Notes from the Edges of Christianity
Impressions from God
The missionaries had
just returned from a year in
Even before they were
married, the couple felt that God had “given” them some verses from Ezekiel.
They believed that this passage held hidden meaning for what God was going to
do with their ministry. The verses talked about God breaking off a branch from
the top of a tree and planting it on a high mountain (Ezekiel 17:22).
Similarly, they felt God had taken them from the comfort they had enjoyed in
the States and sent them off to the mountains of
The verses went on to
talk about the splendid fruit the new tree would bring and how many different
kinds of birds would nest in it (Ezek. 17:23). So they felt God had brought
great success to their ministry in the mountains of
Many Christians use
the words of the Bible in this way. They read it believing that God speaks to
them directly from the words with messages individually tailored for them. Some
of these messages tell them what God wants them to do. I know of a family
trying to decide whether to move to
Others hear verses telling them what is going to happen in the future. Perhaps you have a friend with cancer and come across Isaiah 53:5: “by his bruises we are healed.” The person might believe God was going to heal the cancer. A different person in this situation comes across Luke 2:29: “you may now dismiss your servant in peace.” Perhaps this person concludes his or her friend will not be healed.
I wouldn’t tell such people that God didn’t speak to them or that God doesn’t speak in these ways. If you believe God spoke to Moses at a burning bush (Exodus 3) or to Balaam through a donkey (Numbers 22), why couldn’t he make the words of the Bible “jump out” at people in highly personal and individualistic ways? If God speaks to ordinary people, why wouldn’t he speak directly through the words of the Bible?
On the other hand, God could speak to people through any words in this way. He could make a phrase from a Reader’s Digest jump out at you. You could hear a comment on a TV show or even see a road sign and hear God telling you something. In short, God could take words out of any context and make them come alive to you. Nevertheless, many Christians believe God speaks regularly through the Bible in this way. Christians often view the words of the Bible as somewhat magical words designed to take on hidden meanings.
Christians treat the words of the Bible as somewhat “magical” words
designed to take on hidden meanings.
Many Christians treat the words of the Bible as somewhat “magical” words designed to take on hidden meanings.
Christians who read the Bible in this way are not reading its words “in context.” They are investing meanings in the words from their own context, giving them new meanings that those words have never had before. At best, these are instances of God inspiring the words to become the words of God to an individual—God meeting someone by way of his or her “personal dictionary.”
But these meanings
are not what the words originally meant. The missionaries who heard God’s voice
in Ezekiel 17 may indeed have heard God’s voice. But their interpretation has
almost nothing to do with anything God might have revealed to the ancient
Personalized impressions of this sort have stood at the beginning of so many thousands of Protestant groups. Here is what happens. Some individual reads a verse or set of verses a little differently from the group to which he or she currently belongs. That person begins to speak out “for God” and often calls for the broader group to turn to the truth. The bulk of the original group sees the person as extreme or unbalanced, usually with good reason. Then the “inspired” individual goes off and forms his or her own new group. A new denomination or group claiming to be the true church is born.
We could give countless examples of this phenomenon, most of which are fascinating. But sometimes they are a little more than scary. They are a strong warning for those who primarily use the Bible as a magical book filled with messages just for me. Perhaps some of these impressions are truly from God, although I suspect the vast majority of them are self-induced. Even most of these are harmless enough, especially if they fit within the two criteria we mentioned at the end of the last chapter. But if you think God is calling you to murder someone or if you start a group that doesn’t believe Jesus was truly God, you’ve arguably jumped off the cliff at the edge of Christianity.
