Bible Interpretation for Skeptics: Isolated Bible Verses

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The Internet is a fun place.

You can watch viral videos about cats doing funny things. You have social media to interact with friends and family from miles away. And then of course, you find some skeptics who discredit a Bible verse without putting any effort into properly interpreting it!

Many skeptics hinge their whole argument on one verse that is taken out of context. Many do not even bother to look up how any Christians have interpreted a biblical passage. As a result, Christians don’t entertain their objections to the Bible.

This series is an attempt to help skeptics better interpret the Bible, known as as the study of hermeneutics. This first lesson on how to interpret the Bible is of utmost importance.

Never Isolate One Bible Verse!

Quoting one Bible verse about a topic is a trap that many fall into, including Christians! But here is an example of a skeptic doing this with one verse on prayer:

“God answers prayer. Except when he doesn’t. The New Testament says, And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive (Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24). But everybody knows that in the real world that doesn’t happen. Christians face bankruptcies and bad test scores and death at the same rate as other people. God answers prayer at the margins of statistical significance, if at all.”

This skeptic makes the mistake of building a theology of prayer on one verse. Their interpretation of this verse is as follows:

God always answers the prayer of a believing Christian (i.e. gives us what we ask for).

And out of this bad interpretation, comes the bad objection:

But the prayers of Christians aren’t answered all that much, and certainly not all the time, so therefore the Bible is wrong!

To be fair, this skeptic does mention two explanations that some Christians give to “get out” of the implications of this passage. But there is no mention of the immediate context or different interpretations of this verse. Their interpretation leads us to believe that God is some sort of divine vending machine.

What might have helped out our skeptic friend with interpreting this verse? Here are two simple principles.

1. Read the immediate context before and after the verse.

In both Matthew and Mark, this saying about answered prayer comes right after Jesus curses a fig tree which amazes the disciples. Jesus tells them that not only could they do what he did with the fig tree, but they could also tell a mountain to rise up and be cast into the sea!

Jesus’ analogy of casting a mountain into the sea is meant to be taken as hyperbolic language. In other words, I don’t think Jesus is trying to be 100% literal here. He is saying that impossible and miraculous things can be accomplished through the prayer of faith. He is not saying that God will do whatever you want him to do as long as you have faith.

As 17th century commentator Matthew Henry says, “This is a proverbial expression; intimating that we are to believe that nothing is impossible with God, and therefore that what he has promised shall certainly be performed, though to us it seem impossible.”

2. Study the book as a whole on that particular topic.

If the immediate context does not help much, then the next step is to look at that theme in the rest of the book. For example, the disputed verse appears in the Gospel of Matthew. What else does Jesus say about prayer in Matthew?

In Matthew 26:39 Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

Here Jesus expressed his desire to have this cup pass from him. At the same time, however, Jesus recognized that God’s will was more important than his own.

This shows us that we don’t pray to God just to get whatever we want. We express our desires to Him, and at the end of the day we accept God’s will to be done.

Charitable Interpretations

In closing, Bible verses by themselves can be grossly misunderstood. All that we Christians ask is that you practice the basic rules of interpretation before attacking a Bible verse, such as reading the surrounding context and studying the theme as it is presented in the entire book.

However, if you don’t take the time to research charitable interpretations of a Bible verse (i.e. a 10 minute Google search), then Christians are probably not going to listen to your arguments, much less be convinced by them.

And that’s not what you want, is it?

Ep. 134: How Has the Culture Influenced the Church?

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On this episode:

Nate responds to an article on what Millennials really think about evangelism (:29)
Nate welcomes Gene & Logan (14:54)
Worldview Analysis: Trump Signing Bibles (18:00)
How Has the Culture Influenced the Church? (26:08)

Articles discussed on the show:
What Millennials Really Think About Evangelism by The Gospel Coalition
Christian Meditation: What Practices Are New Age and What Is Biblical? by The Christian Post

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Email: hello@clearlens.org

To download this episode, right-click here.

“Day by Day” by Citizens is used with permission. Check out their website: wearecitizens.net

Ep. 133: Why There’s Good Reason to Believe that Jesus Rose from the Dead

On this episode:

Nate shares some insights into biblical discipleship (and why it matters for us today) (:28)
Nate welcomes Gene & Logan (11:28)
Why There’s Good Reason to Believe that Jesus Rose from the Dead (15:07)

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To download this episode, right-click here.

