Horrible Hal

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Horrible Hal – Audio Version

According to a well-positioned and entirely reliable informant, a popular theology instructor at a local educational institution once believed that Jesus Christ was likely to return to Earth before the end of 1988. Someone had convinced him that the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 meant that Jesus could return anytime, but likely no later than 1988. When he returned, Jesus was to take the worldwide Church upward from Earth in an event called the Rapture; and that astonishing event was supposed to transpire no later than the end of 1988. Yet while that year came to pass, the expected Rapture of the Church did not. And now the year 1988 recedes further and further into the past. In retrospect, that same popular theology instructor now looks to that unfulfilled date with both chagrin and wisened dismissiveness — chagrin that he was naïve enough to believe such a silly, errant “the-end-is-nigh” prediction, and wisened dismissiveness for anyone who would again presume to promote speculative eschatology. 

Nonetheless, in spite of repeated misses, the speculators and predictors continue to predict Jesus’ imminent return. And some of them even dare set hard deadlines. Who would be foolish enough to do such a thing? Who would presume to set dates for Jesus’ second coming and promote speculative end-time predictions? If and when the end-of-the-world date-setters are proven wrong — as they invariably are — they make themselves look immensely foolish. They set up themselves and their gullible followers for public ridicule and derisive scorn. And yet one doomsday predictor after another invariably steps forward. They just keep on coming along, predictably mis-predicting that the end is near because Jesus is once again about to return. 

Okay, zany apocalyptic preacher, exactly why should we believe yet another doomsday prediction? What makes you right, unlike everyone who came before you? Is the sky actually falling this time, Reverend Chicken Little? 

Somewhat surprisingly, one of the most famous or infamous of the doomsday-predicting preachers is still active in the ecclesiastical eschatology-speculation business, after fifty-one years of date-setting miscalculations and subsequent adjustments. Yes, although he is now in his early 90s, this particular predictive preacher is still actively at it. He is considered by many to be the very epitome of repetitive eschatological error. And exactly who is this man? At the pinnacle of the heap of nefarious doomsday preachers stands a mustachioed Oklahoman named Hal Lindsey. 

Here, though, is the twist and the kicker. It is something I should perhaps hesitate to admit: I kind of like Hal Lindsey, even respect him. When he speaks about the Bible (even about portions of the Book of Revelation), what he has to say is sound — at least what I have heard. Admittedly, I have only heard and read a little, and should listen to more of what he says. But what I did hear from Hal Lindsey demonstrated real depth of insight. I would even use the descriptive word profound for the recent sermon I watched online. He did not sound like the speculative, slick villain I had been expecting. Yet many Christians have nothing good to say about Hal Lindsey whatsoever.

Let me tell you why. Back in 1970 Hal Lindsey and a co-author wrote a best-selling book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth. It ranks as the 55th best-selling book of all time. And it was on basis of The Late Great Planet Earth that many prophecy-speculators began to believe that Jesus would probably (or definitely) return by 1988. However, this particular speculation fell flat. What Hal Lindsey suggested might someday happen did not happen, and seemingly cannot happen any longer, simply because the global political scene has changed so much since the 1970s. Over the last fifty years, Lindsey has consequently needed to make some adjustments to his prophetic political scenarios. And after a while, many have tired of such adjustments. 

Yet when he speaks on the Bible, Lindsey is learned, sound, and even profound. How can that possibly be? And what does someone do with that? Someone explains why it is so. In my estimation, the main reason Lindsey has gotten Revelation wrong through the years is because he insists on reading and interpreting Revelation too literally.

If you understand his determination to interpret Revelation as literally as possible, Lindsey makes understandable interpretive mistakes. I would argue that Lindsey makes forgivable interpretive mistakes. Lindsey takes Scripture very seriously, and has been doing his best to make sense of Scripture for over fifty years. But his best-selling book made some errant speculative predictions. In the minds of many, it now stands as a massive embarrassment within Christianity. By virtue of at least one major errant speculation, Lindsey (and his interpretive scions) have given end-times eschatology a bad name.    

That all said, at least some of what Lindsey wrote needs to be given re-consideration. If you understand why Lindsey suggested that Jesus might return by 1988, it actually makes a lot of sense. No, of course, Lindsey wasn’t right about it. And history has long since disproved his speculation. But his argument makes sense, nonetheless. Based on some of Jesus’ cryptic actions and explanations, Lindsey reasonably suggested that the generation that witnesses the re-establishment of the State of Israel must be the generation that sees the return of Christ. Since Israel was re-established in 1948, and since a biblical generation is 40 years (or so Lindsey once believed), Lindsey speculated in The Late Great Planet Earth that Jesus Christ would necessarily return by the end of 1988. To be fair, Lindsey was very careful to hedge his speculation about that particular date. But others after him were not as careful. If Lindsey had been writing in a sad old commentary somewhere, his errant speculation would be just a trivial curiosity. But to date, Lindsey’s book has sold well over 15 million copies. And it has even inspired a unique apocalyptic niche in literature and film. 

Sometimes people will say that Lindsey is a false prophet. In my estimation, that is much too harsh. Lindsey is instead a slightly misguided biblical interpreter. He made and continues to make an honest effort at interpreting some very difficult sections of Scripture. By defaulting to a literal approach in interpreting symbolic prophetic material he and like-minded interpreters continue to bend the scenes from the Book of Revelation to unfolding or expected political events. Sometimes such interpretations may in fact work. Alternatively, such speculative interpretations can be (and have been) disproven by ensuing historical events.

Finally and affirmatively, I must say that I side with Lindsey more than many other Revelation scholars, insofar as I do believe that the Book of Revelation actually does predict the future. It actually does give specific details about future characters and events, and especially those in the political realm. I just believe Lindsey is too intent on defaulting to a forced literal reading of Revelation, when a figurative, symbolic reading actually yields a more coherent message.      

Does It Belong?

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Does It Belong? – Audio Version

Does the Book of Revelation actually belong in the Bible? 

For a while, the canonical status of the Book of Revelation was debated. From the second century to the early fourth century of the Church, Christian leaders were divided on whether the Book of Revelation truly belonged in the New Testament. Revelation was suspect back then for the same reason it is suspect now. The Book of Revelation confuses people. It is hard to understand, and thus lends itself to conjecture and attracts overly-enthusiastic ecclesiastical loony birds. It took a while for a general consensus to emerge that yes, weird though it may be, the Book of Revelation is an authentic prophecy. It is a genuine word from Christ, legitimately inspired by the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ himself really did appear in an authoritative canon-closing vision to an apostle named John while he was in exile on the Island of Patmos.

