There is a movement in Christian circles at the moment that suggests that normal people, that is, people who have not properly studied Scripture, at a Bible College or seminary or something, that they should not be allowed to “expound” scripture. That is, that they are allowed to read it, and discuss it, but unless you have the appropriate qualifications you are not allowed to teach it.
You see, there are many problems with understanding the bible taking ancient forgotten cultures and understanding them today in order to figure out what they are talking about. Remember, that the Greek AND Hebrew cultures that were alive when scripture was written are long dead now. Yes, even the modern Hebrew people have little understanding of how things used to be. The languages and ways of thinking are a big problem though, you see, the Hebrew language explains things in a different way than the Greek does, and that is quite a problem for us. The Greek thinker views the world through the mind, which is abstract thought, but the Hebrew thinker views the world through the senses, which is concrete thought.
Let’s look at an example in Ps 1:3: “He is like a tree, planted by streams of water, which yields fruit in season, and who’s leaf does not wither”. Here we have concrete words expressing abstract thought, the tree is someone who is upright or righteous, streams of water are grace, fruit is good character, and unwithered leaf is prosperity. These are common ways of expressing these abstract thoughts in “real” terms. But English does not work the same, for example in English, Ps 103:8 reads: “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love”. In Hebrew the concept of anger is expressed by the idea of flared nostrils, as when one is angry one breathes more heavily and the nostrils flare, so they use the concrete idea of “nose” to express the abstract idea of anger. So, literally in Hebrew the passage reads, “slow to nose”. You’ll understand why the translators choose to change that word.
Now, I could go on about appearance and function, and many other things, but I am sure you get the idea. You can see why some people think that you need some kind of formal or informal education in the bible in order that we can get the best out of it.
There are two ways of reading the bible, and I like to call them standard and devotional. The devotional method is when you pick up the bible, and let the Holy Spirit speak to you by the words on the page. This way the meaning you get, or the prodding of the Spirit in your life can have very little relationship to what the text actually says.
It’s not important because it more about the relationship than the words and their meaning. The problem we have is when people say “God told me this, and this passage proves it, so we ALL have to follow”. Unless the passage *actually* says what you think, no one else is obligated to follow, its personal, for you, from God. One example of this is when missionaries use the passage that reads “without a vision the people will perish” as a way of saying if you don’t have a vision for mission people will go to hell. However true that is, this passage does not say that. In Hebrew it actually reads more like “without God’s word from his prophets, the people will do whatever they want”. God might use that passage to call you to mission, but thats not what its about.
Standard reading is when we try and determine what the author was really saying; applying all the tools we can to do so. This is the scholarly way, and anyone, even a non-Christian should be able to follow how you came to your understanding. If we apply the first method and not the second, we can end up with all sorts of problems. Lets look at a couple more interesting problems and see what we can learn from them.
So, firstly lets open our bibles at 1 Cor 12: 12:1 “With regard to spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, 2 I do not want you to be uninformed. 12:2 You know that when you were pagans you were often led astray by speechless idols, however you were led. 12:3 So I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit..”
You have heard it said, possibly, that some churches require proof of baptism in the spirit by speaking in tongues. If you read Scripture without understanding of the ancient cultures, not just Christian, but the pagan ones, you can quite easily be led astray. We know, for example, that many pagan worship ceremonies involved something quite similar to what we call “speaking in tongues”. So, does Paul mean here that in these pagan ceremonies Jesus was being cursed, or that God is being cursed? If the focus of the passage is verse 3 we might think that, however what we do know is that Paul almost always uses the Greek word “hoti” to introduce the subject he is talking about. The word means “that” or “because” and it occurs between verses 1 and 2. As you can see, the translators did not include the word in our translation, but it is there in the Greek. So what we should be reading is something like, “In regards to spiritual things, brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to be ignorant, because when you were pagans your ignorance of these things was profound”. Because we can now separate verse 3 from one and two, we can see that saying Jesus is lord whilst uttering some prophetic word is not proof of the validity and Godliness of what the person is saying. But rather, Paul says, if one CONFESSES that Jesus is LORD, and to Paul that means to live it out in a society where admitting allegiance to anyone other than the emporer would get you jailed or killed. The test is not of true and false spirits, but in fact who has the Spirit at all. In fact this leads nicely into the next verses where the different gifts are not the thing Paul is concerned about, but rather the UNITY of the Church, and the ONE GOD from which it stems. The problem may well have been that there were a group of people who were trying to lord their spirituality over others, claiming their gift was the better one, but thats not what Paul says. He says if you truly confess Jesus is lord, then you prove that the Spirit that guides you is the one true Spirit from where all gifts come, lets look:
12:4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 12:5 And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. 12:6 And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 12:7 To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. 12:8 For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 12:9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 12:10 to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 12:11 It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things.
