IS YOUR PREACHER GETTING IT RIGHT? Five Steps to Accurate Interpretation

IS YOUR PREACHER GETTING IT RIGHT? Five Steps to Accurate Interpretation

Eugene Peterson, best known for his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, has died at age 85. One of Peterson’s lesser known works, Eat This Book, includes this challenging word: “The practice of dividing the Bible into numbered chapters and verses … gives the impression that the Bible is a collection of thousands of self-contained sentences and phrases that can be picked out or combined arbitrarily in order to discern our fortunes or fates. But Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken up at random. And the Bible is not an astrological chart to be impersonally manipulated for amusement or profit.”[1]

Peterson was right, but his challenge raises a serious question: How can we know we are interpreting Scripture correctly? Perhaps more important, since most pastors—including this one—often preach topical sermons with collections of verses from different books of the Bible, how can we be sure they are getting it right?

Accurate Bible interpretation is a big subject so I’m boiling it down to five steps anyone can take toward accuracy. The steps are a summary of the study method Haddon Robinson teaches in his book, Biblical Preaching. They are so simple anyone with a high school education can use them.

First, read a paragraph or better yet a chapter at a time. Note any questions you have about it. Are there cultural, historical, grammatical, geographical references or vocabulary you don’t understand? Is it poetry, history, story, wisdom literature, or prophecy? Each literary type has associated interpretive guidelines. We do not interpret poetry for instance with the same level of specificity as law. Jot down your questions to look up later.

Why whole paragraphs? Paragraphs as opposed to individual verses, are complete units of thought. Later translations like the NIV and ESV identify them in the typeset. But most important, read complete thought units, not just verses.

Second, ask: What’s the subject? What’s the author talking about? Example: In Ephesians 6:10-20, the Apostle Paul is talking about spiritual warfare, our struggle “against the rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world…” That’s his subject, the main thing he’s addressing in the paragraph.

Third, ask: What’s the compliment? In other words, what is he saying about the subject? In our passage he’s saying, “Be strong in the Lord … put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand…” He could have said, “Run away!” But he didn’t. He said to take a stand. That’s the compliment.

Fourth, ask: What’s the context? What is said about the subject in the sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and rest of the book that precede and follow that paragraph? What about the rest of the Bible? Do we see Jesus, Peter, or any of the other writers addressing spiritual warfare? Can we—keeping the contexts of their comments in mind as well—legitimately apply their insights and knowledge to Paul’s? This is where many Bible interpreters get in trouble. Context is king. “A text without a context is a pretext,” someone said. Context is even more important than vocabulary because it gives shading and a frame of reference for individual words.

Fifth, ask: What principles do I see emerging from my analysis? One of the most prominent in Ephesians 6:10-20 is that God expect us to stand strong in the battles, not to run away. Courage, faith, fortitude, and above all preparation, “putting on the full armor,” are supporting principles but taking a stand seems to be the main one.

You may need to answer some of your questions from step one before you can take that fifth step. Most good study Bibles, like the NIV Study Bible or The ESV Study Bible etc. will help as will a good online resource like BlueLetterBible.org.

We should never read a text of scripture and ask: What do you think it means? That invites us to use the Bible simply as a mirror to reflect what we feel in the moment. We don’t find its meaning in ourselves, we find it in the text as the authors wrote it. Ask, “what did Paul mean? What did Luke or John or Matthew or Moses mean?” That’s the way to interpret the Bible or any other text. Then we take that meaning and build bridges for how it might apply in our time and culture. The NIV Application Commentary is structured like that. It’s easy to read and a good addition to any Bible study library.

These five steps will take anyone who uses them to a deeper level of understanding than most people ever develop about the Bible.

And what about your preacher? It all boils down to trust. Has he demonstrated over time that he knows and respects the Scriptures well enough that he will not turn a text into a pretext and make it say something the Bible never said? No one gets it right one hundred percent of the time, but if he’s following these principles he’ll be close.

[1] Pg. 101. Quoted from John Stonestreet’s Breakpoint Facebook post of October 22, 2018.

AVOIDING WANNABE PHARISEES: Four Ways to Protect Your Freedom

“Exclusiveness and exclusion always result from making a false idol of purity. Pharisaism, in fact, is the result of a perverted passion for theological purity just as ethnic cleansing is for racial purity.”

Os Guinness

Our separation from God makes us want to belong to something exclusive, something important, something that will give us a sense of belonging and significance. Examples abound. Until his 2017 retirement, NASCAR fans were either part of Junior Nation, or they weren’t. Duke basketball fans are willing to endure the scorn of all NCAA fandom to identify with Coach K’s success. Harley Davidson is so popular that, not only do they earn hundreds of millions on non-motorcycle merchandise, people tattoo the company logo on their bodies.

