Everything But Interpretation

6 December 2022

“What is a moderate interpretation of the text? Halfway between what it really means and what you’d like it to mean?”
-Antonin Scalia

Many Bible ‘interpreters’ just don’t read the text that’s actually in front of them.

Invoking the old saw that “no passage stands alone” and an unconscionably loose application of the regula fidei, they will find meaning everywhere but the passage at hand. Confronted with a difficult passage in (say) the Gospel of Mark, they will veer off like meth-driven hummingbirds to passages in 1 Corinthians, Revelation, and James. Mark’s original audience didn’t necessarily have access to any of those books, but never mind that.

But no. If the passage at hand is in Mark, and somebody is getting it wrong, then the first place to show it wrong is right here, in the passage at hand. If it’s a misinterpretation, then it’s a misinterpretation here. Conversely, if you’re hoping to establish what this passage means, there’s no substitute for demonstrating your point from this passage right here. Hermeneutics is reading what’s in front of you, not free-associating from the text in front of you to three other–allegedly clearer–passages, taking an average of those passages, then reading that back into the text in front of you. That’s everything but interpretation.

A man who can’t be trusted to address the passage in front of him, can’t be trusted with two or three witnesses elsewhere. Bet you dollars against bent toenail clippings that when you get into those passages, he does the same thing: run to three other passages rather than deal with what’s in front of him. Again, everything but interpretation.

And this is to say nothing of the even worse case where the man free-associates from the words in the passage at hand to his favorite systematic theology. No. Pace Niles Eldridge, meaning cannot forever be going on somewhere else. Reading a tendentious interpretation of a handful of cross-references back into everything else in the Bible, and justifying it with an appeal to regula fidei, is just cowardly. Face the passage in front of you. Be corrected by the passage in front of you.

It’s true enough that no passage stands alone. If we’re working with a passage in Mark, then it is first of all contained by the other passages in the Gospel of Mark. Attend to the context it actually has, and see where that takes you.

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“And such were some of you”

29 November 2022

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
(1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

There are two ways to abuse “…and such were some of you, but you were washed….”
1. think it’s an instant, automatic transformation
2. think that it doesn’t really happen

Both of these are mistakes. I’ve known no shortage of addicts who want to believe that #1 is their reality. God can really do that, and sometimes, He does. More often, He shows you the possibility of success, and then lets you walk it out the hard way. He doesn’t just want you off yoru substance of choice; He wants to make the non-addictive life a part of your character. He wants to teach you how to feel your feelings rather than numb them — and cast them on Him when they’re too much. Whatever the hungry darkness that waits to consume you, He wants you to know that He can walk you through it. Not theoretically; He wants you to know it in your bones. He wants to walk through it with you. In the words of C.S. Lewis, He is making you fit for the Kingdom of God, and He doesn’t care what it costs Him, or what it costs you.

The opposite error is to think that being a “Christian drunk” or a “Christian kelptomaniac” or a “Christian lesbian” is just who you are as a person, that that’s that. No, I have the worst–and best–possible news for you: you were washed. These things about you–nobody is saying they weren’t really true. But that was then; you were washed. There is nothing inevitable about your sins, not anymore.

What are we to do with this? Tell the truth, of course. If you fit the definition of a drunk, then there’s nothing wrong with copping to it, as long as you do it in a spirit of confession. “Hello, my name is Jack, and I’m an alcoholic,” may be true today, and you shouldn’t hesitate to tell the truth if it is. But when the Kingdom of God has fully come, it won’t be true anymore. Which is to say, that’s not who you are. Your identity is something else; “alcoholic” is a barnacle clinging to you. You will enter into the Kingdom; the barnacle will be scraped off in due time. You should be looking forward to it, not investing your identity in the barnacle.

If you pray “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” and mean it, then you need to admit the possibility that the barnacle could be scraped off sooner than later.

So call your sins out for what they are and really confess them. Nothing wrong with that. And then, having laid your sinful desires at the foot of the cross, don’t pick them back up. Don’t identify with them, because God says you were that, but you were cleansed from it. Confession isn’t the whole process; the next step is accepting the identity God has given you.