You see, it is the ONENESS of giver and the gift that is Paul’s concern, rather than the lording of gifts over others causing division in the Church. He goes on to talk about the body and how it cannot function all divided up. We cannot understand this if we haven’t put in the work to find out what was going on in history, what the original languages say, how Paul writes, and uses words, etc. Are you starting to see the depth of the problem we have now?
A really common misunderstanding is about what love is. You see, with the word love, we have one word and it encompasses a whole lot of uses. In Greek though, we have different words that are translated in English as “love”, in the same way there are different words for Sin, for example, there is the SIN which we are saved from, that is, being separated from God. But there are also SINS, the things that we do which result from being separated from God. The difference is clearer in greek, and it is the same way with love. The three main words are eros, phileo, and agape. Now, whilst researching this, an interesting idea was raised, but I’ll get to in a second. The word eros generally refers to sexual attraction, but this word never appears in Scripture. It is a classical Greek word though and does appear in other literature from the time. So, the two words that appear in the bible are phileo, which means “compassion and sympathy for your fellow man”, and agape, which means “unselfish love”. This is most commonly used to translate the Hebrew word chesed which is usually “steadfast love”, “lovingkindness”, or “covenant love”.
Since what we’re looking at here is used to explain Hebrew thought, we need to look at what is meant by chesed. This is best referred to as “covenant love”, because I believe its the kind of love God expresses through his covenants with firstly Humanity, then Israel, and then humanity again. In the Bible we read about a number of different covenants between men. For instance, Jacob and Laban settled family hostilities by making a covenant. They set up a heap of stones as a witness to their mutual pledges, offered sacrifice, and ate a covenant meal together (Gen. 31:44, 45). David and Jonathan made a covenant to seal their friendship and to guarantee a peaceful relationship between the house of David and the house of Jonathan (1 Sam. 18 & 20). We also read about a covenant between tribes (1 Sam. 11:1; Judg. 2:2; Ex. 23:32), between kings (1 Kings 20:34), and between a king and his people (2 Kings 11:4; 2 Chron. 23). There was even a covenant imposed by a conquering king on a vanquished king (1 kings 20:34). The most common type of covenant between people, however, was the marriage contract between a man and his wife (see Mal. 2:14).
There are 6 Main covenants in the bible, Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Sinatic (Moses), Davidic, and New. Its worth having a look and reading what they call consist of; however, the 2 most important ones are the Sinatic Covenant, and the New Covenant. Since we’re looking at the OT use of “Covenant Love”, lets look at what this Covenant with Moses consisted of, from which this “love” comes:
IN 1954 G.E. Mendenhall was able to demonstrate that the Sinaitic covenant bore a remarkable similarity to ancient Hittite treaties. These Hittite treaties were made between a Hittite sovereign (suzerain) and a vassal.They are called suzerainty or vassal treaties and they contained six main features:
1. Preamble. In this the name of the suzerain is identified. For example, one such treaty begins, “These are the words of the Sun Mursilis, the great king, the king of the Hatti land the valiant, the favorite of the Storm-god, the son of Suppiluliumus,” etc.
2. Historical Prologue. Here the previous relationship between the Hittite ruler and the vassal is described. It may embrace several generations. The emphasis is on the benevolent acts of the suzerain toward the vassal’s father or ancestors and/or on the suzerain’s present benefactions. This sets the stage for the obligations that are to be imposed upon the vassal, which he is now expected to discharge in grateful acknowledgement of the suzerain’s acts of kindness.
3. Stipulations. The obligations which are imposed by the suzerain upon the vassal are spelled out. The fundamental demand is always for thorough commitment to the suzerain to the exclusion of all alien alliances. Thus Mursilis insists: “But you, Duppi-Tessub, remain loyal toward the king of the Hatti land, the Hafli land, my sons [and] my grandsons forever . . . Do not turn your eyes to anyone else.” The stipulations define the duties of the vassal in preserving peace within the domain of the suzerain. “Unwavering trust in the Suzerain was mandatory, and murmuring against him was always regarded as violation of obligation.”4 —The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Buttrick, art. “Covenant” (Abingdon).
