O Bible, When Art Thou?

Part Six: O Bible, When Art Thou?

In the year of the unfulfilled computer apocalypse known by contemporaries as Y2K, Joel and Ethan Coen teamed up with George Clooney to make the greatest film since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. O Brother Where Art Thou? is better known as the movie that made bluegrass music cool for about three months if you were a lily white college kid like me. Everett, the loquacious protagonist, is the character most responsible for the movie’s substantial quotability. One of my favorite quotes is when he proclaims, “Never trust a female Delmar, remember that one simple precept and your time with me will not have been ill spent.”

I’m not going to endorse Everett’s Trump-like misogyny, but I am going to steal his quote and combine it with another. In the year of my birth (1981), Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart collaborated to write the best books on Biblical interpretation since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. I recommend How to Read the Bible for All its Worth to anyone who wants to understand the Bible more. Their study is based to a large extent on the following premise of biblical interpretation: “A text cannot mean what it never meant.” It is for this reason that I have developed this six-part series in exploring the historical context of the New Testament. If we are to read the Bible in the 21st century, we must understand what it meant to the people of the first century. Another way to say this is: “A text cannot mean what it never meant, remember that one simple precept and your time with me will not have been ill spent.”

I would like to conclude this study with the following points of summary and application. What has been said? And why does it matter?

In part one, I issued a call to take history seriously. Believe me, I’ve heard it said more than most people that history is boring. If you were my student I’d quote Pericles at you and explain that someone who is “disinterested in these matters” is not just “unambitious” but a “useless person.” That would make you feel terrible and you would probably cry and then go on to study math in college. In all seriousness, I am convinced that most people find history boring because they found history worksheets boring in school. True, sometimes history requires some hard work. However, if we dedicate our life to our God who came to us as a first century Jew and we are committed to understanding Scriptures written between 3,500 and 2,000 years ago, we will care about the past.

Having a perspective that is informed by the past will help us avoid the errors of our day. C. S. Lewis makes this point in his preface to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation. “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” In a world of massive moral change, it is much too easy to get caught up in the present. While I am not suggesting a total retreat into the past, I am asserting that spending time in the past would transform the way we see our present. While I am not suggesting a total retreat into the past, I am asserting that spending time in the past would transform the way we see our present. We study the past because we believe that there is something to be learned from people that are very different from us. We study the past because these very different people turn out to be remarkably similar to us. We study what the Bible meant so that we can become people looking to the past to declare in the present the promise of God’s future.

I joked in part two that the book of Romans is overrated. Honestly, I love Paul and his epistles. I am just continually frustrated with a Christianity that is only marginally informed by the four gospels of the New Testament. We must read and study the story of the gospels. N.T. Wright’s popular level treatment of the gospels, How God Became King, is a great help in understanding their story. I desire more emphasis on the story of Jesus because this story is the gospel. The gospel is not that believers can escape to heaven, but that Jesus came and brought the kingdom of heaven to us. It is the story of an invasion, not of a retreat. It’s a story that, when seen in historical context, radically subverts many of our assumptions about life as we know it. It makes the poor and outcast the priority. It makes the last first.

Read Paul in light of the story of Jesus. Too many people, even scholars, tend to read the gospels in light of Paul. While this is not always a mistake, typically we would better understand Paul and Jesus if we devote ourselves more to the gospels. Without understanding the story and teachings of Jesus like the original readers of the epistles of the New Testament, we run the risk of encountering a Jesus that is more of an abstract theological concept than a historical person.

The more we study Paul in the light of Jesus, the more we see a remarkable degree of continuity. For example, most Christians are well acquainted with the armor of God passage in Ephesians 6. We are aware that Paul is making an analogy of a Christian and a Roman Soldier. But when we understand that the New Testament presents Jesus as a King who is subverting the absolute claims of Roman authority and whose kingdom is explicitly built on a different set of values, we grasp Paul’s armor analogy better. We understand that this is not just a comparison to a Roman soldier, but a contrast. With “feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace,” the believer opposes the violence of those in power (6:15). His breastplate combats the sin; his belt the lies. The believer continually reminds his world that it is under the sovereignty of King Jesus.

Speaking of a different set of values, part three developed a first century Christian understanding of the Roman Empire. As much as we admire Russell Crowe, we have to conclude that biblical Christianity and the Roman Empire represent a contradictory set of values. Rome valued power by violence and the glory of their empire and emperor. Christianity values humility, peace and the glory of their suffering servant King. While this contrast is on every page of the New Testament, it is most vivid in the book of Revelation.

