This past month, over 200 people came to a four-part series hosted by Reality in the city of Santa Barbara on basic Bible interpretation. With a clear thirst for God’s Word among us, this lecture series included an introduction, followed by “three gaps”–or obstacles–to understanding the Bible, as well as how to cross over them. I am pleased to announce that these lectures are all posted below! You can also download the notes here.
The beginning of the series started out fairly philosophical, seeking to answer the “what” and the “why” behind biblical interpretation, before getting to the “how” in the next three lectures.
Bridging The Language Gap
Words only have meaning in sentences. This lecture deals with the words and sentences of the text, and how to find out the author’s main point.
Bridging The Cultural Gap
Since Biblical cultures are far removed from ours, we must “hop the gap” and listen to the text from their historical perspective. This lecture is concerned with the social and cultural norms familiar to the Biblical authors and audiences.
Bridging The Literary Gap (genre)
This lecture is primarily concerned with genre, those artistic styles of writing that are sometimes peculiar to the Biblical authors. In this lecture we delve into historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, wisdom literature, gospels, parables, and epistles.
Reality Santa Barbara is hosting a four-week class that I am teaching on studying and understanding the Bible. This video is the introduction. If you missed the first class, or are far away, but want to deepen your understanding of God’s Word, join in with us and watch the video! You can find the attached notes on our website.
Continuing our series, James Abbreviated, let’s tackle chapter 3!
You should read the first post in the series because it sets up every chapter to come. The intent is to show God’s desire for his people to grow to a mature faith, birthed in the kiln of our trials, and shown by the right way we treat one another; all seen in the Christ-like balance between immersion in the world to love our neighbor, and the setting apart for holiness unto God—something only the wisdom of God can help us navigate.
James chapter 2 and 3 are a thoughtful unfolding of James 1:27: “Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We saw in the last blog post that chapter two is an exposition of the command to look after orphans, widows, and more broadly, those who are in distress. Interestingly, as the chapter progresses, it emphasized this call to show mercy, specifically on those in the family of God. A good summary of chapter two is, “If you are a Christ follower, you will love all of Christ’s people”
Now, in chapter 3, James gives an explanation for the first half of v 27, namely, “to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
There are many great points made in James chapter 3, but I suggest one that emerges as the most definitive of the chapter (in bold). As usual, I will offer what I think are the supporting verses, with key verses in italics.
Holiness is manifest in your speech
James 1:1-12 “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, 2 for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body. 3 Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. 4 And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell. 7 Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. 10 Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. 11 Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water” (HCSB).
While this section of Scripture is easy enough to understand on it’s own terms, I always wondered how it fit in to the rest of James.
For example, how does “experiencing trials” (1:2) relate to the tongue? Or “keeping oneself unstained by the world” (27b)? Or the sin of favoritism (2:1)? Fortunately, chapter 3 is easy enough to understand that most people can apply it to their life niche. Pastors and school teachers may think of their vocation when reading the stern warning of “stricter judgment” found in vv. 1-2. Some are reminded of the fiery hell that is our tongue in vv. 3-6 when we gossip or lash out verbally. Maybe others just think of the zoo when they read of horses (v 3), sea creatures, reptiles, and birds (v 7) :-) But verse 11 sharply refocuses our attention by providing us with a summary of chapter 3:
“Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?” (v 11)
I’m bringing our attention to verse 11 as the key verse because it unifies the first 12 verses of James’s warning over the destructive nature of the tongue, words, and speech. James defines the tongue as lit by hell itself—it’s not on fire, it is a fire (v 6); he implicates anyone that teaches verbally (v 1); he describes the tongue’s ability to destroy other people (v 8); and after launching into more analogous indictments against human speech, his deep theme emerges: “Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?” (v 11). James is prosecuting the human heart as the real culprit behind our sinful speech, for if we were holy, only sweet water would pour out of our springs; likewise, bitter waters flow from dead faith (2:26). These first seemed like a bunch of unrelated proverbs, but from a bird’s-eye view of the text, James’s point is overt: holiness of heart is manifest in holiness of speech. Our words do not save us, but they do identify us.
This, of course, flows seamlessly from chapters one (God matures our faith with trials, in and through right relationships with Christ’s people) and chapter two (Christ followers love all of Christ’s people).
Now, this brings us to the sudden shift at the end of chapter 3:
Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t brag and deny the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. 18 And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.
James is setting up an ultimatum.
This may seem disconnected from the rest of the chapter, but remember, we are looking at everything from a view of 30,000 feet so we can leave with a broad and unifying theme that holds these chapters (and book) together. With that in mind, read that paragraph again (vv. 13-18) and see if you can spot some repeating words, phrases, thoughts, or themes. Read the rest of this entry
This is the second post in our series, James Abbreviated!
