The Bible and Hermeneutics
Although not often used in our daily conversation, hermeneutics (or Bible interpretation) has a very important role in guiding our understanding of Scripture. Let’s start with an example from classical literature.
Have you ever read any of the works of William Shakespeare? If you have, you may have discovered what many others like you know: It is not always easy reading. Mr. Shakespeare is considered to be one of, if not themost, prominent literary artist in history. His writings cast a large shadow over other writings of cultural expressions.
Even so, there is a “science” to understanding his writings called basic hermeneutics, if you will. To put it into a short form, William Shakespeare’s writings explain themselves. One has to explore many if not most of his writings to understand how he used language, definitions, characters, purpose, imagery, dual meanings and much more. Thus, the keys to unlocking his intentions are his writings themselves. See how nearly impossible it would be to “understand” Shakespeare is you only examined one portion of his “library” of writings (see, for example, How to Read and Understand Shakespeare, and How to Study Shakespeare).
If you’ve had time to check out the websites under the heading listed above, perhaps you can appreciate the importance of getting a hold on the meaning of Scripture. A significant question arises: is it possible to leave out large segments of the Bible, present most sermons from only four of the sixty-six books, yet still develop a complete picture of God and our relationship with him?
While William Shakespeare was a brilliant and creative writer, the writings of Scripture were managed and inspired by God himself. To recall the multiple uses of the Old Testament Scriptures by Jesus and his confirmation that they were God’s word shows that these are far more than just human writings. He wove both Testaments together through his frequent use of Old Testament prophecies regarding his life, death and resurrection. New Testament writers used the same method to certify that Jesus was the Son of God, Creator of heaven and earth.
Beyond this testimony are the assertions of Old Testament writers who claimed the Lord revealed to them what they were writing—verifiable through fulfilled prophecy including such memorable events as the flood, Abraham and Sarah having a son in old age, the exodus of Israel from Egypt, the giving of the Ten Commandments, Israel’s entry into the Promised Land, the removal of Israel from their homeland and their return from exile. Along the way, there were other less historic prophetic fulfillments as well.
What is clear from both Jesus’ use of Old Testament and the apostles’ writings, Scripture helps us interpret Scripture. We impoverish our preaching and declaration of God’s word by restricting it to only a small part of God’s revelation. Even the Apostle Paul, while mentoring his younger assistant Timothy, reminded him that regardless of circumstances in life, there was something rock solid he could count on:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (II Timothy 3:14-17)
What was Paul referring to as the “Holy Scriptures?” Yes, the books of the Old Testament. And if further confirmation is needed, I Corinthians 10 is almost entirely a recommendation to look at the Old Testament history of God’s people as an example of how to (and not to) live. He writes in verse 18, “Consider the people of Israel . . .” That is worthwhile advice to us in our chaotic world today. And beyond that, when Paul wrote those words the gospels were not written nor was the New Testament canon determined.
From personal experience, here are two additional observations where liturgical churches (and others, too) sometimes miss the point of good hermeneutics in their preaching. First, and perhaps most distressing, is taking a single verse or idea from Scripture out of context. That observation should be underlined: a person can “prove” almost anything if one takes a single verse to establish a principle. There is a flip side to that practice: discounting a verse or principle from the context that supports the principle. This one comes up often when issues of morality from Scripture are discounted.
The second area where hermeneutics gets ignored is preaching from a brief or short piece of Scripture or text and ignoring much longer and more fully developed material elsewhere on the same topic. For example, if you want to speak about the resurrection of believers, it would hard to ignore I Corinthians 15. That is a lengthy and definitive statement on resurrection.
However, despite that, even I Corinthians 15 has been abused. The Apostle Paul used one question to make a point about false teaching—the idea that there is no resurrection: “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? “ (see I Corinthians 15:12-29). What was the Apostle’s point? He was saying, “If you contend there is no resurrection, why would you be baptized for the dead?”
Certainly he was not suggesting a new rite or tradition for the church—baptism for dead people. Jesus’ teaching about the finality of death and judgment, as well as the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31, were teachings undoubtedly passed on to the Apostle Paul by Luke. They had been companions in missionary work in Europe and Asia. So, what is the principle we are examining here? Longer, more complete teaching on a particular issue may be available to guide the use of fragmentary comments.
Jesus and Progressive Revelation
Another important principle often overlooked is the nature of progressive revelation. God did not tell Adam and Eve everything he was planning. The history of faith in Scripture is wrapped in a simple question: do you trust God? The first couple, as we are told, failed this initial test. The text in Genesis 2 reports:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:15-17)
Most know the rest of the story: the Serpent (Satan) beguiled the first couple into distrusting God. And God’s promise of the good life to Adam and Eve fell apart. They didn’t exhibit confidence in God’s first requirement: trust me! They didn’t trust; instead, they disobeyed God’s simple command.