4. Depository. The treaties generally made provision for their preservation and regular rereading. “The treaty is put in the most sacred shrines of the chief gods of the involved, for an obvious purpose so that the gods could read it and be reminded from time to time of the provisions of the oath sworn in their presence.” —Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, p.35. A typical treaty also says, “At regular intervals shall they read it in the presence of the sons of the Hurri country.” —Ibid.
5. Witnesses. The gods, many and sundry, are called upon to witness the covenant oaths (ibid., pp. 36, 37).
6. Sanctions. Blessings are pronounced on the keeper of the covenant, while curses pronounce the destruction of the offender — all that he is and all that he has.
The Siniatic Vassal treaty, which is formed about the 10 commandments in chapter5 are in Deuteronomy and show this structure:
Preamble: chapter 1:1-5.
Historical prologue: chapters 1:6 to 4:49.
Stipulations: chapter 5 and amplified to the end of chapter 26.
Sanctions: chapters 27 to 30:20.
Depository, witnesses, etc.: chapters 31 to 34.
So, enough of the technical talk, what does this all mean… what does it mean to us in understanding covenant love?
Well, firstly it means that what love is in respect to God occurs within a covenant agreement, a vassal treaty. Unlike phileo its not a sense of feeling something. With phileo we have compassion, sympathy, care. It is THIS that Jesus has in mind when he talks to Peter about love. He says “Peter do you “covenant love” me, and Peter replies, “Lord you know I love you like a member of my own family”. Jesus asks 3 times but the third time Jesus says; “Peter, do you really have sympathy, care, and compassion, for me? Then this is the foundation that the Church will be built, covenant love, and sympathy, care, and compassion for humanity.” This is what we miss from this passage. It’s not about different kinds of love, or faith, it’s about them all together. Firstly we must come under God’s COVENANT love, this treaty between the king and his subjects where we learn what is required of us, and what will happen if we don’t SERVE the King as he expects. This expectation includes, as we know from the Mosaic Law, to love your neighbour. So, from our SERVICE to the King, we build a church founded on compassion, sympathy, selflessness, etc.
So love, the God kind of love has its basis in service to the King, not how we feel about anything. This is how you can love your neighbour, or your enemy, because you do it out of service not out of how you feel. Feeling comes second, and that is alien to how we are brought up. We are taught that how we feel is more important. The words to the song by SLOAN go:
If it feels good do it even if you shouldn’t
don’t let people mess you around
feels go do it even if you shouldn’t
nobody can mess you around
But in Matt 18 Jesus says: 18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 18:2 He called a child, had him stand among them, 18:3 and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven! 18:4 Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 18:5 And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me.
When we become a Christian, we have to become like a little child. That doesn’t mean that our life of faith must be lived out as though we are stuck at age three! No No No. What it means is we have to learn what it means to live under the vassal treaty, because up until then, we have not been doing so. We need to study, like a child, and learn first from our parents, then our day care workers, then our primary school teachers, our intermediate school teachers, our high school teachers, our friends, family, mentors, and guides. Finally to finish, we have one great promise, and HUGE advantage over Moses and those who were given the vassal treaty at Sinai, Jer 31:
31:31 “Indeed, a time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 31:32 It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them,” says the Lord. 31:33 “But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people.31:34 “People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,” says the Lord. “For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.”
What Law is God going to put within us? The very same law that was given Moses at Sinai.
What is the advantage of having the Law within us? We can be taught and counselled by the Spirit, and the Spirit will make God known, through Christ, to all of us. This new covenant, this vassal treaty was made through Christ, and by believing that He was who he said He was, and that he did what He said he would do we will be forgiven. We need to study and learn about God. Not everyone is called to go to University and become a theological expert, just like not everyone is called to be an automotive engineer, or a lawyer. But we all need to become like little children, forget what we learned about living outside of God’s Kingdom, and learn what is required of us. It means a lot of work, humility, study, listening, and pondering, but we have the Spirit inside us to help so we need not be afraid, but we do need to realise that we need to put in the work with our devotional reading, our discipling studies and our homegroup studies.