We all have secrets. Some secrets we intentionally hide; others reside deep in our subconscious hiding unaware, pretending to stay out of sight for our good.
As I have studied the historical background of the Bible for the last 20 years, I have repeatedly discovered Jesus’ message to be shaped more by our attractions than his intentions. When I have shared what I learned in chapels and classrooms, Bible studies and beer gardens, the response has been mixed. Many would rather retain what they like rather than learn what Jesus meant.
We like to have our truth, rather than be disrupted by the truth. Our aversion to alter what we have assumed reveals a nasty secret in our subconscious. What is that secret?
For centuries, Christians have assumed that Jesus wants us to emulate a poor widow’s sacrificial giving of her only 2 coins. As the story goes in Mark 14, Jesus was watching people put money into the Temple treasury. Rich people put in a lot of money. Then, a poor widow put in 2 small copper coins worth about a penny. Jesus saw a lesson here for the disciples so he gathered them together and said:
“this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury; for they gave out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, gave all she owned, all she had to live on.” - Mark 12:43-44
Jesus’ commentary makes it clear that the widow felt the impact of her contribution much more than all the rich people giving money they didn’t need. She gave the very money that she needed to buy food to survive. Her sacrifice had painful consequences in her poverty.
We have historically assumed Jesus is commending the widow’s example to us. We typically interpret the significance of the story just like Joy Allmond does on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association blog:
What matters to God is our heart toward our money and our possessions. Do we see them as ours, or as His? Regardless of how much we give to Kingdom work–whether it is $10 or $10,000–Jesus makes it obvious to us in Luke 21:1-4 [the story of the Widow’s mite] that He is most pleased with those who had to sacrifice to give that $10. What is your “mite?” Are you sowing sacrificially from your resources?
Before we can jump to personal application like this article does, we need to make sure we understand Jesus’ original meaning. Is the point of Jesus’ observation to praise the sacrificial heart and actions of the widow?
Jesus had more to say about money than both heaven and hell, but he didn’t have much good to say about it. Specifically, Jesus was quick to judge people with money. He put it simply in Luke 6:24, “But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.” The “woe” statement is a prophetic announcement that judgment is coming. He assumed the wealthy in first-Century Israel had done something wrong to deserve judgment.
We often miss Jesus' tough message about money because we hear only the parts we want to believe.
Jesus is not the “Messiah” people want: Mark’s Gospel redefines the dominant King the disciples expected
The Gospel of Mark hinges on a climactic turning point. After Jesus spends 8 chapters doing miracles that only the Son of God would do, the disciples finally figure out who he is. While other Israelites thought he was a special prophet like Jeremiah or Elijah, Peter proclaimed in Mark 8:29, “You are the Messiah.” That identification changes the trajectory and content of Mark’s Gospel.
Everything leading up to Mark 8:29 is designed to reveal who Jesus is, but everything afterwards redefines what the disciples think about the Messiah. Jesus immediately begins to correct their assumptions about what the Messiah will do. “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). Jesus had to teach them about his torturous destiny over and over again (Mark 9:12, 31-32; 10:33-34). Why? Because the disciples already thought the Messiah would kill all the bad guys, not get killed by them.
Jesus vs. Synagogues (Part 2): How he gave heaven’s authority to a new church where "two or three gather in His name"
Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi. His life’s fullest meaning can only be discerned in his Jewish context (see Jesus vs. Synagogues Part 1: Where he agreed with Rabbis). Even the word “Christ” is a Greek translation of the Hebrew term for an anointed ruler, Messiah. It isn’t his last name, but rather a theologically charged designation for the long-awaited redemptive role he was playing in an old Jewish story.
However, the overlap between First-Century Jewish culture and Jesus’ Way has limits. Jesus not only embodied his culture and embraced its accoutrements; he also challenged its everyday assumptions.
People often ask, "Why do some churches let women preach when 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits it?" My Socratic response is: "Why do all churches let women braid their hair when 1 Timothy 2:9 condemns it?"
No one takes the Bible at face value. First, because no one grows up speaking Koine Greek and ancient Hebrew at home (so they can't read its "face value"), but second because English translations tell even the most novice reader that certain commands are culturally irrelevant. When you read Paul's repeated command to "Greet one another with a holy kiss" (Romans 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26), no one gets convicted and starts puckering up for church. Those commands were clearly intended for a different cultural context, and we recognize it. We know to distinguish the temporary cultural expression from its enduring principle.
The same cultural sensitivity must be applied to 1 Timothy 2. In first-century Ephesus where Timothy pastored churches, braided hair and female teachers were a bad idea. Why? The first one is easy. Braided hair, gold jewelry, and expensive clothing flaunted wealth. And Paul wanted "those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited" (1 Timothy 6:17). The injunction against female teachers and Paul's prescription for females to learn quietly in church gatherings are much more culturally nuanced.
"This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come." Do Jesus' words mean systematically sharing the gospel around the globe can speed up "the end"?
Many Christians think so. The Gospel Coalition (whose council members include John Piper, D.A. Carson, Tim Keller and Al Mohler) boldly cites George Eldon Ladd's 1959 book The Gospel of the Kingdom to make that claim. "When the Church has finished its task of evangelizing the world, Christ will come again. The Word of God says it." The Issachar Initiative backed by some of the largest financial gatekeepers in evangelical America (National Christian Foundation, Maclellan Foundation, Green Family, etc.) use the same logic to encourage reaching the unreached. As their Tweet below indicates, "We can choose to speed up Jesus's return."
