke, translated by Shalders and Cusin, I.K. Funk & Co., 1881, pg. 110 also Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh) reference 7 refers to the Encyclopaedia Judaica (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mikveh)

[4] Quote taken from https://www.hrc.org/resources/what-does-the-bible-say-about-homosexuality on May 11, 2018

[5] Ibid

[6] The article on Homosexuality in Ancient Greece has many references and the basic information (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_in_ancient_Greece)

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we discussed the major covenants of the Bible. Dr. Spencer, are we finished with the topic of covenants?

Dr. Spencer: Yes and no.

Marc Roby: Now wait a minute, that’s a lawyer’s answer, and you’re not even a lawyer.

Dr. Spencer: OK, you’re right. We are done with what I want to say about covenants themselves, but I want to use an example dealing with biblical covenants to get us into our next topic.

Marc Roby: Alright, what example is that?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at a passage in Galatians 4. The apostle Paul wrote this letter to churches in the Roman province of Galatia, which was roughly equivalent to the central and northeastern areas of modern-day Turkey. It is one of the more well-known of Paul’s letters because it played a prominent role in the reformation. Paul argues in the letter that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, and not by our works, which is why the letter has sometimes been closely associated with Martin Luther. Although, I must hasten to add, that the letter still talks about the need for Christians to live differently. God’s grace will produce changed lives so, for example, Paul says in Galatians 5:24 that “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” [1]

Marc Roby: That’s pretty strong language, to say that we have crucified our sinful nature.

Dr. Spencer: It is strong language. Paul makes it clear that the fact we are saved by grace alone is not an excuse to go on living sinful lives. Nevertheless, the passage I want to look at today is in Chapter 4 of this letter. Paul is rebuking the Jewish Galatians who were telling people that they still needed to keep the Old Testament ceremonial law to be saved and, in Verses 21-26 we read, “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.”

Marc Roby: That passage requires some knowledge of Old Testament history to make sense. So, let me remind our listeners that God had promised Abraham, in Genesis 15:5, that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. But then, when Abraham and his wife Sarah were getting old and had not yet had any children of their own, Sarah convinced Abraham, according to the custom of that time, to have a child with her maidservant, Hagar, whom Paul calls a slave.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And that arrangement did not please God. Abraham and Sarah were not operating on the basis of faith, instead they were trying to help God out in keeping his promise, as if he was somehow not able to keep it. He rebuked them and again told Abraham that he would have a son with Sarah, even though Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90.

Marc Roby: And, of course, that made them both laugh, and the child Sarah bore was named Isaac, which means “he laughs”.

Dr. Spencer: I’m confident that most of us would also laugh at the idea of people that age having a child, but as God says to Abraham about this in Genesis 18:14, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” In any event, Abraham and Sarah did have the child, as you noted, and they then sent Hagar and her son Ishmael away. The Israelites are all descendants of Isaac, the son God promised to Abraham and Sarah, and so are called children of the promise in Galatians 4:28 and elsewhere.

Marc Roby: And then, later, the Sinaitic covenant is made with the Israelites, the children of the promise, after God brings them out of slavery to the Egyptians.

Dr. Spencer: Precisely. And you must know all of that Old Testament history to be able to understand this passage in Galatians 4. Paul writes to those who want to keep the ceremonial law and, after reminding them briefly of this episode with Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, he says, “These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves”. So, he is telling these Jews that when they are under the law, in the sense of looking to the law for their salvation, they are slaves. And, in fact, the analogy that he uses would have been extremely unflattering to a Jew because he compares them to the children of Hagar, who are the Arabs!

Paul then writes, “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” This is speaking about the fact that those who have trusted in Jesus Christ are no longer under the law, but under grace. They are citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Marc Roby: That is all very interesting, and again shows the importance of knowing the Old Testament to be able to understand the New Testament. But, you mentioned that you wanted to use this discussion of covenants to introduce something else, what is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is the idea of allegory. I have on several occasions noted that we want to avoid allegorizing Scripture because doing so can lead you wildly astray. It is often used to read into the text something that is completely foreign to the text. But, we can’t avoid allegory altogether because Paul uses the word in this passage. Verse 24 of this Chapter, which we read a couple of minutes ago, says in our translation that “These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants.” The Greek word translated as “figuratively” in our version is ἀλληγορέω, which means to speak allegorically[2] and is the source of our English word allegory.

Marc Roby: Of course Paul was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when he said that.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he was. And that is a very important point. We can’t go around willy-nilly allegorizing any portion of Scripture we want. That is an exceedingly dangerous and, in fact, downright dishonest thing to do when we come to conclusions that are contrary to the Word of God. The only way we can say that something in Scripture is meant to be taken as an allegory, is if Scripture itself gives us warrant to do so. In the book Interpreting the Bible by Mickelsen, which we have referred to before, he says the following: “Allegory, a very legitimate way of teaching truth, should not be confused with allegorizing, which takes a narrative that was not meant to teach truth by identification. [sic] By a point by point comparison, allegorizing makes the narrative convey ideas different from those intended by the original author.”[3]

Marc Roby: That’s a good way of describing the problem. But, in this case, it also begs the question of which author we are talking about. I mean, Paul is quoting from an Old Testament historical passage written by Moses, who most certainly did not think he was writing an allegory.

Dr. Spencer: You’re absolutely right about that. But, we must never forget that the Bible’s real author is God the Holy Spirit. Moses was telling us about real history, the events are not at in any way fictitious as is usually the case with allegories. But, since God is the absolutely sovereign ruler over history, the events can simultaneously be an allegory. That is different from works written by purely human authors. You have no right to take something I wrote and interpret it allegorically unless I indicated that was my intent in writing it. And you would most definitely have no basis for claiming a factual description of a historical event was an allegory for something else unless God himself indicated that to be true.

Marc Roby: Very well. But before we move on I think this passage raises another question. Paul refers to the covenant from Mt. Sinai, which is where Moses was given the Ten Commandments, often called the moral law. But you said that Paul was arguing against having to keep the ceremonial law to be saved. Why did you say that?

Dr. Spencer: I said that because that is clear from the letter itself. If you read the entire letter to the Galatians, Paul argues against the practice of requiring Gentiles who wanted to become Christians to be circumcised and to obey Jewish dietary restrictions and holy days. These are all part of the ceremonial law and were abrogated, along with the sacrificial system, by Jesus Christ as we are told in the book of Hebrews.

The moral law on the other hand, as summarized by the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, has never been abrogated. In fact, Jesus Christ explained its true meaning and showed us that the Ten commandments are much more comprehensive than most people think. For example, he explained, in Matthew 5:27-28, that the command to not commit adultery not only prohibits the actual physical act of adultery but even the lustful thoughts that can lead to the act.

Marc Roby: Alright, that’s clear. But what we said earlier bears repeating at this point though, our salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, not by works. Not even by the works of obeying the moral law.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. As Christians, we obey the moral law out of love and thanksgiving and a true desire to please our Lord, not because we earn our salvation by doing so.

Marc Roby: Do you want to say anything more about allegories?

Dr. Spencer: No. But the example we just gave illustrates another point as well.

Marc Roby: What’s that?

Dr. Spencer: It’s that we should use the didactic portions of the Bible to interpret the narrative portions. To say something is didactic means that it is specifically designed to teach something. There are many parts of the Bible that present us with true history, beautiful poetry and wonderful imagery to help us worship God and to help us grasp his awesome power and sovereign rule over the universe, but it is dangerous to derive biblical doctrine from such passages because doing so requires significant interpretation of the meaning of the narrative.

Marc Roby: Can you give an example?

Dr. Spencer: The clearest example is probably the old debacle involving Galileo. He got in trouble for teaching that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around. But where did people get the idea that the Bible teaches a geocentric view of the universe? They got that idea from narrative and poetic passages speaking about the sun rising and setting and traversing across the sky. But such passages are giving us accurate descriptions of different events in phenomenological language, which we have discussed before. There is no section of the Bible which is didactic in nature and which tells us that the sun revolves around the earth.

Marc Roby: The New Testament epistles would obviously be a major source of didactic material.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. The epistles were specifically written to explain proper faith and conduct, so they contain a great deal of didactic material. R.C. Sproul’s book Knowing Scripture has a complete section on that topic.[4]

Marc Roby: Speaking of doctrine leads me to an interesting question. The main doctrines of the Christian faith are explained in a number of different creeds and confessions, and most churches, including ours, subscribe to one or more of them. What role do these creeds and confessions play in helping us understand the Bible?

Dr. Spencer: They play a huge role. Just as it would be foolish to start studying physics on your own without bothering to find out what people before you have learned, so it would be foolish to study the Bible without the help of the many godly people who have gone before us, especially those who were trained in the biblical languages and eminent for their piety and wisdom.

I think many professing Christians today have never read through any of the classic creeds or confessions, and that is to their own shame and poverty. But, there is also a ditch on the other side of the road. There are a few churches who put so much emphasis on particular creeds or confessions that they become a substitute authority. And, of course, the Roman Catholic church places the traditions of the church in a position that is officially equal to Scripture, but in practice ends up overruling Scripture. We must retain the balance of the reformation on this point. The Bible alone is the ultimate authority for a Christian. It alone has the inherent authority to bind my conscience.

Marc Roby: And so we should always be checking what a creed or confession says against what the Bible teaches.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And it isn’t just creeds and confessions either. This opens up the idea of the role of systematic theology in the exegesis of any particular passage.

Marc Roby: How would you describe that role?

Dr. Spencer: I would say that systematic theology has a very important role to play in understanding any particular passage of Scripture. We have noted a number of times the first rule of hermeneutics.

Marc Roby: That Scripture should interpret Scripture.

Dr. Spencer: Right. And in applying that rule, we must have an understanding of what the whole of Scripture teaches us on a given topic. That is exactly the role of systematic theology. There is a very close symbiotic relationship here. Our exegesis of different passages in the Bible leads to our coming up with what we think is an accurate description of the Bible’s teaching on a given topic, in other words our exegesis directly drives our systematic theology.

