Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Immediate and Greater Context

Over at Stand to Reason, Alan Shlemon is back on the subject of the importance of reading in context. I too am convinced that context is probably the single most crucial way to accurately determine the intended meaning of any verse in scripture, so as you may imagine, I find myself agreeing with almost everything Alan has to say.

In discussing the Lord’s much-misunderstood promise that begins with the words “For where two or three come together in my name,” Shlemon asserts that “Jesus begins and ends by talking about how to respond to a sinning brother. Therefore, the meaning of verse 20 must be restricted to that context, making it unlikely that it is about God being present among believers.”

Trading One Mistake for Another

“The meaning ... must be restricted to that context.” Strictly speaking, I agree with this statement too, both in reference to Matthew 18:20 and as to the fact that meaning ought to be restricted to context generally ... but only provided we truly understand the entire context, not just the immediate context.

As it happens, Alan’s post on Matthew 18 serves as a perfect illustration of the danger of staring so hard at the trees that you miss the forest. He goes on to say this:
“Instead, Jesus is explaining the conditions that are necessary to render a judgment against a sinful brother (thereby kicking him out of the church). Two or three believers must agree about his sin. When they do, their testimony is ratified by their Father in heaven (‘there am I with them.’) on the basis of the church’s judgment (the two or three believers).”
Shlemon’s attention to the immediate context of the passage has saved him from making the mistake we so often make, which is to apply the Lord’s words willy-nilly to every gathering of believers in which there is a commitment to faithfully represent the interests of the Head of the Church. It may indeed be true that the Lord is present when two or three brothers or sisters in Christ come together to worship, study the Bible, pray or encourage one another, but that is at best an application. It is not the meaning of this verse.

Christ in Our Midst

If we want to talk about Jesus Christ in the midst of his assembly, we are better to go to Corinthians, where the church is called God’s field and building, or to the comparison later in the same passage of the church to God’s temple in which his Spirit dwells, or to the even more intimate imagery of Christ as head and the church as his body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all”.

Is Christ in our midst when the church gathers? Of course he is, both to enjoy the fellowship of his people and to act in judgment on them when they fail to respect their connection to the Body and the Head. But we do not need to introduce these issues into Matthew 18:20 — which is indeed about how to respond to a sinning brother — thereby obscuring its meaning. The truth of Christ in our midst is all over the New Testament if we are prepared to go look for it. In fact, it is the ubiquity of the teaching that Christ dwells among his people that makes Revelation 3:20 (“Behold, I stand at the door and knock”) so appalling: here we see Christ outside the church, appealing to the individual believer, where it is very evident from the rest of the New Testament that he does not belong outside the church looking in, but inside giving us our direction, nourishment, purpose, power and example.

So then, when Alan Shlemon takes Matthew 18:20 and puts it at least halfway back into its actual context, he is doing us a favor. In this respect, he is not robbing Christians of a precious promise; he is simply allowing the passage to say what it says. But he only us gets halfway back to the meaning of the text, and this is where the importance of greater context comes in. Because Alan has now introduced the Christian church into the passage, and I think he’s quite wrong in that.

Halfway Back

The Greek word ekklēsia is often translated “church”, but not always. Its original meaning is simply “gathering” or “assembly”. It occurs only twice in the gospels: first, in Matthew 16, where Christ famously and prophetically declares, “I will build my ekklēsia”; secondly, in Matthew 18, where it is far from certain that the “my church” of chapter 16 is the ekklēsia in view.

In fact, the church did not exist at the time the Lord Jesus spoke these words, and he had said almost nothing about it to his disciples that would have enabled them to understand the sort of future “gathering” he was contemplating. The unfolding of the teaching about the Christian church — its meaning, purpose, prescribed order and God-given destiny — does not occur until we come to the epistles. In the context of the gospel of Matthew, and in keeping with the entire body of teaching found in the Old Testament, we see Christ not as the Head of the Church but as the Messiah and prophesied King of Israel.