The fact, though, that some prominent early Christian Bishops were uncertain and hesitant about accepting the legitimacy of the Book of Revelation might prompt latter-day skeptics to second-guess its legitimacy anew. A question quietly crystalizes: “What if they got it wrong? What if those old Churchmen erred when they recognized Revelation as canonical?”

In response to that doubt, I think it is necessary to start by pushing back with a simple assertion: They were not wrong when they gave the Book of Revelation canonical status. They were right. The prophecy rightfully belongs in the New Testament.    

Okay… but my pious opinion and bland assertion will probably not convince anybody. Why should anyone take an unknown blogger’s word for it? So perhaps I ought to do a bit more work to convince my readers.

The first and most obvious test of its legitimacy is its historicity. As a piece of literature, is the Book of Revelation historically accurate? Or does it betray historical inaccuracies? The answer to that is yes, it is entirely historically accurate, and to a degree that does away with any doubt. The more a serious scholar researches the Book of Revelation, the more she or he realizes that it fits exactly in the time and place it claims for itself. No imposter came along later and wrote a bit of fiction that was spuriously spun as legitimate. A skeptic will look in vain for historical inaccuracies. There aren’t any. Go ahead and look into the archeology and cross-reference all the historical records. The Book of Revelation passes the test of historicity with flying colors. It is historical.  

Someone could reply, “Well, maybe so. Maybe it is historical legit; but just because the Book of Revelation is historical does not necessarily mean that John the Exile really had a genuine and authoritative vision of Jesus Christ. He might have just been delusional or tripping. Other than its historicity, on what basis should the Book of Revelation be accepted as canonical?”

Theology. The intricate and nuanced theology of the Book of Revelation establishes it as orthodox and legitimate. This is precisely the point where those crusty old Churchmen had a distinct advantage over many latter-day skeptics. Most of them knew the Bible very well. And their thorough knowledge of the Bible gave them the ability to detect theological deviations. 

Here I will turn to an illustration: Years ago I heard a sermon in which a preacher addressed the question of spiritual counterfeits. How can someone recognize a fake, a counterfeit? As an analogy, he claimed that the people who specialize in currency — in bank notes — are so familiar with the design and construction of authentic bank notes that they can spot the mistakes of counterfeits, and usually with ease. I do not actually know if the preacher was right about that, given that stores here now routinely test bank notes with special ink (and it annoys me when they do), but whatever. His intended point is valid and insightful all the same: Extended and habitual familiarity with the authentic makes it far easier to detect what is inauthentic. Those old Churchmen had extended and habitual familiarity with the content of the Bible. And by virtue of their extended and habitual familiarity with the other 65 books of the Bible they were able to come to a consensus: The Book of Revelation is indeed authentic prophecy. It passes the test of scrupulous theological scrutiny.

How can you be confident of that for yourself, though? Honestly, this point is where determined homework is simply unavoidable. You cannot know with any degree of confidence that the Book of Revelation is actually theologically sound unless you first know the other 65 canonical books of the Bible. This time I will confidently assert that point on the authority of my own extended and habitual familiarity with the Bible. The Book of Revelation definitely belongs in the canon of Scripture. I believe you will come to exactly the same conclusion as you grow in your own knowledge of the Bible.                         

Am I done? I thought I was. But I realize that I need to add one more point.

Academic knowledge, while necessary, is not enough. Academic knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient. There is an intuitive, subjective aspect to spiritual discernment that must be recognized and acknowledged. A theologian named Karl Barth once spoke about hearing the voice of God in Scripture. He said that one can know that the Bible is truly God’s word because God speaks through scripture. Barth even acknowledged that his claim could be called circular reasoning: “I know that the Bible is God’s word because I hear the word of God in the Bible.” Yes, that is a circular argument. But experientially, it is true. I do subjectively hear God speak through the Bible. No, I do not hear God speak audibly; but somehow I do discern the living word of God through Scripture. And it must be said to be subjective, because it only happens on a person-to-person basis. It happens to me, as an individual person, as I delve into Scripture. 

Those crusty old Churchmen had exactly that experience as they read the Book of Revelation, I dare suggest. Individually, they each experienced a nod from God. “Yes, this is the real thing. This is actually Jesus speaking, speaking to each one of us through this document.” Moreover, what validated each one’s subjective experience was the subsequent discovery that others had had the same subjective experience. And that is exactly how the Holy Spirit works — back and forth, individually and corporately, within a believer and in between believers. I hope and pray you have the same subjective experience as you read and listen to the Book of Revelation and the other 65 books of the Bible.  

Propeller Beanie

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Propeller Beanie – Audio Version

The Book of Revelation matters. It matters more than most people realize. The Book of Revelation matters more than most people realize because some of the key events which it describes are current events. Revelation symbolically describes events that you are likely to watch on television today, or read about on your digital device today. Significant portions of the Book of Revelation are not locked in the distant past nor safely set in the distant future, but are instead happening as you read this.

Yep, to make that claim might make me a propeller-beanie wacko. Or it might make me someone with genuine interpretive insight. Take your pick. Actually, don’t take your pick quite yet, because if you decide too quickly you are likely to come to the wrong conclusion. Hear me out instead, please.  

Revelation depicts a lewd prostitute that it calls Babylon, otherwise known as the Great Whore of Babylon. That wealth-obsessed prostitute was actually symbolic of the economically exploitive Roman Empire, back when the Book of Revelation was first written. But that same prostitute is also symbolic of an exploitive economic system that continues to this day. If that is indeed a correct interpretation, then Babylon is in the news every day, and may be soliciting you in your mailbox or inbox.    

Not Exactly a Beanie

Revelation also depicts an overreaching autocrat that it calls the Beast from the Sea, who is known elsewhere in the New Testament as Antichrist. At the time the Book of Revelation was first written that autocrat was personified in the Roman Emperor Domitian. But the Beast from the Sea is also “reincarnated” or reoccurring (figuratively, not literally) as the various self-aggrandizing dictators who have popped up again and again throughout history, including recent history, right up until the present day. If that is indeed a correct interpretation, then the Beast of the Sea is in the news (and potentially eavesdropping on his/her citizens) every single day. The Book of Revelation refers to the ultimate Beast from the Sea as the Beast from the Abyss, who is known elsewhere in the New Testament as the Man of Lawlessness.

Revelation also depicts a quasi-religious entity that it calls the Beast from the Earth, otherwise known as the False Prophet. Back when the Book of Revelation was first written, that False Prophet was especially manifest in the Roman Emperor Cult. But that same False Prophet has been “reincarnated” (figuratively, not literally) as the various quasi-religious institutions and individuals intent on making the populace bow in homage and submission to the Supreme Leader — whichever Supreme Leader, wherever, whenever. If this is indeed a correct interpretation, then the Beast from the Earth works especially in academia and the news media. It can be found throughout the cultural milieu every single day.      

