Of the Gitmo Ex-Detainees in Ghana – The Jesus Response

CT47pO8W4AUlTr3.jpg-largeOver the past few days, there’s been quite a brouhaha about a government of Ghana decision to accept from the US government some two Yemeni ex-detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison. These two like many of the inmates held illegally by the US government in this particular prison, have never been given a fair trial and convicted of any illegal activity, but have been held for 14 years of their productive lives. It seems Ghanaians are peeved that the US government is using us to pay for it’s sins, suggesting that they should either be released to the US or go back to their home country Yemen.

On an ordinary day, this would have been one of the news items that I listen to and ignore because of the usual hot air in the media circles, but when not only the Ghana Christian Council (representing the Protestant community in Ghana) but also the Ghana Catholic Bishop’s Conference enter the fray with all manner of objections regarding how “dangerous” these people were and why the government of Ghana should give humanitarian aid to “terrorists” to rebuild their lives again, I as a Christian couldn’t sit in my corner and mind my own business again. I could disagree with the government for offering to let them stay in Ghana, but the decision had already been taken and they are already here. So the question that faces us as Christians is – what is the Christian response to this situation? But I’m afraid that the response of these 2 bodies smacks of anything but the response that Jesus would give to such a situation. So I’ll like to remind we the mere Christian mortals who sit on no councils about what it actually means to be a Christian, and how we are called to respond in such situations.

Listening To Jesus

There is a disease that has plagued the church of God for centuries and will continue to be with Christianity for a long time to come. That disease is called amnesia, and is signified by the fact that whenever the Christian body has found itself in need of guidance, we have tended not to look at Jesus’s own words, life and example to guide us. We have tended to resort to philosophical, intellectual, emotional, cultural or nationalistic resources to answer the complex problems of life, assuming that Jesus has no real answers to these problems. After all, he only cares about how our sins are forgiven so we go to heaven, and not really how we take our day to day decisions. This disease is not just a disease of the Ghanaian church, for the Ghanaian churches simply inherited this attitude from their founding Western churches. This disease is more than a thousand years old, so you can imagine how difficult it is to treat.

But I need to remind our august Christian bodies (and the larger Christian body in Ghana) that Jesus is not just a saviour from sins, he is Lord of every sphere of our lives, and it is to him we MUST first look to discern how to deal with any matter, even when his way is uncomfortable to us. And in this particular case, I must admit that Jesus’s way will be VERY UNCOMFORTABLE for our churches today. And yet he reminds us that if we will be his disciples, then we MUST carry our crosses and follow him to the same place of suffering as he went, which means we have no choice in this matter except the choice of the way of Jesus.

The Way Of Jesus

Many Christians have been sold a romanticized view of the life of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Even as adults, we still read the Gospels as the nice, docile, over-spiritualized stories that we were taught in Sunday school about Jesus’s life as one of wonder and miraculous deeds. But his was a life of great struggle with the social forces of his time, any of which would have considered him a traitor for not taking up their course or for ruffling feathers. Let me paint picture of what the socio-political landscape was so you see Jesus and his life in the Gospels for what it really was.

  1. The Roman empire, one of the most brutal empires ever on the face of the earth to this day, was ruling over Judea. Not only were Jews paying the temple tax of approx. 23% per year, they also had to pay taxes to Rome. The more a tax collector like Zacchaeus could collect, the more commission they got, and of course as normal greedy humans, they did not fail to abuse this, and made the Jews hate Rome even more.

  2. There was a raging feud between the Jews and their Samaritan half-brothers. The Samaritans claimed that their temple on Mt Gerizim was the right place to worship Yahweh, and the Jews said the temple on Mt Zion was the right place. According to the historian Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, this actually led to the Samaritans desecrating the Jewish temple with human bones, to which the Jews, led by John Hyrcanus, retaliated by destroying the temple on Mt. Gerizim. As a result of this enmity then, no self-respecting 1st century Jew would have eaten from a bowl previously eaten in by a Samaritan.