“Day by Day” by Citizens is used with permission. Check out their website: wearecitizens.net

Ep. 132: Should Christians Avoid Secular Weddings?

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On this episode:

Nate talks about his experience and message for Summit View Church Camp (:28)
Nate welcomes Gene & Logan (11:29)
Worldview Analysis: Oscar Winners (14:54)
Should Christians Avoid Secular Weddings? (26:10)

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To download this episode, right-click here.

“Day by Day” by Citizens is used with permission. Check out their website: wearecitizens.net

Ep. 131: What Can We Learn from the SBC Scandal?

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On this episode:

Nate explains how to tell stories like Jesus (:29)
Nate welcomes Gene & Logan (14:26)
Worldview Analysis: Ariana Grande (18:09)
What Can We Learn from the SBC Scandal? (25:29)

Article discussed on the show: Abuse of Faith by the Houston Chronicle

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To download this episode, right-click here.

“Day by Day” by Citizens is used with permission. Check out their website: wearecitizens.net

Sorry Paul, But God’s Wisdom Just Isn’t Foolish

First Corinthians, written by the Apostle Paul, is a favorite book to many Christians. It contains much deep theology and contains some beautiful lines written by Paul.

However, Paul also writes this: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25).

Excuse me? The omniscient God is foolish? The omnipotent God is weak?

The dictionary defines foolish as “Lacking good sense or judgment; unwise.” I challenge you to find any other verse in Scripture where God is described as lacking good sense or acting unwise.

God is always described as being wise and executing His will with perfect judgment. Here are just two Scripture examples:

Psalm 145:7 “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.”

Job 37:16 “Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of him who is perfect in knowledge?”

God Isn’t Foolish

The idea that God would act in a “foolish” way is not biblical. God was never left in the dark or lacked the wisdom to know what to do next.

To proclaim God’s “foolish wisdom” is to exchange his omniscience for a more accessible version of God. Many wrongly attempt to portray God in terms that we more easily understand instead of how God actually reveals Himself to us.

If using the term “foolish” challenges or even confuses Christians, why not substitute the word for a better one? Why not use words like “careful,” “informed,” or “rational” to describe God’s wisdom instead?

The Point of This Post

You may be wondering, “What in the world is this guy talking about? Is he denying the inerrancy of Scripture by saying that Paul got it wrong?”

No, I am not. A popular song by Cory Asbury called “Reckless Love” has caused some controversy among Christians for using the word “reckless” to describe God’s love. This post is a tongue-in-cheek response to this article from The Federalist that critiques the song for this very reason.

I am not here to necessarily defend or critique the theology of the song or the singer’s explanation of it. Here’s my point: sometimes the biblical authors use words, ideas or poetic language that seems counterintuitive to God’s nature in order to communicate a truth about God.

And as long as we are careful,  I think we are allowed to do the same thing.

One example of this is how the Bible applies human language to God, also known as an anthropomorphism. We know that this language isn’t to be taken literally. For example, does the Father really have eyes (Psalm 34:15) or ears (2 Samuel 22:7)? Did God really change His mind (Exodus 32:14)? Or does God have wings (Psalm 57:1)?

There are plenty of other examples in Scripture where poetic language is applied to God that is not meant to be taken literally either. For example, we are called to “Taste and see that the Lord is good” even though God is not some kind of food (Psalm 34:8).

Concepts like these are in Scripture because they help convey magnificent truths in terms that we can understand.

You see, Paul didn’t think that God was foolish according to it’s standard definition. Paul was using the word “foolish” to make a point. What seems to be foolish to us is actually God’s wisdom confounding our own.

In closing, I think God’s love can be described as “reckless” in the sense that it is so extravagant and unrestrained that it appears reckless to human beings. Sam Storms summed it up so beautifully in his blog post about the song:

“God’s love typically comes to us without regard for how it makes God look in the eyes of sinful humanity. It colors outside the lines. It strikes us as foolish and ineffective. Yet such is the love of God for sinners like you and me: reckless, defiant, extraordinary, and determined to bring a blessing to its objects when all they deserve is condemnation.”

Thank God for this kind of love!