Many will remember
the standoff in
Here we have a great
example of what can happen on the edges of Protestantism as individuals and
groups get impressions about what the Bible truly means. The Seventh Day
Adventists themselves are a group that stands somewhat on the edges of
Christianity. A Baptist named William Miller had predicted that Jesus Christ
would return to earth in 1844. When that didn’t happen, some of his movement
eventually came together as the
While they clearly have special beliefs about the end of the world, the name of this group reflects another one of their characteristic beliefs. Seventh Day Adventists meet together to worship on Saturday, the seventh day of the week, rather than on Sunday like mainstream Christians do. Like so many “edgy” groups, the Adventists have a biblical basis for their beliefs and practices. Indeed, I suspect they might persuade any number of other Protestants of their view, because so many Protestants approach the Bible in the same way. In the Old Testament, the Sabbath is clearly on the seventh day, which is Saturday (cf. Exodus 20:8-11). Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead, is the first day of the week (cf. Mark 16:2). The Adventists thus argue that you are violating the Ten Commandments if you do not observe Saturday as a Sabbath.
You will search long and hard in the New Testament for a place that equates Sunday with the Sabbath of the Old Testament. The Adventist then says, “Look, this is one of the Ten Commandments—Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Since the Sabbath was clearly Saturday, Christians are violating the Bible when they do not observe Saturday as their day of worship.” Given how important the Ten Commandments have become in the politics of some Christians, this argument may seem very convincing. It is very logical, and the Adventists are interpreting the Ten Commandments correctly. The fourth commandment clearly says not to work on Saturday.
The problem is that the writings of Paul in the New Testament are equally clear: Christians are not required to observe the Sabbath, particularly non-Jewish ones. Colossians 2:16 is very explicit: “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Colossians not only tells this group of non-Jewish Christians that they do not have to observe Jewish Sabbaths. It says they should resist anyone who condemns them because they don’t observe it.
Romans 14:5-6 is equally clear: “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord.” Paul clearly implies that it is okay not to observe the Jewish Sabbath. But if we look carefully, the perspective he adopts is even stronger on the issue. He puts those who don’t observe the Sabbath with the “strong” (cf. 14:1-2) and those who observe it with the “weak” (cf. 15:1). In other words, he aligns himself in the argument with those who do not observe the Sabbath.
Someone might object.
But wait, the Sabbath is in the Ten Commandments. In a way, God even instituted
it at the creation of the world (Genesis 2:2-3).
Here is one of the truths of this book. The person who assumes that all the books of the Bible agree with one another cannot help but read almost everything it says out of context. It’s like mowing down everything in a yard to make it the same height—in making it all look the same you’ve erased everything that was there before. When you read the books of the Bible in context, you will find a choir of voices. It is a beautiful piece of music, but there are movements, harmonies, and at times discordant notes.
person who assumes that all the books of the Bible agree with one another
cannot help but read almost everything it says out of context.
The person who assumes that all the books of the Bible agree with one another cannot help but read almost everything it says out of context.
In the middle of
these bizarre splits and fights, we find individuals claiming to have the
correct, prophetic, spiritual meanings of various passages. The name Koresh
itself comes from the Hebrew word for Cyrus, a king that Isaiah 45:1 praises
for letting the Jews return to
Another passage of interest to Koresh was Psalm 45, a psalm for the wedding of a king. Koresh rightly recognized that the New Testament takes a few verses from this psalm and applies them to Jesus. Since Koresh saw himself as a messiah, he had no problem applying the psalm to himself. But then he noticed that the king of Psalm 45 not only seems to get a new wife, but her virgin companions as well (Ps. 45:14). Indeed, it seems that the king already had other wives, the daughters of kings (45:9). Since Koresh believed he was the messiah, he prophetically saw that he as messiah could have many wives and sexual partners.
We can discern in the thinking of these splinter groups an all too common pattern. The Bible itself has very diverse material indeed. I suspect that Koresh was correct to think that Psalm 45 pictures a king with many women at his disposal. After all, Solomon himself had hundreds of wives and concubines. Sometimes these groups interpret things correctly where more mainstream groups are actually wrong in their interpretations. Thus some Christians would have any number of problems with the interpretation of Psalm 45. How could the psalm seem to sanction polygamy? How could the New Testament use an excerpt from the psalm about Christ? Could it be metaphorical? Could the bride be the church? But Koresh was no doubt correct to see many women and sex in the original meaning of this psalm.