But, at the same time, our systematic theology helps us with exegesis. We just need to be very careful to not let our systematic theology become the authority. If we find ourselves trying desperately to force a passage to say something that it doesn’t in order to avoid contradicting our systematic theology, we need to stop and re-consider our systematic theology in the light of that passage. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are the prime example of that today. Their systematic theology denies the deity of Christ and that causes them to grossly distort a number of passages to try and fit that view.

Marc Roby: I think this discussion has made it clear that every Christian has an obligation to study systematic theology, at least at some level.

Dr. Spencer: I would completely agree with that statement. The Bible is so important in the life of a Christian. It is, as we have argued a number of time, our ultimate authority for what we believe and how we live. And that means that we have an obligation to study it carefully. And, as I hope our brief treatment of hermeneutics has made clear so far, carefully studying the Bible requires more than simply reading it.

Marc Roby: I might interject that it also cannot require anything less than reading the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: No, of course not. We must read the Bible regularly, systematically and in its entirety. And we must do so over and over, continuously throughout our lives. But we also then need to study systematic theology to have an overall framework to help us understand what we read. And we need to read commentaries and other things as well.

I also think it is very important to note that this should not be drudgery! Far from it. If I have been born again, I should have a real desire to understand the Word of God. It is the instruction manual for the Christian life. It is what God deemed necessary for me to have and it is the only objective revelation I have to guide me in knowing God better and pleasing him more. If I have no interest in really studying the Word of God, then I really need to ask myself if I’ve been born again.

Marc Roby: Well, we are out of time for today. I’d like to remind our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would love to hear from you.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Walter Bauer, 2nd Ed., Revised and augmented by F.W. Gingrich and F. Danker, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979, pg. 39

[3] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 231

[4] R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, 2nd Ed, InterVarsity Press, 2009, see Rule #3, pg. 76

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles that we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we discussed the Christocentric focus of the Bible. We ended by starting to discuss covenants and we mentioned two at that time, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Dr. Spencer, we don’t use the word covenant much in our society today, but if we do we use it to refer to a serious, formal agreement between people. How is the term being used here?

Dr. Spencer: In his book Foundations of the Christian Faith James Boice defines a covenant as “a solemn promise confirmed by an oath or sign.”[1] That is a fairly good brief definition, and it includes the important idea of an oath or a sign, but in his Systematic Theology Wayne Grudem gives a better one, he says that “A covenant is an unchangeable, divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of their relationship.”[2].

Marc Roby: Why do say Grudem’s definition is better?

Dr. Spencer: Because it makes three very important points explicit. First, it states that these covenants are unchangeable. We are told in Numbers 23:19 that “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?”[3]  Secondly, Grudem says that these covenants are “divinely imposed” by God. We tend to think of agreements between equals. For example, you and I may enter into a contract, but only if we both agree. I have no right to impose terms on you and you have no right to impose terms on me. Even our Declaration of Independence states that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, so this idea is firmly rooted in our culture. But, as creator, God has every right to impose a legally binding agreement on us as his creatures. Thirdly, Grudem notes that these covenants stipulate the conditions of our relationship to God.

Marc Roby: That doesn’t go along with the modern idea that my relationship with God is personal and I get to relate to him in whatever way I see fit.

Dr. Spencer: It doesn’t go along with that idea at all because that idea is profoundly unbiblical. In fact, let me burst our egotistical self-focused bubbles a little further and point out that God’s relationship to each of us, while certainly personal, is not primarily with us as individuals.

Marc Roby: What do you mean by that?

Dr. Spencer: I mean that God relates to us as members of a group. And the Bible speaks, ultimately, about only two groups of people; those who are “in Adam” and those who are “in Christ”. In 1 Corinthians 15:22 Paul wrote that “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” This speaks of those two groups and, implicitly speaks about the two main covenants, which we are discussing.

Marc Roby: How so?

Dr. Spencer: Well, the covenant of works was established by God with Adam in the Garden of Eden prior to his fall. And while we aren’t told everything about this covenant, we do know the most important stipulation in the covenant, Adam was forbidden to eat of a particular tree, which God called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And the punishment for violating this prohibition was death. We also know that Adam was acting as the representative of the entire human race at that point. Paul wrote, in Romans 5:12 that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned”. Theologians sometimes refer to Adam as the federal head of the covenant of works.[4]

Marc Roby: Why is Adam called the federal head?

Dr. Spencer: The word federal in this context just means having to do with an agreement whereby a collection of people is viewed as a whole in some way. It is similar to the use of the term in our country. We have the federal government which is over the group of 50 states.

This whole idea of viewing the Bible in terms of God’s covenants with man is often called covenant theology, but has also been called federal theology, especially in the past.

Marc Roby: And Adam is called our federal head because he represented all of mankind in this covenant.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. All of mankind was represented by our first father, Adam. We were viewed by God not just, or even primarily, as individuals, but as members of this class. And Adam was our head.

Marc Roby: I can imagine many of our listeners balking at this point and saying that it isn’t fair for them to be judged because of Adam’s sin.

Dr. Spencer: I had that exact objection the first time I heard this, which was before I was saved. But, if you object to Adam being your representative, then you have a serious problem because the only way to be saved is to have Jesus Christ as your representative. He is the federal head of the covenant of grace.

Going back to Romans 5, which we quoted from a minute ago, Paul wrote in Verses 15-16 that “the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.”

Marc Roby: Alright, I like that representation.

Dr. Spencer: So do I. But, you really can’t consistently like the one and reject the other. And, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter at all what I like or don’t like. Nor does it matter what you like or don’t like. God is the creator and this is how he has chosen to govern his creation. I have no real say in the matter.

But, we must also note that I cannot accuse God of dealing with me unjustly because Adam represented me when he sinned. Perhaps I would have some argument if I myself had never sinned, but there is no one who can make that claim. Now, of course, I also inherited my sinful nature from Adam, but the blame belongs to him for that, not God.

Marc Roby: You’re not helping my self esteem by saying that what I like doesn’t matter.

Dr. Spencer: I could say I’m sorry about that, but it wouldn’t be true. The reality is that what we like has nothing to do with what actually exists. We’ve talked about this before, but the fact that I don’t like getting sick, or getting old has nothing to do with the reality.

Getting back to hermeneutics though, there are several important things to know about these two main covenants, and which are extremely helpful in developing a comprehensive understanding of the Bible as a whole and of God’s way of dealing with human beings. We’ve already seen that God deals with us as members of a group, we are either in Adam, which means we are subject to the curse of death in its full eternal sense, or we are in Christ, which means that we have been redeemed and are no longer subject to that curse.

Marc Roby: I think that once you understand this structure, it really helps to organize the Bible’s teaching in our minds. It also shows the extreme importance of the literal truth of Adam and Eve and the fall.

Dr. Spencer: It does make the importance of that point clear. God’s whole plan of creation, fall and redemption comes into clearer focus. And it all redounds to his glory, which is the purpose of creation.

But, there is a lot more that can be said. The covenant of works is called the covenant of works because Adam was judged based on his own works. If he obeyed, most theologians conclude that he would have at some point been confirmed in his obedience and granted the reward of eternal life. In Genesis 3:22 we are told of another tree, the tree of life, which grants eternal life and from which man is to be kept as a consequence of his sin. John Murray speaks about this in his wonderful chapter on the Adamic administration in Volume 2 of his collected works.[5]

Marc Roby: It’s interesting that Murray doesn’t use the term covenant of works.

Dr. Spencer: He objects to the term for two reasons: first, it doesn’t have all of the marks of a true covenant; and secondly, the name can be misleading. The contrast between works and grace can be seen to imply that this first covenant was not gracious, when it most certainly was, and the contrast can also be seen to imply that works are not part of the second covenant, when they definitely are.

The first covenant was, in fact, entirely gracious. God gave Adam life, he had fellowship with him and he gave him the ability to obey. God didn’t owe Adam eternal life or anything else, so the entire covenant was gracious. And while works are not the basis of our salvation in the covenant of grace, they are nonetheless essential as proof that we have been saved. In Beeke and Jones’ book on Puritan Theology we read that “Works function antecedently to [that means before] the reward in the first covenant, whereas works follow the reward ([which is] justification) in the second covenant.”[6] As James says in James 2:26, “faith without deeds is dead.” You can claim to be a Christian, but if you don’t live like one, your claim has no validity.

Marc Roby: As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And a new creation cannot look exactly the same as the old one. Paul also wrote, in Ephesians 2:10, that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Marc Roby: But, of course, these so-called good works are the result of grace.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. In the covenant of grace we are united to Jesus Christ, our federal head, by faith. And that faith is one necessary result of the gracious gift of new birth, or regeneration, but it isn’t the only necessary result. The fact that our nature has been changed means that our behavior will also necessarily change.

Prior to being born again, we were in Adam and spiritually dead, subject to eternal death in hell. We were also unable to do anything pleasing to God. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2 Verses 1-2 and 4-5, “you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. … But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

Marc Roby: Praise God! The gospel is so indescribably gracious. To think that God loved sinners enough to send Jesus Christ to be the once-for-all atoning sacrifice for our sins just blows my mind.

Dr. Spencer: It does mine as well. And understanding the covenants gives us a much deeper appreciation for what God has done. Before he created the universe, God looked at this mass of fallen humanity in his mind’s eye so to speak, all of these sinful men and women who were in Adam, and he freely chose to save some of them by uniting them to Christ through faith. As we are told in Ephesians 1:4-6, God “chose us in him [meaning Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”

Marc Roby: That is amazing. Do you have anything else that you want to say about the covenants?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. We’ve only talked about the two major covenants, but there are many covenants mentioned in the Bible. There is a covenant made with Abraham, there is a covenant made with Noah and there is a covenant made with Moses, just to name a few. The covenant made with Moses is also called the Sinaitic covenant because God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

Marc Roby: And the Sinaitic covenant plays a prominent role in the New Testament.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly does. It is called the old covenant in 2 Corinthians 3:14 and it is called the first covenant in the book of Hebrews. We spoke last time about the fact that Hebrews presents Christ as the permanent high priest. In Hebrews 8 we read about the earthly priests who serve in the temple here on earth and then, in Verses 6 and 7, we are told that “the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.”

