BFTM Review: The Unfolding Mystery

BFTM Review: The Unfolding Mystery

You don’t have to be a scholar to understand the Bible, but listening to those who are is always helpful. Occasionally I want to supply you with reviews for books and resources that may assist you in learning to study and understand the Bible. The books will range from accessible to the general public to college-level textbooks. If one sparks your interest I encourage you to follow the link and order it for yourself, nothing fuels personal education like curiosity.

Today’s Book: The Unfolding Mystery by Edmond P. Clowney

The Unfolding Mystery is aptly subtitled “Discovering Christ in the Old Testament”. In its densely packed 200 pages, Clowney walks all the way from Genesis to Malachi both telling the Old Testament story and tying it to the New Testament culmination in Christ. Clowney is considered the father of the modern Redemptive Historical Preaching method and this book appears to be the fullest expression of that method.

Although Jesus is revealed in every story and on almost every page, Clowney does it without abusing the original context with allegory or overly spiritualized interpretation. In fact, his careful exposition of the text leads to much deeper ties to Christ than any allegorist could ever make up. Time and time again he shows both how close the characters of the New Testament came, and yet fell short of fulfilling Israel’s expectations and God’s promises. Clowney leads the reader along as the expectation mounts and the glory of Israel declines into judgment, continuously pointing beyond judgment to God’s promised final grace in Jesus.

If there is one complaint that can be lodged against The Unfolding Mystery it is that each chapter is so dense, a single reading can merely hope to glean a portion of Clowney’s insight and have to leave the rest of the harvest for a second and even third read. I have often complained that most books need a healthy editor in order for their potential to be realized and that is true of this book in a specialized way. Clowney’s long expositions on a single theme are often so far reaching that they seem to ramble without structure. It is easy to loose focus on the whole chapter and get lost in one of the many valuable segments along the way.

Anyone who has ever expressed a desire to understand Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament, as well as most students who have already taken a few excursions into the subject will find much help in Clowney’s book. It successfully accomplishes its entitled goal to unfold the mystery of Christ in the Old Testament. It is guaranteed to change the way you understand your bible and lead you to a new level of glorifying God for his marvelous plan revealed through history and culminating in the sending of Jesus.

Buy a copy for yourself.

Calvinism, Faith and Word Gender

Calvinism, Faith and Word Gender

In many languages (Wikipedia says ¼ of the world’s languages) nouns carry gender. This is true not just of word like man and woman but table and horse. The main purpose of grammatical gender is that it shows association between the noun and corresponding words in the sentence. If a noun is connected with a verb, or adjective they will be in the same gender (or at the very least a corresponding gender). Words of a gender flock together. Like most grammar this may sound irrelevant and boring but here is the wonderful truth: If an author uses gender to show relationship in words, then we can pay attention to the gender and discover which words go together. Still don’t care? Let me show you an example that proves value.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. –Ephesians 2:8-9

When talking about Calvinism I find the quickest way to get to the heart of the issue is to deal with the order of salvation. The question is, does regeneration precede faith or is it the result of faith. Calvinism says faith is a result. Do we believe and then are born again or do we believe because we are born again? Calvinism says the latter.

Sometimes a Calvinist will turn to the above passage as proof that this is the case. The argument goes like this. “Paul here emphasizes that all of salvation is by grace and although it come through faith, according to verse 9 even that faith is a gift and not of our own doing.” As we look at the verses as they stand in English that is clearly a possible interpretation. The “this” of verse 9 could very well refer to  our faith however here is where word gender matters. When we look deeper at this passage we discover that word gender makes this interpretation very unlikely.

The noun “faith” is feminine. So we would expect paul to parse the word “this” in its feminine form. Instead, Paul uses the neuter form for “this”. Grammar tells us that Paul is most likely referring to the whole gift of salvation (which would be compatible with his gender usage) and not faith specifically. If he had wanted to clearly state that faith is not of ourselves, he would have used a feminine version of the word “this” demonstrating that these two words belong together.

You don’t have to take my word for it, in the words of John Calvin himself:

“Many persons restrict the word gift to faith alone. But Paul is only repeating in other words the former sentiment. His meaning is, not that faith is the gift of God, but that salvation is given to us by God, or, that we obtain it by the gift of God.”

John Calvin knows this to be true, for the same reason we do (as he explains in a footnote of his commentary): because word gender shows how nouns related to other words and clauses. By paying attention to the rules of grammatical gender we can take what may be ambiguous in english and interpret it with clarity and confidence.

