The Revelation: Images of judgement and hope

These are my notes on Chapter 13 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

Most of the hermeneutical problems in Revelation stem from the symbolism and the fact that the book deals with future events, but at the same time is set in a recognisable 1st century context.

Humility is necessary when approaching Revelation. Additionally, one should avoid dogmatism for there are many variations on interpretations.

The nature of the Revelation

Revelation is a blend of 3 distinct literary types: apocalypse, prophecy and letter. Moreover, apocalyptic is a genre without a contemporary equivalent.

The Revelation as apocalypse

Apocalypse as a genre was popular from about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. Apocalypses had the following common characteristics:

  1. Apocalyptic was born either in persecution or great oppression. It therefore looked forward to the time when God would bring an end to history, an end that would mean the triumph of right and the final judgment of evil.
  2. Unlike most of the prophetic books which compiled previously spoken oracles, apocalypses are written works from the beginning.
  3. The content of apocalyptic is presented in the form of visions and dreams, in cryptic and symbolic language. To give the book a sense of age pseudonyms were often used, attributing the writing to ancient worthies (e.g. Enoch, Baruch, etc.)
  4. The images of apocalyptic are often forms of fantasy rather than of reality. The fantasy may not appear in the items themselves (beasts, heads, horns, etc.) but in their unearthly combination.
  5. Most of the apocalypses were formally stylised, with time and events divided into neat packages. The symbolic use of numbers was very common. The result was that visions were carefully arranged in sets, often numbered. The numbering didn’t necessarily indicate the sequence of occurrence.

Revelation presents all these characteristics, except that it isn’t pseudonymous.

The Revelation as prophecy

John calls his book “this prophecy” (1:3; 22:18-19) and intended it to be a word from God to the church in their present situation. (Remember that ‘to prophesy’ means to speak forth God’s word in the present.)

The Revelation as epistle

The characteristics of a letter form are present in Revelation (see 1:4-7; 22:21). This means that there is an occasional aspect to Revelation, i.e. its writing was prompted at least in part by the needs of the churches to which it is addressed.

The necessity of exegesis

This is a repetition of principles encountered in How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth thus far:

  1. Seek the human author’s and the Holy Spirit’s original intent. The primary meaning of Revelation is what John intended it to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood it to mean.
  2. Since Revelation intends to be prophetic, one must be open to the possibility of a secondary meaning, inspired by the Holy Spirit, but not fully seen by the author or his readers.
  3. Any keys to interpreting the Revelation must be intrinsic to the text of Revelation itself or otherwise available to the original recipients from their own historical context.
  4. Here are some suggestions regarding the imagery:
    1. John derived images from the OT and ancient mythology, and transformed them under inspiration.
    2. Some of the imagery is constant, some is fluid (e.g. the lion turns out to be a lamb, 5:5-6). Some images refer to specific things (the seven lampstands are the seven churches, 1:12-20), others are general.
    3. When John himself interprets his images, these interpreted images must serve as a starting point for understanding others (cf. 1:17-18, 20; 12:9; 17:9, 18)
    4. One must see the visions as wholes and not allegorically press all the details. The whole vision is trying to say something; the details are either (1) for dramatic effect or (2) to add to the picture of the whole so that the readers will not mistake the points of reference.
  5. Apocalypses in general and the Revelation in particular seldom intend to give a detailed, chronological account of the future. John’s concern is that, despite present appearances, God is in control of history and of the church.

The historical context

First, try to read it all the way through in one sitting to get the big picture. On a subsequent reading, pick up all the references that indicate that John’s readers are “companions in his sufferings” (1:9). These are the crucial historical indicators.

For example, in the seven letters note 2:3, 8-9, 13; 3:10, plus the repeated “to the one who overcomes.” The fifth seal (6:9-11) reveals Christian martyrs who have been slain because of the word and the testimony (exactly why John is in exile in 1:9). In 7:14 the great multitude who will never again suffer (7:6) has “come out of the great tribulation.” Suffering and death are again linked to bearing “the testimony of Jesus” in 12:11 and 17.

The main theme of the book is that for the church, things would get worse before they got better (6:9-11). But God is in control of all things (1:17-20) and judgement will be poured out on those who have afflicted God’s people.