If a text truly cannot mean what it never meant, than many evangelicals need to rethink the way they approach the last book of the Bible. Certainly there are much better sources for understanding the book of Revelation than this brief article, but the popular approach of interpreting the apocalypse in light of current events is fallacious. Maybe we wouldn’t be so confused by Revelation if we cared more about first century Asia Minor than about 21st century Nation of Israel. While some of the symbolic details are still vague, it is clear that a first century audience understood that God’s Kingdom (with the Lamb on the throne) triumphed over the evil Empire (the beast) of their world. The worship of “the beast and his image” (Rev 14:9) spoken of repeatedly in Revelation was not an obscure reference to something that was going to happen 2,000 years in the future, but a prophetic warning to the Christians of the first century who were being killed for their refusal to worship Caesar. This warning is still relevant to us because the Kingship of Jesus is constantly challenged by powers of our age.

Part four got personal. I thought it helpful to apply much of this historic background to a close reading of Matthew 26 and 27, the story of the Cross. We ask what the text meant to people of the first century not to remove ourselves from the Scripture, but to put ourselves in the shoes of the original audience. Matthew’s passion narrative invites his audience (and by extension us) to see themselves in the story of the Cross. Christ is rejected on all sides. It is the great conspiracy of humankind’s rebellion against its creator. In it we vividly see our own wickedness in contrast to the righteousness of the Christ.

This is the climax of the gospel story—a story in which God challenges sin head on and wins through his sacrifice and resurrection. While I have stated forcefully that the gospel is not just about getting your sins taken care so you can go to heaven, the gospel is indeed good news about sin. We miss the point of Christ’s Kingdom if we ignore the topic of sin. God through Christ has invaded a world plagued by sin. These are personal sins as well as corporate or institutional sins. While we can call out sin we see in the world around us, we must always start with the sin we see in ourselves.  We don’t come close to preaching a gospel of grace, if we don’t preach repentance of sin. We cannot preach repentance unless we live in repentance.

Because he came to fix the brokenness caused by sin, Jesus refused to accept the expected role of the Messiah as simply the political liberator of his people. This is the subject of part five. We looked at the fundamental question of Jewish society in the time of Jesus–What should Jewish identity be in the midst of a Pagan rule? We learned the importance of the Maccabean Revolt to the question of Jewish identity and how the competing parties lived out the answers to these questions. Again we turned to the historical Jesus of Nazareth and his Kingdom gospel. Jesus’ answer to their identity questions was himself.

What we see is that Jesus reconstitutes what it means to be one of God’s people. What we see is that Jesus reconstitutes what it means to be one of God’s people. By moving the conversation away from ethnic origin to freedom from sin, Jesus invites all to be the people of God through faith in him. The question of identity brings us to the issue of election. From this historical perspective, it is clear that when the authors of the New Testament referred to Christians as the elect, they were calling Christians God’s chosen people or the new Israel. Peter makes this clear by calling Christians “a chosen people,” “a royal Priesthood,” and “a holy nation.” We get bogged down in questions over predestination and free will and we miss the point— the people of God are the people with faith in God’s Christ. Citizens of the Kingdom are faithful to the King.

Discussions on history, the book of Revelation, sin and election should probably be entered into in the same way that Dante entered hell—with a sign reading, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”  At the very least, I should abandon any hope of actually changing someone else’s mind. Still, the call to a faith grounded in the historical person of Jesus is perhaps more necessary now than ever. If one’s faith is going to have a future, it must be rooted in the past. Likewise if we are going to understand our Bible, we must be assured that “A text cannot mean what it never meant, remember that one simple precept and your time with me will not have been ill spent.”

(Editor’s Note: If you are new to this series, I suggest you start here. From there, you will find a link to the next installment at the end of each article.)

David Lytle
Series Navigation<< Don’t wanna be your… sledgehammer: Jesus and the question of Jewish identity in a Pagan world.

David Lytle

Current history teacher, former missionary and youth pastor, grieving widower, father of the three cutest faces in creation, and giddy husband of a radiant bride. I also sang "I'm too sexy" for karaoke once. There was a crowd. My only comfort is that phones didn't make videos back then.

8 thoughts on “O Bible, When Art Thou?

  • June 13, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Truly, if we could all just stop trying to make Bible verses mean something they never meant The Church would be so much stronger.

  • June 13, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    Seriously. You guys. Where do I find the “drop the mic” emoji?

  • June 13, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    I liked the way you reviewed and then summarized. Thanks for all the hard work you put into this. I hope people will be inspired to study history, and even more so, the Scriptures.

  • June 13, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    “A text cannot mean what it never meant, remember that one simple precept and your time with me will not have been ill spent.”

    Well done, well done.

    And to paraphrase Everett again, when it comes to contemporary interpretation of Scripture, “We’re in a tight spot!” And all the Dapper Dan hair pomade in the world won’t slick it down.

  • June 14, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    This is revolutionary, it is so revolutionary that it may even get you kicked out of all the Woolworths, not just the one branch.

    Seriously though, great series.

  • June 16, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    Thanks for the comments, folks.


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