Marc Roby: That always sounds strange when you first read it, to say that there is something wrong with the first covenant even though it was established by God, who is perfect.

Dr. Spencer: It can be troublesome when you first read that, for sure. But if you go on and read the next verse, Verse 8, we are told, “But God found fault with the people”. So, we immediately see that the fault was not really with the covenant itself, it was with one of the parties to the covenant, the people; in other words, us. The writer of Hebrews goes on to quote from Jeremiah 31:31-34. We read in the rest of Hebrews 8:8, “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”

Marc Roby: And this is the new covenant that Jesus spoke about at the Last Supper. In 1 Corinthians 11:25 we read that Jesus said “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And this new covenant is better than the old one because it takes care of our sin problem. We were the problem with the old covenant because in our sinful nature we couldn’t keep the law. There is nothing wrong with the law as Paul tells us in Romans 7:12, the problem is with us. The writer of Hebrews then continues with his quote from Jeremiah, in Hebrews 8:9 we read that this new covenant “will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.”

Marc Roby: Which again shows us some of the typology of the Old Testament history as we’ve noted before. The people of God were in slavery to sin in Egypt and God led them out of that slavery under the old covenant, but now, in the new covenant, he leads his people out of their slavery to sin.

Dr. Spencer: We can really see how this knowledge of the covenants helps us to get a more complete picture of God’s work throughout history. It is a wonderful tool to help us understand the Bible better, which ought always to be our goal. We should study the Bible so that we have a better understanding of who God is and what he requires of us. It should be our desire to worship him properly and to obey him carefully.

Marc Roby: That verse you just read from Hebrews, Chapter 8 Verse 9, also gives us an implicit warning. God said that because the people did not remain faithful to his covenant, he turned away from them.

Dr. Spencer: He certainly did. And we have all of the Old Testament history, including the Babylonian captivity, to show us the consequences. But, that same history shows us over and over again how patient and faithful God is. What people don’t like to hear is that God is not just faithful to keep his promises, he is also faithful to keep his threats. The vast majority of God’s promises to us are conditional. He will bless us if we are faithful to keep his commands. It’s true that his election is unconditional, but his blessings are generally conditional. There is a very pernicious and completely unbiblical teaching that is common in evangelical circles today that God’s love for me is a one-way love; by which it is meant that he loves me independently of whether or not I love or obey him. That is complete nonsense biblically. We don’t have time to go into that in detail right now, but as we just noted, if we have been born again, our nature has been changed. There is a desire to please God by keeping his commands. Our works are not meritorious, but, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:10, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Marc Roby: We’ve gotten off topic a bit, although in a very good way. But, we are out of time, so I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. And I look forward to continuing our discussion of hermeneutics next time.

[1] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 603

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 515

[3] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[4] E.g., see Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 28

[5] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 54

[6] Beeke, op. cit., pg. 29

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles that we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we gave a number of examples for how to properly use the context of a verse, including its historical context. Dr. Spencer, what do you want to discuss today?

Dr. Spencer: We could go on giving many more examples about the use of context, but I want to keep moving forward. So, I’d like to take a look at a few key ideas that we need to keep in mind as we study the Bible.

Marc Roby: What ideas are these?

Dr. Spencer: The first one is that Jesus Christ is the focal point of the entire Bible. The Old Testament looks forward to Jesus Christ and the New Testament tells us about his birth, life, death, resurrection and then also tells us that he will come again to judge the living and the dead as we are told in Acts 10:42, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 2 Timothy 4:1. At that time the world as we know it will be destroyed and God will create a new heavens and a new earth. From that time on everyone will either live eternally in heaven or in hell.

Also, Jesus himself told us that the Old Testament testified about him. After his resurrection, he appeared to his disciples and we are told in Luke 24:44 that “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’”[1]

Marc Roby: And by listing Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms, Jesus was referring to the threefold division of the Hebrew Bible, which is our Old Testament.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. In other words, he was saying that the entire Old Testament speaks about him. In addition, the New Testament is entirely about Jesus Christ and his church. So, whenever we read the Bible, any part of the Bible, we need to ask ourselves, “What is this saying about Jesus Christ?”

Marc Roby: In other words, there is a Christological focus to the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In their excellent book A Puritan Theology, Doctrine for Life, Joel Beeke and Mark Jones demonstrate that the Puritans considered a Christological focus to be a major principle of biblical interpretation. They quote the famous Puritan John Owen, who wrote that “the revelation and doctrine of the person of Christ and his office, is the foundation whereon all other instructions of the prophets and apostles for the edification of the church are built”.[2] We must keep this Christological focus in mind as we read the Bible or we will not get a complete understanding of what God is teaching us in each section.

Marc Roby: How, in a practical sense, does our being aware of this Christological focus affect our Bible study?

Dr. Spencer: It affects our Bible study very deeply. When we say that the entire Old Testament points forward to Christ what we mean is that God controlled every event of human history during that time to reveal exactly what he wanted people to know. Not only is Jesus Christ the focus of the Bible, he is also the focus of all history. History is linear and God has a purpose in creation. The Bible is telling us real history, but that history is not a sequence of random events controlled by the whims of men. It isn’t that God let things run on their own and then sent a prophet to speak once in a while. No, everything unfolded according to God’s eternal plan, he providentially rules all of history.

Marc Roby: That probably sounds a bit fatalistic to some of our listeners. Do you mean that God determines every detail, or just the general scope or grand plan of history?

Dr. Spencer: I mean that God has sovereign control over every detail. But, if you think about it for a minute, how could he possibly control the grand scheme if he didn’t have control over every detail? Remember the old proverb that for the want of a nail the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe the horse was lost; for the want of a horse the battle was lost; and for the loss of the battle the war was lost? The reality is that if God is not able to control every detail, he could never guarantee anything with absolute certainty.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that some of our listeners might be objecting at this point. After all, we live in a world with physical laws and people at least appear to have some kind of free will – an ability to make real decisions. How on earth then can God control everything without doing away with free will and physical laws?

Dr. Spencer: We would be getting too far off topic to discuss that at length right now but let me make two quick comments. First, with regard to the inanimate creation, God does use the fixed laws that he put in place most of the time, but he is free to overrule them at any time. I don’t think he does that very often at all, but he can. He also has the ability to perfectly predict exactly how everything is guided by those laws.

Marc Roby: Alright, you said you wanted to make two comments, what is the other one?

Dr. Spencer: The second one deals with living things, most specifically with human beings. Suffice it to say for now that there is no logical contradiction in saying that I make real decisions for which I can be justly held accountable and that, at the same time, God has foreordained exactly what will happen. God understands me perfectly and knows exactly what I will do in each and every situation, so he doesn’t need to force me to do anything.

Let me use a very unflattering analogy, but one that I think at least illustrates that there is no logical contradiction between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I used to have a dog that loved to chase a tennis ball. If I grabbed a tennis ball I could lead that dog all over the place without ever having to lay a hand on him. He was doing exactly what he wanted to do at that moment, and yet I was getting him to do exactly what I wanted him to do. There is no contradiction in saying that my dog was doing exactly what he wanted to do and that I was controlling the situation. You don’t want to take this analogy very far at all of course, we are not puppets, and God never leads us into sin, although he does allow us to be tempted, but it at least shows that there is no necessary logical contradiction.

Suffice it to say that God is infinitely more knowledgeable, wise, and capable than we are, and he is able to ordain exactly what will happen without, in general, overriding the free will of any creature, although he has the right and ability to do that when he chooses.

Marc Roby: That example is unflattering – I happen to remember that dog you refer to! But, I think it does give at least a hint of an answer, and I can see that pursuing that subject right now would get us way off track.

Dr. Spencer: It definitely would. But I would like to quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith because it contains a brilliant, yet succinct statement that deals with this topic. In Chapter III, on God’s eternal decree, Paragraph 1 the confession says that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

Marc Roby: That is a great statement, although it certainly includes some very deep topics for further discussion.

Dr. Spencer: Further discussion at a different time. For now, I want to get back to hermeneutics.

Marc Roby: Very well, you were discussing how our being aware of the Christological focus of the Bible affects our study.

Dr. Spencer: And I made the point that God is completely in control of all history, so the events described in the Old Testament all fit into his eternal plan. He knew that he was going to send Jesus Christ into the world, to be born in the small Jewish town of Bethlehem to a virgin who was pledged to be married to a carpenter named Joseph. He knew everything about the life, death and resurrection of Christ and how he was going to use that to redeem a people for himself.

And in addition to revealing progressively more and more over time about this coming Messiah, he deliberately brought about certain events in the history of his people to serve as illustrations and precursors pointing to these later events.

Marc Roby: And we are told about many of these in the New Testament.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we are. For example, we are told in the book of Hebrews that the entire Old Testament sacrificial system was pointing forward to Jesus Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for sins. In Hebrews 10 the writer speaks about the Old Testament ceremonial law and says it was only a shadow of the true sacrifice, which is Christ. He points out that the sacrifices were repeated over and over again precisely because they were not effective; they did not truly cleanse people from their sins. He writes in Verse 4 that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” And then, in Verse 10 he writes that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Marc Roby: The writer of Hebrews also tells us that Jesus is our permanent high priest.

Dr. Spencer: Yes. In the Old Testament times, the high priest was the religious leader of the Jewish people. He was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses and he would go into the holy of holies once a year, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, to make atonement for the people. In Hebrews 7:23-26 we are told that “there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”

Marc Roby: And, unlike the high priests in the Old Testament, Jesus is also the sacrifice of atonement.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In John 1:29 we are told that “John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” He was referring to the fact that the lamb was the most common sacrificial animal in the Jewish sacrificial system. In particular, it was a lamb that was to be sacrificed the night before God destroyed all the firstborn of Egypt. The blood from this lamb was then to be sprinkled on the door frames of the Jewish homes and God would pass over those homes when he destroyed all of the firstborn in the land. This is the origin of the Jewish Passover celebration.