Our desire to belong is matched only by our penchant to exclude. Every clique—from the silly to the deadly serious—has those who are in and those who are out. Airlines have first class, business class, and the unwashed masses class. Colleges have fraternities, sororities, and nobodies. The media-elite have the Trumpsters, the Nazis had the Jews and the Shia Muslims have the Sunni. Clearly, we love to exclude one another as much as we long to belong.

Sadly, the church is not immune. No matter how often Scripture tells us to accept, love, and serve one another, we find reasons to belittle, berate, and exclude each other. And it isn’t a new phenomenon. Moses had confrontations with Korah and his band[1], Jesus had the Pharisees, and Paul the “spiritually superior” Corinthians as well as various Judaizers—legalists who wanted Gentile believers to obey Jewish customs—to deal with.

To this day and to our shame the evangelical world has various versions of wannabe Pharisees: people who insist on imposing their convictions about non-essentials on those who are walking in the freedom purchased for them by the Cross of Christ. Few things are more damaging to a Church, diverting its energies away from its mission or derailing its spirit in worship than such division.

Why do Christians find so many things over which to break fellowship? And how do we nurture unity in the face of it? How do we deal with wannabe Pharisees and avoid becoming one ourselves? I offer four principles.

First, keep a clear conscience before God. Wannabe Pharisees want to impose their conscience on your life, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the Spirit within or the clear instructions of Scripture. Make sure you aren’t engaging in something that opposes Christ. As Paul warned the Corinthians not to “participate with demons,”[2] ask yourself, “Am I uncritically adopting and aligning myself with a worldview and values that are opposed to Christ?” If not, you are free.

Second, ask, “is it beneficial to me and everyone else?” Wannabe Pharisees find fault with all kinds of things that aren’t explicitly “Christian.” Insisting that everything we buy, eat, listen to, or read must be labeled “Christian” or it isn’t spiritual enough is not only transparently shallow it’s also completely subjective. It puts the freedom Christ died to give us into the hands of unqualified spiritual umpires.

Third, disengage with wannabe Pharisees as soon as possible. Jesus called them “blind leaders of the blind” who will end up in the ditch and told his men to “leave them alone.”[3] Paul told Titus to avoid foolish controversies and “have nothing to do” with divisive people after a second warning. Wannabe Pharisees don’t know when to quit, mistaking our kindness for consent to continue badgering us with their priorities. Withdraw from the conversation and let there be no mistake.

Finally, ask, “does exercising my freedom open doors to evangelism or close them?”[4] Jesus said the Pharisees “bind up heavy burdens and put them on men’s shoulders,” but refuse to lift a finger to help. He warned them that they, “… shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces,” by their hypocrisy. Wannabe Pharisees are more concerned with controlling others than helping them know peace with God and freedom in Christ. Never let someone rob you of the joy of sharing the life of Jesus with someone else.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” [5]

[1] Numbers 16

[2] 1 Cor. 10:20-11:1

[3] Matt. 15:18.

[4] 1 Cor. 9:19-23

[5] Ga 5:1

COMMIT-A-PHOBIA

COMMIT-A-PHOBIA

“Look at yourself! You went to law school. You never took the bar.  You went to business college. I can’t get you near the office. You studied languages you don’t speak, instruments you don’t play. You have a series of girlfriends you never see more than twice. Do you not see a pattern here? You’re a grown man, David. Finish something!”

Linus Larrabee to his playboy brother in a scene from our favorite rom com, Sabrina. David had proposed to the latest love of his life but was having second thoughts: “I’m not ready to make this kind of commitment!”

“She’s a millionaire, David, and a doctor. She won’t be a burden!” said Linus.

No doubt, no doubt at all, we are witnessing a generation of David Larrabee’s when it comes to marriage. Fewer and fewer young men have the courage to “pop the question” and make good on lifetime commitment.

But commit-a-phobia happens in spiritual life too. Maybe the rise of the seeker movement, where everything in the church is tailored to the consumerist whims of the latest generation, has contributed or maybe it’s just a symptom. But you know it’s real when pastors say, “I’m haunted when I look into the eyes of my congregation and realize they are only two weeks away from leaving for another church.”[1]

Psalm 119 reminds us of the power and potential, the risks and rewards of commitment to God’s word and God’s way. The psalm is unique in scripture, a 176 verse Hebrew alphabetic acrostic masterpiece of devotion to the “word of God and the God of the Word”[2] that interweaves precepts with prayers, and praise with petition.

Six verses stand out against the backdrop of recent events that speak to the rewards and risks of commitment to God’s way. I’ll come to the events in a moment.

First, the commitment:

I have chosen the way of truth;

I have set my heart on your laws.

I hold fast to your statutes, O Lord;

do not let me be put to shame.[3]

Commitment is embracing with our entire being the risks and rewards of a definite path, the snot and vomit of Olympic training for the promise of the podium. It invites the order that the thing committed to imposes on life, the discipline of saying “yes” to things that align with it, and “no” to those that don’t.