The literary context

To understand any one of the specific visions in the Revelation it is especially important not only to wrestle with the background and meaning of the images (the content questions) but also to ask how this particular vision functions in the book as a whole. The book is structured as a whole, and each vision is an integral part of the whole:

  • Chapters 1-3 introduce us to most of the “characters”: John (1:1-11), Christ (1:12-20) and the church (2:1-3:22).
  • In chapter 4 the church is told that God reigns in sovereign majesty, while chapter 5 reminds them that God’s Lion is a Lamb who Himself redeemed humankind through suffering.
  • Chapters 6-7 begin unfolding the drama with the first set of seven visions.
  • Chapters 8-11 reveal the content of God’s judgement.
  • In chapter 12 we’re told of Satan’s attempts to destroy Christ and of his own defeat instead.
  • Chapters 13-14 show John’s original readers that the vengeance took the form of the Roman Empire. But the empire and emperors are doomed (chapters 15-16). The book concludes as a “tale of two cities” (chapters 17-22)—one condemned and another where God’s people dwell eternally.

 The hermeneutical questions

Like the prophets, Revelation speaks of things that are yet to be. From our point in history most of those events are in the past. The hermeneutical problems aren’t too great in this regard. Our difficulties lie in the fact that in prophecy, the temporal world is often so closely tied to the final eschatological realities. For example the fall of Rome in Revelation 18 seems to imply the final end as part of the picture. What do we do in such cases?

  1. We need to learn that pictures of the future are just that—pictures. They express a reality but aren’t to be confused with the reality, nor are the details of every picture to be fulfilled in some specific way.
  2. Some of the pictures that were intended to express the certainty of God’s judgement must not be interpreted to mean “soon-ness”.
  3. The pictures where the temporal is closely tied to the eschatological must not be viewed as simultaneous.
  4. Although there are probably many instances where there is a future dimension to the picture, we have not been given the keys to extract them. Case in point: the antichrist.
  5. The pictures that are intended to be totally eschatological are still to be taken as such (11:15-19; 19:1-22:21). The fulfilment of these pictures will be in God’s own time and in His own way.

Bonus link

Here’s a pastors’ workshop on preaching apocalyptic, complete with instruction and model sermons.

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Wisdom: Then and now

These are my notes on Chapter 12 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and Job make up the wisdom books, to which Song of Songs can be added.

The nature of wisdom

Biblical wisdom can be defined as the ability to make godly choices in life.

Abuse of wisdom literature

This normally happens in one of 3 ways:

  1. Reading the books only in part, failing to see the inspired author’s overall message.
  2. Misunderstanding wisdom terms and categories as well as wisdom styles and literary modes. For example, ‘fool’ in Proverbs refers not to one who is intellectually deficient, but to an unbeliever who acknowledges no higher authority than him/herself.
  3. Failing to follow the line of argument in a wisdom discourse. For example, trying to live by Job 15:20 without taking into account that it was spoken by Eliphaz, who was later rebuked by God.

Who is wise?

Wisdom in the Bible isn’t theoretical or abstract. The wisdom literature of other ancient cultures has as its aim the making of the best choices in order to achieve the best life. Biblical wisdom added to this the central idea that the only good choices are godly choices. Thus, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Wisdom, as the Bible defines it, is a matter of orientation to God out of which comes the ability to please Him.

Wisdom expressed through poetry

Poetry helps the student learn and memorise. Among the techniques used are: synonymous parallelism (e.g. Proverbs 7:4), antithetical parallelism (e.g. Proverbs 10:1), acrostics (Proverbs 31:10-31), alliteration (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), numerical sequences (Proverbs 30:15-31), similes and metaphors (Job 32:19, Song 4:1-6).

The limits of wisdom

Solomon’s great wisdom helped him gain wealth and power, but it couldn’t keep him from turning away from the Lord in later years. Only when wisdom is subordinated to obedience to God does it achieve its proper ends in the sense the OT intends.

Ecclesiastes: Cynical wisdom

This is a baffling wisdom monologue which doesn’t seem to contain much that is positive and encouraging towards a life of faithfulness to God. Its consistent message is that the reality and finality of death means that life has no ultimate value.

Why is it in the Bible at all? The answer is that it is there as a foil (a contrast) to what the rest of the Bible teaches. The view of life it presents ought to leave you unsatisfied. When God becomes irrelevant to our daily lives, Ecclesiastes is the result.

Wisdom in Job

Job also contains incorrect advice as a foil for God’s truth. Job’s comforters, unlike the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, believe that God is involved in daily affairs to the point of meting out judgement through events in this life. They also say that what happens to you in life is a direct result of whether or not you have pleased God. Jesus’ disciples applied this logic (John 9:1-3) as do many Christians today.