Word Studies for Beginners part 5: Weighing the Usage of Words

Word Studies for Beginners part 5: Weighing the Usage of Words

In this series we are walking through the components and process of doing a word study. This will be accomplished in 5 parts:

1      Recognizing Words Worth Studying

2      Learning about Words in the Wild (in their native context)

3      How to do a Word Study

4      The Elements of a Word

5      Weighing the Usage of Words

One of the most helpful things you can do when studying a word is to look at a word’s usage throughout the Bible and other Greek or Hebrew writings. When you add up all the words each in its own context you can really get a feel for the semantic range of a word and gain deep insight into what it CAN mean in the passage you are studying.

While this is true, it is important that you don’t treat each occurrence of a word in any document as an equal vote on the meaning in your passage. When we glean from usage we are not dealing with a democracy, rather we need to weigh each word and treat their value accordingly. Below is a chart to help you do just that.

Word Usage Chart

The closer an occurrence of a word is to the passage you are studying, the more weight it carries in determining the meaning. The further away the word is, the less value it has in determining the meaning in your passage.

As per the diagram above, you can thing about the distance as the rings of a target with the immediate context being the center and therefore carrying the most weight. If you author uses the same word in the surrounding chapters it is very likely he is using it in the same way so pay attention.

The next ring out is the usage throughout the book. Although an author can and does use words in different ways over the course of a book, there can also be good clues to meaning (especially if it is a key word for the book)

Carrying a little less weight are occurrences of the word in other books by the same author.  You may have noticed that your friends or your teachers and pastors have a personal vocabulary. They have a tendency to explain a given concept every time using the same set of terms.

The next ring of the circle is other books in the Bible. The authors of scripture write as people immersed in the scriptures they are familiar with one another. Paul quotes Luke. Peter references the letters of Paul. Luke is familiar with the gospel of Mark. On top of that, the Bible is a religious text and thematically unified so meanings of words often (but not always) extend beyond books of the Bible and even authors to the rest of the Testament.

The final ring, which can be helpful but carries the least weight are extra-biblical sources. Even the different types of sources in this category can be further organized. If you are studying a Greek word and you consult the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament that the Authors of the New Testament are familiar with and quote) that should carry more weight than the writings of Emperor Caligula. Because language changes in space and time, a document that is close to the same age and was composed in the same area it has more value than one written hundreds of years later in a far away place.

Don’t make the mistake of giving every occurrence of a word equal voice in determining what a word means in a particular passage. Weighing the usage of words based on their distance from your passage will yield more trustworthy results.

 

Word Studies for Beginners part 3: How to do a Word Study

Word Studies for Beginners part 3: How to do a Word Study

In this series we are walking through the components and process of doing a word study. This will be accomplished in 5 parts:

1      Recognizing Words Worth Studying

2      Learning about Words in the Wild (in their native context)

3      How to do a Word Study

4      The Elements of a Word

5      Weighing the Usage of Words

 

Have you ever wondered how to do a word study? It used to be that doing a word study required a grasp of at least the Greek and Hebrew alphabet and a small collection of big books including a Concordance (tells you where a particular word is used in the Bible) a Lexicon (telling you how a word is parsed in a particular passage) and a collection of Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries (explaining the possible meanings or semantic range of a particular word). Modern technology has made these things much easier to use and the Internet has made them much more accessible. This means that you can use these tools effectively and do your own word studies with just a little guidance.

One of the best websites for people who want to do their own word studies is blueletterbible.org. Because it’s free and easy to use this post will focus on how to use their tools in your studies. To begin just navigate from the home page to the passage that you are studying and click the tools button to the left of the verse your target word is found in. They have made quite a few different study tools available but the one we need today is the interlinear. Selecting that will display the verse in Greek and break it down word-by-word below. Find the word you wish to study and click on the Strong’s number hyperlink. There are quite a few things on the screen now that are worth noting, so lets take a look at them one-by-one:

1: Root Word: The root word section will point you to the etymology, or history of your term. Here you can navigate to related terms to get a better feel of where this word came from. Be careful not to make too much of this information, historical meaning or the meaning behind the parts of a word don’t always translate into the new term. For example, the term butterfly can be broken down to two base words, but those terms don’t really tell us anything about what a butterfly is.