Next, the risks:

Though rulers sit together and slander me,

your servant will meditate on your decrees. [4]

The arrogant mock me without restraint,

but I do not turn from your law. [5]

Remember the catty remarks emanating from media elite about Vice President Mike Pence’s faith? First, it was his commitment never to meet a woman, other than his wife, for dinner alone. The scorn at his godly stand melted away in the smutty heat of Weinstein, Lauer, and #MeToo. Next it was The View Co-host Joy Behar’s contempt at Pence’s confidence that—like followers of Christ for two millennia—he hears from God.

Indeed, the arrogant mock without restraint. That’s the risk of commitment to God.

Finally, the reward:

I run in the path of your commands,

for you have set my heart free. [6]

I will walk about in freedom,

for I have sought out your precepts.[7]

Edmund Burke said,

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites … It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”[8]

David Larrabee lives in all of us, but the more we indulge our commit-a-phobia the heavier we forge our chains. Commit to God’s word and God’s way and fly free.

[1] Os Guinness, The Call, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2008. P. 71.

[2] NIV Study Bible notes.

[3] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:30–31). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:23). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:51). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:32). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[7] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:45). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[8] The Works of Edmund Burke, quoted by John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkel in Practical Guide to Culture, David C. Cook, Colorado Springs, CO. p. 139.

STAYING PUT: Lessons from Long-Term Ministry

“Thank you,” seems inadequate for all of the honors I received from Faith Community Church  last Sunday. The church took the morning to celebrate my twentieth anniversary as its pastor, taking me by surprise in the process.

Some themes stood out in the comments, and others came to mind later, which might prove helpful to you someday. Call them Leadership Lessons from Long -Term Ministry, but many will apply even if you are not a preacher.

Preach the Word. Expository preaching, interpreting and explaining a passage of scripture in its historical, grammatical, literary, cultural, and biblical context, demonstrating how it applies to the listener and points them to Christ, is key to the vitality of any church or believer. It is a time-consuming endeavor that preachers either have to fight for against other demands, or are gifted with by a congregation. FCC made the decision long before I arrived to give its pastor, and by proxy itself, that gift. All of us benefit from it. Find a church that values this and you will usually find a healthy church.

Decide to stay. If you want to have a deep impact on a community you have to commit to the long term. Randy Pope, Eugene Peterson, Rick Warren, and many others advocated for this in their writings as I was preparing for ministry, and I believed them then. But now I’ve seen the generational effects of hoeing one row for two decades and the fruit is sweet. Warning: You cannot do long-term work without short-term rests. Build Sabbath into your lifestyle and vacations into your years.

Speak hard truth with soft words. Speak with grace and gospel faithfulness to the difficult cultural trends of the day and do not flinch. It will force you to examine yourself, be fair to others, and rely more on Christ. It will also stiffen the spines of your listeners.

Be with people one-on-one. Love them for who they are, where they are, as they are. Grieve with them, celebrate with them, honor them, and respect them. They will do the same for you.

Make sure you have a Paul, a Barnabas, and a Timothy; a mentor, a brother, and a disciple, or trainee into whom you can pour your life. They will coach you when you are clueless, strengthen you when you are weak, and challenge you to keep growing.

Believe in people and don’t micro-manage them. Find good people, give them the goal and the support they need, and then get out of their way. Look for and expect their best, and they will usually give it to you. Related: recruit people to your team who are strong where you are weak. I learned long ago that I was too emotional and empathetic for my own good. That’s one reason I try to surround myself what I call “concrete rational” personality types who can help me stay grounded in biblical objectivity.

Pray more than you politic. Consensus building and deal-making have their place in life. But no amount of politicking can accomplish what prayer can do.

Plan ahead and then give your plans to God.  Every leader needs to be at least five months, and preferably five years, ahead of his organization. But as in war, so in ministry, no plan survives combat. Keep the goal clearly in mind, pay attention to the dynamics of the situation, listen to His Spirit and be flexible with the details.

Offend early and often. I’m a recovering co-dependent people-pleaser. It took years to realize that people come into churches and other organizations with all kinds of expectations of the leadership, some conscious, some not; some reasonable, some silly, and some outrageous. Trying to keep them all happy was suicidal. I learned to make sure they knew what to expect, and what not to expect, as soon as possible. It felt offensive to my empathetic soul to do this, to disappoint some people up front, and anger others. Thus the motto, but the proof — the stability and harmony generated by uniform expectations — has indeed been in the pudding. FCC’s Handbook has been a great tool for this. If your organization doesn’t have a handbook, you should write one, and then require everyone to read it.

Finally, hold everything loosely. Any entity you lead is a stewardship from God, including your family. It doesn’t belong to you and he can take it from you whenever it suits his purposes. Live with gratitude and open, up-raised palms.

Phil 1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. [1]

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Php 1:3–6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.