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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bible Study 12 – Context [Part 6]

Another instalment in an ongoing series about studying the Bible using methods deduced from the Bible itself. The series introduction can be found here.

The second Bible study tool we are discussing is context. For justification, see the first post on this subject.

Immediate Context and Meaning

Sometimes it is only through careful attention to immediate context that meaning becomes clear. As mentioned previously, word study and comparison do not always successfully clarify the author’s intent, especially when a word that is significant in illuminating the passage you are trying to understand occurs only once in scripture, leaving you with no inspired point of reference.

For example, the apostle Paul says the following to the Corinthian believers:
“For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.”
(2 Corinthians 2:17)
I once went to exposit this verse, picked up on the word “peddlers” and went straight to town on the evils of commercializing the word of God. I had a half page diatribe already written before pausing to ask myself whether the obvious meaning of the verse was the correct one. But this is an instance in which careful attention to context might make you rethink the your first reaction.

Two Possibilities

When we read a word like “peddlers”, we think naturally of money; and when money changes hands in connection with the work of God, with the exchange comes the potential for certain obvious kinds of evil: corruption of motives, suspicion, fraud and who knows what else. Other less evident perils abound too: once a revenue stream starts flowing, plenty of reasons come to mind as to why the tap cannot or should not be shut off, and these present themselves as alternatives to the direction of the Spirit of God in the work itself.

So the idea that we shouldn’t peddle the word of God is not incorrect.

Still, it’s possible that those who turn the word of God into an opportunity to engage in commerce are not the apostle’s primary concern in this passage. The word translated “peddlers” is an unusual one, occurring nowhere else in the New Testament. It means “hucksters”, suggesting, if not outright fraud, at least a sales pitch. A number of modern translators take this line, using language like “the many who market God’s message” or “commercializing God’s word”.

But “hucksters” is not the only meaning of this Greek word.

William MacDonald says “This same word for peddling was also used of those who adulterated wine, often by adding to it”. Rather than the idea of selling here, the thought is of dilution, or of mixing in with the word of God something undesirable or of inferior quality. The KJV, for example, has elected to use the phrase “corrupt the word of God”, which would be a reasonable translation assuming Paul is, in fact, using the word in this second sense. The Aramaic Bible uses the phrase “others who blend the words of God”, which is a bit obscure but carries essentially the same thought. And the God’s Word translation combines both Greek meanings by translating it “selling an impure word of God”.

So word study, in this instance, ends in ambiguity. We are left with this question: Is Paul primarily condemning a profit motive in preaching, or is he condemning the adulteration of the word of God by diluting it or introducing foreign elements?

This is where context comes in, because we get the clearest sense of what Paul intends here from the four-fold contrast he offers to “peddling” in the very same sentence:

1. Men of Sincerity (the Motive)

It’s certainly possible that “sincerity” is intended in contrast with a profit motive or desire to commercialize the word of God.

But the other possible reading is that Paul and those who came with him offered the word of God out of motives unadulterated by self-interest or fear. Bear in mind that Paul reminds us in the previous verse that not everyone likes his message. To unbelievers, it is “a fragrance from death to death”. There would be constant pressure to water it down or adulterate it in the interests of avoiding a hostile reaction, and evidently some self-appointed teachers of the Word were quick to do so.

This interpretation is reinforced by a quick look at the use of the word “sincerity” in the New Testament, which shows it bears the meaning of purity. In most instances it means “uncontaminated”.

2. As Commissioned by God (the Message)

It’s unclear to me how the fact that Paul has been commissioned by God strikes a contrast with those who preach out of a profit motive. It’s quite possible to start from a commission by God and end up by putting your hand in the pockets of those to whom you preach in the process while still handling the word of God accurately and faithfully discharging your commission in that respect.

On the other hand, being conscious of being commissioned by God would seem a huge deterrent to watering down the message. This may be what Paul is saying. It is, after all, God’s message and God’s commission. Failure to communicate the message faithfully is failure to obey both the commission and God himself.

3. In the Sight of God (the Mindset)

The awareness that we are seen by God ought ideally to minimize interest in a profit motive in gospel preaching and teaching. Still, there are those who will confidently trot out the line about “not muzzling the ox while it’s treading out the grain” as a defence for such behaviour.

Equally, it can be pointed out that being conscious that God is watching ought to encourage in those who teach his word the conviction that nothing may be added to it or taken from it, and that it must be delivered faithfully and not equivocally.

4. In Christ (the Medium)

A huckster might be “in sales” but he can hardly be said to “speak in sales”. Paul and his fellow workers “speak in Christ”. What Paul means by this is not completely clear, but it hardly matters whether he means “speak in the power of Christ”, “speak consistently with the character of Christ”, “speak in obedience to Christ”, “speak in the name of Christ” or all of them together. What is evident here is that Paul is not some loose cannon trying to build a personality cult around himself; he is a representative or agent of someone much greater and his conduct is appropriate to his responsibilities.

What is also clear is that a word truly spoken “in Christ” is a word undiluted, uncontaminated and unadulterated in any way. It is the pure word of God.

Conclusion

Based on the contrasts laid out in the second part of the verse, I tend to think Paul is primarily concerned here with the dilution of the word of God or its contamination with foreign elements intended to make it more palatable to its hearers, rather than condemning those who speak from a profit motive. This makes sense, because the former is naturally of greater concern. As long as the word of God is preached accurately, the motives of the preacher, however base, are largely opaque to his hearers and unlikely, in themselves, to do damage. Corrupting or diluting the word of God, on the other hand, is a very serious problem, bringing judgment on the preacher and potentially inflicting all kinds of damage on the audience.

So while commercializing the word of God and profiting from it are wrong, and one could certainly demonstrate persuasively that the New Testament speaks against such things, I wouldn’t be inclined to rely on this passage as my sole support for such a message.

The context, to my mind, doesn’t support it.

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