The problem is that he then applied it to himself. Some aspects of his interpretation are correct, but his application was wrong. On matters like these, the spiritual instincts of more “orthodox” groups, groups whose teachings and practices stand within the general flow of Christian history, are the right instincts. Cults and sects often seize on some truth in the text, but these are usually not truths God wants his people to apply to today. Most Christian groups somehow know better than to apply the Bible in these ways.
spiritual instincts of mainstream Christian groups, groups whose teachings
and practices stand in the general flow of Christian history, are the right
The spiritual instincts of mainstream Christian groups, groups whose teachings and practices stand in the general flow of Christian history, are the right instincts.
Prophetic Interpretation Today
You can understand why so many Christian groups today shy away from the idea of prophets in the church. Individuals who claim to be prophets are usually unstable, divisive people who create far more strife and chaos than divine order. Understandably, those most opposed to this type of Bible interpretation usually emphasize reading the words of the Bible literally—for what they straightforwardly seem to mean.
But ironically, it is the Bible itself that most thrusts this issue on us. Prophecy played a major role in the life of the earliest Christians. And perhaps even more startling is the fact that the New Testament consistently reads the Old Testament “prophetically,” out of context to one degree or another. If we are to look to the Bible for how we are to conduct ourselves, we find that the Bible models a “spiritual” or “prophetic” reading of itself, taking its words in ways that were not originally intended.
New Testament consistently reads the Old Testament “prophetically,” out of
context to one degree or another.
The New Testament consistently reads the Old Testament “prophetically,” out of context to one degree or another.
One example is when
Matthew tells us that Jesus and his parents went down to
However, when we turn
to Hosea 11:1-2, we find the following words: “When
But this verse had
nothing to do with Jesus originally; it was about the nation
We don’t need to be
troubled at the way Matthew reads Scripture, although we may have to rethink
what the New Testament is doing when it speaks of fulfilled prophecy. Like most
Jews then and many Christians today, Matthew wasn’t reading the Old Testament
in context. Matthew found the words “out of
The Bible I used in my teen years had a chart in the back I always thought was neat. It showed a number of Old Testament “prophecies” that were fulfilled in the life of Jesus. I’ve more recently heard the idea of fulfilled prophecy as a proof for the truth of Christianity and the Bible. Some say it is practically impossible that all these predictions could come true coincidentally in the life of a single individual like Jesus.
While I’m very sympathetic to what this argument is trying to accomplish, it won’t convince any Jew who knows his or her Bible. The New Testament simply does not read these verses in terms of what they originally meant or predicted. As we have seen, many of the verses in question aren’t even predictions in the first place. A Jew who knows these passages simply will not see the same meanings the early Christians did—and they’ll probably be right in terms of the original meaning.
Christians have dealt with this phenomenon in different ways. I have heard some Bible professors say that Matthew could interpret this way because he was inspired. You don’t have that luxury. Roman Catholics of the early twentieth century invoked an idea they called sensus plenior or a “fuller sense” to the Bible’s words. They argued that the words of Scripture could have both a valid literal meaning and an inspired second, somewhat spiritual meaning. The original meaning is that of the Old Testament author. The fuller sense is the meaning the New Testament authors saw through the eyes of the Spirit.
For example, many Christians are well acquainted with Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (New International Version). Matthew 1:23 understands this verse in Isaiah as a prophecy about Jesus’ birth by way of the Virgin Mary. We expect to turn to Isaiah and find a verse about the future messiah’s birth.
For this reason you can understand why many Christians were outraged when the Revised Standard Version of the Bible came out in the 1940’s. Its translation of Isaiah 7:14 read, “A young woman will conceive.” Many Christians thought the RSV translators didn’t believe in the virgin birth.
But when we read Isaiah in context, we find that the RSV was simply translating the words for what they meant originally, rather than in the prophetic way Matthew understood them. In the original context of Isaiah, these verses were a promise from God to a king named Ahaz. Ahaz was worried about two neighboring kings who were threatening to destroy his kingdom. The prophet Isaiah offered Ahaz a sign that they wouldn’t defeat him. A young woman—the most natural meaning of the Hebrew word Isaiah used)—would give birth to a son, and “before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste” (Isaiah 7:16, NIV).
