I am often confronted with the strange ways the Bible is interpreted. I don’t mean the deviations in various interpretations, such as baptism, spiritual gifts or eschatology, but interpretations that subject the meaning of the Bible to standards that are disconnected from it’s nature and purpose.
I came across this hilarious video from the new Family Feud game that is hosted by Steve Harvey. Take a listen;
Funny and yet sobering, reminding me of ways in which some treat the Bible as if we can make it be whatever response we want AND get excited about it! I find so often that this brother’s “Texas” can be our approach to the Bible. By that I mean, employing methods that have nothing to do with the Christ-centered theme of Scripture. I’m talking about reading definitions into the text or extracting meaning out of the text that is not even related to what the author is trying to communicate or even connected to God’s redemptive narrative of what he is accomplishing through the Son.
Over at The Gospel Coalition, David Schrock has provided both a fine example of how we can disconnect passages from their intended meaning. In Jabez and the Soft Prosperity Gospel, Schrock indicates that the primary reason for interpretations that result in a sub-Christian or anti-Christian paradigm results from making personal applications of Scripture and not considering how passages relate to the overall theme of Scripture.
Call it accidental prosperity preaching, but it is the Achilles’ heel of evangelical preachers who take shortcuts in order to make the Bible relevant. While not making wild promises of riches or healing, they take a verse of Scripture and say: “You can enjoy more of God’s blessing if you pray this prayer or implement these principles.” Such approaches to Scripture amount to a formula which, when prayed, prompts God to open the windows of heaven and unleash material blessings on us.
Through poor interpretive practices, any of us can sow seeds of soft prosperity. Though there are insidious false teachers who intentionally espouse health and wealth doctrine, many of us deviate from orthodoxy simply by means of inconsistent or unintentional methods of interpretation. For the sake of preaching the true gospel, this must stop—but not by exiling Jabez.
I used to do a lot of this for much of my Christian life. I remember when the prayer of Jabez came out and it turned into an overnight sensation. Everybody wanted God to bless their territory. Me included! But Shrock makes clear that when considering Jabez’ request in consideration of God’s redemptive narrative, this interpretation is like the Texas in that Family Feud video.
Why do we read Scripture like this? I think there are many reasons but in my experience, I believe it is because we have church leaders who were not trained themselves and pass down erroneous methodologies of interpreting the biblical text, including bible codes (creating meanings out of numbers), private “revelations” and imposition of sub-Christian philosophies on fragmented pieces of Scripture. Those we listen to and admire hold influence over our approach to the biblical text. So it’s no wonder when Christians regurgitate those that influence them.
But Shrock provides some excellent points regarding how we determine meaning from a particular passage. I’ll highlight his first two points but all points are pretty important.
- The Bible is God’s covenant book for his community of faith
The Bible is not an individual’s guide to self-help; it’s not a tract aimed to deliver persons from their privatized plight. It’s a community book, one that tells the story of how God chose Abraham, redeemed his offspring from Egypt, and created a new Israel by means of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Since the Bible is a story of God’s redeemed community, it must be read as such. To isolate individuals from their community is to superimpose on them our modern individualism. With Jabez, we must not read his prayer as a request for private blessing, but as a cry for God to bless him as a part of God’s covenant people.
We really do have to see how the 66 books tell a complete story of redemption. Before I got a clue about the cohesive nature of Scripture, I would read Old Testament prophecy as if it was God’s personal message to me. And I was pretty good for snatching passages out of context, such as reaping and sowing as I wrote about here. While this may seem like a comforting way to read Scripture, ignoring the context, the author’s theme and placement within the overarching theme of Scripture was a really good way to form my own “Texas.” Over time, it help tremendously to recognize that the Bible was a story of God’s revelation not a self-help manual to make applications where they are not warranted.
2. Jabez is in the Old Testament
Under the old covenant, God’s arrangement with Israel was different than today. The blessings of Israel were generally physical in nature. They included military prowess, national security, fertile soil, and so on. By contrast, the blessings of the new covenant are generally spiritual in nature.
There are, of course, spiritual blessings under the old covenant (e.g., God’s Spirit was present with Israel) and physical benefits related to the new (e.g., the resurrection from the dead). Nevertheless, we can’t import Israel’s material blessings directly into our new covenant setting. To do so radically misconstrues how those covenant blessings have been altered by the inauguration of Christ’s kingdom.
Under the new covenant, it is the Spirit who is our blessing (Eph. 1:3; Gal. 3:14), not material opulence or unfettered security. In fact, those who have the Spirit are promised hardship until Christ returns (John 16:33;2 Tim. 3:13). The Lord may increase our territory, but he also may bless us by taking it away. When reading Jabez’s prayer we must consider the covenant context and beware of seeking Christ mainly for something else he can give us.
The relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament is so important. If we look at the Old Testament as prescriptive for how God will move today, we’ve missed the fundamental component of his revelation in relationship to what he would accomplish through the Son. Physical blessings under the Abrahamic promise translates into spiritual blessings through Christ (see Gal. 3:10-18), who was at work all through the Old Testament because all Scripture was about him (Luke 24:27). That means in the scheme of promise to fulfillment, the Old Testament promises and prophecies are what would eventually be accomplished in Christ. This helps in avoiding the “Texas” meanings.
In the next post, I’m going to expound on why we can’t read the Bible anyway we want. But in the meantime, it does help to remember that the Bible gives us God’s narrative of what he was doing through the course of human history not our narrative to create meanings that have nothing to do with.
See part 2 HERE