  3. The Pharisaic party was on the prowl, making sure that everyone obeyed the laws of Moses (Torah). This wasn’t a simple matter of “gaining brownie points to go to heaven”. They believed that not obeying the laws of Moses is the reason why they were taken into exile in Babylon, and the reason why empires like the Greek and subsequently Roman ones were still ruling them. Keeping Torah therefore was to them the means to ensure that God will look favourably on them and come and deliver them from these oppressive empires.

  4. There were many people who felt that waiting for God to intervene to save them wasn’t enough. They needed to take their destiny into their own hands and fight the enemy, whoever the enemy was (Romans, Samaritans and fellow Jews who they thought were siding with an enemy etc). Such people were called “zealots”, because of their violent zealousness for their nation’s freedom. They are  akin to the modern Islamic extremists in every sense of the word, except the word “terrorist” was not in use at the time of writing the bible.

Now given this landscape, I’ll encourage us Christians to go back and read our Matthew, Mark, Luke and John again. Because Jesus’s life was nothing but radically opposed to all these sides, in the ff ways.

  1. On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Mt 5:43-45). In the midst of all this violence and injustice perpetrated by Enemy Number 1 – the Roman empire – Jesus reminds his disciples that to truly “be the children of your Father in heaven” (v 45), we must learn to love our enemies. I don’t know what Jesus was smoking then, but since we have sworn to be his disciples, we either find what the brother was smoking and get high on it ourselves, or we take him seriously.

  2. Jesus, in his parable about the good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), answers the question “who is my neighbour?” by telling a very uncomfortable story whose import was that not only those from our ethnic group are our neighbours, but even those who are considered beyond the pale – like their good old hated Samaritan half-brothers. To make matters worse, Jesus actually spent 2 days in Samaria, during which time he’d have broken all the rules about how Jews should relate to a Samaritan. (Jn 4:1-43)

  3. When the gatekeepers of socio-religious behaviour (the Pharisees) come to Jesus with a woman who had committed adultery and to whom they were ready to exact punishment exactly as Torah prescribed, Jesus’s statement that “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” totally disarms them, and they leave this woman alone. In this case she was actually guilty of her crimes (at least Jesus say she should “go and sin no more”), and yet mercy is the order of the day for Jesus (Jn 8:1-11).

  4. Jesus had none other than a “terrorist” as a disciple. Those who believe the KJV is the best thing since sliced bread will not notice this, since in the KJV his name is rendered “Simon the Canaanite”. But modern scholarship has debunked that translation as flawed, and therefore in newer bibles we get to know who he really was – “Simon the zealot” (Mt 4:10).

This was the kind of uncomfortable company that Jesus kept – terrorists, adulterers, greedy tax collectors and wine drinkers. This was very unsafe and unsavory company – the kind that your mother would give you a strong warning about. And just in case you thought Jesus could do this but didn’t require it of us, he goes and spoils the party for his disciples. After warning them that for his sake they will be arrested and “brought before governors and kings”, he tells them that “the student is not above the teacher … if the head of the house [Jesus] has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household [his disciples].(Mt 10)

I could go on and on and on with Jesus’s examples. I could remind us also of the socio-religous environment of the early church, especially as founded by a “former terrorist”, Paul the apostle, all over the Roman world. I could remind us of what the Roman historians recorded about the Christians in Rome who took in people with mysterious sicknesses which their society thought were contagious and deadly, but whom they loved and cared for till a large number of them recovered. They had no scientific knowledge then, and if it was our deadly ebola virus, they’d have died for seeking the welfare of others, but fear wasn’t their forte – love was.

Conclusion

The way of Jesus is not the way of the world. The governments of the world would sometimes do what is wrong and sometimes do what is right. Our cultures and societal structures can intentionally or unintentionally work to divide and sow seeds of discord and fear, instead of reconciliation and love. The early Christians knew that, which is why they realized themselves as the community in which the evils perpetuated by our governments, societies and cultures will be gradually reversed by the love of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.

