You will know the truth

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

Why do Christians who read the same Bible and trust the same Bible have different versions of the truth? I’m not asking about people who read the Bible and purposely edit what they read to suit their purposes. I’m asking about people who expect to find the truth in God’s Word, yet disagree with each other about what that Word says and means.

For fans of big words, the answer to this question lies in hermeneutics. In simpler terms, even faithful Christians may approach the Bible in different ways, having different assumptions about what the Bible contains. One Christian may treat the Bible as a rulebook and may search the Scriptures looking for rules and regulations. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as examples of what happens when one person obeys God’s rules and when another person breaks God’s rules. Another Christian may treat the Bible as a set of promises from God. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as people acting out God’s plan of salvation. To the first reader, Genesis 22 (Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac) shows a believer giving his best to the Lord. To the second reader, the same chapter shows Abraham and Isaac acting out the drama of Good Friday, as a father is prepared to sacrifice his son.

How do we know which approach is correct? The best answer is, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” When a reader is confused about one passage in the Bible, that reader searches for other parts of the Bible that address the same topic. The other passages add clarity to the message of the confusing passage. To understand the apocalyptic language of the book of Revelation, a reader should be guided by the clear teachings of Christ in Matthew 24 & 25 and those of Paul in I Thessalonians 4 & 5.

Of the various mistakes that many Christians make while reading their Bibles, the two most common (at least in western culture) is to trust their reason and to trust their feelings. Both reason and feelings (head and heart) are important when reading the Bible, but reason and feelings should both be shaped by the words of God, not the other way around. Reason is a tool that helps the reader to interpret the Bible correctly; it assists in leading to other passages that provide clarity. Feeling is a tool that helps to apply the message of the Bible to a person’s life. God’s commandments can prompt a sense of sorrow which leads to repentance; God’s promises can prompt a sense of joy which accompanies faith. But so long as we live in this sin-polluted world, both reason and feeling are tainted by sin. Our heads and our hearts, even after we come to faith, are unreliable guides to truth. Both should be placed under Christ’s Lordship; both should be ready to surrender to the Bible’s message even when that message seems wrong to the head or to the heart.

Reason rejects paradox, but many of God’s truths are paradoxes. God is one, but he is three Persons. Christ is entirely God and entirely human, yet he is one Person, one Christ. The Bible is God’s Word, entirely trustworthy and true, yet God delivered that Word through human individuals who each had his own style of writing. Every attempt to make these teachings reasonable results in false teaching. One Christian makes the Father, Son, and Spirit sound like three gods rather than one God. The next Christian reasons that the three Persons are simply the same God under different names—that Jesus is the Father and the Spirit as well as the Son. Both approaches sound reasonable; both are wrong.

Feeling can carry a Christian many directions away from the truth. One Christian reads the commandments, begins to repent, and is overcome by sorrow and guilt which blocks true repentance and keeps that Christian from hearing the promises of God. Another Christian, having felt the joy that accompanies faith, yearns to continue in that joy. That reader avoids the passages that speak of sin and judgment and so avoids the guidance that God’s Law provides for our lives on earth.

Everything should be judged by the Bible, the messages God delivered to the world and to his people through Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. Any dream, any vision, any message that claims to come from God (whether audible or heard only within) should be compared to the Bible, which we know comes from God and is trustworthy and true. A message that seeks to change the message of the Bible—whether by direct contradiction or by subtle reinterpretation of the Bible—is not a message from the God who gave us the Bible. Even if that message makes sense to our heads or feels good in our hearts, the Christian must still “test the spirits” (I John 4:1-3) to be certain that the message is not false.

Head and heart are important parts of our beings. They were created by God and have been redeemed by Christ. We use them both to find God’s Word in the Bible and apply that Word to our lives. But, until Christ appears and makes everything new, neither can be trusted in the same way the Bible should be trusted. Scripture interprets Scripture—only by this rule can we come to know the truth and to receive freedom through that truth. J.

Christ in Genesis

My summer writing project failed to happen this year, due to various other projects and distractions. This post introduces an occasional series of summaries of what the summer writing project would have contained.

The entire Bible, from beginning to end, is about Jesus. People read and study the Bible for other reasons, but the primary reason God gave us the Bible was to teach us about our Redeemer. Whenever we read the Bible, no matter which part of it we are reading, we should expect to encounter Jesus.

This collection of essays, “Christ in Genesis,” shows how our Redeemer can be found in the first book of the Bible. Some people read Genesis seeking only historical information about the past. The historic information it contains is accurate, but as a world history it is incomplete. Many important nations and empires are lumped together as “the nations” or encompassed as “the ends of the earth.” Some people read Genesis seeking only literature. The book of Genesis contains fine literature which can be studied in the usual way. When people say that the Bible is more than literature, they (usually) do not mean that it is less than literature. Some people read Genesis looking for moral lessons about the commands of God and the consequences of obeying or disobeying those commands. Those lessons can be found and they are useful for correcting and rebuking sinners, but even they are not the central message of Genesis. Like every part of the Bible, the book of Genesis was written that we may know Jesus and, believing in him, receive eternal life (John 20:31).

Before beginning, though, the words in the title must be defined. By “Christ,” I mean the Son of God, equal to God the Father in power and glory, wisdom and holiness–eternal, unchanging, and present everywhere in the universe. The same Christ is human, completely like every other human being, except that he never sinned. He was born at a certain time and place, he grew from a baby into a boy and then into a man, and he faced every temptation that is common to all people. He fell into the power of his enemies and was tortured and killed. The same weekend that he died, though, he rose from the dead to prove himself to be God’s Son, the world’s Redeemer, and Victor over evil in all its forms. He rules the universe today and will return on a Day known only to God, when he will judge all people and inaugurate a new and eternal world, a restoration of God’s perfect creation.

