God is love, and, therefore, shouldn’t we understand Scripture with His love in mind? Well, yes, but what does God’s love entail? Bill, a self-identified “progressive Christian,” insisted on reading Scripture in a way that dismissed the verses Jesus had taught on repentance and eternal judgment. For Bill, God’s love had no room for repentance, righteousness, and judgment. Consequently, he claimed:
· I read Scripture through the lens of God’s love. I can’t believe that a loving God would punish, certainly not eternally.
In one limited way, Bill is correct. The way we interpret Scripture should reflect the love of God. After all, the two greatest commandments require us to love God and our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). Besides, Paul instructed us to minister Scripture according to God’s love:
· As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1 Timothy 1:3-5)
However, Bill carefully chose for himself the verses that affirmed his understanding of love and not a Biblical understanding. But what does love look like in the Bible? Love takes many forms. The Prophets of Israel spoke of God’s love, but it came in the form of warnings against rebellion. Meanwhile, the false prophets embodied Bill’s understanding of love. They invariably preached a popular and comforting message. However, God censured them:
· They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among the fallen; when I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 8:11-12; ESV)
While preaching an indulgent message of “peace” has the appearance and even the “feel” of love, it is a message that failed to penetrate to the core problem – the rebellion of Israel. Consequently, it was a message that did not heal but allowed the cancer to fester. Therefore, the consequences would be great.
The prophet that truly loved God and his people would preach to heal:
· But if they [the false prophets] had stood in my [God’s] council, then they would have proclaimed my words [of warning] to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds. (Jeremiah 23:22)
The false prophets had a perverted understanding of love. They only understood the immediate comfort that their message of “peace” would bring and the approval of men. They had little esteem for the Word of God. Therefore, God chastened them:
· Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading. (Lamentations 2:14)
A true message of love would aim towards restoration to God through repentance. Inevitably, such a message would sound harsh and unloving. Peter’s words to Simon the Magician, who offered to purchase the gifts of God, sounded unduly harsh:
· But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” (Acts 8:20-23)
However, after being cut by his words, Simon asked for prayer. Therefore, it looks like Peter’s words were loving and merciful. Likewise, Peter had preached to the crowd that they were guilty of crucifying Jesus, but this harsh accusation produced fruit:
· Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:36-38)
Peter did not gloss over their guilt. He went right to the core of their problem and pricked their conscience. This represented true love.
Likewise, Peter’s Lord spoke many harsh words against the religious leadership, for example:
· “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13-15)
This may not look like love to us, but if God is love, and everything He did was done out of love, then this too is love. From this perspective, these leaders needed strong words to penetrate their hardened hearts.
However, Jesus also spoke harshly to His own disciples:
· But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23)
Love doesn’t always speak soft-cuddly messages. It speaks words that best serve the listener – words like what God had instructed Isaiah to proclaim:
· Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 1:16-20)
Bill’s understanding of love in not the biblical understanding of love. He is like the false prophets who preached “peace” when there was no peace. Bill’s “love” is not a love that pleases God. It is a “love” that fails to heal, because it brings words that do not belong to God.
Instead, we need to learn to appreciate God’s tough love. He exercised it in regards to the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, the couple who had given half of the proceeds of the sale of their property to the Apostles but had lied to the Holy Spirit in the process, claiming that they had given all. Because of this, God stuck them dead, and the Church was terrified by His show of judgment. However, instead of setting back the Church, this judgment seem to have revived it:
· And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles…None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women… (Acts 5:11-14)
Consequently, the love of God should not cause us to gloss over God’s judgments but rather to affirm them along with the rest of Scripture.
Faithfulness to Scripture is faithfulness to God. It should prevent us from imposing our own philosophy upon it but rather to understand God’s Word as He intended it to be understood. However, we tend to impose our own agenda upon God’s Word. Instead, we are commanded to rightly interpret:
· Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15; ESV)
Although this answer is simple, we tend to slip into other ways of doing theology. For the first several years of my Christian walk, I had interpreted Scripture through my distorted lens. I tried to understand Scripture in a way that would enable me to feel good about myself, not thinking for a moment that there was anything wrong with interpreting in this manner.
If my interpretation felt right to me, I’d embrace it. If it didn’t, I would either try to interpret the verse in question in a more comfortable way, or I would just ignore it.