This is why they listened to Jesus and looked to his example, so they could discern when they needed to offer their support to a cause and when they needed to stand against their society and governments for supporting the wrong cause. This is why the Spirit of God was given – to lead the church in discernment so it will be obedient to God’s will, and not societal, political or governmental will, even when such leading will be considered “stupid”, “unpatriotic”,“wreckless” or “dangerous”. That is why Paul reminds us that For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). The cause of Christ is not a cause that will always make sense to Ghanaians and Ghanaian culture, and the earlier we Christians realize that, the better it will be for our discipleship to Jesus.

If the American church had looked to Jesus’s guidance instead of openly supporting their nation’s choice to go to war and kill millions of Arab people and destabilize the whole of the Middle East because of the lives of 3,000 Americans lost on September 11th 2001, maybe we wouldn’t be here debating whether we should accept just 2 Yemeni detainees who have not even been declared guilty by any court of competent jurisdiction. We would rather discern the way of Jesus in this matter – that it’s not about who caused what and why they were not returned to America or Yemen. Its about Jesus testing our claims to be his disciples by putting 2 lives before us who are asking for a chance to rebuild their lives after 14 years of being treated like animals, whether they are actually terrorists or not. If we are rather interested in to casting our stones at them like the Pharisees, maybe it’s because we are still sick of that disease that was unleashed centuries ago – that Constantinian disease that makes us forget what kind of king we serve – a king who died on the cross for his enemies.

Understanding the NT From the OT Part 2 – A Look at the Jewish Symbols

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

The 3 main beliefs i.e. “creational monotheism”, “election” and “eschatology” as discussed in Part 1, led to certain symbolic activities and attachments. In the New Testament, these symbols are renewed and reapplied in Jesus Christ and his church, both in the Gospels and in the epistles. Today, we’ll look at some of these symbols and their exposition in the New Testament.

The Land

It is not very obvious from the NT how important the people of Yisrael took their nation and the land on which it was situated, but it’s impact cannot be underestimated. The land which formerly belonged to Canaan was now theirs through God’s fulfillment of his promises to their Fathers. The blessings that God intended to give them (see Deut 28) was to be experienced in and through that land. In addition, it was the land from which YHWH intended to rule the rest of the world. Of course that meant that Jerusalem would be the administrative center of God’s world wide rule in the age to come aka “the kingdom of God”, but YHWH was expected to cleanse the whole nation to make it fit to be a place to rule from. This hope in the blessedness of the land as a means of drawing the nations’ attention as well is expressed in many of the Psalms and Prophets, such as Ps 67

May the peoples praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you. The land yield it’s harvest; God our God, blesses us. May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him” (Ps 67:5-6).

We see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) had given his own people (election) the land of Canaan as he promised to their father to be their place of blessing. The 3rd belief (eschatology) is also at work here, but we’ll talk more about that in Part 3.

The Temple

The NT undoubtedly has many references to the temple and rightly so, for it is a central symbol of Jewish nationality. The land as a symbol is further strengthened by fact of the temple of Jerusalem being situated in that Land. The temple was the place where YHWH dwelled, and where he poured his mercy, grace, forgiveness and restoration on his people if and when they had sinned. Of cleansing from sin, NT scholar NT Wright has this to say in his book whose title is incidentally also abbreviated NTPG

Defilement, of course, was not a matter of individual piety alone, but of communal life; uncleanness … meant disassociation from the people of the covenant god.” (New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

More critically he goes on to say

But the Temple was not simply the ‘religious’ center of Yisrael … [it] combined in itself the functions of religion, national figurehead and government. The high priest, who was in charge of the temple, was as important a political figure as he was a religious one. When we study the city-plan of ancient Jerusalem, the significance of the Temple stands out at once, since it occupies a phenomenally large proportion (about 25%) of the entire city. Jerusalem was not, like Corinth for example, a large city with lots of little temples dotted here and there … [it was more] like a temple with a small city round it”.(New Testament and the People of God, Nicholas Thomas Wright).

Note that Solomon’s temple was built based on YHWH’s own design mediated to men, and YHWH’s glory had descended to fill it when the building was consecrated. All this therefore strengthened Yisrael’s belief that YHWH truly dwelt there in the Holy of Holies, between the 2 cherubim that stood on top of the ark of the covenant placed in there.