Mediocre Coffee and Cheap Donuts

22 November 2022

In Acts 2, Peter preaches that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ. When they ask “What do we do?” it’s because they believe what Peter said. If they didn’t believe him that Jesus is Messiah, then there’s no need to ask for instructions. Then Peter gives the instructions: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Does this mean everybody needs to get dunked to go to heaven? Some people have thought so. Others have tried to engineer some kind of special circumstance for this audience that would no longer apply today: they were under the unique curse of blaspheming the Holy Spirit; the baptism is required because they crucified the Messiah; they were in a transitional dispensational period; baptism was for Jews, not Gentiles, etc.

But no; no special pleading is required. But you do need a robust biblical theology of baptism. If baptism is the New Covenant analog of the Flood (as Peter will later write in 1 Peter 3:21), then baptism delivers you from the judgment that is coming upon the wicked world, and delivers you into a new one, just like the Flood did with Noah. That’s not some transitional/dispensationally unique item for this moment in Acts; that’s just what baptism does.

For these specific people in Acts 2 (who were lately shouting “Give us Barabbas!”), the judgment they have coming is about crucifying the Messiah, sure. But it’s not as if (say) the Ephesian Gentiles Paul preached to didn’t have their own judgment to deal with: they “were by nature children of wrath” until God saved them. There’s always plenty judgment to go around, and the consequences of sin are always deadly (cf. James 1).

For the Acts 2 Jerusalemites, the water baptism was the Christian community in Jerusalem receiving them into itself. If they heeded the warnings of Hebrews, baptism saved their lives, because when the Jewish revolt began, the Christian community fled the city, correctly believing Jesus’ promise that it would be destroyed. If they did not heed the warnings of Hebrews and returned to Judaism, then they were swept up in the revolt and–as promised in Hebrews–suffered a fate far worse than stoning.

For the Ephesians, and for us, baptism joins us to the Christian community. For most evangelicals, that really means nothing, because most evangelicals have no community to speak of, and therefore nothing to join. It would be a mistake to read that defect in our praxis into our theology. Our sin in this matter is entirely foreign to the New Testament. The life of the Body in the NT is a thick, substantial, literally life-saving community, and that’s the backdrop for this text.

Live like the heathens outside the community, and all the judgments that fall on the heathens outside the community will fall on you: “because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience; therefore do not be partakers with them.” Join the community and come under its discipline and rule of life, and you get to skip all that. Baptism admits you to the community (just as excommunication excludes you from it.)

Take Carlos for example: when I met him, Carlos was living on the street, addicted to anything that would numb him out. He’d been badly hurt, and he’d done a lot of damage to other people too, and he was running from all of it. I led him to Christ, and then found out he was suicidal, and I’d just helped him be sure he’d go to heaven. (That’ll do something for your prayer life!) A local fellowship he was already somewhat hanging out with baptized him, and when he really joined in Christian fellowship, God’s people supported him in kicking his addictions, finding a job, finding housing, getting a vehicle. Last time he came by, I hardly recognized him, he looked so good.

Meanwhile, Jimmy OD’ed on heroin in a Burger King bathroom, another guy froze to death, another guy was murdered for a sleeping bag or something similarly stupid…you get the idea. Christian fellowship saved Carlos’ life. Real sharing of life, not standing around after church and lying to other middle-class suburbanites about your week over mediocre coffee and cheap donuts.

I know that sounds harsh. The reality is harsh. Because we refuse to share life with one another, we deprive each other of the life-giving support the Body is supposed to provide. We can’t obey the “one anothers” if we don’t really spend time together, and obeying the “one anothers” is an essential part of the Christian life. Without it, we live subchristian lives. When our fake fellowship fails to yield benefits–as of course it will–we end up with an anemic view of the community, and therefore an equally anemic view of what baptism accomplishes by bringing someone into it.