From that point on, until the unveiling of his Son, Jesus, born of a Jewish woman in Bethlehem, God was revealing himself and his character, step by step. This is what is called, “progressive revelation.” If you are acquainted with the Old Testament, you will see it taking place from Adam to Noah, Abraham and Sarah to Joseph with his colorful coat. Some 400 years later, Moses and Aaron come on stage to lead God’s people out of bondage in Egypt.
The new nation of Israel needed a constitution and instructions on building a healthy, lasting culture. Through Moses, God gave the world the Ten Commandments and rules on preventing the internal collapse of the nation’s society, including its moral codes. In a sense, it was a graduate course on nation building and preservation of societies.
The Promised Land would generate major kings and prophets, beginning with the Samuel and David. The gifted King David with help from others produced the nation’s songbook. From those Psalms came much of the theology of the Old Testament and its prophetic underpinnings. And we see the influence of the Psalms in the New Testament as well.
From the earliest stages after the flood, the Old Testament record was a narrowing of focus ending up on one nation—Israel. After that, came an expanding horizon involving world empires: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and beyond. During each phase, the picture of God became more clearly defined. Prophets with visions sketched hazy outlines of future events, each one adding more color and detail.
Finally, a young woman from Nazareth received an angelic visitor informing her of events she could only dream about. But in Bethlehem, a stream of visitors beginning with angels to shepherds, priests and devout Jewish people, and even far off visitors from perhaps Persia, confirmed what had already been whispered to Mary in solitude. Much of this writing has picked up the story from there to show that Jesus was and is the promised Messiah, the Son of God, Creator of heaven and earth.
The Mount of Transfiguration and God’s Revelation
Before concluding our section on hermeneutics and progressive revelation, we should review what took place on the Mount of Transfiguration. Although the location is not certain, many believe it to be Mount Tabor where a church structure has been built. Others suggest it was Mount Herman or some other mountain. Both Tabor and Herman are closer to Galilee than they are to Jerusalem. However, it is not where but what that gives Jesus’ transfiguration significance.
As already noted, Jesus’ teaching ministry was directed towards a central group of people—his disciples even though multitudes were often in attendance. To this mountain on this occasion, Jesus took only his “inner circle” or closest disciples, Peter and the brothers Zebedee, James and John. All three were, by profession, fishermen from the Sea of Galilee. On two other occasions, these three alone were asked to accompany Jesus while the other disciples were not included (Mark 5:37-47; Matthew 26:36, 37).
All three synoptic gospels document the event that took these disciples to the top of the mountain with Jesus (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). We’ll look at the transfiguration story given to us in Luke’s gospel.
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. (Luke 9:28-36)
To add detail that another writer provided us, here are two verses from Mathew’s gospel, chapter 17: 2 There he (Jesus) was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.
5 While he (Peter) was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
This incredible appearance of Jesus in divine clothing, almost blinding his three closest disciples, left them dazzled and perhaps perplexed. At that moment, they really didn’t know how to respond. Jesus understood that, and he asked them to place what they had witnessed into their memory banks—not to speak about it until after he was raised from the dead.
What happened on that mountain was, in a sense, the capstone in explaining God’s role in what we have termed “progressive revelation.” It is part of the “hermeneutic structure” we are looking into. It proclaims a Divine principle that has been shifted into the shadows in a great deal of today’s preaching.
For these three disciples to witness a “resurrection” scenario with both Moses and Elijah had to be mind-blowing: They could hardly believe their eyes! Just remember, there were very few religious and patriarchal figures that were as highly esteemed as these two. Certainly, Moses the great lawgiver and Elijah the fiery prophet were among a select group. And even in the minds of these disciples, the two ancients were among God’s greatest Old Testament voices.
And powerful and lasting voices they were and are: adding Jesus, each of the three had indeed spoken and revealed part of God’s person and God’s plan for humankind. In a sense, there was no distinction between the three as to the origin of their message: God was the Author. Each added content and detail and form as to who God was. That is the end of the comparison. Even so, that is where the Apostle Peter made a serious mistake!
We realize Peter was often quick to speak and maybe his mouth was faster than that of his fellow disciples. When he suggested to Jesus that they quickly erect three shelters or “shrines” for each of the three notables, it drew a quick correction directly from heaven. Jesus, God said, is not just another prophet like Moses, or Elijah; this is my eternal Son in whom I am well pleased. He was sent to reveal who God is and what God is like. He supersedes all other messengers. He is the final and complete representation of God because he is God! (see Colossians 1:15-20).
Yet there is even more to this story.