In other words, the Book of Revelation symbolically portrays the world we live in, and is thus much, much more relevant than you might initially realize.

Into the Sea, Mulberry Tree

Monday, March 22, 2021

Into the Sea, Mulberry Tree – Audio Version

What topic shall I blog about next? Writers sometimes find themselves inexplicably incapable of writing anything worthwhile. Tedious spells of doubt and indecision sideline a wanna-be writer. Any attempt at writing languishes. Although the cursor pulses away on the screen, its expectations go unmet, in spite of valiant efforts, and even more valiant, vain efforts. Writer’s block can paralyze productivity for days — can and does. Frustration nibbles and gnaws, nibbles and gnaws some more.

But then, and all of a sudden, the clouds clear. The sun shines. Inspiration occurs. The way ahead appears. Now I know. Yet strangely, I cannot explain how I know. I just do. I know the way ahead now. And I will gratefully take it. ‘Tis enough. I am grateful for the mysterious infusion of inspiration.

And without further ado or segue:

Be uprooted and replanted in the sea, black mulberry tree! Be uprooted and replanted in the sea, black mulberry tree! Be uprooted and replanted in the sea, black mulberry tree!

Jesus told his disciples — his apostles — that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed, they could command “this mulberry tree” to be uprooted and replanted in the sea. If only the apostles had the tiniest speck of mustard-seed faith, it would straightaway occur.

The black mulberry tree is native to the land Jesus once walked. A noticeable and vexing characteristic of the black mulberry tree is its highly aggressive root system. Its roots grow quickly and spread out just beneath the surface, where they can push up against and displace cobblestones, retaining walls, and foundation blocks. Once established, black mulberry trees are next to impossible to uproot. The root system has too much of a grip, too strong of a hold. These stubborn trees are simply not going to be uprooted. 

Jesus was using the black mulberry tree and its expansive root system as a metaphor. The black mulberry tree and its aggressively growing, tenacious root system symbolized something.

What did it symbolize? Rather than speculate, it is best to go read and re-read the passage in context (see Luke 17:1-6). The apostles had just asked Jesus to increase their faith — to increase their faith in… what? The apostles needed to be able to believe in the eventuality of justice, since Jesus had just slammed the door on vindictiveness and vengeance. Consequently, the flabbergasted apostles needed to be able to believe that God would someday bring about justice. Until then and more immediately, they needed to believe that God would give them the fortitude and wherewithal to forgive their enemies, including the Roman occupiers, the tax collectors, their acquaintances, so-called friends, prying relatives, and nagging spouses. Forgive not just a few times, but over and over. They needed a faith booster because Jesus had insisted upon the absolute necessity of offering forgiveness, as often as asked. Seriously, Jesus? Seriously.

Therefore, the black mulberry tree and its roots served as a readily available object lesson. It represented whatever their offenses were and the memories of those offenses. It represented unforgiveness. It represented grudges. It represented repressed resentment. It represented all the negativity that results from being wronged.

God can and will help you with all that. With just a tiny speck of faith (in God), you can tell your roots of resentment to be extracted and replanted in the salty sea. That is what Jesus meant.

Wow. It seems impossible; doesn’t it? That was the point, though. It seems impossible, but is not. What is impossible for us is possible with God. God can give you the fortitude and the wherewithal to forgive, and forgive, and forgive. In practice, it requires a lot of prayer and repeated prayer, I have found. 

Here you have an example of just such a prayer:

Like the flabbergasted apostles, we pray that you increase our faith, o Lord. Help us believe that you will eventually right these awful wrongs and vindicate the victim, even me. Until then and more immediately, give us the wherewithal within ourselves to let go of any offenses, forego any vindictiveness, reconcile with the offender (if possible and where abuse no longer continues), and uproot recurring resentful thoughts. In your powerful name and for your soon-to-be evident glory, we pray. Amen.

Our Opposition

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Our Opposition – Audio Version

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.

1 John 3:8

A good friend asked me to write something about unanswered prayer. Ironically enough, his request to write about the vexing problem of unanswered prayer comes as an answer to a standing prayer of mine. His request gave me a clear sense of which direction to take my blog, which is something I have been feeling unsure about and praying about.

To answer his question about why our prayers sometimes go unanswered (at least seemingly so), I am going to reference and bring together a number of passages from the Bible. At the center, my anchor passage will be Revelation Chapter 10, which in perusal appears to have nothing to do with prayer whatsoever. So it seems, until you study its subtle signposts.    

In a previous blog post entitled The Cast of Chapter Ten, I argued that the Mighty Angel in Revelation Chapter Ten is none other than Jesus Christ himself. Are you skeptical of that claim? I strongly suspect that some of my readers and listeners are initially uncertain about that claim. Why not just accept that the Mighty Angel is an angelic being? I would ask anyone who is skeptical about it to do two things: First, go re-read or re-listen to that blog post. Second, hear me out in this blog post. 

An edible (and yet indigestible) scroll ties Revelation 10:8-10 directly to Ezekiel 3:1-3. In the Prophecy of Ezekiel, Someone enthroned in glory (yet resembling a man: Ezekiel 1:26) hands an edible, script-covered scroll to Ezekiel and instructs him to eat it. In the Book of Revelation, the Mighty Angel (who, incidentally, is described very similarly to the One Enthroned in Ezekiel: compare Ezekiel 1:28 to Revelation 10:1) hands an edible scroll to John and instructs him to eat it. Could this be the one and the same Scroll-Giver in both Ezekiel and Revelation? I do believe so. I will assume so. I assume the celestial Scroll-Giver to be none other than Jesus Christ in both books. Again, I argue for this more thoroughly in my previous post The Cast of Chapter Ten.

If you are willing to tentatively grant me my premise (that in both Ezekiel and in Revelation the Scroll-Giver is Jesus Christ), then I will proceed to introduce an awkward, unsettling, and complicating piece of information, a piece of information that opens up the question of unanswered prayer. This awkward, unsettling, and complicating piece of information truly does complicate things. 

Here I go: Revelation 10 points not just to the introduction of Ezekiel, but also to the closing of Daniel. Revelation 10:5-6 depicts the Mighty Angel as making a solemn oath, in deliberate replay of the angel depicted in Daniel 12:7. In itself, that deliberate replay — that echo — is not a problem. But it becomes awkward for me quickly, because the angel at the end of the Prophecy of Daniel looks less like Jesus Christ and more like a standard-issue angelic being. It would be much better for my argument if it were the other way around.

Consequently, I do not readily admit that, nor point it out. I do not want to admit that because at the end of Daniel we are presented with an angel who comes across as a mere angel, and not Jesus Christ. All the same, Revelation Chapter Ten clearly points its readers not just to the opening of Ezekiel, but also to closing three chapters of Daniel, where we read about or hear about an angel who gets temporarily delayed in a spiritual conflict. That temporary delay poses something of a problem for me. And my whole argument may disintegrate due to it. 

