Three Kinds of Bibliology

You really can’t study Karl Barth in evangelical circles without hearing some (often quite strong) objections to his bibliology. This, of course, is perfectly understandable, as inerrancy makes for an important discussion. Nonetheless, I often think Barth is overly criticized on this point, and in large part my reason for this involves my understanding that, whatever Barth’s views on the nature of inspiration and revelation, he took Scripture extremely seriously and worked hard to conform his thinking to it. In contrast to more liberal or skeptical theologians, Barth declared, “Once and for all, theology has…its position beneath that of the biblical scriptures…[T]he biblical witnesses are better informed than are the theologians. For this reason theology must agree to let them look over its shoulder and correct its notebooks.”1

Reflecting on this led me to think that we would do best to understand bibliology as having three distinct aspects, which have different levels of importance and practical impact. I think it may be helpful, when assessing and debating views on Scripture, to have these distinctions in mind. My proposed bibliological distinctions are as follows:

Confessional Bibliology
By confessional bibliology, I mean the descriptions which people are willing to employ regarding Scripture, i.e. what people confess about the Bible. Confessional bibliology is the sphere in which we simply use individual words to say what we believe about Scripture, something primarily visible in confessional documents. A “high” confessional bibliology may use terms like “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” and “verbally inspired.” A “low” confessional bibliology may shy away from such terms, except perhaps “infallibility,” in favor of less specific language such as “authoritative” or “inspired.”
Technical Bibliology
By technical bibliology, I mean the precise way in which people explain their views on what Scripture is and how it was inspired. Most “views of inspiration” would be included under this heading, such as verbal plenary, dynamic, existential, etc. On this level we describe what “God-breathed” means, how God used men in writing Scripture, what the role is of the Holy Spirit, and even broader questions such as divine providence and the nature of God’s revelation.
Practical Bibliology
By practical bibliology, I mean the way we actually use Scripture. How do we handle it? Do we treat it with submission and reverence, or do we twist it for our own ends? This includes certain questions of hermeneutics, the relation to tradition, and how we can be self-conscious and self-critical about the presuppositions and worldview we bring to the Bible. A high practical bibliology robustly allows Scripture and its inner logic to change our thinking and doctrine. A low practical bibliology makes the Bible into a servant of our preexisting convictions and outside norms.

So, a few thoughts on these categories. First, having a “high” bibliology in one of these areas does not guarantee a correspondingly high bibliology in all of them. One might have a high confessional bibliology, for example, willing to call Scripture “entirely without error,” while essentially taking this away by fine print details with a low technical bibliology. On the other hand, it is easy enough for someone to have a low practical bibliology, treating Scripture like a prop for their own ideas and agendas, even though they have the highest of confessional and technical bibliologies (e.g. independent fundamentalists who act like the whole point of the Bible is anti-communism, anti-feminism, and anti-rock music). Sometimes we might even see conflict between the priorities of these types of bibliology. For instance, often conservative apologists will twist a text in an impossible way (exercising a low practical bibliology) in order to defend it from a charge of error (to defend a high confessional bibliology). It would be better in these cases to proclaim a lack of knowledge and let the text speak for itself.

And then there are people like Barth. Barth had a mixed confessional bibliology, calling Scripture the “Word of God” while nonetheless insisting that this identification is indirect. In a sense, you might say Barth had a medium-high confessional bibliology and a very difficult to rank technical bibliology. But where he shines is in his practical bibliology. Despite all of the qualifications Barth made about the humanity of Scripture, its role as witness to revelation rather than actual revelation, and his indirect identification of it with God’s Word, he submitted to it. He sought to understand the prophets and the apostles as best as he could, to see Christ in the pages of their writings, and to submit his thinking and living to Christ at every point. One may disagree with much of his exegesis, but one cannot deny that he read Scripture with reverence and an eye to knowing and obeying the Word of God who is Jesus.

This framework, I suggest, offers a way to be more precise and more charitable when enaging with people who view Scripture differently than we do. Likewise, it lets us see how people may be understood as faithful to the Bible even when they don’t necessarily believe in the same kind of inspiration, or confess quite the same adject ives, that we do. And if anyone has any comments or suggestions about these categories, I’m interested to hear them.

The Backward Hermeneutic of Limited Atonement

Honestly, as much as I strenuously oppose the doctrine of limited atonement on logical and theological grounds, my most confident and compelling reasons are simply Biblical. I don’t think Scripture supports the doctrine in any way, shape, or form, but in fact entirely and completely contradicts it. I think T. F. Torrance was altogether correct in his response to a student prompting the doctrine:

That Christ did not die for all is the worst possible argument for those who claim to believe in verbal inspiration!

And this quote gets at the big problem I have with the way people use Scripture to support limited atonement. It requires a terrible, backward, inverted hermeneutic that does serious violence to the text. Specifically, this is the problem: the doctrine of limited atonement requires that we use human inferences from non-explicit texts to overturn or limit the meaning of explicit, clear texts.

Simple example: Hebrews 2:9, 1 John 2:2, 2 Corinthians 5:5, 19, 1 Timothy 4:10 are all very, very explicit about Christ dying for all men. I mean, in realistic terms, there is no way that the Spirit could have been more clear if He wanted to say that Christ died for all. These verses add up to the strongest possible terms save the rather extreme possibility, “Now beware those who will one day try to tell you that Jesus died only for the elect, because He actually died for every single human who ever lived.”

Nonetheless, apologists for limited atonement always feel the need to find convoluted ways to explain away the explicit meaning of these passages because of its overly rationalized readings of texts like John 6, John 10, or Ephesians 5. They draw out inferences from these texts which are at best tenuous, often don’t even logically follow, and in most cases try to force the atonement into a rigorous system of merely human logic. These inferences go something along the lines of “Jesus died for Christians, therefore Jesus did not die for anyone else,” something which (of course) does not necessarily follow. Other times they will make more complex inferences based on the nature of the atonement, pressing the legal metaphors of Scripture way beyond their bounds to create a double-jeopardy scenario for anyone who denies limited atonement. This again tries to overly rationalize God’s revelation in human limits, and in particular often fails to grasp the analogical and metaphorical nature of New Testament descriptions of the atonement, which in itself is a holy and transcendent mystery.

These human rationalizations and inferences, then, are permitted and in fact forced to overrule and twist the plain meaning of the other atonement texts, the ones which explain very straightforwardly that Jesus has died fully and truly for all people everywhere. This is a backward hermeneutical method. It is the opposite of how we rightly ought to understand Scripture. The clear and explicit testimony about Christ’s death for all men should lead us to hold back on our human inferences from other texts, not the other way around.

In this case, the classical Calvinists fall prey to the same trap they frequently find in others. The hermeneutic behind limited atonement is in principle no more legitimate or less legitimate than that of an Arminian who, applying human reason to the doctrine of God’s justice or love, rules out the possibility that the favorite Calvinist proof-texts could mean unconditional election or irresistible grace.

Basic moral of the story: don’t use human inferences from less explicit texts to block the explicit statements of others. So no limited atonement.

A Few Thoughts on the Revelation Letters

For my Revelation class this semester, I’m supposed to journal my way through Revelation, answering four questions for every chapter:

  1. What does the text say?
  2. What did I observe?
  3. How does this chapter fit in the context?
  4. What did I learn?

This is a fun, though not particularly professional, exercise. In any case, by the time I’m done I will have basically assembled an ad-hoc, very informal commentary on the whole book. I will be editing these together into an ebook and uploading it here in case anyone is interested in it.

In the meantime, I thought I’d go ahead and post my journal results from Revelation 2-3, the letters to the seven churches. Enjoy (and feel free to critique):

What does the text say?

At this point Jesus gives John letters to deliver to the seven churches. Each shall be addressed separately.

The Letter to Ephesus

Jesus addresses the angel (lit: messenger) at the church in Ephesus first. He identifies Himself as the holder of the seven stars (angels of the churches) who walks among the lampstands (the churches). He commends them for their works, endurance, and discernment with respect to false teachers. He then mentions one problem: they have abandoned their first love. He commands repentance to their original works, or else He will remove them. He then offers a second commendation specifically about their resistance to the heretical Nicolaitans. He then calls them to hear what the Spirit says to the churches and promises food from the tree of life in paradise to the victor.