The reader of Job learns what is the world’s wisdom, seemingly logical but actually wrong, and what constitutes God’s wisdom and grows in confidence in God’s sovereignty and righteousness.

Wisdom in Proverbs

Proverbs contains a collection of pithy sayings that focus on practical attitudes. Specifically religious language is present in Proverbs (cf. 1:7; 3:5-12; 15:3, 8-9, 11; 16:1-9; 22:9, 23; 24:18, 21, etc.) but it doesn’t predominate.

Uses and abuses of Proverbs

A proverb is a brief, particular expression of truth. The briefer a statement is, the less likely it is to be totally precise and universally applicable. Proverbs don’t state everything about a truth, but they point towards it. Taken literally, they’re often technically inexact. For example, some people commit adultery and get away with it, contrary to Proverbs 6:27-29, and so on.

Some hermeneutical guidelines

Proverbs aren’t legal guarantees from God

The blessings, rewards and opportunities mentioned in Proverbs are likely to follow if one chooses the wise courses of action outlined in the poetical, figurative language of the book. The proverb isn’t a categorical, always applicable, ironclad promise.

Proverbs must be read as a collection

The more in isolation one reads a proverb, the less clear its interpretation may be. Each proverb must be understood in comparison with others and with the rest of scripture.

Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not to be theologically accurate

No proverb is a complete statement of truth.  The more briefly and parabolically a principle is stated, the more common sense and good judgement are needed to interpret it correctly. Case in point: the acrostic poem about the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:10-31.

Some proverbs need to be “translated” to be appreciated

E.g. Proverbs 25:24. You need to see the transcultural issue expressed in the culturally-specific language. In this case, the proverb is intended to advise that people be careful in their selection of a mate.

For convenience, here are some summary rules that will help you make proper use of proverbs:

  1. Proverbs are often parabolic, i.e. figurative, pointing beyond themselves.
  2. Proverbs are intensely practical, not theoretically theological.
  3. Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise.
  4. Proverbs are not designed to support selfish behaviour—just the opposite!
  5. Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible “translation” so as not to lose their meaning.
  6. Proverbs are not guarantees from God, but poetic guidelines for good behaviour.
  7. Proverbs may use highly specific language, exaggeration, or any variety of literary techniques to make their point.
  8. Proverbs give good advice for wise approaches to certain aspects of life, but are not exhaustive in their coverage.
  9. Wrongly used, proverbs might justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle. Rightly used, proverbs will provide practical advice for daily living.

Wisdom in the Song of Songs

The Song of Songs is a lengthy love song. But how does a love song fit within the category of wisdom? The ability to make godly decisions in the matters of whom to love and how to love is important to every believer.

Human skills and desires can be used for both good and evil, and so it is with love and sex. If the right choices are made, sex and romance can be employed for God’s glory in accordance with His original design. That’s what Song of Songs is about.

Interpretation of Song of Songs has suffered from totality transfer and allegorisation. Totality transfer is the tendency to think that all the possible meanings of a word come with it whenever it is used. In the case of Song of Songs, the totality transfer was made from other biblical love songs. Isaiah 5:1-7 and Hosea 2:2-15 are examples of poetic love songs that tell the story of God’s love for His people Israel. Early interpreters concluded that Song of Songs must be the same sort of thing: an allegory of God’s love for Israel or Christ’s love for the church.

However, Song of Songs is about human love. It doesn’t contain clues pointing to Israel’s history, neither is it laden with national symbolism as the prophetical allegories are. It doesn’t read like anything in the prophets.

Here are some considerations that will help you use the Song more profitably:

First, for the ancient readers of Song of Songs, monogamous, heterosexual marriage was the proper context for sexual activity according to God’s revelation. The Song’s attitude is the very antithesis of unfaithfulness, either before or after marriage.

Second, the closest parallels to the Song of Songs are found in the love poetry of the Ancient Near East. These were probably sung at weddings and had a strong moral overtone and focused on harnessing love in the right context.

Third, read the Song as suggesting godly choices rather than describing them in a technical manner.

Fourth, be aware that the Song focuses on very different values from those of our modern culture. Today, the focus is on techniques and not about virtuous romance that leads to lifelong marriage. Our culture encourages people to fulfil themselves, whereas the Song is concerned with how one person can respond faithfully to the attractiveness of and fulfil the needs of another.

Bonus links

First, two posts on Proverbs 22:6: Is Proverbs 22:6 a Guarantee? and The Problem With Misinterpreting Wisdom Literature.