The Longest Sentence

30 August 2022

Ephesians 1:3-14 is one long sentence in Greek — the longest sentence in the Greek New Testament. In it, Paul uses the pronouns “we” and “you” in a surprising way — to refer to Jewish believers and Gentile believers, respectively. That fact comes as a bit of a surprise to a modern reader, and you’re not alone — it was a surprise to the original readers too! But if you accept that “we” and “you” are exclusive of one another in vv. 12-13 – which you have to – then you’re stuck with it throughout. There’s no natural breaking point within the sentence. But the original readers aren’t going to know that ‘we’ just refers to Jewish believers until they hear vv. 12-13, so there’s a penny-drop moment there where they have to re-evaluate what they’ve heard, thus:

Paul blesses God for blessing Jewish believers with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, even as He chose them in Christ to be holy and blameless before Him by predestining them to sonship adoption through Christ, in keeping with God’s purposes, so that His glorious grace might be praised. In keeping with His grace, He fully accepted the Jewish believers by accepting Christ, in whom the Jewish believers have redemption (forgiveness of sins), in keeping with God’s abundant grace which He wisely abounded toward them by revealing the mystery (His household-management plan to bring all things together in Christ).

In Christ the Jewish believers have obtained the inheritance to which God predestined them (in keeping with the public presentation [Gk. prothesis] of His plans [throughout the OT]) in order that they – the first to hope in Christ – would bring praise to His glory. The Gentiles also believed, once they heard the gospel, and were sealed by the same Holy Spirit who guarantees the Jewish believers’ inheritance.

It’s not a surprise that Jewish believers would end up as Paul describes — God publicly announced His plan to do exactly that in the new covenant prophecies centuries before Christ. But Gentiles?

As Paul develops his argument in Ephesians, it turns out that the mystery to which he alludes in v. 9 is that the Gentile believers would be made one body with the Jewish believers – all who are united to Christ are united to each other in one new man, the Church. There are no longer two groups, but one, and the blessings apply equally to the whole group. That unity of the Body — with one another and pre-eminently with Christ — is the main point of the book, and it’s powerful. Paul spends the latter three chapters unpacking the practical implications.

Why does Paul begin this way? Because he is making his case to a mixed Jew-Gentile church that they need to become one in practice to reflect the oneness God has already given them in spiritual reality. He wants his Gentile readers to be grateful for the Jews who faithfully spread the message of Christ to the Gentiles. And likewise, he wants his Jewish readers to see that although the Gentiles came later, they have been fully integrated into all the blessings of Christ — nothing has been held back.

Here’s a challenge for you: knowing this is how Paul is using “we” and “you” early in Ephesians, read 2:1-10, and see what he’s doing there. Have fun!


Stones into Bread

27 April 2021

What do you do when you have a genuine need going unmet? It’s one of the great tests, and of course Jesus showed us how to handle it. After His baptism, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that He fasted for 40 days while the devil tempted Him. At the end of that time, He was literally starving. He needed food, and there was none.

At that moment, the devil attacked. “If you’re the son of God, then turn these stones to bread.”

First the devil attacked his identity: are you really the son of God? Are you sure? If you won’t even use the power to feed yourself when you’re starving, then what’s the point anyway? God’s supposed to be taking care of you here, and all I see is rocks.

Jesus responds with a line from Deuteronomy, when Moses is teaching a new generation to trust God by reminding them of their history. He says “God humbled you, allowed you to suffer hunger, and then fed you with manna that you did not know, nor did your father know, in order to teach you” — and this is the part Jesus quotes — “that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God’s mouth.”

You see what Jesus is saying? He’s applying Israel’s experience as the template. First we have a need, and it hurts. The need is real. Then the devil shows up and tempts us not to trust God, to try to do it our own way. And if we fall for it, then we end up trying to eat rocks.

Jesus resisted, and when the temptations were over, angels came and fed Him.

Give in, and you eat rocks; resist, and God gives you manna.

But it’s hard. You know what? Jesus knows firsthand how hard it is; He’s been there. Right this minute He is sitting at the Father’s right hand as your High Priest. He has all the resources of heaven at His disposal, and He is ready to give you the help you need to get through it. He is sympathetic, not condemning. He wants you to ask for help. So ask for help, and He will help you.