This one shouldn’t be as lengthy as the first one, but you will need to read the first post in the series because it sets us up for every chapter to come. The summary of chapter one went something like this: God desires for his people to grow to a mature faith, birthed in the kiln of our trials, and shown by the right way we treat one another; all of which is the Christ-like balance between immersion in the world to love our neighbor, and the setting apart for holiness unto God—something we need the wisdom of God to help us navigate.
Before we move on, I want you to take special notice of the underlined sections of that summary towards the end. I got these two ideas from James 1:27,
“Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
The first half of James’s sentence (“to look after orphans and widows”) suggests the immersion in the world to love our neighbor, while the second half (“keep oneself unstained by the world”) is where I got the setting apart for holiness unto God. I’m bringing this up, because I think James chapter 2 and chapter 3 are a thoughtful unfolding of these two concepts. James chapter 2 unpacks the imperative to look after orphans, widows, and more broadly, those who are in distress. What is interesting is that as the chapter progresses, it focuses our call to show mercy specifically on the family of God.
Here are the two main points that stand out in James chapter two (in bold), followed by what I think is the supporting passage, with key verses in italics.
Christians must look after their own poor
vv.1-8 “My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. 2 For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. 3 If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” 4 haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him? 6 Yet you dishonored that poor man. Don’t the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Don’t they blaspheme the noble name that was pronounced over you at your baptism? 8 Indeed, if you keep the royal law prescribed in the Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself , you are doing well. “
This lengthy paragraph suggests three things:
- James addresses a church of believers (not just anyone). He uses Mediterranean strong-family terminology: “My brothers” (v 1, 14); “my dear brothers” (v 5); “a brother or sister” (v 15).
- James brings up a specific discrimination in the church. He points out that certain believers were giving preference to other believers based on their affluence; and points out the irony of the act, accusing the discriminate believer of “dishonoring that poor man” (v 6).
- James condemns discrimination in the church. We see this in his quotation of the Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (v 8), and roundly exposes favoritism as the antithesis of the Law (v 9).
- These three points show us that favoritism in the church, especially in relation to those who are poor, lowly, or discriminated against, is a shameful transgression of God’s heart.
But watch how James connects this ongoing thought to the rest of the chapter…
This is the first in our series, James Abbreviated, blogging through every chapter in James to determine the overarching themes of this wonderful book.
Since every book of the Bible has a point, we should start by identifying a basic flow, argument, or exhortation as we read along. Don’t worry about finding the meaning behind every verse yet, but do use key verses to help you put together that flow. A key verse is an emphatic point or crux buried in the chapter, supported by a lot of the surrounding paragraph. To use another example, news articles and blogs often emphasized their main points in bold lettering above the rest of the text.
Here are the two main points that stand out in James chapter one (in bold), followed by what I think is the supporting passage, with the key verse in italics.
Christians trust God in difficulties
vv.2-6 “Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing. 5 Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him. 6 But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways.”
Do you see how I developed a short, five-word point (Christians trust God in difficulties) from an otherwise sweeping paragraph? I’ll show you my train of thought…
- The Christian’s trials can result in an endurance that makes us “complete” (v 2-4)
- For this completion to happen, one must ask God for wisdom (v.5)
- Faith–which in biblical terms often refers to trust–defines the wisdom we receive.
- These three points show us that we must ask God for wisdom in difficult situations, while responding to that wisdom with faith in God! This is what separates those who know God, as shown in verses 5-8: the person who trusts in God (“asking in faith”) is saved, and the person who does not (“an indecisive man”), will “not receive anything from the Lord.” (v. 7)
Woo! Let’s move on to the next emphatic point that James makes (I will be gliding over many supporting verses)… Read the rest of this entry
Last week’s blog was about our need for orthodoxy.
A privatized understanding of Scripture presents a common problem: we interpret passages individualistically, without any sensitivity to what the author originally intended.
You’ve heard it said in a Bible study: “What does this verse mean to you?” But that’s the wrong question to ask. If it is the objective meaning of the text that God inspired (2 Tim 3:16) and not our subjective interpretations of it, then a better question to ask is, “What did the author mean?” So while reading Bible verses does not make you orthodox, reading Bible verses in their proper relationship to the rest of the Bible is at least a first step in aligning you with the orthodox views of the ancient church. Some like to call this “when Scripture interprets Scripture.” Let the whole thing speak for itself.
Here’s another way of thinking about it: You would never read one line from an urgent email without reading it in its entirety, because each part only makes sense in its relationship to the whole. The “whole” part of Scripture is often referred to by the Apostle Paul as “sound doctrine” (1 Tim 4:6) or “sound words” (1 Tim 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13). To really grasp the depth of each verse, you need to know what the chapter means. And what the letter means. And what the Bible means…well, you get it. Here’s where I’m going with this…
For the next few weeks I’m going to blog through every chapter of the epistle of James!
James is a great place to think about broad themes, because it seems to present itself as a disjointed grouping of proverbial statements. Our propensity is to treat James like a fortune cookie wrapper—a proof-text that we can apply to whatever situation we’re dealing with at the moment and according to our own personal interpretation—sometimes we do this without any context for what the author was originally intending. Case in point,
James 1:17, “Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning.”