I benefitted greatly from this scholarly article on how Song of Songs (1) is a song (2) about human love (3) found in the Bible (4) written to give us wisdom. For balance, here’s a counterpoint.

Finally, Why Would God Permit Solomon to Fall So?

The Psalms: Israel’s prayers and ours

These are my notes on Chapter 11 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

The psalms contain words spoken to God and about God. So how do these words to God function as a word from God for us? They help us express ourselves to God and to consider His ways.

Some preliminary exegetical observations

Special care needs to be taken in understanding the Psalms’ nature: their various types, their forms and function.

The psalms as poetry

Things to remember:

  1. The language of Hebrew poetry is intentionally emotive, therefore one needs to be careful not to over-exegete what is said.
  2. The psalms are musical poems. They are intended to evoke feelings rather than teach doctrine (though they do contain and reflect doctrine).
  3. The vocabulary of poetry is purposefully metaphorical. It is therefore important to look for the intent of the metaphor, and not to take the metaphor too literally.

The psalms as literature

Literary features of the psalms:

  1. There are different types of psalms—laments, thanksgiving, etc.
  2. Each psalm has a form/structure that follows the characteristics of its type.
  3. Each type of psalm had a specific function, for example you wouldn’t recite a royal psalm at a wedding.
  4. One must learn to recognise various patterns within the psalms—repetition of words and sounds, use of acrostics, etc.
  5. Psalms must be read as literary units, not atomised into single verses. Each psalm has a pattern in which ideas are presented, developed and brought to some kind of conclusion

The use of psalms in ancient Israel

They were functional songs used in temple worship, though their use eventually spread beyond the temple. From the NT we know that Jesus and His disciples sang them. Similarly, Paul encourages the early believers in their use (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16).

The types of psalms

It is possible to group them into 7 categories which may overlap somewhat.

Laments

These form the largest group in the psalter. They express struggle and suffering or disappointment to the Lord. They may be individual (Psalms 3, 22, 31, 39, 42, 57, 71, 12, 139, 142, etc.) or corporate (Psalms 12, 44, 80, 94, 137, etc.).

Thanksgiving psalms

These express joy to the Lord. They may also be individual (Psalms 18, 30, 32, 34, 40, 66, 92, 116, 118, 138) or corporate (Psalms 65, 67, 75, 107, 124, 136).

Hymns of praise

These centre on praise to God without particular reference to previous miseries. God is praised as Creator in Psalms 8, 19, 104 and 148. He is praised as protector and benefactor of Israel in Psalms 66, 100, 111, 114 and 149. He is praised as Lord of history in Psalms 33, 103, 117, 145-147.

Salvation history psalms

They review a history of God’s saving works among the people of Israel (Psalms 78, 105, 106, 135, 136, etc.)

Psalms of celebration and affirmation

These include:

  • Covenant renewal liturgies such as Psalms 50 and 81;
  • Royal psalms, which deal specifically with the kingship (Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110 and 144). Psalm 18 is a royal thanksgiving psalm while Psalm 144 is a royal lament.
  • Enthronement psalms – Psalms 24, 29, 47, 93, 95-99.
  • Songs of Zion/songs of the City of Jerusalem (Psalms 46, 48, 76, 84, 87 and 122)

Wisdom psalms

We can place Psalms 36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128 and 133 in this category

Songs of trust

These centre their attention on the trustworthiness of God, even in times of despair (Psalms 11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125 and 131).

A special note on the “imprecatory psalms”

Elements of imprecation may be found in parts of Psalms 3, 12, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 83, 109, 137 and 140.

They use hyperbolic language to honestly express anger.

Some concluding hermeneutical observations

3 basic benefits of the psalms

  • First, as a guide to worship.
  • Second, as a demonstration of how we can relate honestly to God.
  • Third, they invite us to reflect and meditate upon things that God has done for us.

A caution

The Psalms don’t guarantee a pleasant life. David, author of many psalms, lived a life that was anything but trouble-free. Yet he praises (and laments) enthusiastically.

The Prophets: Enforcing the covenant in Israel

These are my notes on Chapter 10 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

The writing prophets ministered between about 760 and 460 B.C.

The nature of prophecy

The prophets are difficult to interpret mainly due to misunderstandings about their function and form.

The meaning of prophecy

For most people, prophecy means ‘foretelling or prediction of what is to come’. Using the prophets in this way is highly selective, for less than 2% of OT prophecy is messianic; less than 5% describes the new covenant age and less than 1% concerns events yet to come.

