Bible Interpretation Part 3: The Audience
Over the last decades, we have been programmed to look at the Bible as a book about us. We go to the Bible to find inspiration, comfort, and encouragement. And that in and of itself is not necessarily bad. The Bible certainly can provide all those things and more to the person who is a Christian. But we are wrong when we view the Bible only through the lens of our own experience or when we believe that the sole purpose of the Holy Writ for only us alone.
Perhaps the source of all this was "devotionals." The root of "devotionals" can be traced back to the contemplative practices of the monastic traditions in the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. Monastics read selections of Scripture and meditated. This eventually gave way to mysticism as the contemplator sought a message or impression from God.
Works such as On Loving God by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence continue to be read today. It was books like these that inspired the Pietist movement, which in turn inspired other movements like the Plymouth Brethren and Moravian Church.
Contemporary devotionals became very popular in the United States. Churches urged their congregants to "read their devotions" each day. Printed booklets like The Upper Room and Daily Bread provided a verse as well as a reflection for each day of the year. These quickly replaced regular Bible reading in the lives of many Christians.
Now we can get our devotionals in the form of digital works and even apps. We need only touch the screen of our phone to read our favorite author. We can passively receive the interpretation and reflection of the author so that we do not have to discern anything about the verse for ourselves. I do not view this to be an asset but rather a liability. Here are some of the issues:
1) We become passive readers
2) We come to rely on and place our faith in the author and his reflections
3) The verses are removed from their context
4) There is no consideration of the author and audience of the verse
It is that final point which I wish to address in this article. Every book of the Bible has an author and an audience. The author had an original intent to communicate to his audience. This is the starting place for understanding meaning. This is not to deny that the Bible has an application to the contemporary reader. It most certainly does but that application cannot be determined until the meaning has been understood. Meaning is found in origin and intent.
To Whom it May Concern
Bible verses can be found almost everywhere. A trip to the local Christian bookstore will prove my point. Verses, phrases, and quotes can be found on coffee mugs, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. This is to say nothing of the Bible quotes and memes circulating on social media. Most of the time the verses that are quoted are very general and are meant to encourage or inspire. Such popular verses include:
"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me"
"I know my will plans for you to prosper you"
The reader inserts himself into the verse as the "I" and the "you." The reader is lead to believe, and most willingly and joyfully does so, that he or she can do all things and that God has a plan to prosper them. This ignores the author, audience, and intent of the passage. Are these verses really for us, individually, today? Can we claim these promises?
Author, Audience and Intent
For the sake of brevity let us just consider those two verses that we quoted above. But before we do that, I want to ask a question. Why is it that we only claim the positive verses and we ignore verses that are negative? I have never seen a t-shirt that read "Our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29) nor have I ever seen anyone on social media posting "I will stretch out My hand against you and destroy you" (Jeremiah 15:6). At the very least, we must conclude that there is a selfish bias in the verses we claim.
"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me"
This phrase is lifted from the book of Philippians, chapter 4 and verse 13. Paul is the author of the book and it is Paul who is speaking. We know from chapter 1, verses 13 and 14, that he is in prison. Paul is writing to thank them for the gift they had sent him.
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now, at last, you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. (4:10)
Let us look at the preceding verses and the quoted "devotional" phrase together.
Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (verses 11-13)
The context makes it clear that this phrase is not a promise to all Christians for superhero strength or supernatural empowerment. It is not even a promise that we can overcome the difficulties in this life. Rather, this is the testimony of Paul on how the grace of God allowed him to endure all the sufferings he experienced in his Gospel ministry. And it is especially related to his current condition of being under house arrest.
Is there an application for us today? If so, maybe that application is that just as God granted grace to Paul to suffer for His name's sake, so we can pray and hope God will grant the same grace to us as we face tribulation as a result of our Gospel ministry.
Promises of Prosperity?
"I know my will plans for you to prosper you" (Jeremiah 29:11)
The context of this phrase is found in verse 1 of the same chapter.
Now, these are the words of the letter which Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the rest of the elders of the exile, the priests, the prophets and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
God tells them to take wives and build houses while they are in captivity. He is telling them this because they will be there for a long time (verses 5-7). God also warns them not to listen to the false prophets who are trying to deceive them about their exile (verses 8 and 9). This sets up the passage that contains the promise.
For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.'
The promise of prosperity applies to the nation of Israel who will be delivered from the Babylonian captivity after 70 years. This is not a general promise to Christians. If one wishes to claim the promise today, they need to also claim the curse of 70 years of captivity...in Babylon