The Letter to Smyrna

Jesus then addresses the angel at the church in Smyrna. He identifies Himself as the first and the last who died and rose again. He recognizes their persecution and suffering at the hands of Jews, but calls them rich and encourages them in their coming suffering. He tells them that they will suffer for ten days but to remain faithful even to death in that time. If they do they will receive the crown of life. Again, they are called to hear the Spirit, and the victor is promised protection from the second death.

The Letter to Pergamum

Next Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Pergamum. He identifies Himself as the bearer of a two-edged sword. He recognizes their location as under Satan’s rule, but commends their faithfulness in persecution. He rebukes their toleration of Balaam’s teachings with their idolatry and sexual immorality and the teachings of the Nicolaitans. He commands them to repent at the threat of war with His word. Again, they are called to hear the Spirit, and the victor is promises hidden manna and a white stone with a new, private name.

The Letter to Thyatira

Finally for the chapter, Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Thyatira. He identifies Himself as the Son of God with fiery eyes and brass feet. He commends their works of love and faithfulness, but He rebukes them for tolerating a heretical prophetess Jezebel, who leads people into immorality and idolatry. She was given time to repent, but He declares that the time is up for her judgment. Her and her children will be diseased and repaid. Those who resist her are told to hold on to their faith. The victor is promises authority over the nations with Jesus, and they are called to listen to the Spirit.

The Letter to Sardis

In chapter three, Jesus begins by addressing the angel at the church in Sardis. Jesus identifies Himself again as holding the seven stars but also this time the seven spirits of God. He does not commend anything but moves straight to a criticism of their false vitality. Their deeds are incomplete, and the church will soon die. Jesus commands them to repent and return to the word they have received. If they do not, Jesus will suddenly come and judge them. A few members, however, are noted as still faithful. Victors like them will be clothed in white and kept forever in the Lamb’s book of life. They are then called to hear the Spirit.

The Letter to Philadelphia

Next Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Philadelphia. Jesus identifies Himself as Holy and True with the keys of David. He commends their good deeds and endurance in weakness despite Jewish persecution. He promises that their love by Him will be vindicated, and that they will be protected from the coming trials as reward for their endurance thus far. He encourages them to hold fast, and the victor will be a pillar in God’s house with God’s name. He then calls them to hear the Spirit.

The Letter to Laodicea

Finally, Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Laodicea. He identifies Himself as a faithful witness and beginning of creation. He immediately criticizes their lukewarm deeds and threatens to spit them out in disgust. He mocks their self-sufficiency and encourages them to find their riches, clothing, and health from Him. Yet He affirms that He rebukes them out of love and encourages them to repent. If any repents, He will come in and eat with them. The victor will receive a throne with Christ, and they must listen to the Spirit.

What did I observe?

There is a lot going on here, but some repeated themes are prominent. Jesus stands as the all-seeing Judge, the one who rewards faithfulness and punishes heresy and wickedness. Truly He is seen to exercise the “all authority” He has been given by the Father, and the statement in John that the Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son is at least partially fulfilled. Jesus has taken the place of the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament, proclaiming His judgments on God’s people through a prophet. The Spirit is also important here, for Jesus identifies Him as the one who speaks to the churches rather than John, the appointed congregational reader, or anyone else, though He also identifies Himself as the speaker. The unity between the word of the Spirit and of the Son here indicates both the way that, through Christ’s Incarnation and exaltation, the Spirit of God has become more particularly for us the Spirit of Christ, and of course also the inherently Trinitarian direction of New Testament theology.

As to the particular letters:

The Letter to Ephesus

One interpretative issue here is the meaning of abandoning their first love, along with the corresponding works to which they are called to return. I find plausible the suggestion that the “love” here is primarily horizontal in nature. The Ephesians have forgotten to care for each other and the poor. This use of “love” in the New Testament is not uncommon. Taking their original love this way makes sense of the works they did at first: they were originally charitable and communal, but (perhaps in the face of persecution and in their efforts to combat heresy) they have come to neglect this essential practice.

The Letter to Smyrna

Jesus’ identifying Himself as the first and last, dead and raised, seems relevant to the harsh persecution the Smyrnan church is set to experience. Some of them will die, but they will be raised like and with Christ, and thus they will be spared the second death. This, in fact, seems to sum up the whole content of the letter.

The Letter to Pergamum

Pergamum is the first church mentioned to permit heresies, and they have permitted more than one. This is odd given their harsh persecution, which seems to have had a purifying effect on some of the other churches. In light of this, Jesus essentially upgrades the threat they face by adding His own sword if they do not repent. A church with Christ on its side will stand no matter what assails it, but a church with the world and Christ as enemies will surely die.

The Letter to Thyatira

Jesus intensifies His terrifying image here, apparently because of the seriousness of Jezebel’s heresy. Though the church has kept faith and love, they have (perhaps in the process) permitted a vile movement to go on too long and too far. Jesus will take this movement down, period, and it will not be pretty. Those who remain faithful appear to be promised a part in the same fiery, obliterating power by which Christ will judge the rest of their church.

The Letter to Sardis

What it means that Sardis’ deeds are incomplete seems unclear. Perhaps this simply means they had mostly stopped working, no longer doing the works of love and evangelism which many of the other churches were doing. This could well be because, with the lack of any mention of persecution, they had grown complacent and comfortable with primarily a self-incurved focus. The church looked like it thrived, but they did nothing and were serving themselves rather than God. This trap, of course, is one into which many churches today also fall.

The Letter to Philadelphia

Philadelphia is one of the two churches with no rebuke. Instead, Jesus simply promises their protection and vindication in light of their present endurance under harsh Jewish persecution. It is interesting to note the way that Philadelphia contrasts with the immediately preceding Sardis. No persecution is mentioned for Sardis, and they receive no commendation, whereas much persecution is mentioned for Philadelphia, and they receive no condemnation. This highlights the theme in Revelation of suffering for the Gospel as purifying and glorifying. Indeed, Jesus promises to exalt them above all their enemies when the coming day arrives.

The Letter to Laodicea

Laodicea is the second church to receive no real commendation, but Jesus’ tone seems more compassionate than His tone to Sardis. He specifically points out the loving nature of rebuke and portrays Himself as patiently knocking for entrance into their congregation. Laodicea being the last church, this serves as a compelling reminder of the abundant mercy of Christ even in His judgment. He does not want to punish them but wants to bless them and wants them to come to Him. The question of what exactly they were doing wrong, however, seems much less clear than many of the traditional interpretations of lukewarm-ness would indicate.

How do these chapters fit in context?

As the second and third chapters of Revelation, this passage immediately follows the introductory material and constitutes the bridge which is the collection of letters for the seven churches. The background, then, is the announcement that God is unveiling His plan in Christ to the churches through John. Something divine is afoot, and these letters are meant to give some of the initial warnings and preparations that the churches will need in order to play their part faithfully.

The revelation of Christ is powerful glory in the first chapter is also essential here. This glorified, risen, exalted Christ is the Judge of the churches. Again, this is important because of the way it links Jesus in the New Testament to Yahweh in the Old. Just as Yahweh spoke judgments on His people and their cities through the prophets of old, Jesus speaks judgment on His people in each city through His prophet John.

Finally, these chapters are important in setting the stage for the rest of the book. The eschatological sub-pictures given in Christ’s address to each of the churches will be integrated and transcended through the rest of the book in order to show the whole story. What Christ announces to each of these churches has a role to play in understanding the events coming upon the world. The themes will be extended and expanded, and the wider scope of what Jesus is warning the churches about will be revealed.

What did I learn?

Examining these chapters highlighted a couple of things for me which I had never really noticed. The most impressive to me is the way (as I mentioned twice already) that Jesus takes the place of Yahweh over the people of God. The parallels to Old Testament prophetic texts, especially those announcing judgment on Israel, are pretty strong. Just as God announced to Israel their judgment (and His mercy), often in connection to a coming judgment on the rest of the nations, through His servants the prophets time and again, so Jesus now announces to the churches their judgment (and His mercy) in connection with the rest of the book which addresses a judgment on the rest of the nations through His servant John. The message is clear: the role played by the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament has been given to the name of Jesus in the New. This unique conflation of the roles of Jesus and Yahweh certainly helps to indicate Christ’s deity, even if it is not alone sufficient to prove the matter. The human messianic dimension must also be regarded. Now a man judges the people of God, namely the man Jesus. God has exalted humanity in Christ as His covenant partner.