But then again, maybe not. 

Am I getting way ahead of myself? My readers and listeners might not know enough about the angel or angels in the closing chapters of the Prophecy of Daniel, yet. So here is a quick and loose summary: While exiled from his homeland Daniel served as a government official (in multiple foreign administrations) and as a prophet of God (an interesting and unusual combination of occupations). At one point, after reading the Prophecy of Jeremiah, Daniel began praying about the potential reconstruction and restoration of Jerusalem, a city he had not seen for decades, since his youth. In response to Daniel’s prayer, God sent the Angel Gabriel with an answer (see Daniel 9:21). Who did God send? A standard-issue angelic being named Gabriel. And no, the Angel Gabriel is definitely not Jesus Christ. Am I wrong, then, to think that the doppelgänger Mighty Angel in Revelation 10 is Jesus? Might he simply be the Angel Gabriel? Hold on, though. Angelic mix-up is occurring here. Gabriel is not the Mighty Angel’s doppelgänger; another angel/messenger is.

On another and separate occasion Daniel prayed another time. Again, God sent an angelic messenger to answer Daniel’s prayer. But this time, the angel is not named; instead this Angel is said to resemble a man (see Daniel 10:18). You might recall that in Ezekiel the Scroll-Giver is said to resemble a man (see Ezekiel 1:26). Perhaps you can see where I am going with this. Perhaps this Angel — this man-resembling messenger — is said to resemble a man because he is in fact the Son of Man, that is, Jesus Christ. This, then, is not just a doppelgänger. This is the same person, the same individual, the same being. This is Jesus Christ, in Daniel, as in Ezekiel, as in Revelation. Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He just appears to humanity in various guises.

But if so — if the Angel introduced in Daniel 10 is in fact Jesus Christ — then how is it that this divine Angel was delayed by the Prince of Persia for 21 days (see Daniel 10:13)? How is it that Jesus Christ was held up for three weeks? How is it that Jesus Christ required the assistance of a Chief Prince named Michael? That does not compute. Could Jesus Christ really be delayed in spiritual conflict and in need of assistance?

Yes. Yes, he could. If I am interpreting these passages correctly, that is the implication.

What?!? Some of my readers and listeners did not like that answer, not at all. Admittedly, it sounds nigh-to-heretical. If Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, then nothing and no one can stand in his way and hold him up. Jesus Christ does not need anyone’s assistance.

That is true, on this side of the Cross. But somehow the Prince of Persia (who was not a man, but an evil spiritual being) had legal standing and real spiritual authority. At that point in human history, Jesus Christ had not yet defeated the Principalities and Powers of Darkness. Jesus Christ would utterly defeat them later, at the Cross. Yet for some reason, in Daniel’s day, Jesus Christ did not invoke or actualize his full divine authority. It may even be accurate to say that Jesus Christ could not invoke or actualize his divine authority until after he had completed his mission to save humanity. I think this may be because once God sets spiritual rules, He plays by those rules, even if it means He necessarily imposes limits on Himself.

This may all sound slightly crazy and maybe even theologically unsound. But consider the New Testament passages where Jesus confronts demons and evil spirits. They are fully aware of the potential threat he poses to their “turf,” their domain and dominion (see Mark 1:24). And in his temptation of Jesus, Satan himself even claims to have rightful authority over the kingdoms of the world (see Luke 4:5-6). Jesus was an invader who had come to reclaim what they had previously seized in spiritual battle.

Prior to his incarnation and his victory at the cross, then, Jesus’ authority was temporarily restrained. The Prince of Persia, who had real spiritual authority, was able to contest and delay the pre-incarnate Christ. And the pre-incarnate Christ even required the assistance of Michael, an angel. It sounds crazy, I admit. But it might be right.

What does this have to do with prayer? Daniel only got the answer to his prayer after 21 days of intense spiritual warfare. Perhaps that tells us something important. Perhaps some spiritual battles are only won through persistence in prayer. Perhaps we even assist God through our prayers. Perhaps some accomplishments only occur when we partner with God in prayer. If so, it is probably because those are the spiritual rules God has set; and God plays by those rules.

His disciples once asked Jesus why they had been unable to rid a boy of a demon. Jesus’ response (see Mark 9:29) was telling: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” My wife gets a nod and the credit for making the link between this passage in Mark and the conundrum we find in Daniel 10. Thank you, my dear.

As you might guess, I am back to asserting and affirming that the Mighty Angel of Revelation Chapter 10 is one and the same person as the one resembling a man in Ezekiel 1:26 and the angel/messenger resembling a man in Daniel 10:16. 

How does all this help my friend who is perplexed by the problem of unanswered prayer? If nothing else, it tells us that due to unseen spiritual opposition some of our prayers will require patient persistence and even more patient persistence. We know from Scripture — from Ephesians 6:12 in particular — that we struggle not against flesh and blood opponents, but against rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world, against spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms. Since Jesus has already defeated those spiritual forces of evil at the Cross, we are much better positioned than Daniel ever was. And if Daniel was able to secure an answer to his prayer through persistence before Christ’s victory on the Cross, we stand an even better chance of getting answers to our prayers after the Cross.

Hollow and Hallow

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Hollow and Hallow Audio Version

To start, a multiple choice quiz question: Among all possible candidates, who or what is first designated as holy in the Bible? You might want to read that question again, since the wording matters and may determine whether you get the right answer. The words designated as holy especially matter. 

Again, who or what is designated as holy in the Bible first? Is it a) the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters, b) the desert dirt where Moses encounters a burning and yet unburnt shrub, c) the seventh and final day of the creation week, or d) the crown-like turban worn by the tabernacle-tending High Priest? Which of these four is the first thing designated as holy in the Bible?  

This is a tricky question because someone who knows the Bible well will recall that the Spirit of God appears from the get-go. In the second verse of the Bible, the Spirit of God hovers over the face of the waters. And yet the Spirit of God is not actually called the Holy Spirit in Genesis 1:2. We (correctly) infer the word holy from what we know the Bible teaches subsequently about the Spirit.

Interesting enough, but already what is the answer to the quiz? The answer is actually c) the seventh and final day of the creation week, otherwise known as the Sabbath Day. The first thing that is designated as holy in the Bible is the seventh day of the (creation) week. If you have any doubt as to whether I am right about that, feel free to go fact-check. (It’s right, though.)

As you might expect, the word holy appears a lot in the Holy Bible. But I was surprised to learn that the word holy only appears once in the opening book of the Bible — just once in Genesis. The only occurrence of the word holy in the Book of Genesis comes at the end of the initial creation account. If you happen to have the most popular English version of the Bible, the New International Version (abbreviated as the NIV), here is the translation you will find: 

And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating he had done.     