Now if this passage were originally about Jesus, then the sign was of no value to Ahaz. After all, Ahaz had been dead for some 700 years before Jesus came to earth. If the child wasn’t someone Ahaz himself knew, then it was no sign to him. The prophecy must have originally referred to a child born very soon after Isaiah made the prophecy, probably an heir to Ahaz’s throne.
Those who believe in a fuller sense to Scripture would argue that both meanings are correct: both the original meaning and the fuller sense Matthew saw. Some would suggest that God “hid” this second meaning in the words so that it would jump out at the earliest Christians about Jesus. Indeed, for whatever reason, those who translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek about 250 years before Christ used a word that really did mean “virgin” and not primarily “young woman.” You could argue that God inspired their translation so that the Scripture was set up to point to the virgin birth of Christ when he arrived on earth.
Did God impregnate the words of Scripture with incredibly complex networks of inspiration set to speak to millions of different individuals in millions of different ways? If God is God, it is certainly possible. Then again, words are flexible enough for God to inspire meanings like these on the spot as we read. And words are certainly flexible enough for countless individuals to find uninspired meanings in the text.
Thus to varying degrees, the New Testament frequently models exactly the kind of “impressionistic” reading of Scripture that prophetic groups today practice. The apostle Paul reads Deuteronomy 25:4: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Deuteronomy itself gives us no reason to take this statement as anything other than a comment on literal, real oxen. It certainly doesn’t sound anything like a prophecy.
But Paul sees it as a prophetic word about his own day, a principle relating to those who would go around preaching the gospel. “Is it for oxen that God is concerned?”, Paul asks (1 Corinthians 9:9-10). “Or does he not speak entirely for our sake, for whoever plows should plow in hope.” He eventually draws the prophetic conclusion: “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (9:14).
To be sure, we can find many instances in the New Testament where the interpretation comes much closer to the original meaning than these illustrations. Our point is simply that the New Testament also models several non-literal ways of reading the Old Testament as well. Sometimes, I would say most of the time, the New Testament authors didn’t realize they were reading the Old Testament in a different way than its original meaning. At still other times they surely knew, but it was of no concern to them.
Ultimately, they did not understand prophecy in terms of a prophet’s “human will” (2 Peter 1:21). They believed the meanings were in the words by way of the Holy Spirit. We would now formulate this statement a little differently. The “prophetic meaning” of Scriptural words is not a matter of the original meaning, the “human will” or mind of a biblical author. The prophetic meaning is something we can only discern by way of the Holy Spirit interpreting the words for us. Such a meaning will be somewhat different from what the text really meant when Matthew, Paul, or John first wrote it.
These simple observations are a major problem for the “Scripture only” view. The Scriptures themselves imply that the Spirit is a valid interpreter of the words in addition to the literal meaning of the text. And if we are to find controls on such spiritual interpretations, these also must come from outside the text. Either way, we find that more than just the literal meaning of the text is involved when applying its words to today.
Bible Reading with Open Eyes
I found great comfort as a child from verses like Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” Another one was Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” I found peace in the idea that God was with me wherever I went and that God was looking out for my benefit, not to harm me.
When I read these verses in context today, I realize that neither of them was originally directed at me or anyone alive today. Joshua 1:9 was a promise to Joshua as he was about to launch a military campaign to take over the Promised Land. God encouraged Joshua in this task, telling him to have courage. God promised that he would go with Joshua wherever he went. In other words, God gave Joshua victory over his enemies and made him a successful leader.
Why did I think this
verse was about me? Could others read this verse as a message to them? Would
this verse have applied to Hitler as he was about to invade
Jeremiah 29:11 was a
promise God sent by way of the prophet Jeremiah to captive Israelites in
These simple examples show how programmed we are to read the words of the Bible out of context. If I had paid even a little attention to the verses that came before and after Joshua 1:9 and Jeremiah 29:11, I could have easily seen that these verses were not originally about me at all. They were about specific situations in the lives of Joshua and Jeremiah. As obvious as this fact is, I was not taught to read the words of the Bible for what they really meant when they were written. I was programmed to read them as direct words from God to me.