Going through these two chapters has also helped clarify the relationship between the letters and the rest of Revelation. It seems to me that the letters provide the particulars of God’s coming judgment on the world, which begins with the house of God. The churches will be judged first, all of them represented in these particular seven, and this judgment will then move into the nations. The judgment over the whole world system will carry on the themes found here in the judgment of the churches. Yet it seems that even these specific churches will be present during the coming judgment, and in fact it looms over their immediate future directly following their own judgment. This seems to protest against a primarily futurist reading of the judgment described in the rest of Revelation. On the other hand, that this judgment is moving to the world from the people of God indicates to me that it is not traditional preterism which is being described, for the focus does not seem to be on Israel. This suggests that the eschatological horizon here is a judgment on the pagan world in particular. Nonetheless, I could see support for traditional preterism here in the letter to Philadelphia, which seems to lend support to the idea that the Jews are in fact the subject of the coming judgment. Perhaps we should consider that, if Revelation is in fact post-AD 70, the church had begun to consider the Jews who persecuted them as bound up with the pagan world. This could have been traced back to their cooperation with Rome to execute Jesus.

The Justification of Ungodly Wealth

Here are the outline and audio recording of a sermon I preached in October.

  1. Introduction
    1. All familiar with Francis Chan
    2. Should be, pastor who gives and sends and loves, author of Crazy Love
    3. Ran across an article on him on the Internet
    4. “Francis Chan Runs Out of Things To Give Away”
      Eric Horton, Chief Generosity Officer of the Crazy Love Foundation, a nonprofit started by popular speaker and Bible teacher Francis Chan, confirmed Wednesday that Mr. Chan had finally given away the very last of his earthly possessions.
      The landmark moment reportedly occurred at the Abundant Life Christian Fellowship rummage sale, which was organized to raise funds for an upcoming short term mission trip to an unnamed third-world region.
      “[Chan] just started scratching his head, and throwing his hands up into the air,” reported local man Brandon Reuben, who happened to be at the rummage sale looking for a lightly used Pyrex glass measuring cup. “At one point, he shouted, ‘Are you kidding me?’ and began to weep loudly.”
      A destitute and despondent Chan was seen wandering the streets of San Francisco after the sale, unsure of what to do with himself. Borrowing a stranger’s phone, he sent a text to his good friend David Platt to share the news, who reportedly replied, “It is finished.” At publishing time, Chan was racked with guilt over the shirt and pants he was wearing, praying for God to guide him to someone he could offer them to.
      Babylon Bee
    5. Foolish kid to preach on money from Luke 16:1-15
    6. Parable of the unjust steward, though “unrighteous manager” in my translation
    7. Interpret the difficult parable, examine a theology of money, see just what Christ’s work does to our use of it
  2. Interpreting the Parable
    1. Read the text, Luke 16:1-15
    2. Note basic storyline
      1. Steward squandered resources
      2. Called to account by master
      3. Used remaining time to reduce invoices
      4. Used goodwill to prepare his future
      5. Congratulated by master
    3. Question: what did the steward do in 6-7?
    4. Possible answers
      1. Cooked books
      2. Cut out master’s unlawful interest (note rates)
      3. Cut out commission
      4. Cut out personally added interest, favored, explains response from Jesus and master
    5. To unpack meaning: setup like parable of wicked tenants, talents, and the like
    6. God is master, steward is Israel, especially the elites
    7. Steward was unfaithful to what God had given, as was Israel with their covenant blessings and especially the elites with material wealth
    8. So what does the steward do? Sacrifices wealth in generosity to secure his future before it’s too late
    9. Commended by master for his astute (side note on meaning, “practical intelligence”) plan
    10. Pharisees and elites are ironically (or covenantally) “sons of light”
    11. Jesus warns them to flee their love of money, giving up their dishonest gain like the steward
    12. They claim to serve the master, God, while serving mammon, but they must choose one
    13. Jesus has come to announce their removal unless they repent
    14. Their love of money has kept others in poverty and isolation (cf. rich man and Lazarus)
    15. These poor outcasts are entering the Kingdom with eternal homes before the “godly” Pharisees
    16. Jesus tells them: repent!
    17. Like the rich young ruler, give away your money to the poor (make friends for yourselves)
    18. Then these who are entering the Kingdom first will welcome them as well
  3. Theology of money and its justification
    1. Here Jesus gives a picture of money as a liability (rich man, eye of a needle)
    2. Of money: “For what is highly admired by people is revolting in God’s sight.”
    3. Not poverty-works
    4. Richness implies lack of generosity (cite Francis Chan)
    5. James loaded with critical statements about the rich
    6. There are three possible views on money
      1. Naturally good but dangerous
      2. Naturally neutral but corrupting
      3. Naturally corrupt but useful
    7. Jesus seems to give in general but especially this parable credence to the last or strong middle
    8. Unrighteous mammon, dishonest wealthy, unjust money
    9. Money and wealth are deeply intertwined with injustice
    10. This becomes more true as money is more separated from sustenance
    11. Examples from economy
      1. Corruption in Fed
      2. Businesses that abuse labor in countries like China
      3. Abortion tangles
      4. Financial companies predation
      5. Money can accomplish any evil
    12. James portrays rich unflatteringly
    13. Overall portrayal is something as dangerous as One Ring
    14. Differs from OT
      1. OT showed wealth as blessing
      2. Dangers still evident but less prominent
      3. Flesh and eschatology
      4. Eschatological point ties to parable
      5. Time in OT exposed dangers of money, like Torah
    15. Money gone in age to come
    16. Powerful, corrupting liability in this age
    17. Even benefiting from money is tainted
  4. Justification and Sanctification
    1. Justification by grace through faith applies to money
    2. We can’t disentangle ourselves from the corruption in earthly wealth
    3. We entrust our resources to Christ in faith
    4. Thus He justifies our financial lives
    5. We find wealth justified by faith, but without works faith is dead
    6. James reference multilayered: James treats charity as greatest work
    7. Entrust wealth to Christ by giving it to people He identifies with
      1. “When one has pity on the poor, he lends to God. And he who gives to the least, gives to God. These are spiritual sacrifices to God, an odor of a sweet smell…By almsgiving to the poor, we are lending to God. When it is given to the least, it is given to Christ. Therefore, there are no grounds for anyone preferring earthly things to heavenly—nor for considering human things before divine.” Cyprian
    8. This act of giving is purified in Christ’s self-giving
    9. We become Christ’s hands and feet
    10. In giving ungodly wealth in turned into divine blessing, just as Cross turned to salvation
    11. Connects to early church belief about atoning alms
      1. Clement of Alexandria said, “One purchases immortality for money.”
      2. “When you can do good, do not hesitate. For ‘alms delivers from death.'” Polycarp
    12. Whatever deficiencies, this language highlights the Biblical theme
    13. Justified by faith, faith itself is justified by works, particularly giving
    14. In Christ our ungodly wealth is redeemed and justified by faith, that we may present it to God a holy sacrifice
    15. Therefore we are commanded to give, give, give, as Christ gave, that our wealth might not be a source of corruption but of blessing
    16. Don’t be like greedy Pharisees, but be like wise steward
    17. Don’t hold on to money
    18. God will give grace through our offering
    19. Communion is similar: money bought bread and juice to become a means of grace in receiving Christ through faith

Faithfulness, Election, Prayer, and Faith: An Exegetical Paper for Genesis 24:12-14

A STUDY OF GENESIS 24:12-14

An Exegetical Paper

 

ABSTRACT OF THE BIBLICAL TEXT

  1. Main Idea.

Abraham’s servant, having been sent to acquire a wife for Isaac that the covenant blessings may be passed down another generation, prayed to the God of his master in faith. He trusted in the will, kindness, and ability of God to fulfill the promises He had made to Abraham. He expected God to perform an act of sovereign election, and then confirm that act by a sign. These themes of God’s covenant love and faithfulness, God’s purpose in election, human faith, and the use of prayer fill the passage and all point forward to a fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

  1. Genesis 24:12-14
    1. Abraham’s servant prayed for a wife for Isaac (vv. 12-14)
      1. The servant entreated God (v. 12)
        1. Addressed God as “Lord, God of my master Abraham”
        2. Requested success and “kindness” (checed)
      2. The servant set the stage for his sign request (v. 13)
      3. The servant requested a sign of God’s yakach choice (v. 14)
        1. Asked for the sign of a willingness to water both himself and his camels
        2. Expected this sign as proof of God’s checed to Abraham

Introduction

God is faithful, therefore His people have every ground to entreat Him in faith. The truth of this characterization and inference can be found on almost every page of Scripture, but in some places the theme is more prominent than in others. Genesis 24:12-14 stands as a prime example of this dynamic. This passage offers a wealth of riches for the Church when studied in detail. To be more specific, in this text, once properly viewed in historical-cultural and literary context, God’s covenant faithfulness and electing purposes shine bright, with the proper human response of faith and personal prayer to his covenant partner mediated by election setting an example. In addition, as with all of Scripture, each of these themes from the text can be found to climax and find their full meaning in Jesus Christ. None of these claims needs to be particularly controversial, but they do need to be substantiated. What exactly does this passage say? What specifically and exactly did the author (and Author) mean? The investigation must begin in history.

