Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Which Sense Makes the Most Sense?

In my internet wanderings, I frequently come across believers who are utterly convinced that the spiritual not only trumps the natural but invalidates it entirely.

There is indeed something to the first part of that: the spiritual is bound to be more important to the Christian than that which is merely natural. If we must choose, for instance, between responding to the promptings of flesh or Spirit, of course Spirit wins every time ... or ought to.

That said, a clumsy, one-for-one replacement of terms like “Israel” with “the Church” in later New Testament passages leads to making nonsense of some of them. Many careful distinctions made by the Lord and the apostles may be overlooked if we refuse to recognize that sometimes a term which has acquired a shiny, new, spiritual meaning is still employed in its perfectly natural sense.

A new understanding of an old term may indeed supersede the original use in significance, but it does not always invalidate its legitimate usage later in the word of God. To fail to notice this is to invite confusion.

The expression “Abraham’s seed”, for example, is not used in the NT in only one way. It means various things, depending on who is using it and what they are talking about:
  1. It is used of Christ.
  2. It is used of genetic Israelites (the “natural sense”).
  3. It is used of everyone who demonstrates Abraham-like faith, Jew or Gentile (the “spiritual sense”).
Several things may be observed about the way the New Testament writers use the term:
  1. For the purpose of this expression at least, “seed”, “offspring” and “children” all mean the same thing.
  2. It is the fact that “seed” refers to “Christ” which makes the third and spiritual sense possible: “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring.” Every blessing of believers flows from our relationship to Christ.
  3. Sometimes the term is used in more than one sense in the very same passage. The Lord Jesus suggests this is a possibility in John 8 when he insists that the Jews who had initially believed him (and later tried to stone him) are both “Abraham’s seed” (in the natural sense) and not-Abraham’s seed (in the spiritual sense), but rather the children of Satan. Later, in Romans, Paul speaks of those who are Abraham’s seed through the law (natural) in contrast to those who are Abraham’s seed through faith (spiritual).
  4. The fact that one can demonstrate that the term is used in a spiritual sense does not invalidate the natural usage. We can see this from reading chronologically rather than in NT order. Sometimes a term is used in its merely natural sense long after it has acquired a spiritual meaning. The second letter to the Corinthians was written seven to ten years after Galatians, but Paul definitely reverts to using the expression in its natural sense there: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I.” Paul is listing rational justifications for his apostleship, but he does not hesitate to use the term in its ordinary, genetic sense even though his readership likely well understands it has a wider spiritual meaning, one which is much more relevant to them.
In short, only an attentive, unbiased reading of immediate context can tell us for certain what is intended by “Abraham’s seed” and other expressions that have dual or multiple meanings. It is necessary to read each passage and ask ourselves which sense makes the most sense.

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