Is There An Interpretation?

15 September 2020

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul gives instructions for the use of tongues in public worship. It profits on one, Paul says, for someone to blather on in a tongue if nobody understands it. The tongues-speaker is welcome to speak to himself and to God in private, but in public worship, Paul says, tongues must be interpreted.

Makes sense, right? Seems simple enough.

Here’s the problem, though: how do you know if there’s an interpretation?

Think it through like a scene in a movie. Someone feels moved by the Spirit to stand up and speak in a tongue, but he’s not supposed to do it unless someone can interpret it. Does he have to find an interpreter in advance? How does that work? (“Hey, buddy — I’m gonna speak in tongues. Do you have the interpretation?”) Does he just speak, and trust that the Spirit will give someone the interpretation? How long do we let him go on before we decide there’s no interpreter, and have him sit down?

See, Paul sets them up for a “try it and see” model here. To even have a hope of following Paul’s instructions, they’ll have to rely on the Spirit, and discern His will together.

And so should we all.


Being Lifted Up

1 September 2020

In John 15, Jesus presents His followers with a vineyard as a metaphor for living in harmony with God. Jesus is the vine, all His people are branches, and–this part is much neglected–the Father is the caretaker.

The traditional 3DM rendering of this passage uses a semicircle, a pendulum that oscillates back and forth between seasons of fruitfulness (work) and seasons of abiding (rest). While it’s true that there’s a need to maintain healthy rhythms of work and rest (a lesson contained in Genesis 1 and a number of other places in the Bible), this passage is actually headed a different — and far deeper — direction.

The first necessary modification to the 3DM picture was suggested by one of my coaches, Jeff Allen. He moved “abide” from one of the extremes on the pendulum to the pivot point, thus:

Slide1

Jeff’s point is that we don’t actually alternate between work and abiding. We abide in Christ all the time as we alternate between work and rest.

There’s another tweak we have to make in order to understand the passage properly, and that is a correct understanding of the Greek word airo, that is so often translated “He takes away” in v. 2. Airo means to lift up or take away, and so that translation is understandable…but absolutely wrong in this context. The word also means “to lift up,” and in this context, that’s much more to the point.

The conversation here is about the care of a vineyard. At the beginning of the growing season, the caretaker passes through the vineyard, looking for threats to fruitfulness. There are two conditions, not just one, that threaten the fruitfulness of the vines: too much growth, and not enough.

Where the branches are growing too much, they won’t produce good-quality fruit. If a branch is trying to produce too much fruit at the same time, it won’t have the nutrients it needs to make good-quality fruit, so all of the fruit will be stunted and poor. At the other extreme, some branches fall down into the dirt. Down in the dirt, they are in danger, threatened by rot, mildew, and pests.

Slide2

The branches that are overactive, spreading themselves too thin, get pruned back. In other words, God will cut off some of what you are trying to do, in order to get you to focus all your resources in a smaller, more productive area. That is really hard to take, especially when some of the things God prunes off are things you worked really hard for. They may be good things, but if God is not authoring them for you, now, then it’s time to let them go. The job here is to accept the Father’s pruning with grace, and trust that He knows what He’s doing.

Then there’s the branches that have fallen into the dirt and aren’t producing anything…and this is where that Greek word comes in. “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit He lifts up.” The caretaker lifts the fallen branch back up onto the trellis where it can thrive in the air and sunlight. If you have fallen into the dirt, and you’re not producing anything, your job is to let the Father lift you up, so that you might bear fruit.

There will be seasons in your life where you’re overproducing; there will be seasons in your life where you’re in the dirt. God will take care of you in either condition, and bring you back to fruitful health. The constant through every season is the command given in the passage: Abide in Him.


Even the Little Ones

14 July 2020

Paul writes to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16) that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable…that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In some passages of Scripture, it’s a bit challenging to find the profit. Take, for example, Psalm 137, which ends with “O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, Happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock!”