It was built on a mountain called Zion and hence the Psalms speak of God ruling from Zion, God dwelling in Zion etc. Just like we today say “The White House has decided to …” to refer to decisions taken by the US government and therefore the nation of USA , so was “Zion” a codeword not just for the Temple that sat on the mountain, but the nation Yisrael and it’s leadership. The Psalms are therefore littered with such “zionic” references – Ps 48;15:1-2; 24:3-5; 76; 96:7-9; 97:6-9; 99:1-2.

Again we see 2 beliefs working here – YHWH (monotheism) chooses to dwell in the Temple in Jerusalem and not any other temple (election). We’ll look at the third belief that the temple evokes later.

The Law

Torah (The Law) was the temple’s inseparable partner. It was the constitution of the people of Yisrael, but not only did it cover just their political lives as modern constitutions are wont to do, it covered their religious and economic lives. The Torah and its observance necessarily led to Temple activities (mostly sacrifices), and also lead to regulations on the Land (fallow periods, return of land to owners during Jubilee, right to inherit land, leaving a portion of food grown on the land for the poor etc.) As I mentioned in the previous post, keeping the 613 laws of the Torah was not just a question of “personal/individual relationship with God” or “personal righteousness to go to heaven”. The Torah dictated how the people were to live together on that Land (and beyond) and to relate to YHWH (through the temple) so that God’s blessings might be on the nation. . And as a result, it was meant and targeted at a very specific people – the people of Yisrael. Therefore Torah observance was not just a personal religious choice, it was a choice that made even a Gentile now become a Jew (not just a follower of a religion called “Judaism”). Obeying the Torah then, was an issue of national identity.

To the modern Christian to whom separation between nationality and religion is a moot point, it has been very difficult to grasp this role of the Torah. This is further aggravated by how Protestant Christianity has unfortunately painted a warped picture of the Torah around only personal sinfulness and “justification”, leaving out its corporate dimensions.

Here again, we see how monotheism and election are at work through the Torah. The eschatology angle will be addressed later.

The Impact of the Babylonian Exile

The attachment to these symbols was dramatically changed when Babylon descended on Judah and carried off the people into exile. The nation seemed to have forgotten that YHWH’s presence with them depended on their faithful observance of the Torah, and drifted off after their own desires and after other gods. The prophets began calling them to attention, from Elijah, to Elisha, to Jeremiah, without much long term success. Their confidence was in their election as a special people of YHWH, and they felt secure in the fact of YHWH dwelling in the Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH actually sends Jeremiah to the Temple, to declare it’s destruction (along with the nation as well).

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all of you people of Judah who come to these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Yisrael, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say ‘This is the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly … then I will let you live in this place … Will you steal and murder … burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house … and say ‘We are safe’?’” (Jer 7:1-11).

Of course, the rest as they say, is history. Babylon led by Nebuchadnezer descended on them, destroyed the temple and the city, and carried off the people of Judah to Babylon where they lived in captivity for about 70 years. The events of the book of Daniel reflect this period. This event seriously challenged their faith and understanding of YHWH’s relationship with them and raised a lot of questions. Was YHWH dead? If not, why had he abandoned his temple for it to be destroyed by his enemies? Was it because they had sinned? What must they do to make YHWH look favorably on them again? If YHWH was going to restore them as mentioned in Deut 30, what form and shape should will this restoration take? The books of the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, need to be read with this background of exile and restoration in our minds then.

To cope with the loss of 2 central symbols (Land and Temple), the whole focus of Jewish identity shifted to Torah observation. Not only was observing the Torah a mark of Jewish identity as discussed above, it also became a means by which salvation will come to them from the grips of their captors. These are the beginnings of the usage of the words we so love today – “salvation” and “forgiveness of sins”. To the Jew therefore, not only was “forgiveness of sins” about their personal sins, but it was about God forgiving his nation and returning to look favorably upon them. Compare the prayer of Daniel 9 with Deuteronomy 28-30, and the picture is clear what he meant in his prayer, pleading for “forgiveness of sins” for his people.