2. Dictionary Aids: Here you can dig deeper into the meaning of the word with the help of Vines Expository Dictionary and the TDNT. Just click on the Vine’s entry to get good advice on how the term is used throughout the Bible. The TDNT (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament) is a wonderful resource that looks at how a word Greek word is used in the New Testament, in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the surrounding Greek culture. Although Blue Letter Bible does not make it available for free, it does provide the page and volume for the term for reference. You also may see listed one of my favorite resources. Trench’s Synonyms. Trench takes similar Greek words and helps you to understand where they overlap in meaning. His entry on theGreek word baptisma (baptism) uses an ancient Greek pickle recipe to help you see why the New Testament authors always use that term verses the other one available. No kidding.

3. Outline of Biblical Usage: This gives you the possible meanings of a word as its used in the Bible. We call this the semantic range. Note, any given occurrence of the word only carries one of these meanings, not all of them. By taking these possible meanings and filtering them through the context of the word where you are studying it you should be able to strike a few possibilities off the list, or even know for sure which meaning applies here.

4. Search Results by Book: This is one of my favorite tools. You can see every occurrence of the word you are studying listed by book. This is great for helping you to recognize words that an author is partial to. Notice that John in his gospel and first letter uses meno (abide) more than all the other New Testament authors combined. It is also a great way to spot key words in a book of the Bible. Matthew’s Gospel uses the word basileia (kingdom) over 50 times. By clicking on any of the Books you can see each occurrence in that particular verse.

5. Translation Count: Here you can see how the word is translated in the version of the Bible you are currently using. This is good both for getting a feel of how the word functions in English, as well as building up your instincts so that you can guess what original word lies behind the English as you read it. Blue Letter Bible only makes this available in a few translations.

6. Concordance Results using your translation: This shows you every occurrence of the word in your translation in the verse in which its found. Just skimming through this can give you a feel for the word but pay special attention to the wider context around the occurrence that you are studying. If the word is use in the same chapter, or the chapters right around where you are studying then it can often provide a lot of data on how to understand it in the occurrence you are focused on. You can take what we talked about in Studying a Word in the Wild and use it on these surrounding context occurrences to much benefit.

Once you have gleaned everything you can from these tools the final step is to take all this information back to the original context of the verse and study it again. No matter what you discover about what a word might mean, the context must be the final judge of what it must mean.

Blue Letter Bible puts a lot of tools and information at your fingertips. It may seem unwieldy and overwhelming at first but over time you learn what is helpful and develop instincts that speed up the process. You don’t have to be a scholar to study the Bible, with a little help and a lot of practice you can do a word study.

Have you ever wondered how to do a word study? It used to be that doing a word study required a grasp of at least the Greek and Hebrew alphabet and a small collection of big books including a Concordance (tells you where a particular word is used in the Bible) a Lexicon (telling you how a word is parsed in a particular passage) and a collection of Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries (explaining the possible meanings or semantic range of a particular word). Modern technology has made these things much easier to use and the Internet has made them much more accessible. This means that you can use these tools effectively and do your own word studies with just a little guidance.

 

 

How to Read the Old Testament (Like a Christian)

How to Read the Old Testament (Like a Christian)

When it comes to reading the Old Testament, many Christians are intimidated and might even ignore it all together. However, you can’t retreat into the New Testament for long without realizing the Apostles are constantly referencing, interpreting and preaching from the Old Testament. Not only does 2 Timothy 3:16 tell us that, “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (which would include the Old Testament) but the context (vs. 15) makes evident that the Apostle Paul primarily has the Old Testament in view. We therefore do not have the option to avoid the first two thirds of our bible or relegate it to some sort of lesser status. 

There is a difference in knowing IF we should read the Old Testament and HOW we should read the Old Testament as Christians. To read it rightly, we have to walk the narrow path between the twin ditches of mysticism and moralism. Mysticism completely ignores the original author and audience to find a deeper meaning; it uses allegory and symbol to adjust the Old Testament to fit the new. Moralism on the other hand reduces the Old Testament to a collection of guidelines and examples. Both however, are sub-christian in nature (any Jew, Muslim or Gnostic can read the bible this way) and both are avoided by simply reading the Old Testament like Jesus. In other words, if you want to know how to read the Old Testament like a Christian, you just need to read the way Christ did. 