Mission Frontiers magazine pushed readers toward this supposedly clear meaning of Jesus' words, for example, in the July-August 1994 issue entitled "Bring Back The King?". Editor Rick Wood wrote, "Matt. 24:14 clearly indicates that world evangelization is a prerequisite to the Lord's coming."
But why do so many Christians think Matthew 24:14 explains the prerequisite for Jesus' return when the verse doesn't even talk about him? We have to explore the context to discover why, and to discover why they are all wrong.
Isn't it obvious what we can do through Christ who strengthens us? "All Things." Philippians 4:13 says so. That's why sports figures love the verse. It's why they tattoo it on their chest. Who cares if it makes no sense for players on opposing teams to believe Christ will help them both win the same game (think about it). It pumps you up with a sense that you have divine power to pummel your opponents.
But that's not why Tim Tebow wrote Philippians 4:13 on his black eye stickers when he played football. During an interview at the end of his college career, he told the Baptist Press:
"A lot of people know Philippians 4:13 -- 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me' -- but a lot of people don't interpret that verse the right way. Most people think it means I can do anything ...on the football field, or I can make a lot of money. But that's not exactly what it's talking about there. It's [saying] I can be content with anything."
Does Tim Tebow know what he's talking about? Not too many sports figures ever provide insight into the meaning of Scripture.
Thomas Aquinas sent Christianity down a disastrous road. What started out as an attempt to translate biblical faith into contemporary philosophical discussions became an irreversible distortion of doctrine. His intrigue with a philosophical fad re-directed how theology was done for the last 700 years.
In the 13th Century when Aquinas wrote, it had become cool again to reason like Greek philosophers. 1,000 years earlier, the Platonic ideas about the Divine essence, logos, and demiurge had already shaped the language of 4th-century church creeds about Jesus’ divine nature and the Trinity. Now, the Greek categories were returning with the Renaissance to reconstruct the Christian faith. Aquinas embraced Aristotle and Plato in a historic act of unintentional syncretism. The systematic Greek logic behind his Summa Theologiae became the standard for structuring the Christian faith. The theological enterprise turned into a “sacred science” (in Aquinas’s words) with its “propositions” and “principles” similar to other philosophical sciences.
The long-term impact of Summa Theologiae on how theology is done was unintentional. Most theologians and historians frame Aquinas as an intellectual missionary. He was trying to express genuinely biblical faith in the language and concepts of contemporary thought leaders, just as the 4th and 5th century creeds were doing. In the most generous reading, Aquinas and the creeds are not examples of the Hellenization of the Gospel but of the evangelization of Hellenism (thank you Van Hoozer for this succinct framework!).
Unfortunately, the context of such contextual theology often gets forgotten in future forms that imitate it. Aquinas was no exception. Aquinas's theological science hopefully affected scientific philosophers in his day, but his Aristotelian assumptions likewise infected future Christian theology. Going forward, doctrine became synonymous with categorizing answers to topical theology questions (Yeah, I'm looking at you Dispensational and Reformed theologians ;) .
By the time Protestant reformers had their heyday in the 16th Century, the rules of the theological game had been established. The Christian faith did not find itself in a trail of divine action left through human history. It was more philosophically astute and well-ordered than that. Christian theologians were now expected to run past epistemological humility in grandiose efforts to restructure biblical content into answers for any doctrinal question (think Grudem’s Systematic Theology). Systematizing theologians of the Protestant tradition have long since employed a dangerous formula: Words from the Bible + culturally and linguistically determined logic = answers to every theological or ontological question. The diversity of biblical genres that embodied truth and the diachronic developments from Genesis to Revelation gave way to uniform answers delivered in synchronic slices that did not reflect a dominant form of delivering truth anywhere in Scripture.
Now what could be wrong with breaking up the Bible into properly categorized propositions? In short, everything. If your theology doesn't look like or act like the Bible itself, then it cannot represent its contents faithfully. It distorts not distillate it’s substance.
"I wish you were cold or hot, not lukewarm" doesn't mean Jesus prefers you hate him instead of "live on the fence"
Mental associations direct the way we interpret what people mean with their words. If the first place your mind goes is to the same meaning someone intends, communication works. But if you associate the words with the wrong meaning, you will misrepresent what someone means to say. That's a big deal when it's the Word of God.
A question that should push us all to study more carefully is: Are we mistaking the echo of our own assumptions for the meaning of God's Word?
If you haven't read it yet, Reenacting the Way (of Jesus) unwraps the commonly misunderstood messages of the Gospels. Jesus' healing miracles, turning water into wine, feeding the 5,000 and calming a storm all lose their meaning when we reduce them to miraculous moments that revealed Jesus' divinity. They had very specific meanings for their original audience not just some generic meaning for everyone.
The same miscommunication happens when we chase the futuristic relevance of the book of Revelation rather than the reason John recorded it for his ancient audience. We miss Jesus' personalized message for a first century audience in Asia Minor. Please stop doing this. Flattening the Bible's first meaning loosens the anchor that holds it from floating down the river of your imagination.
So let's talk about a specific example: being lukewarm. In the popular passage of Revelation 3:15-16, Jesus says, “I wish you were cold or hot, but because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth.” Why does Jesus want people made of extreme temperatures?
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Paul Penley's training as a Bible scholar, life as a human being, and work as a philanthropic advisor overflows into this blog
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