But these facts do not negate the truths I took from these verses. God does love me and have good plans for me ultimately. But the truth of my conclusions did not ultimately come from the verses I was reading. It came more from a set of Christian beliefs I brought with me to the text, beliefs I was taught growing up in church.
inherit “guidelines of faith” from the Christian traditions around us,
rules for the kinds of meanings we “are allowed” to see in the words of
We inherit “guidelines of faith” from the Christian traditions around us, rules for the kinds of meanings we “are allowed” to see in the words of Scripture.
Far be it from me to tell anyone to stop hearing God’s voice in the words of the Bible, whether what they are hearing has anything to do with the original meaning or not. Indeed, if we have to know the original meaning to hear God, then most Christians throughout the ages are sunk. But the more we know about the original meaning and ourselves, the better equipped we are to read it with our eyes open to what is going on. Surely the more truth we know, the better able we are to be in tune with God, who is the ultimate source of all truth.
Bible can take on a sacramental quality where it becomes a means of
experiencing God’s gracious revelation.
Ordinary words are transformed into the voice of God.
The Bible can take on a sacramental quality where it becomes a means of experiencing God’s gracious revelation. Ordinary words are transformed into the voice of God.
 I don’t remember the precise details of the story, but the ones I present here convey the point accurately.
 Some have looked to the phrase “on the first of Sabbaths” in Mark 16:2 as a clue that Sunday is now the Christian Sabbath, but this expression is simply a Jewish idiom for the first day of the week. Monday would thus be the “second of Sabbaths,” Tuesday the “third of Sabbaths,” etc.
 In the numbering of most Protestant Churches. Jews, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans number the commandments or “Ten Words” differently.
 Hebrews 1:8-9 applies the words of Psalm 45:6-7 to Christ.
 When Ephesians says that the house of God is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, it refers to Christian prophets and not the prophets of the Old Testament (Eph. 2:20). Similarly, Paul tells the Thessalonians not to despise prophecy (1 Thess. 5:19). We also see the problem prophecy could become in the New Testament as well (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14:29-33; 1 Timothy 4:1; Matthew 7:15, 21-23; 2 Peter 2:1). It is no coincidence that 1 Timothy lays down rules for elders and deacons (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:1-13), while 2 Timothy is concerned about "the standard of sound teaching" (2 Tim. 1:13).
 A Thompson Chain Reference King James Version Bible.
 The same concept applies to verses in Isaiah 9 implying that this child would be called “Mighty God,” “Everlasting Father,” and “Prince of Peace” (9:6-7). These verses were originally about a human king. To be sure, no Israelite confused the human king with Yahweh—the literal GOD. Yet we cannot pay attention to the words of the Old Testament in context without concluding that they could also use this language figuratively in reference to their human kings. For example, Psalm 45 is a psalm for the wedding of a human king (e.g. see 45:9-15). Yet this human king is addressed at one point in the psalm as “God” (45:6) in distinction from the GOD (45:7). Isaiah 9 was thus using divine language of its king, just as was the normal practice of the ancient near east.
 Indeed, since most of us do not read the Bible in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, we must suppose that God frequently speaks through the wording of translations even beyond the original words. New Testament authors occasionally made points from the way the Old Testament had been translated into Greek even when the original Hebrew did not support those points. Thus Hebrews 10:5 makes an argument from the word “body” in Psalm 40:6, even though this word was not in the original Hebrew of the verse.
 The situation is actually even more
complex than what I suggest here. The book of Joshua itself did not reach its
“final” form until centuries after Joshua’s death (e.g., it even relies on
older books about Joshua, like the book of Jashar mentioned in Josh. 10:13).
The book as a whole offered hope to
 The idea of a “rule of faith” was a major category by which some of the earliest Christians determined what were appropriate beliefs and interpretations (e.g., Irenaeus in the late 100’s). See F. Young, The Art of Performance: Toward a Theology of Holy Scripture (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1990), 45-65.