What do we do with this? One popular approach is to skip brusquely to “we can’t apply this literally, so let’s make up something edifying” as this author has done. I’d like to propose something better: something that starts with taking the psalm seriously in its original context.

Israel is in Babylon, having been brutally conquered and dragged into captivity. The psalm is a lament posing a question: how do they worship in a foreign land? This is not a simple question. The musical service of Zion was originally designed to serve as a parallel at David’s Tabernacle to the Tabernacle sacrificial service at Gibeon. At Solomon’s Temple, the musical and sacrificial services were brought together. (There are ascension offerings and ascension psalms, and so on.) With the Temple destroyed and the sacrifices no longer happening, was it even appropriate to sing the songs of Zion? (The editors who arranged the Psalter set it up so that the following songs answer the question posed in Psalm 137, but that’s a topic for another day.)

As they grapple with the question, their captors are demanding that the musicians sing songs of Zion purely for Babylonian amusement. Can you imagine? You’re a Levite, a son of Korah, your whole life devoted to sacred music in the Temple. All of a sudden, it’s all destroyed, and you’re a slave, and your master demands that you play sacred Temple music for the amusement of his guests at a drunken pig roast. That’s what Israel’s sacred musicians are facing.

And so the psalm closes with a curse on Babylon, and a blessing on the conqueror who does to Babylon what Babylon did to Judah. It’s not hyperbolic language; it’s a literal curse. It quite likely came to pass in the days of Belshazzar, with Darius’ Persian troops receiving the blessing.

So that’s what’s going on. After the cross, applying such a thing is complicated. You don’t get to curse your enemies and just say you’re following the example of the psalmist; the cross really did change some things. Today, we face strong counterexamples.

Jesus did the exact opposite of this curse on the cross (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”) Stephen followed His example (“Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”) James charges his readers that blessing and cursing ought not come from the same mouth (Jas. 3:8-12). In tension with that, Jesus Himself pronounced judgment on Jerusalem (Mt. 23:33-39), Peter cursed Simon Magus (Ac. 8:20-23), Paul blinded Elymas (Ac. 13:9-11), and asked God to repay Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim. 4:14). Of those, two were clear means to the end of furthering repentance (Simon Magus) and the gospel (Elymas), and both had the desired effect (you could also put church discipline in this category). Matthew 23 arguably works this same way, given how it ends in v. 39, although we haven’t seen the fulfillment yet. Paul’s treatment of Alexander the coppersmith is less clearly redemptive, but notice that Paul does not specify what should happen to him, instead leaving him in the hands of the Lord to judge.

Where does that leave us? Before the cross, cursing your enemies was just common sense. Afterward, not so much. The Old Covenant is dead, and under the New, even the curses have a redemptive purpose. We are not allowed to simply follow the example set in Psalm 137; instead, we are called to follow Stephen’s example instead. Or Peter’s, cursing redemptively. So it is the easiest thing in the world to (in practice) just scrap the psalm–for all practical purposes, to mentally remove it from the canon of Scripture. “It’s not applicable today,” we say, and that’s that.

This is precisely where the ancient church comes to our rescue. Rather than simply discarding the psalm as an artifact of its time and place, inscripturated for some reason but utterly inapplicable today, the ancient interpreters take Paul at face value: *all* Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. The goal is not to figure out what we can disregard as “not applicable today,” but to wring every last bit of transformation out of our encounter with the Scriptures that we can get. 

So where is the profit here? If we may not have this hatred toward our enemies, the ancient interpreters ask, is there something, some enemy, that we *should* have this hatred toward? Of course there is. “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). We really should cultivate this antipathy — not toward people, but toward sin. The psalm really should resonate with us, not because we beg God to slaughter our enemies’ children, but because we call on God to destroy our sins.

Even the little ones.


Fire on the Mountain

7 July 2020

I delivered this talk at Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO, some weeks ago as a discussion starter. The full discussion centered around the question, “Where is God’s Presence?”

I know this sounds like a lame question. This is theology 101, right? God is omnipresent — He’s everywhere. So great; that’s settled.