Genesis 2:3

That is how the translation committee for the NIV rendered Genesis 2:3. It is not a bad translation. But they made a few interpretive decisions that broke from translation tradition. More about that in just a bit. But first I want to talk about chapter breaks in the Bible. 

Page space used to be a big concern for scribes, who worked by hand and not by keyboard. Nowadays, unless someone is a bit neurotic, hollow page space concerns us little, if at all. I do not care if I leave empty, hollow space on a virtual page. I do not feel the need to fill it. However, way back when, writing materials were prohibitively expensive and hard to come by. To be economical, scribes would often try to fill as much parchment space or vellum (that is, animal hide) space as possible. As a consequence, words and sentences were “smashed together,” that is, written with the least amount of empty, hollow space possible; and paragraph breaks were sometimes non-existent. Examples of compacted sentences in early New Testament manuscripts can be found relatively easily online. This was especially true of manuscripts that needed to be easily concealable. Empty, hollow page space meant unhelpful additional volume and bulk to a manuscript. Many early Christians wanted to be able to hide their copies of sacred writings, so the more compact, the better. Substantial sectional and paragraph breaks would thus come only later, and especially after Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press led to the establishment of the printing industry in the 1500s. At that point, most literate Christians in Europe no longer needed to bother hiding their Bibles. Compactness was no longer a concern.

An important corollary to this brief history of manuscribal space-usage is that our new-fangled spacious and neatly arranged biblical pages can potentially mislead us. Our current sentence (or verse) breaks, paragraph breaks, and chapter breaks can be somewhat misleading at times. Those breaks may well have come later and as a result of questionable or erroneous editorial decisions. The various breaks you have in your nearest and dearest copy of the Bible should not necessarily be seen as inerrant and inspired by God. Sometimes those breaks can even get in the way of good interpretation. Sectional titles can be especially misleading, because such titles are often interpretive. They are only as good as the inherent interpretation.   

With all that as background information, I want to point out that Genesis 2:3 could possibly be understood as the end of Chapter One. Could possibly be, maybe. In the minds of some interpreters, Genesis 2:3 could have and should have been Genesis 1:34. Again, this is all tentative: possibly, maybe. Rightly or wrongly, someone way back when made the editorial decision to make the chapter break where we find it and have it now. And that editorial decision became set as tradition. And that set tradition, though rather dubious, has held fast. After all, it is often too confusing to abandon a tradition after it has been long established. Similarly and analogously, the metric system has failed to take hold here in the United States, even if the metric system is mathematically easier to use than the old imperial system of measurements. Traditional methods of measurement have too strong of a hold here. By virtue of habituation, miles just make more sense to Americans than kilometers. So we are sticking with miles, and with long-established Bible chapter endings.    

Alternatively (and patriotically?), the traditional chapter break between Genesis Chapter One and Genesis Chapter Two might be correct. The first three verses of Genesis Two might merely serve as a somewhat independent bridge between the creation account in Genesis One and the creation account in Genesis Two. Perhaps the first three verses of Genesis Two are meant to stand alone in some way. It might all seem like an entirely trivial matter, though. It might seem like no big deal, one way or the other. But it is on basis of this question and these sorts of questions that scholars attempt to figure out how the Book of Genesis was once cobbled together (or not cobbled together). You just ought to be aware that interpreters are a bit uncertain (or rather, overly certain) as to the structural placement of the first three verses of Genesis Two. An informed reader has to make an interpretive choice, though. You can choose to attach those three verses to the end of Chapter One, or leave them to stand alone as a kind of bridge between the two chapters. So you might want to re-read the section in context and decide for yourself. I lean towards the option of attaching those three verses to the end of Chapter One. But I might be persuaded otherwise.

Oh yeah, now I remember. I am supposed to say something about how the translators of the NIV diverged from tradition with their translation of Genesis 2:3. With one key word, the NIV translators decided against a one-for-one translation and went with a dynamically equivalent phrase instead. In Genesis 2:3 God designates the seventh day of creation as holy. But really, the Hebrew says that God “holy-ized” or “holy-fied” it. We do not have a good verb for holy in English. The closest verb we have in English is now archaic. It is not used much anymore. That verb is hallow, as in “hallowed be thy Name.” So if and when English Bible translators do choose a one-for-one interpretation, they have but three words to choose from: hallow, sanctify, or consecrate. Hallow has fallen out of contemporary use, so they almost always go with sanctify or consecrate. The main problem with that choice is disassociation. English speakers might not immediately associate the words sanctify or consecrate with the word holy. Apparently, the NIV translators wanted people to make just that connection, so they stuck stubbornly with the word holy. To catch the verb’s presence, they just added the word made. God made the seventh day holy. And I suppose their translation works just fine. What might work even better, though, is if the word hallow were resuscitated. 

The primary strength of a one-for-one translation approach is transparent precision. It gives the reader a more precise sense of the wording of the original language. In much of the Old Testament, the word holy is even more common than English speakers might realize. It is just hidden behind the English words sanctify and consecrate. If hallow were resuscitated, transparent word-for-word precision is easier to follow and maintain. But fat chance. It is never going to happen. And I know that. However, for my purposes, I am going run with the word hallow here in my blog because I want to trace the use of the verb form of holy through the Old Testament. It makes for an interesting study, and helps us understand holiness as a concept more thoroughly.

The very first time holiness appears conceptually in the Bible, it appears as a verb. God hallowed the seventh day. We might shrug at that and ask, “so?” because we are altogether familiar with having one or two days a week off from work. But it is stranger than it first seems. It prompts a bunch of questions. At least it does for me. Here are some of my questions: 

Of all the possible items and individuals that could appear first on the biblical holy list, why is it that one day of the week is singled out? Why is it specifically the seventh day, as opposed to the first day, the fourth day, or an eighth day? And how exactly is the seventh day hallowed? And does the hallowing of the seventh day have any practical significance for you and me today? Is it a binding requirement for us? And why did Jesus get in so many arguments with religious leaders about the correct observance of the Sabbath Day? Is the Sabbath Day merely an arbitrary (albeit desirable) social convention that was for whatever reason sacralized by the Ancient Hebrews? Or is there something more to it than mere religious convention? And might a study of the Sabbath Day help us understand the biblical concept of holiness any better?

Each one of these questions could become a separate blog post. At some point, I do want to explore the significance of the Sabbath Day more, especially since Jesus disputed with the Pharisees over proper observance of the day. And at another point, I hope to trace the concept of holiness through the Bible, especially the Old Testament, because we really ought to understand holiness if we are going to obey the command to be holy. If and when possible, I will incorporate these topics into a broader discussion of the Book of Revelation, which will continue to be my primary (but not sole) focus.