The prophets usually announced the immediate future of Judah, Israel and the surrounding nations, rather than our future. Those events were future for them but past for us.

The prophets as spokespersons

Their primary function was to speak for God to their own contemporaries. Of the hundreds of prophets in Israel, we have the writings of only 16. We know a lot about what Elijah and Elisha did, but comparatively little of what they said.

The problem of history

The problem of historical distance also complicates our understanding of the prophets.

The function of prophecy

3 things must be emphasised:

The prophets were covenant enforcement mediators. God gave His law and enforces it: positive enforcement takes the form of blessing, negative enforcement that of curse. God announced the enforcement through the prophets so that the ensuing positive or negative events would be understood by the people.

The prophets didn’t invent the blessings or curses they announced. They may have worded them in novel ways, but always on the basis of and in accordance with Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 4 and Deuteronomy 28-32.

The blessings and curses were always corporate, referring to the nation as a whole rather than to individuals. The majority of prophetic announcements in the 8th, 7th and early 6th centuries B.C. is curse, as God sought to get His people to repent. After the destruction of the two kingdoms (722 B.C. and 587 B.C.) the prophets spoke more blessings because the punishment was complete.

The prophets’ message wasn’t their own but God’s. God raised up the prophets, they didn’t take it upon themselves. They regularly preface, conclude or punctuate their oracles with, “Thus says the Lord.”

The prophets’ message is unoriginal. In essence, their message was the same as delivered by God through Moses. They didn’t announce any doctrines not already contained in the Pentateuch.

What of the messianic prophecies? Are those new? Not at all. The concept of Messiah originated in the Law. What was new was the detail about the life and role of Messiah.

The exegetical task

The need for outside help

Some parts of the Bible—the prophets included—require time and patient study to understand. You may find help in Bible dictionaries, commentaries and Bible handbooks.

The historical context

You need to understand both the prophets’ era and the context of a single oracle.

The larger context: Why is there such a concentrated writing down of prophetic words during the centuries between Amos (ca. 760 B.C.) and Malachi (ca. 460 B.C.)? The answer is that this period in Israel’s history called especially for covenant enforcement mediation. A second answer is God’s desire to record those oracles for posterity.

Those years were characterised by:

  • Political, military, economic and social upheaval;
  • Enormous religious unfaithfulness;
  • Shifts in populations and national boundaries.

The prophets spoke in large measure directly to these events.

Specific contexts: A knowledge of the date, audience and situation (where known) contributes substantially to understanding an oracle.

The isolation of individual oracles

The words spoken by the prophets at various times and places are written down without any indication as to where one oracle ends and another begins. There are exceptions: Haggai, Zechariah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel have dated prophecies.

Changes of subject and chapter divisions aren’t reliable indicators to the separation of oracles.

The forms of prophetic utterance

The prophets employed a variety of literary forms. 3 of the most common are:

The lawsuit, for example Isaiah 3:13-26, Hosea 3:3-17. God is portrayed as the plaintiff, prosecuting attorney and judge against the defendant, Israel. The lawsuit form contains a summons, a charge, evidence and a verdict, though some of these features may not be explicit.

The woe, e.g. Habakkuk 2:6-8, Micah 2:1-5, Zephaniah 2:5-7. Woe oracles implicitly or explicitly contain an announcement of distress, the reason for distress and a prediction of doom.

The promise, e.g. Amos 9:11-15, Hosea 2:16-20, Isaiah 45:1-7, Jeremiah 31:1-9. This contains a reference to the future, a mention of radical change and blessing.

The prophets as poets

The use of poetry aided recall in an age when the private ownership of books was virtually unknown. The main feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, which can be of various types (synonymous, antithetical and synthetic).

Some hermeneutical suggestions

What is God’s word to us through these inspired oracles, spoken in another time to God’s people? Once we understand what God said to them then, we’ll hear it again in our own settings.

A caution: The prophet as foreteller of the future

The prophets’ messages were concentrated on the near rather than the distant future. For example, the oracles of Ezekiel 25-39 were largely fulfilled within decades of their delivery. An exception would be Ezekiel 37:15-28, describing the new covenant age.

Note that some of the prophecies of the near future were set against the background of the great eschatological future, and sometimes they seem to blend.

A concern: Prophecy and second meanings

Sometimes the NT makes reference to OT passages that don’t appear to refer to what the NT says they do, e.g. Matthew 2:15 and Hosea 11:1. Matthew had authoritative inspiration from the same Spirit who inspired Hosea. We don’t.