Jesus’ view of the scriptures denies a mystical approach. He was consistently seeking meaning of Old Testament passages in the intent of its original author. Take for example the way he answers the Sadducees question about the resurrection in Matthew 22:31-32:

“And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God:  ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

How does he come to his conclusion that the verse he quotes (Exodus 3:6) proves the resurrection? He pays attention to the grammar. God says “I am” present tense not “I was” past tense. He doesn’t need to allegorize a passage to support this doctrine, he interprets it the same way we would any other book. Just because the bible is divinely written doesn’t mean that it should be interpreted in some “spiritual sense” removed from the normal cues of an authors meaning. I’ve always enjoyed this quote from Walter Henrichsen on this subject,

“If you were to say to an audience, ‘I crossed the ocean from the United States to Europe,’ you wouldn’t want them to interpret our statement to mean that you crossed life’s difficult waters into the haven of a new experience. Likewise, no journalist would like to write of the famine of a country such as India and have his words interpreted to mean that the people of India were experiencing a great intellectual hunger.”

This approach to the bible corresponds better with the person of Jesus. The apostle John tells us that God revealed himself through the incarnation, God becoming man. Jesus taking on flesh was a way of God humbling himself to make himself understandable. We see the same thing in Genesis 15 when God makes a cutting covenant with Abraham. God condescends to a local cultural form of contract so that Abraham can understand that he intends to fulfill his promise. He submits himself to a cultural practice to make what he is saying clear. In the bible God is doing the same thing; he condescends to the rules of language and grammar because he desires to be understood. To read the bible like Jesus we must abandon our search for meaning in subjective mysticism and focus on what the Old Testament says as written by its original author and to its original audience. 

Although a fence has been firmly planted to keep us out of the ditch of mysticism, we still must avoid the ditch on the other side of the road. Reading the Old Testament like Jesus also protects us from moralism. In John 5:39 Jesus criticizes how the Pharisees read the Old Testament and then gives them the single most foundational principle of a Christian understanding of the Old Testament. He says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”

He does the same thing with his disciples after his resurrection.  First for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and then to the twelve in Jerusalem Jesus opens their minds to understand the scripture by explaining the entire Old Testament in relationship to himself. (Luke 24:13-47) Not only do we find numerous prophesies throughout its pages that speak specifically of Jesus’ person and work, but the Old Testament reveals God’s entire plan that begins in Genesis 3 and culminates in Jesus. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt our need for Jesus as a single nation (Israel) is given every advantage and still finds themselves sinners deserving of judgment. We find countless preemptive pictures of Jesus’ sacrifice. Every great theme of who God is and what he is like is amplified and climaxes in Jesus’ coming. If we are to read the Old Testament as Christians we need to read it as if Jesus is the main subject, and even the main character, just like Jesus did.

When we begin to read the Old Testament like Jesus, that’s when we begin to reclaim it and recognize that it is living and powerful. We find unity between the testaments and relevancy in our lives. Don’t make the mistake of a sub-christian approach to reading the Old Testament; follow Jesus’ footsteps down the narrow path avoiding both moralism and mysticism. 

You Who? Meaning Hidden Behind the Ambiguous YOU Pronoun

You Who? Meaning Hidden Behind the Ambiguous YOU Pronoun

English is a notoriously frustrating language for translation. We have almost as many exceptions as we do rules, and frankly we just don’t play nice with other tongues. This isn’t to say that we don’t have anything in common with other languages, anyone who’s studied a foreign language has probably come to a better understanding of English and the realization that all languages accomplish the same things in generally the same ways. However there are a few places where translators wrestle to communicate into English in particular and the one I’d like to share today impacts the way we understand passages in the Bible.

Most languages make a verbal distinction between the second person singular pronoun and the second person plural pronoun . When you point at a person and refer to them verbally you use a different word than when you point to a group of people and refer to them verbally. In English however the second person singular is “you” and the second person plural is also “you”. We can say in good English both, “You are my friend” and, “You are my friends”. We generally use other parts of the sentence or conversation to determine which is being referred to. (In the example above of course it’s the pluralizing of the noun) There is a word we use to distinguish the second person plural pronoun when it is unclear; at least it’s used in the south, “Y’all” a contraction of “you all”.

Like most languages, Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Greek use two separate words to distinguish between the singular and plural pronoun. This means that the meaning of a passage is sometimes hiding behind the ambiguous “you”. Lets look at an example from the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah chapter 7:10-17 we find the prophecy of the Virgin Birth.

10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” 13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”

The Christian understanding of this passage is sometimes criticized as being invalid. How would the virgin birth of Jesus be a sign to king Ahaz that he need not fear destruction from foreigner in his day? And doesn’t Isaiah say that all this will come to pass before the child is grown, isn’t that obvious if Jesus’ birth was hundreds of years later? Our understanding falls into place when we look behind the ambiguous “you”. Look at happens when we highlight the pronouns so that we can see where it is “you” and where it is really “y’all”.