The Authentic It: The Veracity of V

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Authentic It: The Veracity of V – Audio Version

But what if it is actually real? What if, in spite the skeptics’ scorn, it actually is the honest-to-goodness, authentic item? What if it is the real McCoy? The implications are simply staggering. It could overturn everything we were previously taught, everything we have ever assumed. To say that it is an absolute bombshell might be an understatement, in fact.   

So, what is the “it” to which I refer? I thought you might ask that.

Actually, I have more than one “it” in mind. The first it is something I read about yesterday while scrolling through the news.

The first it is a long-lost document — fifteen lost scraps of an ancient biblical text, to be more precise. The long-lost documentary scraps have even been given a helpful nick-name. The scraps are collectively known as V.   

The New York Times ran an article yesterday about the potential rehabilitation of V, this long-lost biblical manuscript. V is (or was) a portion of the Book of Deuteronomy; but V was deemed a forgery by the British Museum back in 1883 and thus rejected as a part of their collection. After that, V was auctioned off. No one currently knows where V ended up. It has probably been lost to history. Nonetheless, while we regrettably no longer have the original V, we do still have helpful records about it. And very significantly, those records from the 1880s reveal that V was substantially different than the Deuteronomy available to you in your nearest copy of the Bible. “Bombshell” might be a total understatement. One likely implication is that the Bible we received might have been quite different, if only V had been recognized as authentic. Cue three dramatic notes here.

But the stodgy British Museum once dismissed it as a forgery. And since then, V has been largely forgotten. Until yesterday’s news drop, that is.   

So interested news readers now have some questions to process, given the re-discovery and potential rehabilitation of V. What if V is or was actually real? What if, in spite of the skeptics’ scorn and the repudiation of the experts, it actually was the honest-to-goodness, authentic item?

From a theological standpoint, V amounts an interesting footnote, even if it can be proven to be authentic (which is next to impossible, given that it is lost). Even if V is authentic, it does not tell us anything more than what biblical scholars have long suspected: It tells us that our current version of Deuteronomy was once redacted. What does redacted mean?

A redaction is a literary work that has been subjected to a degree of revision by a later editor. Redaction is actually evident in many books of the Bible. That should neither surprise nor bother anyone. If you read the Bible closely, it is readily evident that redaction must have happened. 

The truly important question is whether the redaction was inspired, or not. Let me rephrase that a bit: The thing that really matters is whether God actively superintended a redactor’s decision-making. A number of Biblical authors claim divine inspiration. The same could be said about latter redactors. We assert that the revisions they made were in fact divinely inspired. So if we were to discover an authentic copy of a pre-redacted text, that would be a very interesting find. But it would not necessarily mean that the pre-redacted text is more authoritative than the recognized redacted text.  

But how then do we ascribe divinely-inspired authority to one ancient text and not another?

The shortest and most simple answer is tradition. Belief in the inspiration of Scripture requires a measure of confidence in God’s ability to transmit his Word through the tumultuous events of history. On the assumption that God must be a capable historical actor, God Himself ensured that the Scriptures were conveyed in the form He wanted through time and by means of tradition. And that is an assertion that cannot be proven. It is simply accepted or rejected. 

We have had Deuteronomy in the form we have it for over two thousand years. We know that for certain. We know it from two divergent and yet complementary sources: The Greek Septuagint and the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls. Because we have had Deuteronomy in the form we have it for over two thousand years, it stands to (theological) reason that God wanted us to have it that way. Therefore, if something comes along throwing into question whether the Deuteronomy we have is actually the “right” Deuteronomy, the underlying question is whether we really believe God inspired what have inherited from tradition or not. My answer is yes, I really do believe that God inspired what have inherited from tradition. The potential rehabilitation of V does not shake my faith in that. V is merely a historical curiosity. At most, it is a pre-redacted version of Deuteronomy, which, while interesting, does not make it authoritative Scripture.

As for the other potentially-authentic “its,” they will have to wait for another time.  

If We Disown Him

Thursday, February 25, 2021

If We Disown Him – Audio Version

Can someone cease to be a Christian? 

“Obviously yes. Next question.”

But wait a second: The answer is not an easy and obvious “yes” for someone who takes the Bible seriously. 

Recently, I spoke with a friend of mine about this question, which has ceased to be merely hypothetical and become more immediate. Someone near and dear to him publicly claims to be a believing Christian, but privately fails to behave like one. In essence my friend asked, “Does hypocrisy and moral inconsistency ever disqualify someone from the Christian faith?”

The question of potential disqualification vexes Christians like my friend (and, to a degree, me). If moral inconsistency and blatant hypocrisy do disqualify someone from the Christian Faith, can anyone ever actually remain qualified? Most Christians will readily admit to a degree of inconsistency, and will acknowledge moments of shameful hypocrisy. We call it sin (or, if not, know that we should). And we are supposed to confess sin as such whenever we know we have committed it. 

But can someone simply go too far? Is there a time (or are there times) when someone is no longer a genuine Christian because he or she has sinned too egregiously, or has been too inconsistent for too long? These are important issues, and can be urgent existential questions for those who take their Christian faith seriously. For now, I will restrain myself from launching into ready examples and real-life case studies. Instead, I just want to push the disqualification question to the forefront. It is a question that worries a lot of people, so it requires a good, thoughtful, biblical answer.   

A closely related question is whether a genuine Christian can ever actually abandon the Faith. Can someone become an actual apostate, an ex-Christian? Sadly, on occasion, this is not hypothetical. Sometimes individuals will openly renounce once-held faith in Christ. Sometimes ex-Christians become vocal opponents of Christianity. I once met a woman who was matter-of-fact and outspoken about her status as a former Christian. She did not seem to care that her Christian relatives and friends found her claim extremely worrisome. She had been persuaded to be contrary to Christianity. She was no longer a Believer. To use once-common Christian vernacular, she has lapsed. Yet she was certain that her lapse was more than just a temporary lapse: Hers was a permanent determination and identification. She has voluntarily denied Christ. She is an apostate.

But wait a second, because as a Bible-believing Christian this is disturbing and disorienting: Even a potential lapse from sincere Christian faith seems to contradict some scriptural assurances and promises regarding the unlikelihood thereof or even its impossibility. At the very least, such a scenario does not easily square with statements that Jesus once made about his metaphorical sheep being entirely un-snatch-able (see John 10:28).     

So which is it? Can someone cease to be a Christian or not? Is apostasy a real possibility? 