We are told in a number of places in the New Testament that Jesus is the final sacrifice of atonement. For example, in Romans 3:25 we are told that “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” Then, in Hebrews 10 we this final efficacious sacrifice of Jesus Christ contrasted with the continual sacrifices of the Old Testament. In Verses 11-12, 14 we read, “Day after day every priest [this is talking about the Old Testament priests] stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [which is speaking about Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. … because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”

Marc Roby: That is a glorious promise for those who have placed their trust in Christ. And it is very clear how much the Old Testament presents us with a pattern for things that are revealed in the New Testament.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they do. The word we use to describe this typology. The Old Testament events, objects and people who in some way point to New Testament realities are called types, and the realities that they point to are called the antitypes. So, for example, the Old Testament lamb is a type of Christ in his role as our sacrifice, and the Old Testament high priest is a type of Christ in his role as our permanent high priest.

We must be careful here however. Typology must be distinguished from allegorizing.  Allegorizing can be dangerous as we have noted before and can lead people into all sorts of fanciful interpretations.

Marc Roby: What would you say is the key difference?

Dr. Spencer: The key difference is that in typology we are not adding anything to the meaning of the text.[3] Mickelsen, in his book Interpreting the Bible, does a good job of explaining what typology is. He writes that “In typology the interpreter finds a correspondence in one or more respects between a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament and a person, event, or thing closer to or contemporaneous with a New Testament writer. It is this correspondence that determines the meaning in the Old Testament narrative that is stressed by a later speaker or writer. The correspondence is present because God controls history, and this control of God over history is axiomatic with the New Testament writers. It is God who causes earlier individuals, groups, experiences, institutions, etc., to embody characteristics which later he will cause to reappear.”[4]

Mickelsen also goes on to contrast typology with allegorizing. He then quotes K.J. Woolcombe, writing that “Typology as a method of exegesis is ‘the search for linkages between events, persons or things within the historical framework of revelation, whereas allegorism is the search for secondary and hidden meaning underlying the primary and obvious meanings of a narrative.”

Marc Roby: So, the basic difference is between noticing certain similarities that are there as opposed to reading a bunch of hidden meaning into a passage.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And you can’t miss most of the clear typology in the Bible. The Jewish people were in slavery to the Egyptians for example, and were led out of that bondage, through Passover and the Exodus, into the Promised Land.  And Christians are led out of their bondage to sin, through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, into new life in Christ. The Israelites in the Promised Land still had to contend with enemies who were there and had to trust in God’s promises to deliver them. And Christians still have to deal with indwelling sin and enemies in this world, trusting in God’s promises that we will ultimately be victorious. There is much more than we have covered, but I think that gives the basic idea. And this kind of typology is often used in recognizing the many ways in which the Old Testament speaks of Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: But there are also many direct prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

Dr. Spencer: There certainly are, and we went over a few of them in Session 20 when we were discussing external evidence that corroborates the Bible.

Marc Roby: Have we finished with what you want to say about the Bible’s Christological focus and typology?

Dr. Spencer: We have for now.

Marc Roby: Alright, you mentioned at the beginning that you wanted to look at a few key ideas, so what is the next one?

Dr. Spencer: The next idea is that of covenants. The Bible talks a great deal about covenants and by looking for them and thinking carefully about them we can significantly enhance our understanding of God’s word.

Marc Roby: And a covenant is simply an agreement between two parties.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but it is not necessarily an agreement between equals and it isn’t necessarily voluntary on both sides either. The Bible talks about a number of covenants; for example, God made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the earth by a flood, and the rainbow is the sign God gave us to remind us of that covenant. He also made a covenant with Abraham to make him the father of many nations. And he made a covenant with the people on Mt. Sinai, with Moses as their representative. There are others, but there are two major covenants that I want to discuss, usually called the Covenant of works and the Covenant of grace.

Marc Roby: I think we had better hold off discussing those until next time, because we are out of time for today. I’d like to encourage our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would appreciate hearing from you.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 31

[3] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 252

[4] Ibid, pg. 237

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles that we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we discussed Hebrew poetry, parallelisms and some of the common figures of speech that are used. Dr. Spencer, what would you like to discuss today?

Dr. Spencer: I’d like to discuss the issue of context. Whenever we want to understand a passage correctly, we must consider the context. There is a famous saying, which goes something like this: a text taken out of context is only a pretext for a prooftext.[1] Which means that when I take some verse and strip it out of its context, I can use it as a supposed prooftext for just about anything I might want to propose.

Marc Roby: That practice is all too common I fear.

Dr. Spencer: It is. In fact, we’ve already seen one example of it. I mentioned in Session 39 that Matthew 7:1 is frequently cited out of context and abused. The verse says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” [2] and is frequently cited by someone who is trying to make the point that we should never judge others.

Marc Roby: You pointed out in that session that in 1 Corinthians 5:12 Paul commands the Corinthian church to judge a member who was committing sexual immorality and put him out of the church. And I pointed out that in Matthew 7:15 Jesus said “Watch out for false prophets”, which is an implicit command to judge those who presume to tell us God’s word.

Dr. Spencer: Those are both good arguments against the notion that Matthew 7:1 commands us to never judge anyone. My argument from 1 Corinthians uses the first law of hermeneutics, the principle that Scripture should interpret Scripture, or in other words, that all of Scripture is a unity and cannot contradict itself. Your argument from later in that same chapter uses the context of Jesus’ entire discourse to refute the view. But, we can even refute it by looking at the more immediate context of the verse.

Marc Roby: How so?

Dr. Spencer: This verse is in the Sermon on the mount, which takes up Chapters 5 through 7 in Matthew. The sermon comprises a number of short, somewhat independent passages. Let me read the entire passage that contains this verse, which includes Verses 1-6 of Matthew 7. Jesus tells us:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”

Marc Roby: That last statement about not throwing pearls to pigs is a bit enigmatic.

Dr. Spencer: It is, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But, first, let me look at the main idea of judging. First of all, this passage is not talking about judging in a formal legal sense, like serving on a jury. It is speaking about our relationships with one another.

Also, it is evident when you look at the whole passage that we are not prohibited from judging others, it is the way we judge that our Lord is limiting. In fact, he tells us to “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” In other words, we are to help our brother remove the speck from his eye, which certainly requires that we have judged the speck in his eye to be a problem, but we are to be sure that we have judged ourselves by the same standard first and dealt with our own sin. And we are also not to judge harshly or uncharitably, but in love. Our motive should be to help the other person and to build him up, not tear him down.

Marc Roby: It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t say that our having had a plank in our eye disqualifies us from pointing out the speck in our brother’s eye! That removes what I suspect is the most common retort that comes to mind whenever anyone rebukes us in any way, which is to respond by saying “Who are you to tell me this?” What about your problems?

Dr. Spencer: I agree completely. Whenever we are criticized, we tend to look for fault in the other person rather than listening to the criticism and responding properly. And, many times, people refrain from dealing with another person’s sin because they themselves have sinned. We’ve all heard the old expression about having lost the moral high ground, and there is certainly truth to that expression.

But, Jesus does not let us off the hook so easily. He tells us to deal with our sin, and then to also help our brother. Matthew Henry, in his commentary on this verse correctly says that “I must not say, ‘I have a beam in my own eye, and therefore I will not help my brother with the [speck] out of his.’ A man’s offense will never be his defense”.[3] In other words, my own sin, my offense as Henry puts it, will never be a suitable defense when I am confronted with my negligence in helping a brother.

Marc Roby: I think this problem is common with parents. I’ve seen many parents who were reluctant to deal with sins in their children because they had done the same things when they were young.

Dr. Spencer: That is a common problem, but it is also serious sin. It is compounding our own previous sin as a young person with the sin of not properly disciplining our own children now. Let me give a simple example. Every one of us has told a lie at some point in our life, so is it wrong for me to punish my children for lying? Obviously not! They need to learn that lying is wrong. The fact that I have also lied in my life doesn’t change my responsibility to teach them what is right. Of course, I should also strive to speak with absolute honesty so that my children learn by my example, not just my words.

Marc Roby: We should all strive to be able to say “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we should strive for that. But, we’ve drifted off topic. Our point was to show that the context for a verse is important. And a general principle is that the local context is the most important, although we must also remember the unity of Scripture and should never interpret any verse in a way that contradicts what the Scripture teaches somewhere else.

Marc Roby: Alright. Let’s return to that enigmatic verse at the end of the passage. Christ said “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” What does that mean?

Dr. Spencer: In the context of the passage the message seems to be that if we have spoken to someone about something over and over and they have not responded in any way, then we should stop. They have proven themselves to be recalcitrant. Let me quote from Matthew Henry again. He says that “Our zeal against sin must be guided by discretion, and we must not go about to give instructions, counsels, and rebukes, much less comforts, to hardened scorners, to whom it will certainly do no good, but who will be exasperated and enraged at us.”[4]

Marc Roby: That does sound like good counsel, although applying it obviously depends on the severity of the problem we are dealing with and our relationship to the person.

Dr. Spencer: Both of those things certainly do matter, and we need, again, to look at all of Scripture for guidance in dealing with any particular issue.

Marc Roby: Are there other examples you would like to look at for showing the need to consider the context of a verse?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. Let’s take a look at Colossians 1:15, where Paul writes about Christ saying that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Now, if we take that second clause by itself, out of context, we have a clear statement that Jesus Christ is the firstborn over all creation, which to our modern use of the word firstborn would seem to agree with the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witness cult, which denies the deity of Christ. But, when we look at the next two verses, 16 and 17, we find there is a serious problem with this view.

Marc Roby: Let me read those verses. Paul writes “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Dr. Spencer: When you read those verses you see the problem immediately, don’t you? If when Paul wrote that Christ is “the firstborn over all creation” he had meant that Christ himself was created, we would have a contradiction. Because Verse 16 tells us that “by him all things were created”, and to avoid our thinking that “all things” here might only mean the physical creation, Paul adds “things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible”, which sure sounds like it would include angels and any other spirit beings that God might have chosen to create. Paul then summarizes that “all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

These statements are simply incompatible with the view that Jesus Christ is himself created, in other words, a creature, even if you say he is the most exalted of all creatures. He isn’t just before this world, he is before all things. And he isn’t just the creator of this world, he is the creator of all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.

