Monday, June 02, 2014

Bible Study 11 – Context [Part 5]

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.


Perhaps the best way to show the importance of local or immediate context in discerning the meaning of a verse is to link to some actual examples of interpretation gone wrong to demonstrate where an examination of local context might have provided a more accurate understanding.

Example 1:

This gentleman, for instance, takes a crack at a familiar verse:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
(Revelation 3:20)
About it, he says the following:
“The door is every man’s heart; the knock is his gentle, anonymous pleading with you to depart from evil … To open the door is to receive Christ into your heart. How is that done? To receive Jesus is to hear Him speak words from within your heart and to believe His words to be true as well as believe that He who is speaking to you is the Son of God, Jesus.”
To “open the door”, he says, is to “receive Christ into your heart”. From there he goes on to quote Isaac Penington on salvation and to reinforce the need for it.

There’s much here that seems reasonable ...

...and nothing heretical (though if I had him around, I’d ask the author to clarify what he means by “hear him speak words from within your heart”, as that could be understood more than one way; and okay, I might take issue with his use of the word “anonymous”, which seems an odd way to describe the voice of Christ).

But the fundamental misinterpretation here is a result of a failure to observe context. While it is true that men need to be saved, and the Bible many places elsewhere teaches it, this particular verse has nothing to do with salvation.

The meaning of "eat with":
It helps to have some general idea of what it means to “eat with” the Lord from Scripture, of course, and that is something one might investigate with a concordance or with the aid of memory (the chapters of John that take place in the upper room at the “last supper” come to mind, for one).

If you were to do that, you would probably conclude that what the Lord is offering here is not salvation but fellowship; intimate sharing between those who are already “friends” (“I will … eat with him, and he with me”).

The immediate context:
But local context is the first big clue that salvation is not in view here. In verse 14, setting up this scenario, we read the instructions of the Lord to John the apostle: “… to the angel of the church in Laodicea write …”

The passage is directed not to the unsaved, but to individuals (“if anyone”) within a church so spiritually deficient (“you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”), unaware of their actual spiritual state (“you say, I am rich, I have prospered”) and independent of Christ, the head of the Church (“you say … I need nothing”) that the Lord is unable to fellowship with it corporately, as he would if he could find even two or three believers within it who will gather “in his name”. (That  particular promise comes in the context of the Lord affirming the discipline administered by two or three of his followers, but the point is that he is among, and in fellowship with, even a small number who agree together.)

That the Lord is addressing Christians, albeit in a badly diminished spiritual state, is evident from what he says to them, again in the local context: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” He speaks of love, reproof and discipline, not final judgement.

The Lord has promised to be “among” those who gather in his name. But here the Lord is pictured outside the church, suggesting that they neither agree nor demonstrate any interest in seeking his will and following his lead. And since he therefore cannot fellowship with them corporately, he offers personal, individual fellowship to any who will repent and admit him.

Is it a devastating error our interpreter is making with this verse? I don’t think so. It has not taken him down the road to false teaching or wacky doctrinal error. It just doesn’t mean what he thinks it does.

But he has inadvertently robbed himself of its comfort and meaning by paying inadequate attention to the immediate surroundings.

(And frankly, in the current spiritual environment, if these words are not already relevant, they will likely soon become much needed by individuals who genuinely love the Lord and want to enjoy fellowship with him in days of decline and apostasy. It’s a verse I’m happy to have in my back pocket for the day I may need it.)