There are sound textual and theological reasons for believing that the Lord’s use of ekklēsia in Matthew 18 does not anticipate the Church Age at all, but ought to be understood in its original, Jewish context. The greater context of the Lord’s statement does not support the interpretation that this passage has to do with church discipline. Rather, I believe it has to do with shaming the guilty party in the first century Judean religious community. We may apply the principles we find here in the church, provided we do it very carefully and consistently, but they are not its meaning.

If you are interested in pursuing this idea further, I have made this case at length here and here, and my fellow blogger Immanuel Can makes it here. But suffice it to say that Alan Shlemon catches the immediate context of Matthew 18:20, correcting one error in the process, but misses the greater context. That leads to a different error.

We need the entire context of the Lord’s words to reconstruct his intended meaning, not just part of it.

Old Testament and New

This is especially necessary to understand when we test Alan’s thesis against the way the New Testament writers use Old Testament prophetic quotations to make their arguments. Should our understanding of meaning be restricted to context on general principle? I believe it should, but as always, we must understand the entire context, not just the apparent context.

For example, Christian expositors who believe firmly in the importance of original context in discovering intended meaning may initially find themselves quite unsettled by the way the writers of the New Testament make use of Old Testament passages.

How, for instance, can we justify Matthew’s many references to the character and work of Christ as fulfilling Old Testament prophecies when, on more careful inspection in their original setting, those prophecies often seem to foretell nothing of the sort? If we compare Matthew’s “Out of Egypt I called my son” with Hosea’s original, it is not at all obvious that Hosea intended to speak of Messiah, but rather of the nation of Israel. The original context is almost no help at all. Or when Matthew applies Asaph’s “I will open my mouth in a parable” to the parables of Jesus, he is apparently (but of course not actually) overlooking the fact that the word “parable” in the original refers rather obviously to what Asaph has to say in the rest of his psalm. The original context would seem to militate against a future Messianic “fulfillment”. Or again, to any objective reader trying to put himself in the sandals of Zechariah, his king “humble and mounted on a donkey” appears to rule in a millennial context, not ride into Jerusalem to the acclaim of the masses only to die shortly thereafter, as Matthew’s gospel would have it.

In each of these instances and many others, it is quite unclear that the best way to discover what these verses really mean is to pay careful attention to the original context.

The Whole Context

Once we acknowledge that this sort of thing is a trend in prophetic scripture rather than a matter of a few outlying examples, we must either abandon entirely the principle of authorial intent discoverable through context as a guide to meaning, or else we must look at the Holy Spirit’s authorship of the Old Testament through its human writers as part of the “greater context” which must be understood in order to properly determine the meaning of a text. And indeed, this is precisely what Peter says occurred:
“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.”
In other words, it is really quite useless to ask ourselves what Hosea, Asaph, Zechariah or any other prophet intended to say based on the words that precede and follow these quotations in their Old Testament settings. In most cases they were unsure. The words were not theirs, but given to them by the Spirit of God and presented to their original audiences just as they received them. Moreover, it is evident in each instance that understanding the application of these verses to Christ is far more significant than discovering their original “meaning”.

Unless we recognize the ultimate authorship of the Holy Spirit of God and his overriding intent to prefigure Christ throughout the entire Old Testament here, there and everywhere as part of the “greater context” of each of these verses and many others, Alan Shlemon’s principle of restricting meaning to the original context goes right out the window.

David Gooding comes to a similar conclusion in The Riches of Divine Wisdom:
“So God knew that when through Scripture he rehearsed for the benefit of the writer to the Hebrews what he originally prophesied to David through Nathan, the writer to the Hebrews would see more meaning in that prophecy than Nathan or even David did.”
Indeed, this is what we should probably learn to expect in a scripture that is said to be “living and active”.

In Conclusion

What are we saying then? Am I really arguing that context is meaningless and we can make the scripture say anything we like? Of course not. The principle that meaning ought to be restricted to context is not just a good one but an excellent one. Attending to the context of a verse will almost inevitably give you the best possible interpretation of that verse. Better than doing Greek word studies, better than Googling the opinions of the evangelical masses, and definitely better than praying for guidance and then sticking your finger between the pages of your Bible at random.

Just make sure you get the entire context, not just part of it.

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