 

Isaiah 7:10-15

 

As you can now see, Isaiah is addressing two separate audiences. One is the King himself, and the other is the whole house of David. What we have here is not one prophecy but two given in rapid succession to two different groups. Watch what happens when we separate them:

Isaiah 7:10-15 split

 

We see here two separate but similar signs: the virgin birth, demonstrating God’s power to the house of Israel and the defeat of the foreign kings, demonstrating God’s power to Ahaz. So who is the “mystery child” in verse 16? It is Isaiah’s young son who God told him to bring along in verse 3. If he’s not “the boy” in 16 then why did God command Isaiah to bring him?

It may be helpful to imagine Isaiah standing in the throne room and pointing with his finger as he speaks:

“For before the boy (pointing at his son Shear-Jashub) knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land who’s kings you (pointing at King Ahaz) dread will be deserted.”

Knowing what’s a “you” and what’s a “y’all” can help us better understand the Bible, but how can we tell the difference as we read in English? Here are some tips:

 

  • Get in the habit of reading the margin notes in your Bible. My ESV has a note in verse 9 that says, “The Hebrew for you is plural in verses 9,13,14” and a second note in verse 11 that says, “The Hebrew for you and your is singular in verses 11, 16, 17”. Check and see if your Bible makes note of these things
  • Buy a copy of the NET Bible. The NET (New English Translation) is like a bible translation with an open hood. It comes with 60,000 translator notes, which makes it terribly hard to read but wonderful for deeper study. Not only will you find what we’ve talked about here but often a simple summary of the controversial passages, as well as why they translated them the way they did.
  • Use Bible study software like Logos or a website like Blue Letter Bible. Not only do they have hyperlink footnotes that make it very clear, but you can also check for yourself by using their deeper word study tools.

Learn why we must distinguish between the second person singular pronoun and the second person plural pronoun when we study the Bible.

 

The Art of Interpretation

The Art of Interpretation

Hermeneutics is rightly referred to as a science. It operates according to objective rules that can be consistently applied by any student. However, it is also more than a science, it is an art. As such, it is no less than laws but it is much more. As an art, the skill of interpretation can be developed through practice. Knowing the rules is not the same as recognizing where to apply them and any tool of interpretation must be practiced to be mastered.  As an art,  interpretation is tremendously personal as applied by any individual. When you come to the Bible you come with your whole personality and preferences intact, and so the best tools are going to be the ones that are custom fit. Also as an art, interpretation relies heavily on intuition and creativity. To be a good interpreter you have to develop instinct and be willing to explore new approaches to processing a passage.

One of the most important features of any artistic process is that it is inherently sensory. Art is seen, heard, touched and tasted. Even the process of making art is generally more than just cerebral, in fact it is often outright messy. What that means for interpreting the Bible is that its not something a robot can do. It means that you need to learn how to make productive messes as you study a passage of scripture. It means that you have to harness your senses and use tools and creativity. No surprise, it is the art of interpretation that also creates most of the excitement in Bible Study. The thrill of the hunt!

One great example of the art of interpretation is Kay Arthur of Precept Ministries. Kay teaches people to study their Bibles inductively, making a case for the meaning of scripture by presenting evidence from the passage itself. A large portion of her approach is recognizing key words and repetition in the text and then marking up your Bible so that it visibly represents your findings. This process is messy, beautiful and incredibly helpful. I’ve provided an example below, but if you keep your Bible in the box and couldn’t even bring yourself to write your name and soil the title page, be warned that the below image may be terribly disturbing.

Inductive Bible Study

Another great example is John Piper’s new project Look at the Book. Pastor John is one of my hero’s in interpreting the Bible and I have learned much from his methods. Look at the Book is a project to help impart his process to anyone who wants to study the Bible (a man after my own heart!). Part of this project includes short videos where John takes a passage of scripture and walks you through understanding it by drawing all over the text and writing notes in the margins. In his words,

“Without circling things, and underlining, and drawing lines, and making notes, and doodling in the margins, and making connections, and marking repetitions, I would be utterly adrift in a biblical text. My mind is a muddle until I make the muddle visible on paper, and then begin to sort it out with the pencil.”

Below is his first example video from the series on 2 Timothy 3:14-17. I would encourage you to watch it and learn.

 

As obsessed as I am with bringing you the rules and tools of interpreting the Bible, you also need to learn to get in the trenches for yourself, make a mess and perfect your artistic approach. Forget keeping your Bible clean and focus on the art of interpretation.