In consonance with this urge toward greater Torah observation as a means of salvation, groups of Jews in exile began forming who took the observance of Torah quite seriously, and debated how this could be done, especially in exile where they had lost the 2 other symbols. This was the beginning of the group called “the Pharisees”, much misunderstood and maligned by modern Christianity. As is natural even in Christianity, too much emphasis on obeying a set of laws always leads to legalism of sorts, but for Pharisaim, it wasn’t only about personal righteousness but also about corporate righteousness – in order for YHWH to look favorably on his elect people. In addition, being in exile in another land meant they were faced with new challenges that they hadn’t faced before when they were in their own land. The debates (mostly by Pharisees) as to what to do with these difficulties lead to the accumulation gradually of an oral law being added to the written law, which today are referred to as the Mishnah and the Talmud. This oral law is what Jesus referred to as “the traditions of men”, since they sometimes overrode what the Torah, commanded by YHWH had said on some issues.

Regarding how YHWH could abandon his temple for his enemies to destroy, they consoled themselves with what Solomon himself said when he consecrated the Temple (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6) as well as what the other prophets said (Is 66:1) – YHWH does not dwell in a building made by the hands of men – he dwells within and amongst the righteous. And this is exactly the accusation that got Steven stoned in Acts 7 – he was insinuating that YHWH did not dwell in the new 2nd Temple as well. And who were the righteous? The children of YHWH who observed the Torah. It can be seen very clearly then where Paul obtains his theology about the Spirit of God dwelling within and amongst Christians in 1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19. As uncomfortable as it sounds to some Christians, Paul’s own training as a Pharisee had a lot to do with his theology. Paying more attention to Pharisaism might actually be very helpful to understanding the apostle.

Because of the loss of the Temple, which was so central to their lives, the concept of synagogues gained currency as small meeting places where Jews could still meet to peruse the Torah and maintain communal purity even whiles in exile.

Return From Exile

When King Darius the Mede finally allowed them to go back, they returned to meet some of their fellow Jews who remained and were not carried off in the exile, living in Samaria. They had also built their own temple and were claiming that was where YHWH lived. The returnees went back to the 2 remaining regions i.e. the southern region of Judea, where Jerusalem was and northern region of Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his life. Samaria was now in the middle of the 2 regions, and one had to cross from one to the other through Samaria (reference Lk 10:25-37 aka the good samaritan story)

The project to rebuild the 2nd Temple began earnestly, the foundation of which was laid by Zerubabel. Again, it attempted to follow the 1st Temple’s design and reach it’s prominence, but that aim was better achieved through the work of King Herod, leading to it being also referred to as “Herod’s Temple”, alongside “Zerubabel’s Temple” as well. This period of return from exile is what is typically referred to as the 2nd Temple period, and is the time when Jesus Christ arrived on the scene. The continuous existence of the Samaritan temple was an affront to the returnees who claimed the Temple ought to be sited in Jerusalem, and led to one of the Maccabean leaders (John Hyrcanus) entering Samaria with his followers and destroying their temple in 110 BC. This is the background for the hatred between the Judaeans/Galileeans on the one hand and their Samaritan brethren on the other, which Jesus addressed in the story of the Samaritan woman.

Note also that it was this same 2nd Temple and its mountain, which occupied the same 25% of Jerusalem like the 1st Temple, that Jesus was addressing when he said “if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’ … it will be done for him” (Mk 11:23), a point which I addressed further in this post.

Pharisaism however, remained a very active force even after the return from exile, and their confrontations with Jesus are well recorded in the Gospels. The obvious clue to Pharisaism’s nonexistence before the exile is the absence of any mention of it in the OT. The same can be said of synagogues.

Conclusion

We can see how the 3 main beliefs of Yisrael informed their attachment to their symbols. Monotheism (YHWH is the one and only God) and election (we are his covenant people) run through every symbol of theirs.

However, the events of the exile and its return put the focus squarely on the third belief – eschatology. We will look at that angle in the next post, and we will begin to see more clearly Jesus’s mission and how it is all driven by the eschatological expectations of the Jews, albeit in a changed way which was very uncomfortable to the Jews themselves.