Historical-Cultural Context

To understand any text, the original historical-cultural context is highly relevant. Every part of Scripture was written at a particular time to a particular people in a particular world. This must be acknowledged and treated to avoid appropriating a kind of Docetism into bibliology. So what is the context of Genesis 24:12-14? According to Jewish tradition, as well as the implications of Scripture and even the words of Jesus Himself, the book of Genesis was written by Moses after the Exodus, probably while he was on Mt. Sinai with God. Naturally, not all of this can be verified, and this has been a source of heated debate. Many scholars would like to assign the book, along with the rest of the Pentateuch (or even Hexateuch), to several editors and redactors, and until recently have preferred to divide this up into four primary source materials. These are J (Jehovist/Yahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly). Traditionally under this schema the entire account of Abraham sending his servant to acquire a wife for Isaac has been associated with the Yahwist. All of this, however, seems quite unnecessary. The purpose and scope of this essay do not permit an attempt at proving or even much defending Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, but enough work on this has already been performed by many scholars. Mosaic authorship can still be, despite many critical protests, affirmed with reason.[1] This places the original context of the writing within the Exodus period. The monumental event of the Exodus is quite relevant because precisely in the shadow of this event God chooses to reiterate to Israel the full story of their origins in the purposes of God. God delivered a people and then called the people to hear the story of how He brought them into being as a foundation for their future as His covenant partner. Genesis 2:14-15 should then be viewed as part of the larger project of establishing Israel’s covenantal identity before God. Yet to go much deeper would turn this into the literary context and thus must be presently deferred.

More important to this particular text may be the historical context of the events described. When did this take place? While many scholars would like to argue that this story is simply one of many legends, folktales, or myths making up Israel’s self-written history, the biblical texts point toward a historical time around the early second millennium BC. Dating from the years given in 1 Kings 6:1 and Exodus 12:40-41 both support this conclusion, no matter which of the predominant views of the Exodus date is preferred. This “Patriarchal Period” has been subject to many accusations of anachronism and fiction, but such accusations do not necessarily convict. There is comparatively little data about the Patriarchal Period from archaeology and other sources, which allows for this kind of ambiguity. Yet the skepticism seems mostly unjustified, as several clues point to an authentic date. Genesis contains, for example, straightforward portrayals of God’s people acting in ways which are taboo later in Israel’s history, such as Abraham marrying his half-sister or Lot sleeping with his daughters. If the accounts originated in later times, these would appear problematic and unnecessary for the authors. Other evidence, such as the information on Ancient Near East customs and practices found in the Nuzi tablets, strengthen the case that, even if the early second millennium cannot be definitively pinpointed as the origin of these stories, the fanciful tale that they were invented much later around the Exilic period seem to lose much credibility.[2]

Given these factors, Genesis (including 24:12-14) should be read as a text written shortly after the Exodus about historical events which took place in the early second millennium BC. Moses wrote to Israel of events from the beginning of their history about half a millennium earlier with no clear indications of anachronism or inaccuracy. From this context, not a great deal is directly relevant to the three verses in question, but two notes are necessary. On the one hand, the mention of domesticated camels in verse 14 is treated as an anachronism by many. Supposedly the domestication of camels in Canaan did not take place until centuries later. This, however, relies mostly on an argument from silence, and frequently assertions like this are found to be false by new archaeological excavations.[3] Beyond this, there is not much of note to the context of this particular passage. Thus the literary context must be the next major focus.

Literary Context

For Genesis 24:12-14, as with any other text (in Scripture or elsewhere), the literary context is the true key to meaning. Where does this text sit in the whole book or collection of books? This particular text is found in the book of Genesis, which is ultimately inseparable from the entire Pentateuch (or even the Hexateuch). While the entire Pentateuch includes a couple of genres, the majority from Genesis 1 to the middle of Exodus is pure narrative. Many will argue that this narrative is fictional, mythical, legendary, or allegorical. While in theory one of these could be true, there is no necessary reason to think so, and the overall story should probably be classified simply as a historical narrative. This is most often contested on the grounds of theological and miraculous content, but neither of these preclude an intent to write real history. Obviously this is a highly controversial route, but the evidence does not ask for any other. In any case, unless the narrative is a pure allegory, the intended meaning of the text’s canonical form is likely the same.

The story of Genesis which sets the context for 24:12-14 is essentially of origins. Genesis tells a story about the origin of the world (Genesis 1-11) and of Israel as God’s people within the world (Genesis 12-50). The latter half about the origins of Israel begins with Abraham and God’s covenant with Him. God chose Abraham and his descendants to be His own people for divine blessing. The selection of Abraham is unexplained, presumably a simple function of God’s free election. This text, then, appears in a transition period as Abraham passed his role on to Isaac, who had also been specially selected by God as the descendant through whom the chosen people would continue. Isaac would become the patriarch for the next few chapters. Thus he, like Abraham, would need posterity, which in turn meant he would need a wife. A wife would enable Isaac to take up his place as the next patriarch and continue the line of promise. Therefore, Abraham sent out a servant to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac from his own kin rather than from among the Canaanites.

Genesis 24:12-14 lies at this point and must be taken as part of this ongoing narrative of the patriarchs. The prayer of the servant sits in the middle of this crucial transition period. God had made a covenant promise to provide many descendants to Abraham and Isaac after him. At this moment the question came in the form of the servant’s prayer, “Will God be faithful, and if so how?” The ongoing history of God’s people was found once again to hinge on God’s provision, election, and faithfulness, just as for Abraham when he trusted God for a son. John Walton highlights the issue thus:

[G]etting a wife for Isaac in a way that will preserve the covenant ideals is not an easy matter. It is for that reason that the narrator goes to such great length to demonstrate the role that God played in bringing the marriage to fruition. Abraham has not yet become a great nation. Survival of the line still hangs by a thread.[4]

Therefore, the context presents Isaac and even, in a certain sense, Rebekah, as the rightful successor(s) of the first patriarch, and the source of the blessings which are still to come in the rest of the story.

The Basic Content

So, with the context in history and the literature firmly established, the actual content of the passage can be examined. What happened in Genesis 24:12-14? Abraham sent out his chief servant to acquire a wife for Isaac, since Abraham was getting old and would die soon. The servant came to the town of Nahor and approached a well, where he then uttered the prayer of these three verses in question. In this prayer, he asked God to show kindness to Abraham his master by giving success in the wife-finding journey. He asked in particular for God to highlight a woman He had chosen by a particular sign, the sign of extraordinary hospitality in the form of an offer to draw water for both him and the camels from the well. In fact, the text is short enough that quoting the full prayer is probably warranted. The servant’s prayer reads as follows in the NIV, which the standard throughout this paper:

“O Lord, God of my master Abraham, give me success today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a girl, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.”[5]

That is the full text of the prayer which will be discussed. The events afterwards bear note as well, however. In the rest of the narrative, God did give the sign and led the servant to Rebekah, whom Isaac married. Keeping this storyline in mind, the interpretation can begin. What does the text actually mean?

“Kindness” and “Chosen”: Two Key Words about the Faithful God of Abraham

 Key to this passage will be two words which highlight the redemptive-historical themes of the account. The first of these is translated in the NIV as “kindness.” The servant asked God to “show kindness” to Abraham, and at the end of the prayer asked for a sign so he could know that God had shown “kindness.” The Hebrew is the word checed (חֶ֕סֶד), which is used fairly frequently in the Old Testament, occurring 241 times.[6] Checed has a very wide translation range (including in the NIV such diversity as “condemn,” “devout,” and “loving deeds”), but the meaning seems to primarily orbit around some blend of commitment and benevolence. Thus in 174 instances the NIV uses a variant of “love” yet also includes at times “devotion,” “faithfulness,” and “loyalty.” In support of this blend, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, for example, predominantly translates checed as “faithful love.”[7] There is an unmistakable covenantal flavor to the included faithfulness in many of the occurrences, and many times in the Psalms checed could almost be defined: “God’s unswerving mercy and love in being faithful to His covenant with Israel and her king.”