I wasn’t reading Scripture any differently than before I was saved. Ethnically a Jew and also a Zionist, living in Israel, my favorite book quickly became the Book of Joshua. Why? Because my people were victorious over the others, and that made me feel good!
However, the next book was Judges. Expecting more of the same ego-enhancement, I became very disappointed with this book and put the Hebrew Scriptures down.
Many others beside Bill are doing the same thing. We comb the Scriptures for support for our own conclusions. One theologian taught that Jesus had admitted that He was wrong about the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15). At first, He thought her unworthy to receive anything from Him. However, after seeing her faith, He decided otherwise.
From this, the misguided theologian concluded that Scripture is often wrong and that the truth has evolved as Jesus’ understanding had evolved. Ultimately, we have to decide what to believe. Consequently, we have been made the judges of Scripture, instead of Scripture judging us. Therefore, our judgment reigns supreme.
Scripture is also made into the servant of our lifestyles. We coerce it to say the very things that will justify our lifestyles. Christians who believe in socialism or communism exalt the few verses that show that the disciples had everything in common and ignore the many other verses that appeal to individuals who have their own resources.
Those who are living alternative sexual lifestyles present Jesus as the ultimate radical who challenged the status quo. His foes were the judgmental religious leaderful. They excluded, while Jesus received all into community. Meanwhile, they neglect the fact that Jesus called the sinner to repent (Luke 13:1-5). They also ignore the fact that Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees wasn’t that they were judgmental, but that they refused to even believe Moses:
· Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:45-47)
A theology which is faithful to the Word of God seeks to reconcile verse with verse in order to understand Scripture in a coherent and unified way. However, too much exegesis (interpretation) is performed to reconcile Scripture with the prevailing culture.
Theistic evolutionists (TE) claim that there is no conflict between Scripture and evolution. They argue that these two sources of knowledge cannot conflict because they are focused on different things. Evolution’s concern is the physical world, while the Bible’s focus is on the spiritual world. Conflict resolved!
However, the Bible teaches a lot about the physical world – teachings that go against evolution, like God speaking the world into existence or the introduction of sin and death through Adam and Eve. Doesn’t this violate the TE’s claim?
According to the TE, even though the Bible talks about the physical world, its main concern is spiritual, as if it is possible to separate the two. The TE goes further by claiming that the Bible speaks wrongly about the physical world because it reflects the errant cosmology of the Ancient Near East. Here is an example the TE uses to denigrate what the Bible teaches about the physical world:
· Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. (Psalm 93:1)
How will it never be moved? Here, the TE imposes his Scripturally depreciating interpretation to support his claim that the Bible isn’t interested in the physical world that it even fails to understand. He claims that the Psalmist wrote under the misunderstanding that our earth will not be moved because it sits on a pedestal, as the ancients had erroneously believed.
However, the TE ignores the fact that Scripture also says that the righteous shall not be moved. Why not? Because he is stuck on a pedestal? Of course, not! Rather, he will not be “moved” in the sense that he will not be destroyed. Likewise, we must interpret Psalm 93 to teach that the earth will not be destroyed.
The TE and many others coerce Scripture into agreeing with them, just as I had done. I do not do this anymore. It is not because I am more spiritual or faithful than others. I am not. Instead, it is because I have been so chastened that I only want God’s unadulterated truth. I need to know that I am walking in His light.
Interpretation, therefore, is not simply a mental exercise. If it was, we could learn wisdom from a book. However, wisdom is a gift from God. It comes through humbling circumstance:
· The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence. The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor. (Proverbs 15:31-33)
Who will listen to reproof; who solicits criticism? Only the one who has been humbled and comes to despair in his own judgments. Only such a person is ready for the “fear of the Lord” – an openness to His wisdom and correction.
I had “ignored instruction,” thinking that I had the answers. He chastened me with my own foolishness, allowing me to reap the consequences of my arrogance. He humbled me in order to lift me up. The Psalmist David had confessed:
· It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:71-72)
When we are afflicted, we grab any life-preserver thrown our way. The Word was given to me, and it now has more value than anything else. Therefore, I meditate on it continually, as the Lord instructed Joshua:
· This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. (Joshua 1:8)
How do we understand this Book? Once again, it is not just a mental activity. Theology must be done on “our knees,” meaning that we have to cry out to our Lord for His wisdom to properly understand. And He is able to provide it:
· Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.” (Luke 24:44-46)
Since He can open our minds to understand His truths, we must be in prayer, lest our own interests and agendas overtake us.