Let us remember, Jesus was a Jew not a Gentile. Reading him without putting on the glasses of Jewish worldview is probably one of the greatest misfortunes that the church has brought on itself. Because when we do understand and apply that worldview, we begin to see clearer the worldwide implications of the beliefs of a very small nation called Yisrael and their God called YHWH. For the story of Yisrael was never about them alone – it was about them and the rest of the world, but you need to understand Yisrael’s story first, before you get the worldwide impact of their story correct.

Interpreting the Bible – Lessons I Have Learnt

Many people sometimes wonder how I come to certain conclusions in my articles about Christianity, because I seem to be interpreting the bible in different ways to arrive at different positions than most have always had. So I decided to write this down as a bit of an explanation of what I’ve learnt in my short life reading the bible and being a Christian, and how that has influenced what I’ve written, taught and lived over the years, and what I’ll be writing, teaching and living going forward. If there’s one thing I know though, applying these lessons to the way you look at the word of God will change your life, as it has mine (and will make you less susceptible to all the numerous deceptions blowing to and fro every day). So I’ll start with some that I’ve mentioned already elsewhere, and move to some more difficult terrain.

 

Lesson 1: Chapters and Verses

The chapters and verses in the bible are not “inspired”. They are man-made, an effort began by a certain Prof. Stephen Langton of the University of Paris in 1227. God didn’t put the chapters and verses there. Therefore it is possible that these demarcations may prevent you from seeing the full picture that the divine inspirer of Scripture himself intended that the authors of the books of the bible communicate. As a result, the mantra has been “never read a bible verse on its own”. This I think is the number 1 sin of most Christians with regards to the bible, and we seriously need to repent from this attitude. We need to ensure we read whole chapters to get the full meaning of what is being said, not pick individual verses and twist them to our delight. Examples of such abused passages are Jer 29:11; Ps 105:15; 3 John 1:2;

 

Lesson 2: Audience and Context

The second lesson I learnt was that it was important to know who the audience of a book is, and what motivated the writing of the book. This is of huge importance when we look at the New Testament, especially the Epistles (of Paul, of Peter etc.). In the first century when Paul wrote his letters, they were meant to be delivered to churches, not to individuals (except letters like Philemon, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus etc). These letters were read and deliberated upon when everyone was gathered at a meeting, and the Apostles knowing this was the practice always addressed themselves to the church, not to a person. Unfortunately, our individualistic culture today has inadvertently worked to erase this corporate nature of the epistles, and we read it with a “letter to me” mindset every day (as someone said, they are not God’s “love letters” written to us). And for English speaking readers the matter is further aggravated because we don’t have a different word for the plural “you” and the singular “you”. And therefore every occurrence of “you” is taken to be “me”, not “us”. A clear example is Col 1:27, where the phrase “Christ in you” should be read in our minds as “Christ in us”, not “Christ in me”.

 

Lesson 3: It’s contains Stories about Israel and God

Lesson 2 becomes increasingly important when we begin to see what the Bible is truly about – how God intends to save the world through a people called Israel. God’s intent has always been that Israel will be blessed, and the nations of the world will be blessed through them, that Israel will be the light that shines for the nations of the world to see (these are mostly what the NT calls “promises”). Jesus coming and his work sought to show that Israel had failed in that task, and that he was now creating a new people in whom those promises of God will be fulfilled i.e. the church of God. This is what Paul says is the mystery of Christ in Eph 3:10-11  – “His [Gods’] intent was that now, THROUGH THE CHURCH, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (my emphasis). Therefore the Apostle’s ministry was centered on how “the church” as a people will stand out, not necessarily how “I” as an individual will. It is the same as God desired that Israel as a nation will stand out, not necessarily how a particular prophet or citizen of Israel e.g. “David” as a person will. If we don’t get that the bible is about Israel’s destiny (and therefore the church’s destiny), the current winds of individualism, consumerism, selfishness etc. will drown us, because we’ll only look at the bible as some motivational tool for “quick verses” to pursue our personal ambitions, instead of seeking to understand the story of Israel, and how the church together can achieve it.