In Genesis 24:12-14 in particular, the common rendering “kindness” fits well enough, but an argument could well be made that God’s covenant faithfulness should not be left out of the picture. After all, as mentioned earlier, this was a pivotal moment. God’s covenant with Abraham was about to transition to his son Isaac. The wife Isaac required would be the means by which Isaac could bear children according to the promise. Thus for God to answer this servant’s prayer would be to show His covenant love to Abraham and his family. Those were the stakes, and as the narrative later explains, God did just that. In yet another moment of importance for God’s people, He came through out of faithful love.

The other significant word in the passage, not repeated but certainly important, is “chosen.” The Hebrew word is yakach (יָכחַ). Though not as common as checed, yakach does show up in the Old Testament enough to notice, namely fifty-five times. The basic meaning of yakach has to do with rightness.[8] The word is quite flexible, with “rebuke” having a plurality of the NIV renderings at twenty instances, but the rest divided between many others like “judge,” “vindicate,” “complain,” or “mediate.” This passage contains the rendering “chosen,” also “appointed” or “prepared” in other translations. Many of the other possible meanings for yakach make intuitive sense (e.g. “vindicate” is to prove right, “judge” to discern right, “rebuke” to correct wrong with right, etc.), but how that ties to the concept of choosing or appointing is less obvious. Perhaps the intended sense is judging that a particular choice is the right one, recognizing that what is being chosen or appointed is right or fit for the purpose.

If this sense of discerning rightness according to a purpose is correct, then the servant implicitly acknowledged that God has a righteous plan with a particular woman who will be the best gift for Isaac. The one God has chosen, yakach, would be right for him and thus help bring about the blessings of the covenant which she was needed to fulfill. The Lord of all the earth does what is right, and the servant fully expected (and entreated) Him to do the same in this particular circumstance, in this moment on which the future of the covenant hang. Thus, even while not used in the same sentence of the text, these two important words function together. The servant prayed for the God of Abraham to show faithful love to the family by his right choice of a woman through whom the covenant could transition to Isaac, and thus God’s plan in election could reach fullness.

The Meaning of the Servant’s Prayer of Faith

These themes of God’s covenant faithfulness and sovereign election are key to understanding Genesis 24:12-14, but they are not the whole. There is the human side as well, the side in which the servant actually did the praying. The faithful God was entreated by a human in need of His faithfulness. The God of the covenant was asked by a member of His partner’s party to fulfill His terms. Clearly, Abraham’s relationship to God was not closed off and private. Instead, his servants were aware of God’s covenant, promises, and terms. All of Abraham’s household had to walk in faith, and in this passage the chief servant did just that. He expressed trust in his master’s God by making an implausible request in prayer. (This is, however, something with which Calvin wrestled.[9] How does a prayer of true faith include a prescription to God for a definite sign? While the discussion might be interesting, there is no room for addressing the question here. May the simple observation that Scripture never recognizes such a tension suffice.)

This prayer presents the basic paradigm of the God/human covenant relationship. God initiates, God gives promises, the humans agree, and finally the humans call upon God to fulfill His promises when they are needed. This basic pattern can be found repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, with Genesis 24:12-14 being a prime early example. By itself, the servant’s prayer might not teach anything but the admirability of faith. Yet this prayer was grounded in the faithfulness of God, which was again proved when God heard and answered the prayer in verses 15-20. Thus working in reverse a truth becomes clear: the faithfulness of God to His promises calls forth absolute dependence from His people. Just as Abraham earlier “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness,”[10] now the servant trusted in God, and God gave to him the success needed for the covenant to be fulfilled.

One interesting quality of the servant’s prayer is the narrative introduction. In particular, verse 12 opens up saying, “Then he prayed.” The word “prayed” here is translated in the NIV beyond the basic meaning, which is simply “said.” There is no technical sense of prayer here, only a conversation. This is supported by the tone, which lacks any liturgical refinement, specific theological terminology, or accompanying posture or rites. Such a tone is in accord with the general prayer habits of the patriarchs, which tended to be simple, personal, and informal. [11] The servant just spoke to God. He asked God for some help as anyone else might ask a human friend. That God answered such a prayer on multiple occasions, including this one, indicates a profoundly personal orientation between God and His people. Liturgy has a place, as the Torah demonstrated, but this prayer stands as an example that there was never a time when God was first met in rigid procedure rather than personal encounter. Yet even this personal encounter has another layer.

Despite the informal and conversational tone of the prayer, there is also an element of mediation. The servant did not address Yahweh as “my God.” Instead, he called Him, “God of my master Abraham.” The servant may have been implicated in the blessings of the covenant and perhaps by membership in Abraham’s house something of a covenant member, but ultimately the covenant was between God and Abraham, not God and the servant. God chose Abraham specifically. His descendants and other members of his household only could participate by virtue of their relationship to him. The shape of election is visible here as three parties are visible: God, Abraham, and those who belong to Abraham. God elected Abraham freely, and through Abraham’s election the servant received a covenantal status from which he could entreat the God who elected Abraham. A mediation appeared between God and His people, a person through whom His faithfulness and their faith could intersect.

Christ Embodies Checed and Yakach

At this point all of the themes visible in this text—God’s covenant faithfulness, His gracious election, His people’s answering faith and dependence, and the personal nature of a covenant relationship—all cry out for a point of unifying fulfillment. If God is truly faithful to His covenant, if the servant prayed for the fulfillment of that covenant through an act of kindness and election, then how did this all unfold? In the short term, the answer is quite simple. God answered the prayer of the servant by electing Rebekah as a wife to Isaac (in a way suspiciously similar to the election of Abraham in the beginning). Yet the overall context of Scripture points also further. After all, God did not set up His covenant with Abraham to no purpose. Abraham and Isaac were the beginning, but a day of fulfillment was always destined, a day in which all God’s purposes would climax. So what does the canonical context of Scripture add to this text?

Jesus Christ once declared, “You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me.”[12] The wider context, indeed the true meaning, of all Scripture is Jesus. This applies no less to Genesis 24:12-14 than to any other passage. For this reason, He should be viewed as the true key which unlocks the secrets remaining in this text. Jesus fulfills all of the themes of the servant’s prayer and the story in which the prayer is embedded.

In Jesus, God’s checed, His loving faithfulness and faithful love, broke fully into the world and was (and continues to be) truly actualized. Of Him the Scriptures say, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[13] Indeed, the fuller meaning of checed as covenantally faithful love is clear in the rest of Romans, as when Paul declared that God’s covenant faithfulness is demonstrated through the faithful work of Jesus Christ.[14] The merciful promises that God made to Abraham, which in this particular passage were in a state of transition and needed another divine act to be accomplished, were kept by Him through all the years until their fulfillment in Jesus. Both of the primary shades of checed, the kindness which the servant asked God to show to Abraham, benevolence and faithfulness, were completed once for all in the work of Jesus, Himself both God and the human covenant partner.

The theme of God’s yakach, His choosing or election, is also fulfilled in Christ. Jesus is called the Chosen One.[15] He is the one human through whom all of God’s purposes have finally been accomplished. Rebekah was chosen by God to advance the covenant by helping Isaac have seed, but Jesus is the final chosen Seed[16] who crushed the serpent’s head.[17] The servant prayed that God would choose someone to show kindness to Abraham, and in Christ God chose someone to show kindness to the entire world. The fulfillment of the servant’s prayer for Rebekah was ultimately a fulfillment designed from the beginning of God’s covenant to lead up to Jesus. Moreover, as the Chosen One around whom God’s people are now constituted, the mediation has changed. The servant’s relationship to God was in some sense mediated by Abraham as the covenantal head. Election was defined by relationship to God’s chosen human, Abraham. Now this has shifted. The elect head of God’s people is now Jesus rather than Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Moses,[18] and all God’s people find their election not in themselves, but in Christ[19] and His mediation.[20] Thus the prayer has been fulfilled for God to show kindness through one He chose, and “God of my master Abraham” has been replaced with “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[21]

Christ Embodies the Reality of Faith-filled Prayer

In addition to the fulfillment of the prayer itself, the concept of God’s faithfulness calling forth the faith-filled prayers of His people has also been given a new dimension in Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Jesus fulfilled the role of the one who is constant in prayer and faith. Like the servant who trusted in God and asked for His will to be done, Jesus had true faith in His Father and persisted in prayer, “and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”[22] The servant prayed for the will of God to be accomplished, and so did Jesus.[23] Jesus in fact went beyond the role of the servant, taking a full and active role in bringing about God’s will, not just as the prayerful man but also as the faithful God. In Christ the prayer and the answer, the faith-filled entreaty and faithful response, became one.