A final benefit: The dual emphasis on orthodoxy and orthopraxy

Orthodoxy is correct belief; orthopraxy is correct action. Through the prophets, God calls His people to a balance of right belief and action. The same goes for new covenant believers (James 1:27, 2:18; Ephesians 2:8-10). For those who obey the result will be blessing, and a curse for those who disobey.

The parables: Do you get the point?

These are my notes on Chapter 8 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

Everything said in chapter 7 hold true for the parables.

The parables in history

The reason for their misinterpretation comes from a misunderstanding of Mark 4:10-12 (parallels in Matthew 13:10-13, Luke 8:9-10). The conclusion made was that the real meanings of the parables could only be uncovered by people inside the church, and that by means of allegory.

It is extremely doubtful that the parables were intended for an inner circle. The lawyer to whom Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) understood it, as did the chief priests and Pharisees the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:45).

Our failure to understand the parables isn’t because we lack the interpretative key. Our first assumption should be that Jesus fully intended to be understood.

The nature of parables

The variety of kinds

  1. True parable – for example, the Good Samaritan. It is a story with a beginning, ending and plot.
  2. Similitude – for example, the leaven in the meal (Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:20-21). What is said of the leaven, or the mustard seed is always true of them. Similitude parables are more like illustrations taken from everyday life in order to make a point.
  3. Metaphors and similes – for example, “You are the salt of the earth.” These are similar to the similitudes, but their point is quite different.
  4. Epigram – for example, “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”

As there are various kinds of parables, there are no interpretative rules that will cover them all.

How the parables function

The story parables serve as a means of calling forth a response from the hearers. Interpreting a parable is sometimes like interpreting a joke—when everything is explained, it doesn’t “catch” the hearer. It no longer has the same impact. Our main task is to recapture the punch of the parables in our time and setting.

The exegesis of the parables

Finding the points of reference

The two things that capture the hearer of a joke (or parable) are their knowledge of the points of reference and the unexpected turn in the story.

In the parable Jesus tells at the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:40-42), the 3 points of reference are the moneylender and the two debtors. The identifications are simple: God is the moneylender while Simon and the woman are the debtors. The parable called for a response from Simon, which he could have hardly missed. A response of a different nature was called for from the woman.

Identifying the audience

Many parables have come down to us with the audience given. In such cases, the steps to follow are:

  1. Listen to the parable again and again;
  2. Identify the points of reference intended by Jesus that the original audience would have picked up;
  3. Try to determine how the original hearers would have identified with the story and what they would have heard.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son the point is that God freely forgives the lost and accepts them with great joy.

The ‘contextless’ parables

Again, try to determine the points of reference and the original audience. Reading repeatedly may help bring out the points of reference, thus giving a clue as to the audience.

The parables of the kingdom

These are those that say, “The kingdom of God is like…” The whole parable, not just one of the points of reference, tells us something about the nature of the kingdom. These parables are both teaching vehicles as well as a means of calling for a response.

In the parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-8) the point is that the man acted and did something about his situation. The point of application is that the urgency of the hour demands action in the form of repentance.

The hermeneutical question

When they were originally spoken, the parables seldom needed interpretation. They had an immediacy we lack. What can we do?

  1. Translate the same point into our own context. Retell the story with new points of reference such that contemporary listeners might feel the same emotions experienced by the original hearers. Be sure to do your exegesis carefully before attempting this!
  2. All of Jesus’ parables are in some way proclaiming the kingdom. Hence it is necessary to immerse oneself in the meaning of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus.

The Gospels: One story, many dimensions

These are my notes on Chapter 7 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

The materials in the gospels may be divided into sayings (teachings of Jesus) and narratives (stories about Jesus). Therefore it is possible to apply the principles to interpreting the epistles to the former and the principles of historical narrative to the latter. But there are some sticky points: the “hard sayings” and the concept of the kingdom of God, for example.

The nature of the gospels

Almost all the difficulties in interpreting the gospels stem from 2 facts:

  • Jesus Himself didn’t write a gospel,
  • There are four of them.

Since Jesus didn’t write the gospels we have both a narrative of His life and large block of His teaching. But the sayings, originally in Aramaic, were translated into Greek. The same saying may be found in more than one gospel, sometimes with different wording.