By “Genesis,” I mean the first book of the Hebrew Bible, which is also the first book of the Christian New Testament. Moses is traditionally considered to be the author of Genesis through Deuteronomy, a tradition affirmed by Jesus (Mark 12:26, for example). Originally written in Hebrew, the book of Genesis has been translated into other languages, including a number of English translations. In these essays, Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This collection of essays is not intended to be a comprehensive commentary on the book of Genesis. I will not be dealing with difficult questions such as the meaning of “day” in the first chapter of Genesis. I will be skipping entire chapters which are significant to the accounts of the book of Genesis but less relevant to my chosen theme. I do not plan to address alternate theories about the authorship of Genesis or the context in which it was created.

Perhaps the most significant word in the title, though, is the word “in.” Translators and interpreters of the Bible–or of any significant texts–find that the proper understanding of prepositions is a challenging but necessary skill. When I say that Christ is in Genesis, I mean that he is present in three significant ways.

First, the promise of his coming and of his messianic mission of redemption appears several times in Genesis. A promise is clearly stated before Adam and Eve after they have confessed their sin–this promise will later be fulfilled by Christ. God makes a promise to Abraham and repeats it to Isaac and to Jacob–this promise also will be fulfilled by Christ. Jacob foresees a Redeemer and King coming from the family of Judah–this promise likewise will be fulfilled by Christ.

Christ is also present in Genesis as the eternal, unchanging, and omnipresent Son of God. Many interpreters of Genesis speak of a preincarnate Christ. They mean that Jesus was present in a human form but not as a human being, since he had not yet been conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. They forget that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). According to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, at the time of his ascension Jesus filled the universe in every way (Ephesians 4:10). This means that he fills time as well as space. In other words, the human body of Jesus traveled backward in time to wrestle Jacob, to eat with Abraham, and even to form Adam’s body in the Garden of Eden. From his point of view, of course, Jesus did not travel through time, since he is present in every time and in every place. From our point of view, though, we can say that the human body of Jesus traveled through time.

John writes, “No one has ever seen God [the Father]; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). From this I conclude that every contact a person had with God as described in the Old Testament was contact with Jesus. Several books in the Old Testament mention the LORD (in Hebrew, Yahweh or Jehovah), the Angel of the LORD, and the Spirit of the LORD. As the Spirit of the LORD can easily be recognized as God the Holy Spirit, so the Angel of the LORD is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who has made the LORD known to his people.

Christ is found in Genesis in a third way. Many of the events recorded in the book of Genesis depict the work that Jesus would do to redeem sinners. I am not suggesting that the events in Genesis are not historically true; I am saying that these events are also pictures of Christ. In some cases, New Testament writings connect people and events from Genesis with Christ. In other cases, Christians from ancient times or from more recent times have noticed the connections. To avoid confusion, I am not using technical terms to describe these pictures or connections. However I am convinced that these pictures and connections are helpful to believers who know how Christ fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament, and also that they were helpful to believers who lived before Christ was born and who were still expecting the promised Redeemer.

Every part of the Bible is about Jesus. This is as true of the book of Genesis as it is true of the Gospels or the Epistles of the New Testament. Readers who encounter Christ in Genesis will better understand what is said of him in the Gospels and Epistles. The marvelous way in which Scripture interprets Scripture–the more difficult portions of the Bible being explained by the clearer passages–allows Christians to see Christ in Genesis in a way that nonbelievers are unlikely to perceive.

About last weekend–reading and writing

Reading and writing were two goals I had for this long weekend. On Tuesday morning, I look back at the past three days, and I see a glass half-full and half-empty. I did some good reading and some acceptable writing, but a lot of other tasks went undone.

Over the weekend I composed a two-part essay on post-modernism and Christian faith. The second part is not finished, and the whole essay needs more polishing. I might not ever post or publish what I wrote this weekend, but at least it has helped me to focus a bit more on these issues.

Among the things I read this weekend were portions of a writer’s notebook I created when I was younger (so much younger than today…). Back then I kept track of my short story ideas by swirling them together in a longer work in which they occasionally became entangled with each other. Part of the inspiration for this style came from Arthur Hailey (Airport and Hotel) and Allen Drury (Advise and Consent and its sequels), but a stronger influence was Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions), with his minimalist approach to description. Friends who read portions of this notebook compared it favorably to Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), whose work I had not read when I started that notebook. This weekend I’m reading through this older writing to see if anything can be culled from the various plots and characters to stand alone as a short story. If I find anything I like, I will share it.

Last month I created a new WordPress blog containing a book I wrote a few years ago for a class I was teaching. The blog is not quite complete—I’ve not had time to read every post to make sure that I didn’t drop or repeat sections when uploading it, and I’ve not selected tags and categories for it yet. If you’re interested, though, you can find it here. The class was for church workers and was called Principles of Bible Interpretation. Technically, the subject was hermeneutics, but I tried to avoid technical terms in the book. (Exegesis is reading the Bible to learn its message—the “what” of Bible reading—and hermeneutics is the rules by which we read—the “how” of Bible reading.) Of the books selected by the program directors for teaching this course, one book was meant for graduate students, and the others (though more readable) disagreed with key teachings of my denomination of Christianity. Hence I wrote and used this book, trying to make it both approachable and doctrinally correct. It has since been used by another teacher of the same course. I thought I would make it available as a free online book. At first I called it “How to Read the Bible,” but the proper title of this book is “It’s All About Jesus: A Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Bible.” I hope you will take a look. J.