 

Lesson 4: Worldview is Critical to Understanding the Bible

There is a phrase I grew up with in my life and always believed till now, but which I now find inadequate – “Scripture must interpret scripture”. One of the hardest and rudest awakenings that I had to humbly accept at some point was that without an understanding of the worldview of the people of Israel at the time of the writing of the bible, I will definitely get some things wrong, no matter how much I apply the principles above, no matter how much I want scripture to interpret scripture. For me it was ok if I didn’t pay attention to the right principles of exegesis (interpretation of the word), and got it wrong. But this thing called worldview was totally new to me. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

When my old car used to give me a lot of trouble, I would take it to the mechanics, and when they told me I needed to buy a spare part, they always preferred to buy a second hand one (what we call “home used” parts) instead of brand new ones. I never understood this, until I realized later that they recommended this because our spare parts importers were more interested in profits than in solving customer’s problems, so they imported inferior and cheap replacement parts, and sold it at exorbitant prices. Therefore the mechanics had lost faith in the supposedly “brand new” parts, and preferred parts from chopped down cars which were brought from Europe and US.

Now imagine that I’d kept good records of all my repair activities, and I was dead and gone and my grandchild came upon these records. They’d realize that their grandfather always had receipts for “second hand” parts, and they’ll probably come to the conclusion that their grandfather was a miser who preferred to buy “home used” instead of brand new, when in his day brand new parts always worked the best.

This is the problem that ignorance of my worldview and that of the mechanics in my time has brought to my grandson. The reasons behind my actions, he doesn’t understand. He only analyzes what he sees on paper, what he sees in text.

This is the same challenge we are confronted with today. Its 2000 years since Jesus Christ, and all we have as records of him is the bible. And yet we are very confident and cocksure that with the text alone (aka Sola Scriptura), we can understand the people of Israel, Jesus and the 1st Century Christians very well so that we become experts at interpreting the bible. But we forget that a lot of water has passed under the bridge, and we are better off acknowledging our deficiency and beginning a search into their worldview to understand them, before we even attempt to interpret what we see on paper.

And so my world has been rocked to the core by my personal studies in New Testament history and historians, who have moved me off my lazy bum and who are challenging me to acknowledge my ignorance, to sit up and open up to learn more. Until yours is rocked in this way, I’m sure you will be very satisfied with what you know, probably to your own peril.

Let’s go on to 2 more seemingly disturbing facts about the bible and its interpretation.

Lesson 5: The Bible Itself Has Changed

Knowing that we always defend the word of God as “same yesterday, today and forever”, I’ll advise you not to freak out just yet with my above lesson, but read along with me. The Bible has indeed changed over the centuries, and for good reason. Let me explain how it has changed.

The versions of the Bible we have are always written from translations of handwritten copies (or manuscripts) that we have obtained over the centuries. Because the manuscripts were handwritten (because the printing press was invented in the 16th century), the copiers make mistakes, or sometimes intentionally or unintentionally add content that they feel should have been added to the manuscript at their discretion. Therefore, to get the best translation, it is important to use the oldest manuscript, since it will have less errors and “insertions” than the latter ones. And so here is Prof. Ben Witherington III, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, on the subject.

“Despite what fundamentalist will have us believe that the King James Version of the bible dropped from the sky onto us in 1611, it [the Bible] was not written in English, but in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. It was not written in Western tones, nor in user friendly language for Western peoples. It was a Middle Eastern product … [but] the good news is this. We are closer today to the original text of the NT than at any time in the previous 18 and half centuries. Why? Because today we have over 5000 manuscripts of the Greek NT, just a 100yrs ago, there were only 300 to 400 known copies of the manuscript. “

 Now I know some people who religiously defend the KJV as the only usable, “correct” bible interpretation. All I can say to them is that relying on a bible translated from only 400 manuscripts which are 10th century copies of copies of copies, rather than one based on 5000 manuscripts ranging from as eaerly as 2nd, 3rd and other earlier centuries is pure and unadulterated folly. So, if you are truly serious about a clearer, truer interpretation of the bible, take my advice and find a more recent one. I know some people’s churches even go ahead to print their own version of the KJV and put their names on it, but I’m sorry, that ship sailed a long time ago, and you better get with the times.

