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.

WALK IN THE SPIRIT: What Does Freedom From Sin Mean?

“Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.” Galatians 5:16.

From time to time people ask questions that remind me how deep the discouragement and how hard the battle with sinful impulses can be. One of those came from a friend last week who asked: “What is freedom from the chains of sin?  Freedom to never sin?  Freedom from the worst consequences of sin?  I’ve been pouring over Romans 6 (don’t have to sin), 7 (it’s not me that sins but sin in my flesh), 8 (there is no condemnation),” but he had reached no conclusions.

He is right, of course, about Romans 6, 7, and 8. We are free from slavery to sin and free from the eternal consequences of it, but as long as we live in these fallen bodies we will continue to struggle with the impulse to sin which is why the ministry of the Holy Spirit is so crucial.

Maybe a Star Wars illustration will help us think about it.

At the end of act one in the first movie, Luke, Han, and Leah are trying to regain the Millennium Falcon, fighting their way through. On the opposite side of the hangar, Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi are in a duel to the death.

Darth Vader is overpowering and gloating. “Now I am the Master!”

“Only a master of evil,” says the old Jedi.

Then Obi Wan says: “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

That scene illustrates two metaphors for the Christian life: First, it is about power, but not the kind of power most people imagine, and second, the power we seek comes to us in a counter-intuitive way; to live, to have real power, we must die.

Our lives before the Spirit comes are full of darkness (Titus 3:4-7). A dark life is a life that tries to get its own way all the time; to have its own power. It follows dark impulses. Paul defines that darkness in Galatians 5:19-21.

Hear it in Eugene Peterson’s brilliant paraphrase from THE MESSAGE:

“… repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.”

It is the worst of human behavior. And Paul is talking about Christians! When we live according to our ‘old man’ or ‘flesh’ or ‘sinful nature’ as it is variously translated we are capable of all such things. We look no different than the world.

But don’t get discouraged. Paul chooses his words very carefully. The original tense of the verb translated “those who live like this” (v.21) means “habitually practice”.

If your life is marked by this kind of behavior, day after day, week after week, year after year, you are kidding yourself about your salvation. The Spirit doesn’t reside in you.

But a life lived in the power of the Spirit is not like that at all.  It’s a life where the light grows stronger and stronger each day.  It’s outlined in Galatians 5: 22-23.

Here it is again in Peterson’s paraphrase.

“He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”

How does all this come about?

God wants our lives to be full of His light, full of his power.  But it doesn’t happen automatically.  Like a Jedi Knight we have a part to play, we must learn how to, “Walk in the Spirit so that we won’t fulfill the desires of the flesh.” Otherwise we will fall back into the habits of darkness.

To walk in the Spirit, we must learn the difference between Spirit and Flesh, how the two operate in us. I’m doing some ministry traveling for the next two weeks and won’t be sure of my internet connection, but if I’m able I’ll write more about the differences between the two and how to walk in the Spirit next week.

NEXT – GEN CULTURAL NAVIGATION: Stonestreet & Kunkel’s Practical Guide

NEXT – GEN CULTURAL NAVIGATION: Stonestreet & Kunkel’s Practical Guide

News broke this week that noted evangelical leader Eugene Peterson, famed for The Message paraphrase of the Bible and many other works of spiritual theology, had come out in support of same-sex marriage. Then he backtracked but, as they say, the toothpaste was out of the tube and believers all over the country were flummoxed.

Can anyone be depended on to steer a true spiritual course through our tumultuous cultural waters? And how can we equip ourselves to stand with grace and truth when so many, it seems, are falling?

Many books are available to equip believers to think with the Biblical worldview. Among them are Chuck Colson’s master work HOW NOW SHALL WE LIVE? co-written with Nancy Pearcy; THE GOOD LIFE, also by Colson and a little more accessible; Pearcy’s solo effort, TOTAL TRUTH; Abdu H. Murray’s GRAND CENTRAL QUESTION; Russell Moore’s ONWARD: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel; the works of Ravi Zacharias and Os Guinness for those of a more intellectual bent, and of course the Breakpoint daily podcast.

All of those are helpful but none of them, save the Breakpoint daily, are as easy to digest and practical to use as A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO CULTURE: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World, by John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkel. The book is targeted at parents and Christian leaders who are tasked with equipping teens to face the pressures of our cultural moment, but it is useful to wider audience.

Stonestreet is the president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and well-known, with Eric Metaxas, for the daily Breakpoint podcast (www.breakpoint.org). Brett Kunkel, who has over twenty-five years working with junior high, high school, and college students, is the student impact director at Stand to Reason, and founder of a new organization called Maven (www.maventruth.com).

Their book is broken into four sections: Why Culture Matters; A Read of the Cultural Waters; Pounding Cultural Waves; Christian Worldview Essentials. All four are clear, concise, and easy to navigate. Each chapter concludes with four discussion questions. But for those who are secure in their worldview essentials yet still need practical tools for the day-to-day cultural situations being thrust upon us, section three, Pounding Cultural Waves, is worth the price of the book.

In it, Stonestreet and Kunkel take on eight hot-button issues every believer faces in all manner of environments including the hookup culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, addiction, entertainment, and racial tension. Each topic is further broken down into four sections that, in turn, reveal the false cultural narrative about the topic, restate the biblical view of it, suggest practical action steps, and forecast hope.

Christian high school and college students, professionals, educators, business leaders, government officials, and all manner of other believers stemming the tide of this cultural moment have reason to feel somewhat like Elijah of old, when the corrupt culture of Ahab and Jezebel held sway. When the knees of trusted leaders seem to buckle in the surf resources like this remind us that God has far more than seven thousand who have not bowed to the pressure.

I encourage you to read it, study it together with your kids and friends, and strengthen your knees.

 

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.