by Ed Vasicek
If you have hung around me for a while here at HPC, you know that I am an absolute stickler when it comes to matters of interpretation. Picky, picky. It is not that I think I always have the right interpretation of a passage: I know as a fact such is not the case. Rather, I take interpretation seriously because God’s Word is holy, and it is His revelation to us. If we misinterpret what He says, God’s blessed Word can become a stumbling block. In some matters, misinterpretation has few practical implications. In other matters, the implications are legion. For example, how many women have suffered abuse attempting to submit to violent husbands? It gets worse from there.
As I was sitting in Curt Hoeksema’s excellent “Financial Planning and the Bible” class, we came across a verse from the Sermon on the Mount teachings of Jesus, though spoken at a later time. If you have known me for a long time, you know that I have mulled over the Sermon on the Mount in the back of my mind for 25 years. And, if you were here for my Jesus series, you heard a couple of messages that culminated from those years of “in the back of my mind” study. “Something is wrong with the way almost everyone interprets this sermon,” I told myself. But when I studied the text from the Jewish perspective, matters became clear and the sermon opened up. (You can find some of my material on our church website; I’ll need to write a more detailed exposition sometime in the future).
Jesus repeatedly taught the material from the Sermon on the Mount to different crowds with additions or deletions. As we look at a sample text that is frequently misunderstood, please remember the importance of context in providing us with clues! Luke 12:33-35, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning…” A few years before I attended Moody, a couple of students got a hold of these and other verses and sold all their possessions. They also taught that if a Christian owned anything, he could not be saved.
Whenever you find verses that seem inconsistent with other verses (e.g., Abraham, David, and Job were rich, and Paul encourages rich Christians to be grateful to God who has given us all things richly to enjoy in 1 Timothy 6), you should stop and think. How do we handle this? How can both sets of these teachings be true?
Do you average out the verses? You know, it’s okay to have a few things (the subconscious approach taken by most Christians). Or does one verse cancel out the other so that they, in essence, mean nothing? Do the teachings of Jesus take precedence over the teachings of Paul, or do Paul’s teachings take precedence because they were written later? Or is one verse for one era of time or a specific instance, another verse for another situation. (Note: This IS frequently the case). Or do these verses exist to make you feel guilty no matter what you do (you feel guilty about owning things if you are prosperous; you feel like God hasn’t blessed you if you are poor)? Do you accept a common interpretation, even if it is not satisfying and seems a strain? Nobody, it seems, ever talks about this stuff. Bible commentators sometimes hide their ignorance by not raising these questions, leaving you with the impression that you are foolish to even raise them. If they would only ask the questions and then say, “I don’ t know.” But they rarely do this.
The art of harmonizing seemingly conflicting Scriptures is more than an art: it is a neglected discipline. The science of interpretation is technically called “hermeneutics,” and scholars devote thousands upon thousands of pages in attempts to bring out the meaning of texts. But what we need more than anything is a way of thinking that helps us understand Scripture. And one important technique is to quarantine Scriptures we do not currently understand. Let that verse or verses sit until you truly understand it, but do not bring it into the mix until such is the case.
For example, the text, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” is often combined with instances in which Jesus told individuals, but not everyone, to sell ALL their possessions. Others, like Zaccheus, sold many, but not all, of their possessions. Yet, when we look at numerous other Scriptures, believers are encouraged to be responsible stewards of money. Rather than selling possessions and giving to the poor, we are told to be good stewards. Many funds were directed especially to poor believers and to support ministry, as opposed to indiscriminately giving to the poor, as some understand this text. Money is not considered the root of all evil. The LOVE of money is a root (one of perhaps several) of evil.
So the first thing you need to do with verses that, if taken at face value, seem to totally contradict the mass of Scripture, is to quarantine them. Let them sit until you can figure out what they mean. Whatever you do, don’t panic and don’t jump to conclusions!
In much of the Sermon on the Mount and its repeated deliveries, it becomes obvious that Jesus was using a method employed by the rabbis called the “hot and cold” method. This is a method of teaching by using extremes and involves exaggeration. How do we know this? The answer is our friend—context. Note the verse right after this teaching, verse 35, “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning…” If we take verses 33-34 literally, then we should likewise never remove our clothing or turn out the lights! Now some people have taken those verses literally! Some of the early monks went for years never removing their clothes! No wonder they kept to themselves and lived as recluses—who would want to get near them?
If I am right, just as we should be prepared for the Lord’s coming, so we should place our lives, including our finances, under the directing hand of God. By using exaggeration, Jesus is attempting to challenge our natural “only me” mentality and getting us to consider helping others. The literalness of His statement was not intended to be pressed too far, nor provide us with a constant guilt trip. The original audience would have understood this because they were used to that style of teaching. We are not used to this teaching method, which is why we love Paul’s epistles. They were directed toward the Western mind and rarely use exaggeration.
So as we deal with these difficult passages, remember the following:
I know I have written much on this subject in the past, but it is so very crucial to us. If we agree that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God, then the battlefield moves to interpreting the Bible. After all, what good is a book from God if we cannot understand it? The truth is that, through serious study, we CAN understand the majority of its teachings. Folks who are unmotivated to study the Scriptures or who have lazy brains can hide behind these difficult verses to justify what is really a lukewarm faith. But the rest of us need to discuss, contemplate, study, debate, and sometimes temporarily (or permanently, if we never find a satisfying interpretation) quarantine certain verses until more information comes to light.
In my personal struggle and quarantining of the Sermon on the Mount, I can say that almost all the verses I struggled with are out of quarantine. Matthew 5:22, especially the latter part, is still in quarantine... but I have some theories.
Reprinted from the October 2003 Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.
Highland Park Church
516 West Sycamore Street
Kokomo, Indiana, USA