Why four gospels? At least one answer is that different Christian communities each had a need for a book about Jesus. All this was orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. In each gospel the interest in Jesus is at two levels: First, the purely historical concern; second, the need to retell the story for future generations. They record the facts about Jesus, recall His teachings and bear witness to Him.

Exegesis of the gospels requires us to think both in terms of the historical setting of Jesus and that of the authors.

The historical context

The first task of exegesis is to have an awareness of the historical context.

The historical context of Jesus – in general

In order to understand Jesus, you need to know the first-century Judaism of which He was a part. For this, there’s no alternative to good outside reading.

One overlooked feature of Jesus’ historical context is the form of His teaching. He used parables, but also hyperbole (Matthew 5:29-30), proverbs (Matthew 6:21; Mark 3:24), similes and metaphors (Matthew 10:16, 5:13), poetry (Matthew 7:6-8; Luke 6:27-28), questions (Matthew 17:25), irony (Matthew 16:2-3), etc.

The historical context of Jesus – in particular

The difficulty here is that many of Jesus’ sayings and teachings were transmitted without their contexts. For example, Matthew 10 has a block of teaching whose sayings are scattered throughout Luke’s gospel. This suggests that the evangelists, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, gave the sayings their present contexts.

The historical context of the evangelist

This refers to the historical context of each author that prompted him to write a gospel in the first place. Of the things we can be sure about is each evangelist’s interests and concerns by the way he selected, shaped and arranged his materials.

The literary context

This has to do with the place of a given pericope in the context of any one of the gospels.

Interpreting the individual pericopes

Because of the unique nature of the gospels one must think horizontally as well as vertically.

Thinking horizontally means being aware of the parallel accounts in the other gospels. Caution: take care not to harmonise, thus blurring the distinctives of each gospel.

The parallels will often give us an appreciation for the distinctives of any one gospel. Second, the parallels will help us to be aware of the different kinds of contexts in which the same or similar materials lived in the on-going church.

A common, but unlikely, presupposition is that each gospel was written independently of the others. For one, there is a high degree of verbal similarity between Matthew, Mark and Luke. While these three are interdependent in some way, John’s gospel is an independent retelling of the story of Jesus.

Thinking vertically means being aware of both historical contexts (that of Jesus and of the evangelist). Caution: don’t go into reconstructing Jesus’ life, à la the historical Jesus.

Interpreting the gospels as wholes

The evangelists were authors in the sense that with the Holy Spirit’s help they creatively structured and rewrote the material available to them to meet the needs of their needs of their readers. So one needs to be aware of each evangelist’s compositional concerns and technique.

Three principles are at work in the composition of the gospels: selectivity, arrangement and adaptation. They selected those narratives and teachings that suited their purposes (John 20:30-31, 21:25). At the same time, they had special interests—John for example tells us his: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God” (20:31).

The principle of adaptation explains most of the so-called discrepancies. In the cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-25; Matthew 21:18-22), Mark is concerned with the story’s symbolic theological significance (a similar judgment is pronounced on Judaism through the cleansing of the temple) while Matthew’s emphasis is on faith, so he relates the cursing and the withering together to emphasise this point.

Some hermeneutical observations

The teachings and imperatives

The same principles for the epistles apply.

On the question of cultural relativity, Jesus’ imperatives aren’t like the OT law. They are descriptions, by way of command, of what Christian life should be like because of God’s prior acceptance of us.

The narratives

These function in more than one way. The miracle stories aren’t recorded to offer morals or to serve as precedents. Rather, they function as illustrations of the power of the kingdom breaking in through Jesus’ ministry. However, stories such as that of the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22 and parallels) are placed in the context of teaching where the story itself serves as an illustration of what is being taught. The point of this story isn’t that followers of Jesus should sell all their possessions (see Luke 5:27-30; 8:3; Mark 14:3-9), but that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

A final, very important word

One dare not think he or she can properly interpret the gospel without a clear understanding of the concept of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus.

Acts: The question of historical precedent

These are my notes on Chapter 6 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

Almost everything said in chapter 5 applies to Acts as well. However, most Christians don’t read Acts in the same way as 2 Samuel, hence the need for a separate chapter.

While we seldom think of OT histories as serving patterns for our lives, we do so with Acts. This chapter aims to offer some hermeneutical suggestions for the problem of biblical precedents.

The exegesis of Acts

Many people come to Acts wanting to know what the early Christians were like so that they may inspire us or serve as models.

Acts as history

The Hellenistic historiography of the time was written both to encourage and to entertain (i.e. to be good reading) and to inform, moralise, or offer an apologetic. Luke-Acts does this, but there’s also divine activity going on in the story. This divine activity begins with Jesus and continues with the Holy Spirit.