However important the prayerfulness of Christ may be, though, this is not the end of the fulfillment of prayer. Because of what Jesus has accomplished, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on the people of God.[24] Now that the people of God have been given the Spirit, they can pray like the servant but in greater faith with greater power, for their prayers are enhanced. The Spirit they have received is the Spirit of God Himself, who knows the deep thoughts of God,[25] and thus they are given deeper intimacy and deeper power in their prayers. They can entreat the God who has already fulfilled the decisive promises of His covenant, knowing that He has already proved Himself fully and forever faithful in Jesus Christ. Thus the prayer the servant offered in faith has become but a type and shadow of the reality of prayer which Christ has given to His people by His Spirit.

Finally, of course, Jesus also fulfills the personalization of the covenant between God and man. There was, to be sure, a personal quality to the patriarchal intercourse. The prayers did remain relatively informal and conversational. However, there was always a degree of barrier, if for no other reason that the theophanies and Christophanies were short, temporary, and not of full and abiding human substance. As the old age continued, the barriers between God and man only grew as the Torah was instituted and a personal relationship with God was inhibited by the cultic system designed to shield man from God. Yet in Christ God has made Himself fully personal to His people, taking on their own flesh that He might speak to them, act to them, and know them as one of their own.[26] In the Incarnation God became bone of human bone and flesh of human flesh,[27] fully and personally revealed Himself[28] to His creatures from within the depths of individual human existence. Now God’s people can pray to Him in a more personal and intimate way than the servant ever could, crying out “Father!” by the Spirit Jesus poured out on them.[29] With this relationship in play, God makes good on all of His promises and hears His people as a faithful Father, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Exegetical Conclusions

Having studied the role of the faithful God, the prayer of the faith-filled man, and the fulfillment of both of these in Christ, the meaning of Genesis 24:12-14 should be quite clear by now. In the original, local context, the account of the servant’s prayer to the God of Abraham makes for a powerful display of multiple biblical themes. The faithful love of the covenant God was expressed in both the request itself and the answer. An appeal was made to the electing purposes of God. The necessity of prayer from a posture of faith within a covenant structure of mediation and election was also demonstrated. Abraham’s servant appeared as a great example, and his request glorified God in its fulfillment. All of this is multiplied when taking into account the wider, canonical, redemptive-historical context. The faithful love of the covenant God went from the provision of Rebekah to the self-giving of God in Christ. The electing purpose of God was revealed in the appearance of the Son of God as the Chosen One in whom the Church is also chosen. Prayer and faith found perfect human expression in the life of Jesus, and by His Spirit the people of God can now pray and trust God in a new, more vital sense than in the past, in the days of Abraham, his servant, Isaac, and Rebekah. In all of this, the glory of God in covenant, promise, faithfulness, wisdom, sovereign choice, and love shines manifold.

By this point the basic theological lessons should be clear, but they bear repeating with concision and clarity for the sake of summary. The first point is that God is always loving and faithful. He is always characterized by checed, a devoted will to do good to His people. This is proved in His fulfillment of the promises to Abraham both in answering the servant’s prayer for Isaac’s wife and in providing Christ as Savior and Messiah. Therefore, God’s people can always count on Him today. God can always be trusted to do what is right and fulfill all of His promises, which are a “Yes” in Christ.[30] The theme that God chooses, and chooses for a redemptive purpose, is also important. God’s election is not seen in this text as an exclusionary act by which certain people are selected and others rejected for grace and redemption. Rather, God’s election is shown to be a means of setting the whole world right through the choosing of one important character at a time. First Abraham was chosen, then Isaac, then in this account Rebekah, and in the end Christ was the Chosen One of God through whom all God’s plans were accomplished. Any theology of election today must be oriented around the fact that God has chosen Christ in this inclusive and outward-oriented way just like with Rebekah. An articulation of election must be in accord with something Karl Barth once wrote, namely that Christ “is both the electing God and elected man in One.”[31]

Finally, the power and nature of faith-filled prayer stands as an essential lesson. Through this text God’s will to be faithful to the entreaties and requests of His people is made known. Praying and trusting just as the servant did, just as Christ did, in the power and mind of the Spirit who has been poured out on God’s people by Christ, is immensely powerful and will move God to act, not for no reason at all, but because He has made a covenant to which He promises to be faithful. This text serves as a reminder that God has set the terms by which He may be approached and thus on His character and act alone hinges Christian confidence in the power of prayer.

Application

With Genesis 24:12-14 now exegeted at both the local, simply historical and the wider, theological/Christological level, there remains only a short bridge to find relevant applications to the life of the modern Christian. Indeed, both the event described and the theological interpretation are full of meaty substance. There are in fact three primary applications to draw from the exegetical work in this paper, not to say that nothing else might be added by further or other work. They correspond to the faithful love of God, the electing purpose of God, and the prayer of faith, in accord with the primary teachings of the passage.

First, in this text God’s loving faithfulness is displayed in such a way that Christians today can stake all of their hope and assurance on Him. God was benevolently faithful to the covenant He made with Abraham by answering the servant’s prayer, and He further demonstrated His merciful devotion by completing the telos of the covenant in Christ and His faithfulness. Because of this pattern of faithfulness, God’s people can trust Him in each day, in each battle or struggle. They may find themselves in a crisis or a critical transition in life, but just as He answered the servant to fulfill His covenant love He will answer His people today. Therefore, Christians have every reason to trust in God unfailingly.

There is also an application from the electing purpose of God. God chooses to use particular people to propel His purposes, and He chooses to bring about salvation through covenants He makes real human beings. This began in Abraham, and in this text continued as the servant prayed for another act of election, and God answered the prayer. This serves as a reminder that God can choose to use anyone at any time to accomplish any purpose He wishes. The Church as God’s chosen people in Christ can be seen as a means by which God brings about His will, which should impel her members to find their place and take up whatever action to which they are called.

At the last, then, the final application returns to prayer in faith. If God is faithful, if God loves, if God chooses and works through human beings, then His people have every possible reason to believe, to trust, and to expectantly pray for God to act. God has plans and will fulfill them, and precisely because He works in this way there exists a call for His people to call out to Him. He has bound Himself by covenant to act when entreated, to do His will when His people seek His will. The servant was an example for all today. He trusted in the God of his master Abraham and asked for His help at the appropriate redemptive-historical moment. Likewise, the righteous are called to trust in the God of their Lord Jesus Christ and ask for His help in every moment of need. Prayer and faith, promise and faithfulness, all fulfilled in Christ—this is the meaning of Genesis 24:12-14, and by this meaning Christians must move forward in their lives, submitting to God’s voice in the Scriptures.

Works Cited

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics – Volume 2. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957.

Calvin, John. Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1. E-book. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005.

Kohlenberger, John R., III. NIV Word Study Bible with G/K and Strong’s Numbers. E-book. Zondervan, 2015.

Matthews, Kenneth. The New American Commentary – Volume 1A, Genesis 1-11. E-book. Holman Reference, 1996.

Matthews, Kenneth. The New American Commentary – Volume 1B, Genesis 12-51. E-book. Holman Reference, 2005.

The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009.

Walton, John. The NIV Application Commentary Set – Genesis. E-book. Zondervan, 2011.

Wright, N. T. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

Footnotes

[1] Kenneth Matthews, The New American Commentary – Volume 1A, Genesis 1-11, (Holman Reference, 1996), location 1606, Kindle ebook.

[2] All of this is discussed in more detail in Kenneth Matthews, The New American Commentary – Volume 1B, Genesis 12-51, (Holman Reference, 1996), loc. 842-930, Kindle ebook.

[3] Ibid, loc. 950.

[4] John Walton, The NIV Application Commentary Set – Genesis, (Zondervan, 2011), “Genesis 23:1–25:18,” Olive Tree resource.

[5] Genesis 24:12-14 (New International Version).