Ep. 130: How to Talk to the Next Generation about LGBT Issues

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On this episode:

Nate answers a very important question: What is Truth? (:29)
Nate welcomes Gene (10:02)
Game Time: Learn the Lingo (12:19)
How to Talk to the Next Generation about LGBT Issues (26:58)

Article discussed on the show: New Jersey becomes second state to require schools to teach LGBT and disability-inclusive material

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To download this episode, right-click here.

“Day by Day” by Citizens is used with permission. Check out their website: wearecitizens.net

How to Avoid Using “Christianese” in Your Conversations

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neon sign Jesus Saves on side of building

“Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God, died a sacrificial death so you could be saved from your sins and live in heaven for eternity.”

Essentially, this is the gospel in one sentence. We marvel at how simple it is, and rightly so. However, if you try this sentence out on a couple of your neighbors or coworkers today, you’d likely be met with confused gazes–at best.

Why? Because in today’s world, most people just aren’t very familiar with Christianity. They don’t have a word bank of Christian lingo, and we just hit them with a truckload of it.

Identifying Christian lingo

Let’s count the number of Christian vocabulary words I used in that one sentence above. “Jesus Christ,” for starters–who is He? What is He like? Well, let’s take a look at the next phrase: “the holy Son of God.” What does holy mean? If God has a son, that means He has a wife too, right? Is Jesus some kind of demigod like from Greek and Roman mythology, then?

What about a sacrificial death? What does that look like? And what are these sins I have? Of course, what is heaven and eternity?

I counted at least 7 words or phrases that are possible points of confusion for an average unbeliever today. Basically the entire sentence. What seems simple to us is packed with background and meaning that are largely missed by today’s culture.

Explaining the gospel through an unbeliever’s frame of reference

How can we clearly communicate the gospel to the world without using Christianese? It’s like trying to define a word without using the word itself–surprisingly challenging! One thing we often do when we struggle with giving a definition for a word is to mention some of its synonyms in hopes the inquirer is familiar with those. We can make use of this strategy in explaining the gospel, too.

We obviously can’t use a synonym for “Jesus,” but what about holy? Perhaps try using “completely perfect.” For sin, we can provide examples and illustrations of relevant morally wrong or evil things.

All throughout the Bible, we see God, prophets, and apostles explaining abstract truths through metaphors, parables, and other imagery. In Paul’s famous address to the philosophers at Athens in Acts 17, he began from their own framework of religion and made references to it to help them gain understanding. In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul says: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”

Imagine trying to describe your country’s government to someone from a place with a very different ruling structure. You wouldn’t be able to just use all of the national terminology. Rather, you’d have to come up with some creative descriptions and comparisons. Remember, even in speaking with those of the same culture about spiritual truths, we are speaking another language!

Detecting and eliminating Christianese from your conversations

If you’ve been saved for a longer length of time or grew up in the Christian church surrounded by believers, “catching yourself in the act” is likely to be difficult for a while. Here are a couple ideas to help you improve in this area.

  1. Record yourself briefly sharing the gospel or talking about a Christian topic. Then play back your recording and mark down every Christianese word you identify. Play it a second time and look for any remaining words if necessary. Then record again, trying to replace most of the words you identified with other words or comparisons.
  2. Use the Up-Goer Five text editor to write about a Christian topic. The Up-Goer Five text editor is a tool to help you write about complex or jargon-y topics using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. It shows you a red line under words that don’t aren’t on the list, forcing you to find a simpler way to explain the topic. I gave it a quick test: “God” is permitted, but “Jesus,” “holy,” “sin,” and “heaven” are not!
  3. Ask a friend to help. Grab a friend, Christian or not, and ask them to help you eliminate Christianese from your gospel presentation. Have them listen to your spiel and interrupt with “excuse me, what does ____ mean?” every time they catch you using a word a person completely unfamiliar with Christianity wouldn’t understand.

Using some of these tips or your own ideas, you can avoid using too much Christianese when talking with unbelievers and help them truly understand what the gospel of Jesus Christ means for them.

Ep. 129: Is Easy Living the New Danger to Christianity?

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On this episode:

Nate talks about the importance of biblical hospitality (:29)
Nate welcomes Gene and Logan (10:29)
Worldview Analysis: Racist Furor Over a Story (13:29)
Gene answers a question about the Michael Heiser and the Divine Council (27:50)
Is Easy Living the New Danger to Christianity? (29:37)

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To download this episode, right-click here.