Marc Roby: I find it disturbing that the Jehovah’s Witnesses Bible, known as the New World Translation, inserts the word “other” in four places in these verses without warrant, saying, for example, that by him “all other things were created in the heavens and on the earth”.

Dr. Spencer: That is very disturbing, and downright fraudulent because the Greek simply does not have the word “other” there in any extent manuscript, and it is not possible to translate the verse that way. The Jehovah’s Witness Bible is not a translation of these verses, it is a fabrication of new set of verses that say something very different.

So, getting back to our discussion about the real Bible, if we are going to do justice to the passage, we must ask what Paul means by the term “firstborn”.

Marc Roby: And to find out, the first principle of hermeneutics would say that we need to look at the rest of Scripture.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And when we look to the rest of Scripture the answer is not hard to find. The “firstborn” speaks about the one who has priority. The firstborn son is the one who is responsible to lead the family if the father dies. He is the one who is to receive a special blessing and a double portion of the inheritance. We can also see that the word connoted something very different to the Jews at that time because the nation of Israel itself is called God’s firstborn in Exodus 4:22 and Jeremiah 31:9.

We also see the supremacy of Christ in Hebrews 1:6, where God tells his angels to worship Christ even though we are told in Exodus 34:14 and elsewhere that we are only to worship the true God.

And, finally, if we read the next verse in Colossians 1, Verse 18, we are told that Christ “is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” Which again uses this term “firstborn”, but here it is clearly referring to Christ’s position as the first to rise with a resurrection body. So, the message is clear that when Paul refers to Christ as the “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15 he does not mean that Christ was created, he means that he has the preeminent position of a firstborn son.

Marc Roby: And we are told in John 3:16 that Jesus is God’s One and only Son, which contrasts with the fact that all Christians are called adopted children of God.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And, in addition to looking at the rest of Scripture, we can also look to other sources that tell us about the culture and history of the people at that time; that information provides the historical and cultural context for the passage, which is also important. When we do that, we find that the rabbis even called God himself the “firstborn of the world”[5], which completely shatters the idea that the word must imply a created being.

Marc Roby: That is a very interesting piece of information.

Dr. Spencer: Let me give another example that shows how to make use of the cultural context.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: Let’s take a look at John Chapter 3.

Marc Roby: Where Jesus tells Nicodemus that a man must be born again to see or enter the kingdom of heaven.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In Verse 3 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” And then in Verse 5 he says, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” It is Verse 5 that I want to look at right now.

Marc Roby: There has been a lot of discussion about what Jesus meant by saying you must be born of water and the Spirit.

Dr. Spencer: There has been a lot said and written about this verse. The problem is to understand what Jesus meant by being born of water, it is pretty well agreed that when he refers to being born of the Spirit he is talking about the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. With regard to being born of water though, there has not been general agreement. People have suggested, for example, that it refers to natural birth by referring to the amniotic fluid that accompanies birth. While that is possible, it doesn’t seem likely for two reasons. First, it would hardly be necessary for Jesus to specify that a person has to be physically born before he can be born again; that just doesn’t make much sense. And, secondly, there are no known sources from that time that refer to natural birth as being born of water.

Marc Roby: It has also been suggested that the reference is to being baptized.

Dr. Spencer: That has been suggested. In fact, it is used by some to support the idea of baptismal regeneration, the completely unbiblical idea that getting baptized causes you to be born again. But, even among those who do not believe in baptismal generation, it has been said to refer to Christian baptism. The problem with that view is that Christian baptism had not yet been introduced, so how on earth could this have communicated such an idea to Nicodemus?

Marc Roby: That doesn’t seem at all likely.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t. We need to remember that Jesus was speaking to a particular person at a particular time. The conversation is recorded in Scripture for our benefit, but we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Jesus was saying things to Nicodemus that were completely incomprehensible to him just so that they would be recorded for others to read later.

Marc Roby: So, what do you think being born of water refers to?

Dr. Spencer: John Murray wrote about this passage and let me read what he wrote because it is a wonderful example of making proper use of the historical and cultural context. But, before I read it I need to point out to our listeners that if they read the whole passage in John 3 they will find that this Nicodemus was a religious teacher and a member of the Jewish ruling council, which will be important to know.

Murray wrote that “We should keep in view the situation in which Jesus spoke these words. He was engaged in a dialogue with Nicodemus on a basic religious question. Jesus wanted to convey to Nicodemus an idea of religious import which would be directly relevant to the subject of interest, and intelligible to Nicodemus. Now what religious idea would we expect to be conveyed to the mind of Nicodemus by the use of the word water? Of course, the idea associated with the religious use of water in the Old Testament and in that religious tradition and practice which provided the very context of Nicodemus’ life and profession! … The religious use of water, that is to say, the religiously symbolic meaning of water, pointed in one direction, and that direction is purification.”[6]

Marc Roby: Our listeners may not know that the Old Testament mentions ceremonial cleansing with water. In Numbers 19:9 we read about the “water of cleansing” which “is for purification from sin”.

Dr. Spencer: It does help to have that background. And we see that the idea being conveyed to Nicodemus was that a person must be cleansed of all sin and be born of the Spirit. This also ties back into the prophecy of Ezekiel 36, as we noted in Session 41. In Verses 25-27 God says that “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” Wayne Grudem makes this point also in his Systematic Theology text.[7]

Marc Roby: That is a great example of using the historical and cultural context to properly understand a verse. But, we are out of time, so I would like to encourage our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. And I look forward to continuing this discussion next time.

[1] E.g., see D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd Ed., Baker Academic, 1996, pg. 115

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Hendrickson Publishers, 1991, Vol. 5, pg. 72 (spelling updated)

[4] Ibid

[5] The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Zondervan, 1976, Vol. 2, pg. 540

[6] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pp 181-182

[7] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 702, footnote 7

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles that we use to properly interpret the Bible. Dr. Spencer, we discussed prophecy last time, what would you like to examine today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to start with a few quick comments about poetry. I said before that I think most people are comfortable reading poetry, but it may still be useful to just point out a couple of things to look for in Hebrew poetry. We can limit ourselves to comments about Hebrew poetry since almost all of the poetry in the Bible is in the Old Testament.

Marc Roby: And there are significant chunks of the Old Testament that are poetry, aren’t there?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely, according to Mickelsen,[1] Psalms, Proverbs, Job, The Song of Solomon – or Song of Songs, along with significant chunks of other books are all poetry.

Marc Roby: What can we say about Hebrew poetry that will be useful?

Dr. Spencer: Well, first of all, poetry is extremely difficult to translate, so we obviously miss many of the features that would be evident if we knew how to read the original Hebrew. We can’t expect to catch any rhythmic meters or rhymes in our English translations, but most good study Bibles will point out where there is a play on words in the original. For example, the prophet Micah, who prophesied in the mid-8th century BC in the southern kingdom of Judah, loved to use wordplay and it makes it more interesting and vibrant to have these pointed out to us.

Marc Roby: Can you give us some examples?

Dr. Spencer: Sure. Micah 1:10 begins, “Tell it not in Gath; weep not at all.” [2] In the Hebrew, the verb translated here as “tell” sounds like the name of the city Gath.[3] The next half of that verse says, “In Beth Ophrah roll in the dust.” And Beth Ophrah in the Hebrew literally means house of dust.[4] The very next verse, Verse 11, begins, “Pass on in nakedness and shame, you who live in Shaphir.” And Shaphir in Hebrew means splendid.[5] So, the prophet was saying that those who live in splendid would go naked and in shame. Verse 11 goes on to say, “Those who live in Zaanan will not come out.” Zaanan sounds like the Hebrew for come out.[6] So, the prophet is saying that those who live in come-out town will not come out. Finally, Verse 11 ends by saying, “Beth Ezel is in mourning; its protection is taken from you.” Beth means house and Ezel resembles a word meaning withdraw, or withhold,[7] so the prophet is saying that the house of withdraw will withdraw its protection from you.

Marc Roby: I get the idea that Micah would have been a very interesting person to talk to!

Dr. Spencer: I agree. His book has many such plays on words, and having them pointed out just brings the text alive and makes it more human and memorable.

Marc Roby: What else do you want to say about Hebrew poetry?

Dr. Spencer: It uses a great deal of parallelism, which is used to emphasize the point being made. If we are careful to look for this and to think about it when we see it, it can enhance our understanding of the text.

Marc Roby: I think some examples would again be useful.

Dr. Spencer: Of course. There are a number of different types of parallelism and I don’t want to take time to go through all of them but let me illustrate a few. The first example is of what is called synonymous parallelism.[8]

Marc Roby: What is that?

Dr. Spencer: Synonymous parallelism is the repetition of a thought stated in a different way. For example, in Proverbs 19:5 we read, “A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will not go free.” Now it is clear that the two independent clauses say the same thing, but in a different way. Being a false witness is synonymous with pouring out lies, and to not go unpunished is synonymous with not going free.

This example also illustrates a common literary device, which is called a litotes. This is again something that is quite common, not just in the Bible but in all human communication. A litotes is a deliberate understatement used to emphasize something, and in particular the understatement is a negation of the contrary idea. So, for example, when the proverb says a false witness will not go unpunished, to “not go unpunished” is a litotes. It emphasizes that the false witness will be punished, by the negative of the opposite idea of going unpunished.

Marc Roby: And the use of a litotes is, as you said, not at all uncommon.

Dr. Spencer: As you just illustrated it is quite common! But, getting back to idea of synonymous parallelism, the repetition does not have to be the exact same thought, it can be something very similar, but slightly different. For example, Psalm 103:3 says that God “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases”. Now, clearly, forgiving sins and healing diseases are not the same thing, but they are similar; in both cases God is graciously removing a serious problem. Psalm 103 is, in fact, a great place to look for parallelism because there are a number of examples in that one short psalm. In Verse 10 we are told that God “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities”, which obviously repeats very much the same idea.

Marc Roby: What other kinds of parallelism do we see in the Bible?