 

Lesson 6: The Bible Alone is not Enough

Now I’m definitely going to be hanged for heresy for saying this, but again let’s wait till I unveil my argument before you stone me like the Jews stoned Stephen.

Since the Reformation, we Protestant Christians (non-Roman-Catholics) have always sworn by the statement that “The Bible is all we need to know the Truth” and that any Tom, Dick and Harry should be able to pick it up and by the “the Holy Spirit’s guidance”, be able to understand it. This doctrine is typically referred to as “Sola Scriptura”. And yet, it seems this insistence on “bible alone” has rather led to more divisions in the Protestant church than any other branch of Christianity, and there’s no end to this canker. Interestingly, those who led the separation from the Roman Catholic Church themselves came to the conclusion even before their death that this was an untenable position, yet we their ancestors still hold to our tunnel vision on this subject. Hear Christian Smith concerning the foremost leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther.

“Martin Luther himself assumed that the Bible clearly demonstrated the theological beliefs he championed. However, as the Reformation began to spin out of control (in his viewpoint), he backed away from the perspicuity of only one “correct” view and said ‘I learn now that it is enough to throw many passages together helter-skelter, whether they fit or not. If this be the way, then I can easily prove from Scripture that beer is better than wine”. (Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible).”

One of the easiest trick questions I’ve tried to use to draw people’s attention to this problem is 1 Cor 14:34 – “ Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says”. I typically ask the question “where in the law does it say so”, and I’m yet to receive a satisfactory answer to that question. This is because this is not specified anywhere in the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), which is what most Christians know as “the law”. However, scholars like John Zens will point out clearly to you that this is contained in the Talmud, or the oral traditions of the Jewish people which they also held in quite high esteem alongside the Torah.

Now, in what way is “Sola Scriptura” able to answer this question, without invalidating itself? Should we not be opening our minds to the fact that this “bible alone” mantra is a dead one (and has been dead for 500 years since the originators themselves gave up on it?). Are we not limiting ourselves in the ways in which the Holy Spirit can use us in pursuit of the kingdom of God?

 

Lesson 7: The Gospel is not as Simple as the 4 Spiritual Laws

I have spoken at length on this subject, so I’ll leave this for another day.

 

Conclusion

There’s much more lessons I’ve learnt that I’d like to share, but we don’t have all the time. Suffice it to say that these leave me feeling quite worried for those who choose to live their Christian lives by feeding on daily devotionals (Daily Manna, Daily Bread, Rhapsody of Realities and such. Seriously?). I feel quite worried for those whose Christianity revolve around TV evangelists (who are so many I won’t bother naming). I feel extremely harangued by those who only listen to and live by what their pastors have taught them. I also worry for the Christian apologist and evangelists who continue not to see the monumental impact of worldview analysis of the life and times of Jesus to the message we preach about him, continuing in the old mold of “come and receive Jesus for forgiveness of sins so you can go to heaven”. It’s so 1611.

Today we have much clearer knowledge of the Bible, of Jesus and of the early Christianity, but we are more satisfied with the quick fix that will give us prosperity, wealth, and emotional satisfaction. Contemplative, questioning and thinking Christian are a rare species, and yet we think we are “free” and the rest of the world is “enslaved”.

If we are going to grow in Christ (and be faithful to him and his purpose for the church), we have to go beyond these comfort zones. My worry is that the literate Christians amongst us who can show the way are sitting in comfort drinking the Kool-Aid, how much more the illiterate amongst us, whom we have a huge responsibility to guide into the truth from the many false sharks around us.

 I can’t end without a quick note from Ben Witherington on this subject

“I once had a student approach me in frustration. He came from the more Pentecostal end of the spectrum and he was one of those people who actually considered too much learning about and of the Bible and its contexts as possibly getting in the way of being a good preacher.  He said to me “I don’t know why I need to learn all this stuff, I can just get up into the pulpit and the Spirit will give me utterance.” 

My response was “yes you can do that, but it’s a shame you are not giving the Holy Spirit more to work with. Don’t use the Holy Spirit as a labor saving device.” (Ben Witherington, “The Problem with Preaching- Pt 3“)