Just a few days prior to their climbing this mountain where Jesus was revealed in his glory, Jesus had asked his disciples a fundamental and definitive question. They responded to the question. Peter then gave his own reply to Jesus’ second question. Taking Mathew’s description, recorded also by Mark and Luke, we read:
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
As far as we know, this was the first clear-cut statement by the disciples that they understood who Jesus truly was: the promised Messiah! The Son of God! They were finally getting it. While other notable prophets were pointed out as possible substitutes including John the Baptist and Elijah, Jesus was not just one in a long line of prophets and seers going back all the way to Noah. He is like no other; he is God’s Son, the only begotten of the Father.
Right on the heels of Peter’s astonishing statement that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised Son come in human flesh, Jesus took them up the mountain to reinforce Peter’s declaration. But even more: it was to show that the messengers of old had been superseded by the complete definition and revelation of God by God himself. Peter’s statement on the plain was dramatically highlighted on the mountain. The heavenly message? God has spoken fully and finally through his Son Jesus. Don’t belittle us by giving us some shrine or a great title. That doesn’t fit the Creator God of the universe!
That message needs to be shared through the lives of preachers and people alike. To most people today, it’s still progressive revelation until they meet up with Jesus disguised as ordinary Christians. It’s an exciting story that demands the full exposure of people to all of Scripture. It’s a story worth examining and worthy of our best efforts. And it may entail more study on this topic of hermeneutics.
Two books on hermeneutics are recommended. Most people would be comfortable with a book by Dr. Mark L. Strauss, How to Read the Bible in Changing Times: Understanding and Applying God’s Word Today(published in 2011). While this book can be “digested” on a personal level, it provides teaching guides that preachers/pastors can use.
For a serious look at Biblical hermeneutics from an academic and scholar’s perspective, you could read a book by Dr. Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation. This significant work last printed in 1999, gives a thorough examination of this subject.
In the last few sections, we have taken a look at the control of content in preaching conducted in Liturgical churches. Of course, much of this stems from the tradition of Lectionary preaching and the unintended consequences it has set off. One example is the often-heard statement that “this Sunday all over the world, churches are hearing a sermon from the same text.” It’s an admission that most preaching is understood to be fixed from the first four books of the New Testament. That was certainly not the original purpose of the Lectionary, but that’s where it has ended up.
Our next section has to do with architecture, or the design of Sanctuaries in liturgical churches. This may appear to be a “ticky-tack” topic from personal dislike. It’s not. So let’s look into it.
Preaching From On High
Have you ever wondered why some church pulpits are placed up so high in church Sanctuaries? And do you ever sit near the front in that kind of church? Well, imagine the questions any first-time visitor under 30 years of age would ask about this arrangement in such a church. Perhaps it cuts across the grain of present-day ideas of equality—someone looking down on others.
It is not really clear why pulpits were created and placed where they are in churches. At one time, even “three-decker pulpits” were installed to indicate the levels of prominence of what was spoken. The lowest level was for making announcements. The second was for the reading of Scripture. The highest elevation was reserved for the preaching or explanation of the Scriptures.
What is clear, though, is that the location and elevation of the pulpit had symbolic meanings to people at the time they were built. And that is an important point to remember in our discussion—symbolism. There may also have been practical reasons for elevating pulpits having to do with sight and sound. Up on high, everyone could both see and hear the sermon from that position. You will see this in the case of Ezra the priest, reading the Scriptures from a high platform so all to see and hear (Nehemiah 8:4-6).
There may also be other Biblical models that influenced the placement of pulpits. One of the best-known references comes from the prophet Isaiah’s call to service:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6:1-4)
What Isaiah saw was a heavenly vision that even shook the foundations of the temple. But he “saw the Lord, high and exalted” and “seated on a throne.” He was also able to see the seraphim, flying above the throne and to hear their anthem, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” So the need for amplification and visibility were met with design and position.
In reality, however, the emphasis was very different as the next verse explains:
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty”(Isaiah 6:5).
The elevated position had nothing to do with acoustics, but about status and standing: Isaiah was shown a vision of God in his eternal holiness, infinite power and complete knowledge. His only response was, “Woe is me!—I am ruined!”
What do we get from Isaiah’s experience? Surely, that only God can be exalted and lifted up: He alone is worthy to be put on a pedestal. But not so in our culture today. We have teen-age “stars” being promoted to almost god-like stature, athletes of all kinds, worshiped with sky-high salaries and adulation. Almost all have a sense of entitlement that they somehow deserve it and should be so recognized. And, of course, Hollywood personalities lead the pack, though there are some exceptions.
To the contrary, Jesus showed us a different model we are to follow. After being their leader and teacher for three years, he took a basin of water and wearing just a servant’s towel, began to wash his disciples’ feet. When he got to Peter, the disciple objected. But when Jesus explained the significance, Peter asked to be washed head to toe.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:12-17)
Jesus was not setting up another Christian rite. He told them, “If I your Teacher and Master get down and serve you, you should lose yourselves in service to others. Don’t seek for a position of entitlement—rather, find a place to be a servant.” We believe the disciples got what he meant, for in just a few years, the entire Roman world heard the gospel. People were attracted to that kind of leadership and their message.