Dr. Spencer: The next type usually discussed is antithetic parallelism. In this case, rather than repeating the same or similar thought, the second thought expressed is in some sense the opposite of the first. A good example here is given by Proverbs 13:1, which says, “A wise son heeds his father’s instruction, but a mocker does not listen to rebuke.” We see in this example that the second statement does not need to be an exact opposite of the first, the opposite of a wise son is, arguably, a careless or foolish son, not a mocker, and instruction does not always take the form of rebuke. But, I think the antithetic nature of the parallelism is obvious, and our understanding of the fundamental idea being expressed is deepened when we take the time to think through the parallelism carefully.

Proverbs 15:1 provides another example. It says that “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Marc Roby: What other forms of parallelism do you want to mention?

Dr. Spencer: The other types that occur have different names, and not everyone agrees on the names in every case, so I don’t think it will be profitable to list a whole bunch of terms, but it will be profitable to give some more examples. A number of parallelisms involve building on a basic idea by adding to it in successive lines. For example, in Psalm 92:9 we read, “For surely your enemies, O LORD, surely your enemies will perish; all evildoers will be scattered.” You can see how new information is added in each phrase. The psalmist begins with the phrase “surely your enemies, O LORD”, and adds information saying, “surely your enemies will perish”, and then he concludes by making a different but similar statement, “all evildoers will be scattered.”

We see this same kind of parallelism in Psalm 29:1-2, where we read, “Ascribe to the LORD, O mighty ones, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name”.

Marc Roby: That is a great example. And I see your point about paying attention to this kind of pattern. Those verses have a greater impact when we meditate on the repetition and additions – we are to ascribe something to the Lord, then we are told that we are to ascribe glory and strength, and then we are to ascribe the glory due his name!

Dr. Spencer: And the verse then ends by saying “worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness”, which is not considered part of the parallelism, but I think caps the growing thought of ascribing glory to God quite nicely.

Marc Roby: Is there anything more to be said about parallelism?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. R.C. Sproul gives a good example of how recognizing parallelism can even help with understanding.[9] In Isaiah 45:6-7 we read, “I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.” Now that rendering is not problematic, but if you read the KJV, Verse 7 says, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.”

Marc Roby: I see the problem immediately, this says that God creates evil!

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the problem. But, Sproul points out that if you notice the parallelism the problem goes away. God forms both light and darkness, which are opposites, and he makes peace and evil, which are not opposites in our normal understanding of the word evil. In this case, the better translation is to say that God makes peace and disaster as the NIV rendered it.[10]

Marc Roby: That is a very useful application of parallelism. It would be a grossly unbiblical characterization of God to say that he created evil in the sense of moral evil.

Dr. Spencer: That would, in fact, be blasphemous. But, let me go off of the topic of parallelism for a moment to point out that the word evil used to have a broader range of meaning. If you look in a good dictionary, the archaic meanings of the term include denoting something as worthless, uncomfortable, painful, angry and so on.[11] So you find the KJV of the Bible saying things that are very strange to the ears of modern man.

For example, in Exodus 32, we read about the Israelites making a golden calf to worship and when God tells Moses he is going to destroy the people for this sin, Moses intercedes on their behalf and we read in the KJV of Exodus 32:14 that “the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” The word “repent” is also clearly being used in a way that is strange to most of us in this verse, but the word can simply mean to change your mind. So, the NIV translates this verse as saying that “the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”

I wanted to point this out simply to illustrate that we need to be very careful in interpreting the Bible. If you have a translation that says something strange, look in other translations. Find out what the original words mean and be careful to interpret each verse in a way that is consistent with what is taught in all of the Bible.

Marc Roby: In other words, use Scripture to interpret Scripture again; our first rule of hermeneutics.

Dr. Spencer: Precisely, or as we noted last time you can say that all of Scripture is a unity and cannot contradict itself.

Marc Roby: Do we want to say anything more about parallelism or Hebrew poetry?

Dr. Spencer: I don’t have anything more I want to cover with respect to poetry specifically. But with the time we have left I would like to say a little bit more about figures of speech, which are quite common not just in poetry, but throughout the Bible and human communication. We’ve already mentioned the use of a litotes to emphasize a point, but there are many other figures of speech that it is good to take notice of as well.

Marc Roby: Certainly the Bible uses a lot of anthropomorphic speech when it speaks about God.

Dr. Spencer: That is one of the big categories. Anthropomorphism is actually a type of metaphor in which we ascribe human characteristics to animals or objects or, in this case, to God. The Bible tells us that God is a Spirit, so he does not have a physical body as we do. Nevertheless, in speaking about God, the Bible frequently talks about human characteristics. So, for example, we read in Isaiah 59:1, “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.” And in Exodus 33:11 we are told that “The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” These are anthropomorphisms that describe God in ways we can relate to.

Marc Roby: You mentioned that anthropomorphic speech is a type of metaphor, so perhaps it would be good to remind our listeners that a metaphor is a word or phrase used to refer to something else because of some underlying similarity in the things. For instance, if I say someone is drowning in his sorrows, I’m using a metaphor to describe the depth of his sorrow.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good example, and it’s always useful to be reminded of these definitions.

Marc Roby: In addition to using anthropomorphic speech, the Bible also describes God as having emotions.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. The technical word for ascribing human emotions to something that isn’t human is anthropopathism. God is a personal God and does have emotions however, so this is a bit different than talking about God’s arm or face.

Mickelsen very usefully points out that “Grief, anger, wrath, etc., are all genuine responses of God. The metaphorical element arises from the fact that human grief, anger, and wrath are a complex array of elements. Grief can involve self-pity; anger can be filled with an irrational obsession for revenge; wrath can be overlaid with a passion to return in kind. Yet these elements must be excluded from an accurate picture of God’s grief, anger, and wrath. God’s response is genuine; it is the human counterpart that is tainted by corrupt elements.”[12]

Marc Roby: I like that way of putting it. God’s anger is a genuine anger, it is human anger that is a corrupt copy.

Dr. Spencer: I like that too because it makes it clear that the problem is with us, it is our sin. There is nothing necessarily wrong with getting angry, in fact, we should get angry at some things. But our anger is almost always, perhaps I should just say always, corrupted by other emotions and sinful motives. That’s why the Bible does not command us to never be angry, but we are told in Psalm 4:4, which is quoted in Ephesians 4:26, “In your anger do not sin”.

Marc Roby: What else do we need to know about the figures of speech used in the Bible?

Dr. Spencer: We need to realize that many of them are foreign to modern readers. Most of us grew up in the city or suburbs and buy our food at a grocery store. We may have gardens and pets, but very few modern people are well versed in the ways of agriculture, livestock or wildlife, and many of the metaphors used in the Bible come from these areas. That means that we have to do some work to properly understand them.

Marc Roby: It’s not hard to find examples for these. I immediately think of Jesus calling Herod a fox for instance in Luke 13:32.

Dr. Spencer: Now that one is probably pretty easy for most modern readers to grasp. For whatever reason foxes are considered clever and sly, perhaps because they are small nocturnal carnivores and must rely on stealth to catch their food, I don’t know.

But there are other references that are more difficult for modern readers. For example, in Psalm 18:33 the psalmist, in speaking about God, declares that “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights.” When someone raised in the city reads this, he may be confused. What do deer have to do with standing on the heights? The answer, of course, is that deer are known for being very surefooted. If you go up to Lassen National Park in Northern California you can watch deer run quite quickly over terrain that would cause almost any human being to stumble. So, this simile is an apt one, having feet like a deer would be pretty good at times.

Marc Roby: You just used the word simile, so it might be worthwhile to remind our listeners of what that means – it’s been a while since some of us were in high-school English class!

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. A simile is a type of metaphor, it is a phrase that uses either the word like or as to compare something with something else. So, if I say that someone is as swift as a gazelle, that is a simile. The reason it is important to point these things out is that we are accustomed to reading things too quickly in this day and age and we tend to skip over simile’s and other figures of speech far too quickly. We should stop and take the time to consider the comparisons being made carefully.

Marc Roby: And, of course, the Bible uses many other figures of speech as well.

Dr. Spencer: It does, and I don’t want to take the time to go over all of them, but it is worthwhile to point out a couple of things that sometimes cause people trouble. We mentioned these when we talked about the infallibility of the Bible, but it is worth quickly repeating two of them. The first is that the Bible uses hyperbole, which is an intentional exaggeration for effect. So, for example, in John 21:25 we read that “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” This is a clear example of hyperbole and is not meant to be taken literally. Secondly, the Bible also uses phenomenological language, which is language that describes something in terms of how it appears to the observer. So, for example, the Bible speaks about the sun rising and setting in many places, and about the earth not moving, for example in Psalm 93:1 we read that “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” This again is clearly not contradicting what we know from science, it is simply describing our everyday experience.

Marc Roby: Very well. I think that wraps up our time for today. I’d like to once again encourage our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would very much appreciate hearing from you.

[1] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pp 323-324

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] See text note in the 1985 NIV Study Bible

[4] See text note in the 1985 NIV Study Bible

[5] Calvin says “splendor” (John Calvin, Commentaries on the Prophet Micah, in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XIV, Baker Books, 2009, pg. 175), The text note in the 1985 NIV Study Bible says “pleasant”

[6] See text note in the 1985 NIV Study Bible

[7] See text note in The Reformation Study Bible, ESV version, Reformation Trust Publishing, 2015

[8] R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, 2nd Ed, InterVarsity Press, 2009, pg. 95, or A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 325

[9] Sproul, op. cit., pp 96-97

[10] W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson, 1996, pg. 233 (in Old Testament Section)

[11] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2002, pg. 789

[12] Mickelsen, op. cit., pg. 185

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles that we use to properly interpret the Bible. Dr. Spencer, at the end of our last session we started to discuss how to properly understand prophecy. And you noted that the prophets were, first and foremost, speaking to their contemporaries, even when they made pronouncements about the future, and that we need to keep that in mind and also to understand the historical context in order to properly understand them. Can you give us an example?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. Let’s take a look at the book of Ezekiel. In Chapter 11, Verse 16, we read that God told the prophet to tell the people “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.” [1] Now, this is a very important verse, but how are we to understand the real importance if we don’t know to whom Ezekiel is speaking and what their circumstances were? Or if we don’t understand the importance of the sanctuary to them?

