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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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