To make things quicker and easier for my listeners, I am going to fast-forward and skip directly to my theological conclusion here in this paragraph. In classic term-paper style, I am going to state my thesis first, and then give my supporting evidence. But I hesitate. I wonder if I would actually do better to lay out the Scriptural evidence and only thereafter state my conclusion. Hesitation aside, I will argue that the preponderance of relevant Scriptural passages — including some very clear and sharp commands — insist on the continued need for diligent, vigilant, faithful perseverance. That one observation pushes me to the conclusion that it must be possible for some individuals to disobey (through unbelief and persistent sin) to the point of their own damnation. The command to persevere negatively implies that someone might actively choose not to persevere. Although I believe it is quite rare, a person can indeed lapse completely from the Christian Faith, particularly if and when that someone is wholly determined to reject Christ and walk away. Should such a determined lapse occur, it is more than a mere temporary lapse; it is a final, irreversible defection. It is apostasy. According to one especially relevant passage (Hebrews 6:4-8), the apostate defector is thereafter beyond any hope of spiritual recovery. In such a case, the breach cannot and must not be attributed to God. God was faithful to both the defector and to His promises until the final terrible breach of faith occurred. But this is an absolute worst-case scenario. I suspect that God is much more likely to bring someone to an untimely, premature death than to allow such an utterly horrifying occurrence (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-31, which speaks of Christians getting sick and dying because they do not judge themselves properly). Yet we must not claim that no one ever truly goes apostate, because Scripture does allow for it as an open possibility. Again, see Hebrews 6:4-8, in particular.  

However, I need to stress that in most cases of sinful self-justification and moral inconsistency, God patiently works to bring the carnal, back-slidden Christian back to Himself. The inward-dwelling Holy Spirit, although grieved and stifled, persistently calls that person to repentance, again and again, with appeals to his or her memory and conscience. This is by far the most frequent state of spiritual affairs for those who have turned away from obedience to God. Although such a person is estranged from God by rebellion, he or she has not yet completely rejected Christ, and, given the faithful persistence of God, probably never will.  

Bear in mind that God is likened to a parent throughout Scripture — especially to a loving Father. One reason why that is so is because parents have a unique bond with their children, and are especially unlikely to give up on their children, even in the worst situations. A good and loving parent will only sever the relationship with his or her rebellious child if that child is bound and determined to reject the parent, or if the rebellious child endangers the family. God is like any good and loving parent, only more so.    

Now I ought to list and comment on some of the most relevant passages. I have already mentioned Hebrews 6:4-8. Anyone wishing to deny the possibility of outright spiritual defection and bona-fide apostasy needs to adequately grapple with and explain this sobering, scary passage. Most of the time, when it is explained away, it is said to be simply subjunctive, merely hypothetical — an as-if-but-not-actual thought exercise. I wonder why the Holy Spirit would see fit to include a stern Scriptural warning about something that is not really a possibility. On Jesus’ own authority, we take it as a general given that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (see John 16:13), and thus will never warn us against disingenuous scenarios that can never actually occur. The passage is there, and is there for a reason. It is a stern warning against forsaking our faith to the point of apostasy. We should not explain it away.

Hebrews 3:12-13 comes as an earlier warning in the same book. In tone, it anticipates the extreme seriousness and severity of Hebrews 6:4-6. Indeed, it is accurate to say that the entire Book of Hebrews was written to encourage Christians to keep the Faith and not quit. I will return to Hebrews 3:12-13 at the end of this post.  

According to 1 Timothy 4:1 “the Spirit explicitly states that in latter times some will depart from the Faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” Again, Jesus elsewhere identifies the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth. The Spirit (of Truth) clearly states that in latter times some will depart (transliterated: apostatize) from the Faith. How does anyone argue with what the Spirit of Truth clearly states? (Yet some do, and doggedly so.) 

This is how we know what the Original Greek says.

But I should not be rash or dismissive. Why do some people say that Christians cannot actually depart from the faith? To be fair, the real reason is because they correctly say that God loves us, remains ever faithful, and is wholly determined to never let us go. They especially lean upon passages in the Gospel of John, such as John 6:37-40 and John 10:27-30. In those passages, Jesus says that he will “lose nothing” of what God gives to him, and that “no one will snatch” his sheep out of his hand. These are immensely important passages that are especially comforting to anyone prone to worry. I once heard a preacher say that if anyone does harbor the worry that “all is lost and my salvation is now void,” that same worry is a sure and certain sign that their salvation is neither lost nor void. That preacher was very likely right, because such worry probably demonstrates a righteous, God-ward desire. And God will certainly not disown any of the redeemed who do not disown Him (see Psalm 51:17).  

But I need to say more about the twin “eternal security” passages in the Gospel of John. To start, there is another passage in John that points the other direction. In John 15:2, Jesus uses a gardening analogy to assert that bad, unfruitful branches get cut off, but good branches are pruned so as to produce even more fruit. It is interesting to note that Hebrews 6:7-8 uses a nearly identical analogy to warn against the real possibility of apostasy. So there’s that. 

As for the fact that Jesus will “lose nothing” of what God gives him, and that “no one will snatch” his sheep out of his hand, I do admit and think it is fair to say that we might-could conclude that Jesus’ reassuring statements here teach eternal security, except for everything else against eternal security in rest of the Bible. Simply said, there are just too many New Testament passages that point the other direction. Thus we seem to have signposts pointing different directions. Sometimes we do encounter tension and paradox in Scripture. These passages are admittedly paradoxical (but not contradictory). We need to wrestle through the paradox — or just accept the tension — lest we quickly lose our balance.

And how might we lose our balance? We might lose our balance by presuming that someone’s salvation is secure no matter what they say or do, on one hand, or by fearing that some sin means that we are no longer acceptable to God, on the other hand. Salvation is not a ticket that someone can pocket, neglect, and forget. Alternatively, salvation is not a fragile snowflake that evaporates away because of a stubborn, sticky sin. Salvation is instead a security deposit that is guaranteed to be valid, if only it is valued for its worth.

In 2 Timothy 2:11 we find this “trustworthy saying,” which (according to a scholar named Ralph P. Martin) might have been an early Christian baptismal creed or hymn:

If it was an early Christian baptismal creed, this “trustworthy saying” both warns new, initiate Christians against intentional apostasy and reassures them of Christ’s continual faithfulness. They were warned never to disown Christ, with the threat that if they did, Christ would likewise disown them. But they were reassured that Christ would remain absolutely faithful to them, even if and when they slipped into faithlessness. 

My friend comes immediately to mind here. This particular passage ought to reassure him. Most of the time, faithlessness is our problem, not outright, intentional apostasy. We slip into sin because of our faithlessness. But that is not the same as deliberate “I once believed but now actively oppose Christianity” apostasy.

Finally, I want to return to Hebrews 3:12-13, which reads: 

12 See to it, brothers [and sisters], that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart

that turns away from the living God. 