Marc Roby: That would seem to be impossible.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it would. We need to know that Ezekiel is prophesying to the exiles in Babylon. We need to know that the united kingdom of Israel, which existed under King David and his son Solomon was, after Solomon’s death, split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. And we need to know that because of its severe wickedness in God’s sight, the northern kingdom was destroyed and the people carried into captivity by the Assyrians, culminating in the destruction of the capital city of Samaria around 721 BC. The southern kingdom was also wicked and was defeated by the Babylonians, culminating in the destruction of their capital city of Jerusalem in 586 BC. We also need to know that the Jews living in Jerusalem had not believed this would happen because the temple of God was there and they thought he would never allow it to be captured and destroyed.

Marc Roby: And they knew that there had already been one miraculous deliverance when God drove off the Assyrian army, who was besieging Jerusalem in 701 BC. So, they did have some reason for confidence.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But unfortunately, they were not putting their personal trust in God himself, they were simply trusting that God would protect Jerusalem because his temple was there. They were missing the most important point; the temple of God was merely a symbol of his presence among his people. It was meant to remind them of God’s presence so that they would live holy lives. They thought they could go on living their lives as they saw fit and God would bless them no matter what because they were his chosen people. But God doesn’t work that way. He had told them, way back in Leviticus 19:2 to “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”

Marc Roby: And God had also recently warned them about that false confidence in the temple. Sometime in the last couple of decades before the fall of Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah had warned them, as we read Jeremiah 7:3-4 where he proclaimed, “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!’”

Dr. Spencer: It’s hard to imagine how God could have made the warning any clearer than that. The temple of the Lord is just a building. If God himself is not pleased to dwell there, it cannot help you. So, getting back to Ezekiel, when he tells them that God said, “Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone”, he was pointing out that the true sanctuary, in other words the true place of peace and security, is not a building. In fact, it is not any physical location, it is being in a loving relationship with God himself.

In the early verses of this chapter, Ezekiel Chapter 11, God had told the captives that the people left in Jerusalem were thinking that they were better than the captives and that things would soon get much better.

Marc Roby: It seems to be a common, sinful human tendency to look at the troubles of other people and smugly think that we don’t have those troubles because we are somehow better than they are.

Dr. Spencer: It is very common. But, in this case, God goes on to encourage the people in captivity in Babylon. In Ezekiel 11:17 the prophet tells them, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.

Marc Roby: That must have been an incredible encouragement to these people.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it must have been. And the prophet went on, in Verse 18, to tell the people that “They will return to it [meaning Jerusalem] and remove all its vile images and detestable idols.” Then in Verses 19-20 he gives them the greatest promise of all. God says “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.”

Marc Roby: And that final statement, that “They will be my people, and I will be their God” is the heart of God’s covenant with his people.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. What could possibly be better? Put yourself in the position of these people, captive in a foreign land many miles from your homeland and imagine what a great message of hope this would be.

And, to get back to the topic of properly interpreting this passage, we could not possibly grasp the full significance of these statements if we didn’t understand the historical context.

Marc Roby: And yet, these statements are of even greater significance to us today.

Dr. Spencer: They most definitely are. That will not be true of all passages in the Old Testament of course. Some portions of Scripture serve to give us the context necessary to understand other passages that have greater theological significance. But this passage in Ezekiel is definitely one that has greater meaning for us, so we don’t want to stop at just understanding what the passage meant to the people at the time.

We who live after the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and who have the New Testament available to us, live in a time of much greater revelation. We know a great deal more about God’s plan of salvation and so we can have an even fuller understanding of these historical events and the pronouncements God made. We know that when God promises to “give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them” and to “remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” he is speaking, ultimately, about regeneration or new birth.

Marc Roby: What is the biblical warrant for making such a statement?

Dr. Spencer: When we look in Jeremiah 31:31 and 33, we see that he made a very similar statement. In Verse 31 he wrote that “‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.’ And then, in Verse 33 he wrote that “‘This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.’” This last verse is similar Ezekiel 11:20, which we just looked at. Remember it said, “Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” The writer of the book of Hebrews uses the verses from Jeremiah 31, in Hebrews 8, to talk about the new covenant of which Jesus Christ is the high priest forever.

In addition, later in Ezekiel the prophet repeats the same idea presented in Chapter 11, but adds to it the idea of cleansing from sin. In Ezekiel 36:24-28 he tells us the God said “I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.”

Marc Roby: I see where you are going with this line of thought. This idea of being cleansed by water and given a new heart is also part of what Jesus Christ said to Nicodemus in John 3. In Verse 5 of that chapter, we read that Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” And then in Verse 7 he added, “You must be born again.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a key passage in tying this all together. The passages in Ezekiel 11 and 36 and Jeremiah 31, combined with Hebrews 8 and John 3 all come together to give us a much more complete picture of what it means to be saved. In the original context of Ezekiel 11, as we have been discussing, the people who heard him where, no doubt, thinking solely of being returned to Jerusalem and living under God’s blessing. In other words, of being saved from their captivity in Babylon.

But, from our perspective, having received much greater revelation, we can see that there was a deeper meaning to these same words. We can be saved from our captivity, or we could say slavery, to sin. As the great 20th-century theologian John Murray wrote, “because of the unity of revelation and the unity of what we call both Testaments, what is patent in the New is latent in the Old.”[2]

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful way of putting it. And when you mentioned being saved from slavery to sin that immediately calls to mind Romans, Chapter 6, where Paul wrote, in Verses 20-22, that “When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”

Dr. Spencer: That passage adds even more depth to the discussion, although it also introduces another idea that needs explanation for people in our generation to understand it properly, and that is this notion of being a slave. At the time the Bible was written, slavery did not always have all of the negative connotations it does now. We don’t have time now to get into that topic at the moment, but I mention it as a further example of how we need context to properly understand something written in a culture that is so foreign to our own.

Marc Roby: And this whole discussion highlights the fact that we must let Scripture interpret Scripture.

Dr. Spencer: It is a great illustration of that fact. It is also an illustration of the argument we have made a number of times that we must study all of Scripture. In drawing all of these connections, we have cited passages from Leviticus, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hebrews and Romans, and we could easily have cited others as well.

Remember that James Boice broke the principle that Scripture should interpret Scripture down into two principles: unity and noncontradiction.[3] That is why Murray said, in the quote I gave a few minutes ago, that there is unity of revelation and that unity includes both the Old and New Testaments. You cannot understand either fully without the other.

Marc Roby: Very well, I think we’ve illustrated how important it is to know something of the historical context in order to understand the prophets, and that we should focus on what the prophets were saying to the people at the time, while understanding that some of what they say may have even greater meaning for us in the light of our greater revelation. What else do we want to say about interpreting prophecy?

Dr. Spencer: I would like to make a few brief comments about a related genre, the apocalyptic sections in the Bible.

Marc Roby: I think it would be useful to point out that that word “apocalyptic” comes from the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις, which means revelation and is the first word in the original Greek version of the book we call Revelation. It is a particular type of prophetic writing,

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is a type of prophetic writing that uses a lot of symbolic imagery to tell us something about future events. The books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation all contain apocalyptic material.

There have, over the years, been a lot of silly ideas put forward about how to interpret modern events in the light of these prophecies. Jim Bakker said last year that he thinks Revelation 9:7 is speaking about Apache helicopters[4], and many people over the years have said that different passages in Daniel and Revelation refer to modern Russia or China. I’m not going to take time to go through any of these in detail, I just want to point out that they miss the main point being made by the prophecies in the Bible.

Marc Roby: They are also often linked with some prediction about the time of Christ’s return, which we are specifically told we cannot know in Matthew 24:36.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. We must remember that the prophecies were not written specifically to us here in the 21st century. They were written to the people thousands of years ago. They do, of course, have importance for us too, but that importance is not tied up in our being able to determine when Christ will return, or to satisfy our curiosity about future events. In his book Interpreting the Bible, Mickelsen points out that even “the future aspect of the prophet’s message was meant to instruct, to reprove, to correct, and to encourage by exhortation. … the message of the prophet was meant to induce holy living and a spontaneous loving obedience to God.”[5]

Marc Roby: Given that we are not to use this material to try and determine when Christ will return again, how does some of the admittedly difficult imagery we find in the books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation instruct us?

Dr. Spencer: I think we can learn many things from these books. For example, in a sermon our own pastor, Pastor Mathew, gave on Daniel 5 he noted that the theme of the book of Daniel “is that God Most High reigns. In other words, God is sovereign over all and does what he pleases, not what men or nations or political leaders please.”[6] Similarly, in his commentary on the book of Revelation, Joel Beeke wrote that “God controls Satan so that he cannot ultimately harm believers, but is an instrument for the destruction of the wicked – that is the theme of Revelation [Chapter] 9.”[7] And, in his commentary on the book of Revelation, Derek Thomas wrote that “In the end, the goal is worship: of God, of Christ, by the church here on earth as well as in heaven.”[8]

Marc Roby: Those are all very general conclusions.

Dr. Spencer: And deliberately so! I have no intention of treading on the very thin ice of getting into the details of parts of these books. But, my point is again that we need to stay focused on what God would have us, and believers in all ages, learn from these books.

Marc Roby: I agree it is wise to stick to the major points in some cases, and we are out of time for this week anyway. I would again like to encourage our listeners to email their questions and comments in to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pp 172-173

[3] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 91

[4] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lP6YJgiMN8I

[5] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 288

[6] P.G. Mathew, The End is Coming, available at http://www.gracevalley.org/sermon/the-end-is-coming/

[7] J. Beeke, Revelation, Reformation Heritage Books, 2016, pg. 272

[8] Derek Thomas, Let’s Study Revelation, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003, pg. xiv

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles we use to properly interpret the Bible. Dr. Spencer, last time we ended with an example of the old four-fold method of interpreting the Bible, which is called the Quadriga. Is there anything more to be said about that?

Dr. Spencer: I don’t want to spend any more time on the quadriga itself, but I do want to point out that proper biblical interpretation certainly recognizes that all four types of meaning that were sought by that method – namely, the literal, moral, allegorical, and spiritual, do exist in the Bible. We just don’t want to force every verse to have all four types of meaning. And, we want to be extremely careful with allegories because they can become quite fanciful and are sometimes a vehicle for very serious deviations from true biblical doctrine. But, we can’t do away with them entirely either because the Bible itself tells us that some things are allegorical, as we will see later.