Exegesis of Acts therefore includes not only purely historical questions like, “What happened?” but also theological ones such as “What was Luke’s purpose in selecting and shaping the material in this way?”

If Luke’s intent was to lay down a pattern for the church at all times, then we need to ask different hermeneutical questions as compared to if that wasn’t his intent.

The first step in exegesis is to read and make observations. Make note of such things as key people and places, and recurring motifs.

Acts: an overview

Natural divisions in Acts are given by Luke’s summary statements in 6:7, 9:31, 12:24, 16:4 and 19:20. In each case, the narrative seems to pause before taking off in a new direction.

On the basis of this Acts can be divided into 6 sections, starting in Jerusalem and ending in Rome. Here’s how each section contributes to this movement:

  • 1:1-6:7 – The church in Jerusalem. Everything is Jewish, from the sermons to the opposition. Early believers continued associating with the temple and synagogue.
  • 6:8-9:31 – The first geographical expansion carried out by Greek-speaking Jews. The catalyst for this expansion is Stephen’s martyrdom.
  • 9:32-12:24 – first expansion to the Gentiles (Cornelius and the church at Antioch)
  • 12:25-16:5 – First geographical expansion into the Gentile world, with Paul in leadership. There’s Jewish rejection of the gospel and the Jerusalem Council (non-rejection of Gentiles)
  • 16:6-19:20 – Expansion of the gospel westward into Europe. More Jewish rejection and Gentile acceptance of the gospel.
  • 19:21-28:30 – Events that move Paul and the gospel to Rome.

Notice that at every key juncture and in every key person, the Holy Spirit plays the absolutely key role. This forward movement did not happen by human design but because God willed it and the Holy Spirit carried it out.

Luke’s purpose

A few observations:

  1. The key to understanding Acts seems to be Luke’s interest in the movement of the gospel from its roots in Jerusalem and Judaism to becoming a worldwide and predominantly Gentile phenomenon.
  2. This interest in movement is corroborated by what Luke does not tell us, such as the spread of the gospel in other geographical areas. There’s no mention of Crete (Titus 1:5), Illyricum (Romans 15:19) or Pontus, Cappadocia and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).
  3. Luke doesn’t seem interested in bringing everything into uniformity. Water baptism sometimes precedes, sometimes follows baptism in the Spirit. Baptism in the Spirit is sometimes accompanied by the laying on of hands, sometimes it isn’t.
  4. That said, much of Acts is intended by Luke to serve as a model. But the model is not so much in the specifics as in the overall picture.

The hermeneutics of Acts

The main question is: do the narratives in Acts function as precedents for the later church? The problem that arises in answering this is the selectivity applied by Christians over the centuries.

Some general principles

The authors’ [Fee & Stuart] hypothesis is that Luke’s intent was to show how the church emerged as a chiefly Gentile worldwide phenomenon from its origin as a Jerusalem-based, Judaism-oriented sect of Jewish believers, and how the Holy Spirit was directly responsible for this.

Thus the specific details in the narratives are mostly incidental to the narrative and not normative.

  1. The word of God in Acts that may be regarded as normative for Christians is related primarily to what any given narrative was intended to teach.
  2. What is incidental to the primary intent of the narrative may indeed reflect an inspired author’s understanding of things, but it does not have the same didactic value as what the narrative intended to teach.
  3. Historical precedent, to have normative value, must be related to intent.

Some specific principles

  1. It is probably never valid to use an analogy based on biblical precedent as giving biblical authority for present-day actions. For example, God graciously condescended to Gideon’s fleece, and He may do so for others, but there is no biblical encouragement for such actions.
  2. Although it may not have been the author’s primary purpose, biblical narratives do have illustrative and “pattern” value. However, if one wishes to use a biblical precedent to justify some present action, one is on safer ground if the principle of the action is taught elsewhere.
  3. In matters of Christian experience and practice, biblical precedents may sometimes be regarded as repeatable patterns—even if they are not understood to be normative.
    The decision as to whether certain practices or patterns are repeatable should be guided by the following considerations. First, the strongest case can be made when only one pattern is found and when that pattern is repeated within the NT itself. Second, when there is an ambiguity of patterns or when it occurs only once, it is repeatable only if it is in harmony with what is taught elsewhere in scripture. Third, what is culturally conditioned is either not repeatable at all, or must be translated into the new/differing culture.