What I hope you’ll find this morning is that our Scripture passage (Acts 2:1-24) forces us to rethink. Omnipresence is true, but it’s also true that God is particularly present in a special way at specific times and places.

This is true starting all the way back in the Garden. If we closely read the description of Eden and the accounts of the fall of Lucifer, we find that the Garden was planted in the lowlands of a region called Eden. It had to be in the lowlands, because there was a river that watered it — and the river had to flow down from higher ground. Somewhere else in Eden was a place of volcanic beauty, where Lucifer, the anointed covering cherub in the very presence of God, covered in gemstones, walked back and forth in the midst of the fiery stones. Obviously that’s not the same place where Adam and Eve were going about naked among the fruit trees.

But in the cool of the day, God would leave the glory of the fiery stones and come walk in the garden with the man and woman He created.

When we sinned, God dispatched a cherub with a flaming sword to guard the gate to the garden. Divine fire blocked our way back to God.

From that day forward, we often meet God in fire.

Moses meets God in the burning bush. Before they cross the Red Sea, God stands between Israel and the Egyptian army in a huge pillar of cloud and fire.

And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night. (Ex. 14:19-20)

Later, Moses and the whole nation meet God on Mount Sinai. God descends to the mountaintop in fire and storm.

And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice. (Ex. 19:17-19)

When the tabernacle is built, divine fire comes out of the sanctuary and kindles the offering on the altar. Later, God executes wayward priests who offer strange fire on His altar.

And Aaron lifted up his hand toward the people, and blessed them, and came down from offering of the sin offering, and the burnt offering, and peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the people. And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces. (Lev. 9:22-24)

God leads Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When they’re camped, the pillar of cloud and fire is always above the Tabernacle, and divine fire burns on the altar, a portable mountain of God.

When Solomon dedicates the temple, God once again brings down fire from heaven and kindles the altar.

When Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the LORD, because the glory of the LORD had filled the LORD’S house. When all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the LORD on the temple, they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshiped and praised the LORD, saying: “For He is good, For His mercy endures forever.”Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the LORD. (2 Chr. 7:1-4)

When Elijah faces the prophets of Baal, he calls down divine fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice.

And it came to pass, at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said, “LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. “Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that You are the LORD God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let one of them escape!” (1 Ki. 18:36-40)

Days later, when Elijah flees into the desert, he meets God once again on Mount Sinai. All the things that happened with Moses happen again: storm, fire, and earthquake…but God is not in them. Then God comes to him in a still, small voice.

Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Ki. 19:11-12)

After the resurrection, Jesus told His disciples to go disciple the nations, but to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit came on Pentecost, he came as God had come on Sinai: a mighty rushing wind and fire. But this time, the fire is not in just one place: one mountain, one altar, one pillar of fire. There are tongues of fire on every believer’s head.

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

And just like with Elijah on the mountain, the real power’s not in the fire. The real power’s in the voice that comes after the fire: everyone hears the wonderful works of God in their own language, and 3,000 people are added to the church that day.

Now there’s a temptation that hits us, as soon as we start to talk about how every believer has this. We stop thinking it’s special. We mentally put it with omnipresence. Everybody has it. It’s no big deal. No.

Do you understand the picture God is painting here? Every believer is the burning bush, Mount Sinai, the pillar of fire, the Tabernacle, the Temple, all rolled into one. This is not just omniscience; God is specifically present in you in a way that He is not present with everybody. When you walk into a room full of unbelievers, the fire of God just walked in — and remember, after the fire comes a voice. What will you say? It matters!


A Prophet’s Biggest Job

30 June 2020

We haven’t paid enough attention to Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about how to conduct a church service. The challenge is to come together, each one with a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, a revelation, an interpretation, and do so in such a way that we grow together.

In Corinth, everybody brought what they had: a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, a revelation, an interpretation. They got that part right. (We have trouble with this part.)

The Corinthians missed two things, as Paul explains. The first is order, and you can read about that in any commentary. The second, much less commented upon, is that prophecies must be judged. Just because you think God has spoken to you doesn’t mean you’re right; Paul entrusts the group with the job of discerning gold from dross.