Example 2:

Okay, let’s pick one more passage:
“He put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ ” (Matthew 13:32-32)
And let’s find ourselves another attempted interpretation. (Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? They’re a dime a dozen these days.)
“What does this parable mean? The kingdom of God started small but ended large. It will provide resting place for the weary and burdened people. Jesus came as the kingdom of God like a mustard seed. He was born in a manger as a humble baby and he had a blue collar job as a carpenter in the small town in Galilee. He called 12 disciples and trained them to become his followers. His disciples seemed to grow slowly or not to grow at all. But they grew to become spiritual giants who changed the world history. The kingdom of God spread to six continents and five oceans. Today, it covers the whole world. The Jews and the disciples expected that the kingdom of God would come suddenly and gloriously from the beginning by overthrowing the Roman Empire and establishing the Jewish Messianic Kingdom by the political King. But Jesus said that it would grow slowly and eventually would become a place of comfort and shelter under the protective shade of the Almighty God. What a comforting and good news it is.”
Ah yes, “comforting and good news” indeed. If the interpretation is accurate, it certainly is. It’s boilerplate Amillennialism, so it’s bound to be cheery in disposition.

The immediate context:
But what does immediate context tell us? If the particular parable were told on its own, perhaps nothing, perhaps very little.

But it wasn’t. It’s the third of seven kingdom parables in Matthew 13 (eight, if you count the householder in verse 52), each giving us a little nuance about the kingdom of heaven that is not supplied in the others, but all based on the kingdom theme. Because they are the Lord’s parables, and therefore without logical defect (or any other kind), I don’t think it’s outrageous to assume that none of the seven parables describes the kingdom in any way that conflicts with the others.

So, not-so-subtle hint here: I would be highly suspicious of any interpretation of one of the parables that is inconsistent with the others. Context, context, context …

And while the interpretations of the last five parables have been left to us to wrestle with, the interpretations of the first two were graciously supplied by the Lord right in the same chapter of Matthew, so we have no doubt how to understand them.

Parable 1:
Parable 1 is the sower and the various kinds of soil, about which the Lord says, essentially, that while the word of God is received by many and appears to be growing and evidencing the potential of bearing fruit in their lives, only a small subset of those who receive the word genuinely understand it and go on to produce fruit.

So Parable 1 tells us that the kingdom of heaven includes a large number of enthusiastic professors who, for various reasons, eventually demonstrate that they do not actually believe.

The kingdom’s apparent size is not indicative of that in it which is actually of value to the Lord.

Parable 2:
Parable 2 describes a man who sowed good seed in his field, but found that while he was sleeping, an enemy had sowed weeds right where his crop was growing. Accordingly, he decides to allow the weeds and wheat to grow together until harvest, when his servants will gather and burn the weeds while harvesting the wheat.

So Parable 2 tells us that the kingdom of heaven includes a large number of people who appear to be believers but are actually planted by the devil himself.

Again, the kingdom’s apparent size is not indicative of that in it which is actually of value to the Lord.

Parable 3:
Having established context, we now come to our verse.

Having twice explicitly declared that the kingdom of heaven appears to include many false believers and agents of Satan, are we now to believe that the Lord is going to contradict himself and declare that the expansion of the kingdom of heaven to a “a tree”, or something much larger than the seed it came from, is an unmitigated good? I suspect not.

Is there another interpretation of this parable that is more consistent with its context? I believe there is.

We are told the “birds of the air come and nest in its branches”. Our Amillennialist friend tells us the birds are “weary and burdened people” who find rest in the “branches” of the kingdom. But the Lord has already identified the birds that appeared in his first parable as representing “the evil one”.

Is it such a crazy notion that they might bear a similar meaning in the third parable? Suggesting that Satan might be at work in the kingdom of heaven is entirely consistent with both the first and second parables.

I prefer an interpretation that doesn’t have the Lord contradicting himself. I imagine most believers would.

William Macdonald says of this parable, “Today the umbrella of Christendom covers such Christ-denying systems as Unitarianism, Christian Science, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church”.

Makes sense to me. It certainly reflects what we currently observe rather than what we might wish for.

A devastating error? Well, that depends on your view of the danger an Amillennial perspective poses to one’s practical Christian walk, I suppose. That viewpoint certainly sways our fellow blogger’s interpretation of the parable, and one wonders how much else it impacts in his Christian experience.

Paying attention to the parable’s immediate context, on the other hand, leads to conclusions consistent with the Lord’s kingdom teaching elsewhere.

Next: A little more on context

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