[6] John R. Kohlenberger III, NIV Word Study Bible with G/K and Strong’s Numbers, (Zondervan, 2015), entry H2617, Olive Tree resource.

[7] See, for example, Exodus 15:13 (Holman Christian Standard Bible), compare NIV.

[8] Kohlenberger, NIV Word Study Bible, entry H3198.

[9] John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005), notes on Genesis 24:12, theWord Bible module.

[10] Genesis 15:6.

[11] Matthews, NAC Vol. 1B, loc. 7812.

[12] John 5:39 (HCSB).

[13] Romans 5:8 (NIV).

[14] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), ch. 7.

[15] Luke 23:35.

[16] Galatians 3:16.

[17] Genesis 3:15.

[18] Romans 9.

[19] Ephesians 1:4.

[20] 1 Timothy 2:5.

[21] Romans 15:16.

[22] Hebrews 5:7.

[23] Matthew 6:10.

[24] John 15:26.

[25] 1 Corinthians 2:10-12.

[26] 1 John 1:1-3.

[27] Hebrews 2:14.

[28] John 1:14.

[29] Romans 8:14.

[30] 1 Corinthians 1:20.

[31] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), part 2, 3 (§32).

The God of Bad Interpreters

Is God the God of the good Bible interpreters only? Is He not also the God of the bad ones? Yes, He is the God of the bad ones, too.

This little opening, which you might notice alludes to Romans 3:29, summarizes something that has dawned on me recently. As I read more Scripture and study it more deeply, I often feel like there’s a serious problem with clarity for the average reader. In some passages or verses, it seems like study reveals meanings and depths which are not only inaccessible to someone without certain outside resources, but in fact may contradict or at least relativize the the meaning the same text might appear to have from a surface reading. In some cases obscure allusions, strange cultural thought patterns, or difficult to detect uses of irony may even completely reverse what you think a verse says on its own.

Yet in tension with this seeming reality is, it seems, the doctrine I have always been taught of the clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture. By most accounts I’ve ever heard, at least in the Protestant world, the meaning of any given part of Scripture is supposed to be more or less plain to whoever reads it with attention and care. You’re not supposed to need a bunch of outside help to get what a passage means. But given the radically different feel I get from in depth study, what gives? Is Scripture essentially clear, with scholars and theologians just complicating things, or is its meaning far from clear unless you are greatly learned?

I think the answer is, in some way, both yes and no. The Westminster Confession of Faith, a defining classic in the Reformed world, says this of the clarity of Scripture:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

I think this understanding of the clarity of Scripture works. On the one hand, there are things which are not equally clear to everyone. The meaning of every part of Scripture is not necessarily plain as day, or for that matter even as clear as mud. However, the WCF does specify that what we must know and believe in respect to salvation is clear enough that anyone, educated or not, who does basically proper reading.

I would in fact go a bit further than this to identify what exactly is plain. The one clarity that I believe shines forth from Scripture is the image of Christ Himself, the Savior who died and rose for us in self-sacrificing love, inviting us into His grace. Even if you find everything else called into question by lack of knowledge, or by bad teachings, or by cultural blindness, or by sin, the crucified Lord who loved us to His death and beckons us to follow that kind of life is plainly obvious to anyone who would crack open a Bible. If you know nothing else about the Bible, you know Jesus appears through its pages. Therefore what is clear in Scripture, Jesus Himself, is enough to be saved, as the WCF says.

Beyond this point, though, I do not think it is necessary to insist that the specific meanings of various parts of the Bible are all that clear. Sure, many of them are, and probably many of them are clearer that some scholars would make them out to be, but a great many of them may not be. Some passages may turn out to be so odd, obscure, or unique that the majority of people get them wrong, even the majority of well-educated people. Many passages will not be that bad, but will still need a decent amount of study, both of what the text says and of behind-the-scenes details, to properly get.

Is this a problem? Does it render much of the Bible basically unusable to normal Christians? Does it take the Bible out of their hands and return us to a day when only trained people could teach or interpret Scripture? I don’t think so. See, we must remember that there is more to the Bible that the words written in a particular context by a particular author to a particular audience. Its fullness is not exhausted by the precise original intentions, what exactly the authors were trying to say. While this is all an important part, a very important one, we must also recall that Scripture was inspired under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and now is read by believers with the same Spirit dwelling in them. Cultures and languages may pass away, but the Spirit who breathes the life of the Scriptures never passes away.

This link, the indwelling Spirit of God, makes it possible for the Bible to do things that it couldn’t rightly do as a purely natural book. For the authoring Spirit is still here to speak to us as we read it. So when we dig into Scripture, even if we lack a great deal of information that would shed light on the “original meaning,” He is more than able to speak to us through what we are reading, and to illuminate for us truth about Jesus Christ, even if it’s not the same truth the particular text was written to communicate! The same Spirit who oversaw the creation of Scripture now lives in us and oversees the intake of Scripture, so that no matter how educated or uneducated we are we can still hear the very voice of God speaking to us, telling us what He wants us to know, as we read the inspired words.

I’m not suggesting, I should add, that the Spirit will just lead us willy-nilly to make whatever we will out of the Bible. God is not the God of relativism, or of confusion. He is, however, the God of fresh life and revelation. Even when the words of, say, John were penned nearly 2000 years ago, God’s Spirit knew all the possible uses He might make for this book, and all of our needs today. From the beginning, He was able to breathe a kind of life into Scripture that adapts itself to the hearer, not to change the message to make things easier on us, but to break down the walls of culture and context which might otherwise separate us from what God wants to tell us. In the very same text He may be saying multiple things to multiple people in multiple times and places, the Spirit working in each reader to show him the Word of the Lord.

If I could sum this rambling up, I would simply say this: the “original meaning” of many texts in the Bible is far from clear. Jesus Himself, on the other hand, is very clear in the Bible. And as for everything else in Scripture, the Holy Spirit makes it possible for God to speak to us personally with an inspired message even when we can’t or don’t nail down exactly what the original author was trying to say. Therefore God is not only the God of good Bible interpreters, but of bad as well. Praise be to Him for His self-revealing kindness!

Jesus the Apocalypse: The Messiah Appears

To continue my Mark Bible study (which began in this post), I’ll move on to the very first verse:

This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

What the Bible Says

Let’s not miss the significance of this. Mark has the simplest introduction of any of the Gospels. No genealogy (Matthew), preface (Luke), or poetic allusions to creation (John). He just says, “this is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” By the next verse, he’ll be introducing John the Baptist. So let’s take a closer look at this first verse.

Good News – The words “good news” here come from the Greek word euaggelion, which is usually translated “gospel” and from which we get our word “evangelize.” It was primarily used in particular of politically-relevant military victories, especially if the emperor was involved. This kind of good news would be along the lines, “Good news! We’ve won the battle!” or “Good news! A new emperor has been crowned!” The theme of royal victory was most likely a common connotation. Keep that thought in your back pocket for now.

Jesus Christ – The name “Jesus” doesn’t really warrant much explanation, though an interesting tidbit is that “Jesus” is the English way of saying the Greek translation of the Hebrew name “YehĂ´shua.” That name, if translated straight to English instead of to Greek first, is “Joshua.” So you can tell all your friends that Jesus’ name was Joshua. More important is the “Christ” part. What does that mean? The word “Christ” essentially means “anointed one,” or the same as “Messiah” from Hebrew. By saying “Jesus Christ,” Mark is saying, “Jesus the Messiah.”

This makes sense in connection with the theme of royal victory behind the term “Good News.” After all, there is nothing many of the Jews of Jesus’ day, of whom He was a part, wanted more than a Messiah who would rescue them from Rome in a military victory, and be crowned the true king under God. An unsuspecting reader from Mark’s world would at this point probably have in the mind the picture of a king like David, who would defeat God’s enemies and be acknowledged as God’s chosen ruler. The difference of the Messiah would be that He is the final king, whose victory and reign would be permanent and through whom God Himself would rule.

the Son of God – This is a particularly interesting title. See, before the early church did some serious study of what Jesus said about Himself, the term “son of God” had not been used to say someone had a divine nature, or was God. The most popular use of “son of God” when Mark was written would have been as more or less a synonym for “Messiah,” but with special emphasis on the royal aspect. In the Old Testament, the king of Israel, and Israel as a whole, was often spoken of as God’s son (Exod. 4:22-23, 2 Sam. 7:14, 1 Chr. 17:14, 22:10, 28:6, Ps. 2:6-7, 89:20-26, Ezek. 21:9-10, Hos. 11:1). This is important. God called Israel to be His child, and the king was especially so as God’s anointed representative of the whole nation. By Jesus’ day, these connections developed in many concepts of the Messiah, and the two phrases were practically synonyms (Matt. 16:16, 26:63, Mk. 14:61, John 1:49, 11:27).