If in any way the elevated pulpit represents a symbol of status; if the different colored robes and collars decorate us for greater status and acclaim, can you say that fits into the Jesus model?
Here is a suggestion to preachers: rather, get down to the congregation’s level. We all know that with young children or grandkids—to really be their buddy—you’ve got to get down on your hands and knees to interact with them on their level.
Yes, even though many of today’s teens are swooning to the phony adulation of rock stars, far more are looking for the reality that Jesus offered and gave to people of his time. You can get down from the pulpit and have a conversation with your people. And it can be done without pretense. It may take some strategy and time to work out, but it may have dramatic effects.
For The Bible Tells Me So
Jesus loves me, this I know, For the Bible tells me so. In the late 1800’s, Anna Bartlett Warner wrote these words for a book her older sister, Susan, was writing. In so doing, she penned one of the most theologically profound songs ever written. What sets these words apart from others is not theological complexity, but its down-to-earth orthodoxy. It states several indispensable and undeniable truths that may get overlooked in today’s rush to be “relevant” in a society gone wildly secular.
In our western world, we are perhaps living during a time of extreme self-centeredness and self-appraisal. However, much of what goes for “culture” is a crude façade for entertainment and sensual hedonism that demands to be satisfied, no matter what. Societal standards sometimes even shape church practice and doctrine. In other words, rather than influencing our culture, has the church settled for a secondary role? Is it a follower rather than a leader?
Compare our world with much of the rest of the world—particularly the southern hemisphere. The influence of Christian faith in the northern half of the world is in decline, in both cultural issues and church participation. Just the opposite is trending in the southern hemisphere where the Christian church is growing in numbers as well as influence.
In our part of the globe, the Christian faith seems to have given up the fight for moral authority. Here is just one indicator: if Christians would boycott movies displaying gratuitous nudity, sex, murder and violence, Hollywood would stop producing those kinds of films—they would not be moneymakers.
Getting back to our song reminding us that Jesus loves us—redemption is not what I have done, but what God through Jesus has done. That is the message of Christmas and Easter rolled into one and what propelled the Christian faith so quickly across the Roman Empire. And how do we know it is God’s work? The Bible Tells Us So! Starting with Genesis, the story doesn’t end until you get to Revelation.
Why should that be important for us today? It’s as simple as the song says. Our knowledge of God’s plan for humanity comes from the Bible: its history, its poetry, its prophecy, its narrative, its epistles, its story of people who have loved God and their neighbor as themselves all reveal God’s initiative. Thus, to omit parts of Scripture either by design or carelessness is unworthy of the church. Why should we defraud congregations by only sharing part of the story?
What is the consistent revelation of God? Not only is he the source of life, he is also the source of love. It’s God’s great gift that we accept by affirmative action. That authorizes God to fill us with his love. Yes, Jesus loves us this we know, for the Bible tells us so. It’s to the Bible that we turn to make that discovery and receive the grace to accept. The Apostle John, sometimes called “the beloved disciple,” put it like this:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (I John 4:7-10)
One of the great and memorable services within some churches (Lutheran and Anglican/Episcopal) is the Stripping of the Altar. The particulars of the stripping may vary from one denomination or church to another, but it is observed on Maundy Thursday. In essence, it is the taking away of every physical article of Christian faith from the sanctuary on the evening before Good Friday. All articles from around the Altar, including crosses and the bread and wine are taken out of the Sanctuary. This removal symbolizes what we would not have were Holy Week and Easter not a fact.
In this impressive service, one final object remains to the last. In that one object resides the history of everything we need to begin and maintain a relationship with God. It’s that important. And it’s the last phrase of Anna Bartlett Warner’s song we have quoted: For the Bible tells me so. That stirring reality breaks in on people as the Bible from the lectern is carried outside the church building. We would be totally in the dark were it not for the Scriptures that have been carefully handed down to us. Yes, it is the Bible that tells us so.
What also comes through Anna Bartlett Warner’s song is the personal nature of our relationship with God. It makes clear that our connection to God is not through the church or a minister or a denomination or one of a church’s saints. Her song identifies the sole source of our redemption—it’s because of and through Jesus. No other mediator to God is recognized or necessary. In I Timothy, the Apostle Paul removes any doubt as to the source of our redemption and to whom we should pray:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. (I Timothy 2:1-6)
All this may be true and worthwhile, but can we work it out through existing church structures?
I believe it is not only possible but the continued existence of the Liturgical church my well depend on it. Can members of the clergy and the supporting institutions correctly assess and respond to what is driving down the indicators of church vitality? Perhaps there is even more than we have detailed here. Do we dare to ignore it?