The Bible - What is Says, What it Means, How it Applies
Stay in the city
Some years back a young woman walked tearfully into my office asking that I help her resolve a marital problem she faced. Turns out her husband was about to disobey God and involve her and her kids as well. She was quite certain that bad things were about to happen to her.
After assuring her that I cared and would try to of help to her, she explain the situation. Her husband had been offered a very attractive promotion but it would require that he and the family move to another town. Puzzled, I asked "and why is that a problem?" "God has clearly forbidden it," she asserted confidently.
That sounded just a little weird to me. "How do you know that?", I pressed. It's in the Bible, Luke 24:49. Well, I hadn't yet memorized the Bible, so I hurriedly looked it up. Sure enough that's exactly what the Bible says. Straight from Jesus' lips. "You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high."
I explained to my visitor that this instruction was specific to the situation in which Jesus and his disciples found themselves. Jesus never intended that this particular order be heeded by every one of his followers at all times. I'm not sure I convinced her though. "But it's in the Bible. Don't you believe the Bible is God's Word to us?"
The links in this hub (words that are in blue) will take you either to the Scripture alluded to or to a previous hub that bears on the topic. Feel free to roam around.
All that the Bible affirms
A careful statement regarding the authority of the Bible will read something like this. "We believe the Bible to be God's Word, inerrant and trustworthy in all that it affirms." Luke 24 truthfully reports the conversation Jesus had with his disciples after his resurrection. But that report does not affirm that I must never move to another city. The woman was sincere in her love for God and zealous to please Him. But she misunderstood what the Bible affirmed.
The Bible can be trusted to report truthfully human actions and God's engagement with them. But just because it's in the Bible doesn't mean that God intends that we should believe and do as did biblical characters. God spoke to Moses out of burning bush, I don't expect him to speak to me that way. Gideon put out a fleece to be assured of God's will. Should I? Don't think so. The Bible says that we should carry a trowel around so that when we relieve ourselves we can dig a hole and bury our excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:13) Home Depot sells over 300 toilet models some of which are on aisle 30. Don't think I'll need a trowel. HD sells those too.
So how do I know what God wants me to do?
All that the Bible says, it does not necessarily affirm. What it clearly affirms may be applied in a variety of ways. Let's take that last example from Deuteronomy. Here's the full text. "You shall have a place outside the camp, and you shall go out to it. And you shall have a trowel with your tools,and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it and turn back and cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp..." (Deuteronomy 23:12-14.)
What it says is clear. Reading the instruction in context reveals its meaning. The presence of God among his people is acknowledged and honored by the care with which we behave. This isn't rocket science. After fifty years of marriage to a very gracious hostess, before visitors arrive I instinctively check the bathroom for stray toilet paper and grimy stool seats. Why? We don't want to offend our visitors' sensibilities. Those Old Testament rules taught the same thing with regard to God's visiting his people. So the meaning of that passage is that God's presence among us deserves a distinctive behavior.
How I choose to apply that meaning in my life is up to me and could be different from how you may do it. There's a rule in our community that I must bag and dispose of my dog's poop. I'd do it anyway because it honors the Lord before whom I stand. But my neighbor chooses not to have a dog. That's cool too.
Silly but significant
Yes these are rather silly and obvious examples taken from Scripture, but they illustrate a principle that many miss. Because they miss it, the Bible becomes a confusing assortment of strange tales having little to do with contemporary living.
The challenge of Bible study is to observe fully what it says. Then focus on the meaning by taking into account its context and historical and cultural settings. Every incident recorded fits into the big picture. Once you discover the meaning, then you figure out in prayer how to apply it in your life.
One more example
There is a text that reads, "Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need." Malachi 3:10
No one questions the fact that in the Old Testament there are specific commands regarding what offerings to bring to the Lord. A tithe is generally understood to be a tenth of one's income. If you added up all that was required of the Old Testament faithful it would be a lot more than ten percent.There's only one mention of the tithe in the New Testament. It's when Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for tithing even their spices but neglecting weightier matters of the law.
So the Bible says it. What does it mean. It means that God is honored by our offering back to him our physical goods. To illustrate this principle there were very specific rules in the Old Testament. But as with many other items in the OT these giving rules are specific to the OT situation. Paul spoke of those times when God's people were under very specific rules as their being underage. Just as a child requires very detailed instructions so did Israel. But since Christ and the coming of his Spirit those rules no longer apply. Yet the principle taught by them does have meaning for us.
When Jesus died to cover the believer's sins, he purchased him for himself. Everything that we have, therefore, already belongs to the Lord. Grateful followers of Jesus then exercise stewardship of themselves and their possessions. That gratitude is expressed in worship by our giving of our wealth. But the percentage is irrelevant. God looks on the heart. So before the Lord in prayer you determine how much of what He owns already you're going to offer back for kingdom work, for the support of the gospel enterprise, be it your local church or a mission or a charity.
Of two things I'm reasonably sure. Malachi 3:10 was never intended to be a fund-raising text used to guilt people into giving more than they are already. And secondly, God doesn't truck with folks who give in order to get, claiming Malachi 3:10 as justification for their expectation.