13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called today, 

lest you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 

Whomever Wrote Hebrews (Scholars Still Debate This)

The danger with sin is not that it immediately ends our salvation. It does not. We know from Hebrews 6 that if salvation is actually lost, it can never, ever be regained. And we know from the Gospel of John that Jesus himself is absolutely committed to keeping us from falling away. So we need not worry that sin will somehow easily strip us of salvation. God is not fickle, nor weak. And God will fight us tenaciously to keep us saved.  

Instead, what we actually need to worry about is that sin will seduce us and deceive us. When we sin, we give ourselves over little-by-little to deception. And the deeper we sink into deception, the more likely we are to be hardened by sin. Someone who does apostatize has gone down exactly that path, and has gone down it a very, very long way. An apostate has first embraced sin, then fallen deeply into deception, and finally has lost all connection with the living God. Terrifying to even consider.   

All that said, we cannot be completely certain that someone we meet or know is an actual apostate, even if that person claims to be an ex-Christian. God is ultimately the one who judges people; and God knows our hearts even better than we do (see 1 John 3:20). Like any good parent, God is exceedingly patient with us because He loves us deeply. If we believe someone we know may be an apostate or may be in danger of becoming an apostate, we ought to pray earnestly for that person’s return. There might still be hope for him or her, because God always desires everyone to be saved (see 1 Timothy 2:4).    

Admonition and Emphasis

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Admonition & Emphasis – Audio Version

A bearded, bespectacled theology professor once told his students that they were reading their Bibles much too personally. They were wrong if, when reading about David’s slingshot toppling of Giant Goliath, they extrapolated that God would help them overcome their giant personal problems. That is not the point of the passage, the professor repeatedly insisted. The account about David and Goliath itself makes no such personal promise. We misread the Bible if and when we attempt to pull out unsubstantiated applications and unstated promises from stories like David and Goliath. “So sorry, my naïve college students, but most of those personalized Sunday school lessons you heard while growing up were ~somewhat~ wrong and misleading.” Whether or not such is an exact quote of his, it accurately captures the gist of my professor’s point. He wanted us to know that we may well be misappropriating a lot of presumed promises from the Bible. So an important question begs the asking here: Was he right or wrong? 

My professor left me feeling quite confused and conflicted. On one hand, I did understand his admonition: When reading the Bible, people sometimes do errantly lay claim to presumed promises. And sometimes people come away with questionable applications. Yet on the other hand, something about what he said (or how he said it) felt slightly fishy. It seemed somehow off to me. But what was it, exactly? If asked to articulate or explain my misgivings, I knew I had a problem. I had only a vague sense of how I felt uneasy. But that would never fly. Since I could not explain what bothered me, I chose to say nothing. 

As an aside, do we not find ourselves in that particular position with some frequency? When we are confronted with thoroughly prepared experts, a sense of uneasy befuddlement besets us at times; does it not? And who are we to second-guess the expertise of recognized experts?

Our gut reaction is not necessarily wrong, though. Sometimes we are not wrong to second-guess the experts. With the hindsight of many years and much study, I can now articulate my misgivings. (Not a quick response, I must admit.) What really disturbed me during that lecture long ago was not my professor’s admonition, but his emphasis. In and of itself, his admonition was correct and corrective. However, he emphasized it to such an extent that he left many of his students (including me) wondering if anything they read in the Bible could be taken and applied personally. My professor should have assured us that significant sections of the Bible can and should be taken personally. But he did no such thing. Consequently, he made the Bible (and the God presented therein) much less approachable to us. Not good. 

An axiom can be distilled here: Experts can be entirely correct in the information they convey, but entirely incorrect in the importance they ascribe to that information.  

“Yes, what you say is accurate, teacher; but it is not as important as you seem to think it is.”

Now for a walk through the weedy details we go…

It might be helpful to some of my readers if I explain in detail exactly how my bearded, bespectacled professor was both right and wrong. He was entirely correct when he insisted that a lot of the Bible stories we read are not immediately and personally applicable. Not every promise and not every inspirational message in the Bible applies immediately and directly. The words immediately and directly carry a lot of freight in the last sentence, so please take notice of them. If we misapply messages or misappropriate presumed promises we could well find ourselves both disappointed and ridiculed. So we must not presume upon particular promises and immediate messages that were never, ever intended personally for us. That point could be illustrated with a myriad of tragic examples from history, including very recent history. This, then, was my professor’s admonition. And he was entirely right about this. 

And yet my professor was wrong about something he left implied. By simple omission of balancing biblical information, he implied that much (if not all) of the Bible is not intended for each one of us. But that is wrong. It is wrong because the God of the Bible is not just the God of the there-and-then, but is also the God of the here-and-now. The Bible was and is intended for you — yes, for you personally. And the Bible was and is intended for me, for me personally. The Bible is also intended for us corporately.

How can I claim that, though? Was the Bible not written long, long ago by individuals who knew nothing about you or me? Yes, that is true enough. The Apostle Paul did not have you or me in mind when he initially composed his epistles. So in one sense, we certainly are reading someone else’s long-dated mail when we read what Paul wrote to the Church at Rome, or the Church at Corinth, or the Church at Philippi, et cetera. Since that is true, we must keep the historical particularity of the Bible in mind when we read. 

But what Paul wrote to those long-dead Christians is not just their long-dated mail. It was inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. And therein lies all the difference between Paul’s ancient correspondence and the correspondence of many other ancients. Significantly, Paul and those long-dead Christians were even aware of the fact that what Paul was writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit. If something originates with God, it just might have a transcendent quality — a transcendent quality quite unlike anything that originates with any other source. The books of the Bible have that kind of transcendent quality. They transcend time and place, and speak cross-culturally through the centuries. 

Crucially, this is an all-or-nothing proposition and a point of yea-or-nay, up-or-down, in-or-out faith. Either the Bible originates with God, or it does not. If the Bible does not originate with God, it can be dismissed as unimportant and ignored as irrelevant. But if the Bible did indeed originate with God, it necessarily carries an authority unlike any other document. If it is God’s Very Word to humanity, it should be treated with utmost seriousness and respect.

My bearded, bespectacled professor wanted to stress the historical particularity of the Bible. He was not wrong about that. It was written by historically particular persons in historically particular places to historically particular others about historically particular situations. True. True. True. And true enough.

But in addition the Bible was and is inspired by God, and is intended for you and me today, personally and corporately. Therefore, we must recognize both its historical particularity and its temporal transcendence. If we uphold both of those truths, we can begin to approach the Bible as it ought to be approached. 

With all that said, I have not yet said enough. I have not told you which passages of Scripture do apply directly to us and what promises are applicable to us. Most simply stated, anything written to the earliest Christian communities (churches) can be directly appropriated by us today, but only after careful contemplation and consideration in the context of Christian community, lest anyone misread and misappropriate what Scripture teaches.