So Mark here is again claiming Jesus as Messiah, only this time the emphasis is even more on His role as the King who represents all Israel in Himself. What He does is relevant for the whole nation. (Note that none of this is to say that Jesus wasn’t God’s son in another, more unique and divine, way as well. That’s simply not the original focus of the title “son of God.” Part of the reason this changed is because of who Jesus revealed Himself to be.)

The Theology Part

Putting these pieces we’ve just looked at together, we can start to see the startling scene Mark is trying to show us. Out of nowhere, Jesus appears. Like an unexpected scene in a dream, the Messiah has shown up. This is the beginning of the apocalyptic vision Mark has written his Gospel as. To dramatize it: “Good news!” he yells to his readers out of the fog. “Your Messiah has come!” The fog then parts to reveal the silhouette of Jesus.

We should remember that, for Mark’s readers, God has seemingly been silent and unhelpful to the Jews for many years. Even though they came back from Babylon way back when, many still believed that the Exile was still going on in some sense. They may be back in their land, but they’re still under pagan rule (the Romans this time), their king (Herod) is a corrupt puppet, and God has yet to do anything to show that He has returned to Jerusalem to dwell in His temple like He promised.

With this gloomy backdrop, the sudden appearance of the Messiah clearly has significance. Jesus has come to fix this situation, lead Israel out of exile, and win the final victory of God. This is indeed “Good News!” Yet whatever expectations may have been created in this first verse, the rest of the Gospel will end up confusing them.

For us, on the other side of these events, we know what has been accomplished. Jesus, the Messiah, who is God’s Son not only as King but as the eternal Word of God Himself, has defeated Satan and dealt with our sin on the Cross, then rose again. Now He is reigning on high, exalted above all. For us, the Jewish Messiah has already completed His mission, fulfilled the destiny of Israel, and brought us, the Gentiles who didn’t belong, in on the blessings. We now stand as one body, saved by Jesus alone, and acknowledge Him as the Son of God whose sudden appearance in history was the day of salvation for all people!

What to Do about It

So how are we to respond to what Mark 1:1? What changes can even this little verse make in our lives? I can think of a couple possible applications.

  • Just like Jesus suddenly appeared in the middle of Israel’s suffering to save His people, we now wait for Him to suddenly return. When He does, we have hope that He will implement His victory once and for all. In the mean time, we must work and prepare, telling the whole world about what Christ has done for us. One day time will run out, and just like Jerusalem was destroyed after it missed its chance with the Savior, so next time the whole world will fall if we do not prepare them for the return of the King.
  • God is always faithful, and we can trust Him. It had been 400 years since the Old Testament was written, and the Jews were wondering where God had gone. When would He help them again? Yet He did return to His people in Jesus just as He swore, and today we can trust that He will fulfill all of His promises to us. This means we can live boldly and without fear, doing whatever God calls us to, because we know He will do what He has promised.
  • We should never lose hope. Like I said, 400 years had gone by. No word from God in this time. Even after the Jews’ victory in the Maccabean revolt (study here if you’re interested), little progress was made and all the authorities were still corrupt. Pagan rule hadn’t stopped. Even in the midst of this bleak situation, though, God suddenly made His move for His people. So we can wait patiently, but also eagerly, because God might act at any moment to help us in whatever we need, or to rescue us from any of our sufferings. He could change your life whenever, so never lose heart.

May God Destroy You and Your Children

Isn’t the Bible so wonderful? Day after day, we are presented on Facebook with the many inspiring and heart-warming promises and truths from the Good Book. We all know them. We can be confident in all our pursuits since “I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Never do we need to worry about the future, because Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you—this is the Lord’s declaration—plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

Yes indeed, we have many sweet hopes to cling to in the Bible. But not everything is quite like you’d think. Truthfully, most of the pretty little quotes we pull out of the Bible—especially the Old Testament—and put on pillows are arbitrarily ripped out of context. They sound nice, so we use them without paying any attention to the who, what, when, where, and why behind them. This, however, isn’t an entirely appropriate way to handle God’s written word.

To see what I mean, think about verses like these:

Let his children wander as beggars, searching for food far from their demolished homes. Let a creditor seize all he has; let strangers plunder what he has worked for.

Psalm 109:10-11

Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:9

I will bring distress on mankind, and they will walk like the blind because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung.

Zephaniah 1:17

Indeed, I am about to send snakes among you, poisonous vipers that cannot be charmed. They will bite you. This is the Lord’s declaration.

Jeremiah 8:17

You will eat your children, the flesh of your sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you during the siege and hardship your enemy imposes on you. The most sensitive and refined man among you will look grudgingly at his brother, the wife he embraces, and the rest of his children, refusing to share with any of them his children’s flesh that he will eat because he has nothing left during the siege and hardship your enemy imposes on you in all your towns.

Deuteronomy 28:53-55

None of these have quite the same inspirational quality, do they? They’re actually a bit scary and difficult. But without context, there’s no less reason to think that these apply to us than that the happy stuff does. What, after all, makes Jeremiah 8:17 different from Jeremiah 29:11?

So what? Are we, again especially with the Old Testament, forbidden from quoting anything to encourage? Clearly not. Paul does this himself on multiple occasions. But if we can do encouraging quotes rightly, how do we do so?

Basically, the key word is context. We have to pay attention to the who, what, when, where, and why. To make my point simple, I’ll just dive into two examples.

First, an example of my scary verses. Deuteronomy 28:53-55 speaks of God sending such a harsh judgment that people in their distress will resort to eating their own children, and even then not sharing any with others. So what’s the context? Can this be applied to us? In the passage’s original place in Deuteronomy, God is declaring the blessings and curses of the Old Covenant to Israel. If they obeyed His laws, they would receive many blessings. If they disobeyed, they would receive many curses, including this one. Of course, we modern Gentile believers are not under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant in Christ (Heb. 9:15). There are no curses in the New Covenant (Rom. 8:1, Gal. 3:13). This means this passage clearly is not about us.

There is, however, a twist. Even though this passage does not directly apply to us, such a harsh judgment does reveal the intensity and severity of God’s condemnation against sin. How serious must disobedience be if God even punished Israel by letting their enemies terrorize them so much that they ate their children? And if God would provide such a punishment to those who received only types and shadows, how much greater will those who refuse the fully revealed salvation of God’s only Son be punished (cf. Heb. 2:2-3)? Moreover, if Jesus bore the full wrath of God for our sin, how much of a sacrifice must that have been! So even though this passage isn’t directly about us, there are applications which affect us.

Now for an example of thinking context through for the happy verses. I’ll take Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you…” What was the original context of this verse? Jeremiah was writing a letter to the Jews who were exiled in Babylon. In verse 10, he told them that God promised to bring them back to Israel after 70 years. The good plans involved Israel’s return to the promised land. God’s judgment, the Exile, was not His last word, because His plans were for their good. Again, then, we run into a verse which is not directly about us. Jeremiah 29:11 was written to and for exiled Jews in Babylon to reassure them of God’s promise to bring them back to Israel. We are obviously not in the same situation, so this verse is not about us.

Even still, there is clearly a way that this verse can be applied to us. We who are the Church are the true Israel, according to the New Testament. We are not at home in this broken age; we are exiles waiting for our restoration when God makes the New Heavens and New Earth. And God has promised to do this, to bring us safely home to the recreation of the new age. He will indeed resurrect us just as He did His beloved Son, who brought the beginning of the kingdom to the world. Like the exiled Jews, God is promising to bring us safely home. For “we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Therefore Jeremiah 29:11 can actually be applied to us as well, just in a secondary way.

Hopefully these two examples are helpful. The Bible is filled with texts which were written neither to us nor about us, but all of them were still written for our benefit (2 Tim. 3:16-17). When we look at the Scriptures, we must be discerning, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). Many verses are not directly to us, but they do have wider applications which affect us. This is especially the case when looking at the Old Testament. Only context (both the immediate context and the context within the whole story of the Bible) can tell us exactly what is for, about, or to us. So let’s keep that in mind, that we may be approved by God.