“Day by Day” by Citizens is used with permission. Check out their website: wearecitizens.net

Is Indoctrination of Youth a Problem?

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man's legs standing next to military gear

Once I was sitting in a restaurant, listening to some music and chatting with the crowd. One guy and I meshed quite well. As Army vets, we played off each other. He’d tell a joke; I’d tell a joke. Back and forth we went for nearly half an hour. We also swapped stories. “Let me tell you about the time I left clothes in the washing machine overnight.” He’d continue, “No way! I’m surprised you’re not dead!”

Then he’d share: “I once laughed during a CSM retirement speech.” “Let me guess…” and I recounted the same line I’d heard hundreds of times. It was easily one of the most fun nights I’ve had in a long time.

I’ve tried sharing these stories with others and they don’t get it. I’ve gotten responses like, “So?” and “What’s the point?” I couldn’t fault them for not understanding–they didn’t have the military experience these jokes were based on. They’re just not veterans.

Going through basic training is like hitting the factory reset on life. Ripped from the comfort of home, the soldier emerges to find his first encounter with a Drill Sergeant. Like a baby exiting a womb, it’s a shock to the system. The Drill Sergeants teach you everything as if you knew nothing. They give you clothes and teach you how to dress. They demonstrate how to fold the corners of a bed sheet and how your bunk should look at all times (even while you’re in it). Drill Sergeants aren’t concerned with your feelings or your input; they are there to instruct, train, and, yes, indoctrinate.

Drill Sergeants and Parenting

But Drill Sergeants are not always hardened warriors expecting perfection. They are also funny. In the movie “Full Metal Jacket”, Gunnery SGT Hartman carries the first half of the movie with his clever quips. Here’s one of my favorites: “I want that [latrine] so sanitary and squared away that the Virgin Mary herself would be proud to go in there and take a dump.” In short, Drill Sergeants indoctrinate a new way of life through training, experience, discipline and even humor.

Dawkins likely wouldn’t mind if you indoctrinated your kids with this belief.

In many ways, parents do exactly the same things as the Drill Sergeants. They teach kids how to dress, what to eat, and what it means to be responsible. Parents, likewise, get to show their kids the ups and downs of life. They get to witness their children taking their first steps, riding their first bike (without training wheels), and dressing themselves. But they also get to laugh and grow together.

Through every step, parents have an enduring impact on how their kids will face the future. Indoctrination, in this sense, is something that comes without much effort or intent. Simply spending 18 or more years together in the same house is going to set some basic principles for life—good and bad.

The Reality of Indoctrination

Indoctrination gets a bad name when those 18-plus years are spent mandating a belief that a child later finds is not true, or not as evident as they were led to believe. Maybe the habits and practices and beliefs they have been indoctrinated with leave a sore spot—welcome to life!

The opposite of indoctrination is still indoctrination, you’re just indoctrinating a different set of values.

The stories my new-found friend and I shared at the restaurant weren’t all pleasantries and shenanigans. Some of our stories involved the fear of war. Some of our stories involved the smell of ammunition—a smell that always reminds me of the worst parts of humanity. I may have nightmares from things that happened over 15 years ago, but I survived those things because I had a Drill Sergeant that gave me the training and indoctrination to military life that would get me through the best and the worst of it.

Are Youth Trapped in Indoctrination?

Similarly, parents have the power and authority to make a lasting impact in their position. They could potentially raise up the next Hitler, which is a scary thought. But if parents don’t have the freedom to train, instruct or indoctrinate the better parts of humanity (love your neighbors as yourself; treat others as you want to be treated)… then we’re left to only watch kids making the same mistakes as their parents.

Is indoctrination of youth a problem? No. Complete avoidance of all beliefs and principles is the problem, and we get there by failing to raise up the next generation to be better than we are. We get there by failing to indoctrinate values and beliefs in kids that will enable them to indoctrinate values and beliefs to their kids. Indoctrination itself is not the problem–what matters is who we are building kids to become. The cycle of imparting wisdom and character to the next generation can start–or stop–with you.

What do you believe are the features and limits of indoctrination? What makes indoctrination good or bad? Weigh in below.

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