We understand this perfectly well when it comes to teaching, and we understand all the possibilities inherent in it. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition; one part of a teaching can be true and another false, something could contain a grain of truth but be distorted in some way, and so on — all manner of nuances. We routinely discern the correctness of teaching in just this way.

We are called to do the same with prophecy. Moreover, discerning others’ prophecies was actually the New Testament prophet’s biggest job. (Not prophesying. Does that surprise you?) Suppose you’re part of a house church of, say, 30 people. Now, you don’t all prophesy, although Paul wishes you did, but a bunch of you are prophets. You’ve all been trying to speak at once, which is part of the problem. Let’s suppose that only half the group prophesy. That’s 15 prophets — a real mess when they all start talking over each other. Paul says to stop that: only 2 or 3 will be allowed to speak (one at a time!) in any single gathering. Think through the math: the average prophet in the group will be occupied in hearing and judging others’ prophecies about 5 times more often than he is giving a prophecy himself. The prophet’s biggest job is to discern.

We have trouble envisioning what this looks like in practice, because we have become so thoroughly disobedient that we can’t even imagine it. Paul told us a church service should be orderly, and we’ve taken that to such an extreme that we want to pre-screen everything so that nothing in the church service will require correction. That’s not what Paul said to do. He actually prescribes the opposite solution: let the thing happen, and then correct it. The church service is not supposed to be a polished performance; it’s a workshop.

We can kinda get our heads around workshopping a teaching. We have no trouble talking about how a speaker’s first point was good, his second point was way off base, not at all what the Scripture passage is talking about, and the third point wasn’t bad, but it was more of a personal preoccupation than an application of the text. We understand how to make a nuanced evaluation of teaching. We cringe a little at the idea of someone saying these things in a panel discussion right after the sermon, but why? Do any of us really outgrow the need for feedback? Why not do it together? Why not share it with the Body, so everyone can learn and be encouraged?

If we could review teaching, then why not a prophetic word? We get stuck in the trap of thinking there are only two options: either it was genuine, a prophecy from God, and therefore we have to swallow it whole, or it was not, and we throw it out entirely. Those two options are certainly on the table, but there’s just more to it than that.

Remember that we’re talking about interpersonal communication here: a prophet giving account of what he believes God said to him for the group. When it’s a boss giving his secretary instructions for his employees, what are some of the ways it can go?

  • The secretary faithfully relays the instructions
  • Not listening well enough, the secretary relays most of the instructions, but leaves out something that the group definitely needs to hear
  • The secretary elaborates on the instructions beyond what the boss actually said. The additions are common sense, but maybe not quite what the boss actually had in mind
  • The secretary adds an item that’s really just a personal pet peeve

If the secretary gave you instructions, ostensibly from the boss, that sounded a little funny to you, what would you do? Call the boss and clarify, right? We can do that — we have the Holy Spirit! As we discern a prophetic word together, that might sound like…

  • “That first 30 seconds was gold, definitely from the Holy Spirit, but after that I think you were on a roll and you just started improvising.”
  • “That was incredibly condemning; I believe that was your internal monolog, not God.”
  • “Thank you for that word of exhortation. That was for you personally, not for the whole group.”
  • “As you were speaking, the Lord was confirming to me everything you were saying.”
  • “Most of that was great, except for that one bit about lust. By the way, have you noticed that every single time you prophesy, there’s always something about lust? Let’s talk about why that is…”

Paul intends for the Corinthians to do this. Let someone speak, then evaluate — table-talk it afterwards, in public, with everyone listening. In this way everyone learns to hear God’s voice better, by walking with those who do and leaning on one another — “he who walks with the wise will be wise,” like the man said.

Cessationists regularly complain that the very claim to have a prophetic word renders the content of the prophecy beyond discussion. The whole project is impossible, they will say. They only think this because they have failed to pay attention to what Paul actually told the Corinthians to do. Discernment isn’t impossible; it’s just hard.

We lack the skill to hear God’s voice because we have refused to participate in the exercises where He teaches us how to do it.