Marc Roby: Well, if we’re done with the quadriga, then I suppose you want to get back to discussing what is meant by literal interpretation of the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right, we need to get back to that because it is very important. I gave the example last time of our American expression “it’s raining cats and dogs” and I pointed out that we all know what that means. So, in the sense we are using the term literal now, a literal interpretation of that phrase is that it is raining very hard. This example illustrates the fact that when we say we want to interpret the Bible literally, we do not mean that we ignore figures of speech, or any other form of communication that people ordinarily use. We want to be able to do what Paul commanded Timothy to do. In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul commanded him, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”[1]

Marc Roby: I certainly do not want to be ashamed and to have God disapprove of my work when I appear before him.

Dr. Spencer: And neither do I, nor does any other true Christian. We all want to receive God’s approval on the Day of Judgment. To do that, we must recognize that the Bible was written by the Holy Spirit, through human authors, to communicate truth to God’s people. And it’s our job to find out what that truth is. God is perfect, and we can be confident that what he wrote can be understood correctly by us with the Holy Spirit helping us. I’m not saying that all parts of the Bible will be equally clear, but if we approach the job seriously, we can be confident that God will give us sufficient understanding of truth. If he were not able to do that, he wouldn’t be much of a God, would he?

Marc Roby: He certainly wouldn’t be the true and living God we learn about in the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: Not even close. And notice that, once again, our confidence rests in the person of God, not in ourselves. But, we must still be diligent to do the hard work necessary. The Bible was written through different human authors at different times and places and in different situations, but it is all true and it is all God’s revelation to us. In order to understand it, we need to take into account the language, culture, history, genre of writing, all normal figures of speech and so on.

But, we want to avoid looking for hidden meanings in the text or for purely subjective things that are somehow revealed to us privately as we study. As I noted last time, we need the Holy Spirit to help us, so we are not denying the role of the Holy Spirit, but we do deny that I can be given a proper understanding of some verse by the Holy Spirit that is completely inaccessible to you. If I’m understanding the verse correctly, I should be able to explain to you why it means what I think it means and you should be able to evaluate what I say without access to any private revelations that I may claim to have received.

Marc Roby: What you just said also implies that there is one, and only one, correct interpretation of a given verse. I can’t have my meaning, and you have your meaning, both of which are different, and yet somehow both correct.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. There is only one meaning, but there may be many different applications of that meaning. So, for example, we can both understand correctly from James 4:6, which says that “God opposes the proud”, that pride is sinful. And yet we can both apply that principle to ourselves in different ways because our sinful pride might manifest in very different ways. Now, given that there is only one meaning for each statement in the Bible, the question becomes, “How do we determine what that meaning is?”

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics correctly states, in Article 15, “We affirm the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.”[2]

Marc Roby: Now they say that the literal, or normal, sense is the “grammatical-historical sense”, what exactly does that mean?

Dr. Spencer: That is a bit confusing, but the word grammatical is being used as a synonym for literal in this case. In his 1890 book called Biblical Hermeneutics, Milton Terry wrote that “The grammatical sense is essentially the same as the literal, the one expression being derived from the Greek, the other from the Latin.”[3] In James Boice’s book Foundations of the Christian Faith, he calls the method the historical-literal method.[4]

I wanted people to be familiar with these different terms, but, no matter what name is used, it is the normal method used by any careful reader to try and understand what an author means. It takes into account the normal rules of grammar and style, figures of speech and so on, in addition to the historical context, to try and understand what the author meant by what he wrote.

Marc Roby: Of course the ultimate author of the Bible is God the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he is the ultimate author, but since he used human agents who used normal modes of human communication this technique is appropriate. We don’t need some special method for interpreting the Bible, although the fact that God is the author certainly does matter.

Marc Roby: We saw last time, for example, that our first rule of interpretation – that Scripture should be used to interpret other Scripture – is a direct result of the fact that God, who knows all things and cannot lie, is its author.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And we will see later that the fact that God is the author will have other implications as well. But, my point is that we don’t need some special “spiritual” way of interpreting the Bible. It is special, it is infallible, but it is also written, in a sense, just like any other book and should be read in much the same way. Having explicit rules to help us understand what is written, however, is especially important when we read a document that was written in a different culture, language or time than our own, as is the case with the Bible.

Even within our own culture and language we sometimes read things that are not immediately clear to us and we have to look up a word, or maybe even look up some allusion to a historical event or literary figure or whatever. And that problem becomes more serious when we are reading a translation of something originally written in a language that is foreign to us and/or something that was written at a time different from our own.

Marc Roby: I have certainly found that to be true in my own studies, and the problem is sometimes greatest with the most thoughtful and knowledgeable writers, and on the most important subjects, they often take the most work to understand deeply.

Dr. Spencer: I’ve noticed the same phenomenon, and I’m sure that our listeners have as well. So, in a sense, all we are really saying is that the Bible should be read very carefully, with the express purpose of finding out what God intended to communicate to us in each passage. And we must remember that some of the material in the Bible will be quite difficult and will require significant study for us to understand properly. But, the basic message of salvation is really very simple and clear.

Marc Roby: And so, to a very large extent, are the Bible’s commands for holy living. In Galatians 5:14, the apostle Paul wrote that “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Dr. Spencer: That is simple and clear in a sense or, as you put it, to a large extent. But, it also requires context to properly understand. What does it mean to love our neighbor? Even many non-Christians in our secular society would say that it is loving to confront someone when he is engaging in self-destructive behavior. Perhaps, for example, he has a serious problem with addiction. In that case, the Bible would agree that true love requires confronting him, which is never an easy thing to do.

But, the Bible would provide a much different list of self-destructive behaviors than our society would come up with! Because the Bible would have us be more concerned about his eternal state than his earthly circumstances. Therefore, anything that God has declared to be sin is eternally self-destructive. And many things that God says are sin, our society approves. As just one example, it would be loving my homosexual neighbor if I told him about God’s law, which declares homosexuality to be a sin, and the eternal consequences of unrepentant sin, which is hell. But, I doubt that many in our culture would consider that message to be loving.

Marc Roby: You make a great point. Even something that seems quite clear and simple can be misunderstood. How then, practically speaking, do we use this grammatical-historical or historical-literal method of interpretation to be sure that we properly understand a passage?

Dr. Spencer: Well, as I just demonstrated, we must understand every passage in the context of all that the Bible teaches; that is part of the principle of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. But, we are going to get to context a bit later in our discussion.

The first thing we must do to understand any passage is to decide whether it is historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, parable or what. Only then can we go on to use the normal rules of grammar and syntax to understand what is said. So, let’s begin by looking at the different genres that we encounter in the Bible.

Marc Roby: Alright, what is important for us to know about them?

Dr. Spencer: For much of the Bible its not really a problem. I think most readers are comfortable with the difference between reading poetry, like one of the psalms, and historical narrative, like something in Chronicles. The problems come in when we deal with the forms of literature found in the Bible that are less familiar to us, like prophecy.

Marc Roby: What do we need to know about prophecy?

Dr. Spencer: First of all, prophecy does not just refer to predicting something about the future. Biblical prophecy is much more than that. A prophet is a spokesman for God. He declares God’s will to the people. In fact, in Ephesians 4:11-12 Paul is writing about the different gifts given to the church and he says that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service”. So, there are still prophets in the church today, that’s prophet with a little p. Anyone who declares the Word of God, in other words any proper minister of the gospel, can be considered a prophet in that sense of the word.

Marc Roby: But, when you use the word prophet, most people think of someone like Isaiah, or Jeremiah.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure they do, and for good reason. But my point is simply that even with those prophets, what they said was meant for the instruction of the people they spoke to, just like a modern-day minister. There is, of course, a huge difference in that Isaiah and Jeremiah were inspired prophets and could declare “the Lord says” and then give new revelation. But, when we read them we need to remember who they were writing to, when they were writing, where they were writing and what was going on at the time. In other words, we need to know the historical, political, cultural and geographical context among other things.

Marc Roby: That sounds like a lot of work.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly can be, but it is also very enjoyable and rewarding. And, as we have argued multiple times, there is nothing more important than the Word of God, and a true Christian will delight in such study.

But, getting back to interpreting biblical prophecy, we must remember that these prophets were, first and foremost, speaking to their contemporaries. Whether or not they had any knowledge that their words were going to become part of the biblical canon later doesn’t matter, because we were never their primary audience. The theologian Richard Pratt commented in a talk he gave at our church a number of years ago, that when we read the prophets we should think of ourselves as listening in on someone else’s conversation.[5] I think that can be a useful perspective to have in mind.

Marc Roby: That is an interesting way to think about it. But what about when they do predict future events?

Dr. Spencer: Let me quote from the book Interpreting the Bible by Mickelsen. He wrote that “Prophecy does have a future aspect. But the prediction of God’s doings was given to a particular historical people, to awaken and stir them. They might not grasp all the meaning of the message, but the message – with the disclosure of future things – was given to influence the present action.”[6]

Marc Roby: How should this fact affect our reading?

Dr. Spencer: It means that we should seek to understand what the passage we are reading teaches us about the nature of God, the nature of man, and God’s providential control of history. Then we should seek to apply those lessons to our own lives.

Marc Roby: I look forward to seeing an example of this next time, but we are out of time for today. I’d like to encourage our listeners to send their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, Available from http://defendinginerrancy.com/chicago-statements/ and also from http://www.alliancenet.org/the-chicago-statement-on-biblical-hermeneutics

[3] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, Hunt & Eaton, 1890 (available as a pdf file from file:///C:/Users/rrspe/Documents/Religion/Books%20&%20Papers/1883_terry_bib-hermeneutics.pdf)

[4] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 95

[5] Richard Pratt, Interpreting the Old Testament Prophecies, April 29, 2000, transcript available at http://www.gracevalley.org/teaching/interpreting-the-old-testament-prophecies/

[6] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 287

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