How often have we used this verse in general terms, like this:
If anything good comes my way, it’s because God is blessing me; after all, every perfect gift comes from the Father! And I’m always gonna be blessed, because with Him there is no variation. God always makes good things happen to me!
But when something bad happens to us, as it inevitably will, we never quote that particular verse, do we! Perhaps we search for another general verse or passage that sounds a little more inspirational. But James 1:17 is not an arbitrary or general proverb. The “perfect gift” that the Apostle James refers to is more like a special empowerment that the Father sends to strengthen us in times of suffering. Good exegesis allows the Christian to make direct applications of God’s Word to dire situations, knowing that it will not return empty (Is. 55:11), as opposed to guessing widely and shooting blindly. Here’s some examples of what I mean…
- Are you feeling depressed? Read Philippians, which is largely a book about joy in any circumstance. As you read it with intentionality, God will speak to you through each of Paul’s words.
- Are you going on a long, difficult journey or calling? Read the Psalm of Ascents (Psalm 120-134), which is what the Jews have done for centuries in their tumultuous travels.
- Are you suffering? Read Job.
- Hopeless? Read the Gospels.
- Feeling dirty and unwanted? Read Hosea.
- Feel unqualified? Read Ruth.
- Feel overwhelmed by the world? Read Romans.
- Want to read the Cliff Notes version of all time? Read Revelation.
- (I adapted this list from my post, Religious Sensory Override)
Make sense? So what is James about? How can we begin to apply it to real situations? Well… you’ll just have to discover that with me!
Here’s the plan…
Instead of spending too much time unpacking every verse, I will summarize each chapter by looking at the relationship these verses all have with one another.
I will also include what I think is the key verse of the chapter, and show how the overall theme is being developed in each chapter. When we’re done with all five chapters, the summary of the epistle of James should sit before us in a few, brief sentences! When we know what the book is about, all the details (verses) will become more vivid, more relevant, more exciting. Instead of arbitrarily applying verses to our lives and hoping they fit, we will know what life situation to which James wrote, and how our situations are directly addressed by Scripture. At least, that’s my hope; perhaps I’m aiming too high, haha.
I am not able to bare every detail of the text here, so you are more than welcome to do some exegeting of your own in the comment section or on Facebook.
Bible study is best done in community, so perhaps we can cultivate some meaningful conversations. In case you’re wondering, I will be using the HCSB translation of the Bible. Please join me as we study to show ourselves “approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB)
Follow along in the rest of the series…
- James Abbreviated: Chapter 1 (doctrineontap.com)
- James Abbreviated: Chapter 2 (doctrineontap.com)
- James Abbreviated: Chapter 3 (doctrineontap.com)
- James Abbreviated: Chapter 4 (doctrineontap.com)
- Finding Yourself in the Story: The Importance of Biblical Theology (doctrineontap.com)
Before I answer that, there are still other basic questions we should answer. For example…
Why are there so many translations anyway??
The Scriptures were written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Scholars must interpret these manuscripts accurately and effectively for us to read. Accordingly, there are different methodologies that translators adopt. The most popular are the formal equivalence (word-for-word) and the dynamic equivalence (thought-for-thought). The formal equivalence is what many call a more “literal” translation of the text, because it translates words, grammar, syntax, idioms, regionalisms, and slang, as is, and without alteration (e.g., NASB, ESV). This is great for Bible study, because it allows you to have the most control over the process of interpretation. A dynamic equivalence aims more at translating the meaning of the text (e.g., NIV, NLT). These are useful when word meanings and phrases are lost in translation because the syntax, grammar, and style are too stilted in the original language, and are great to use when you want to read for devotional purposes. That being said…
There are many good English translations!
Because of the complexity of the English language, there is no “perfect” Bible translation. You don’t have to get the same translation I or anyone else is using. But you can and should know what you have and why you have it. It may even be helpful to have more than one translation on hand for studying–perhaps a formal equivalence and a dynamic equivalence. I often use 3-4 translations when studying for a sermon (Greek NT, HCSB, NASB, NLT). Doing this opens up the depths of Scripture for me, and aids me in both study and personal enrichment. While preaching, I usually read from a Bible translation called the HCSB.
What is the HCSB?
The HCSB stands for Holman Christian Standard Bible, and is a modern English translation (2004), assembled by an “international, interdenominational team of 90 scholars, all of whom were committed to biblical inerrancy,” and whose purpose was to create a translation that would “convey a sense of the original text with as much clarity as possible.” The textual base for the New Testament [NT] is the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th edition, and the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 4th corrected edition. The text for the Old Testament [OT] is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 5th edition. (Bible Gateway article)
Why I like using the HCSB?
- It is a newer translation of the original languages, not a revision of previous translations. This means it can consider the wealth of textual manuscripts now available to us, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
- It combines both formal and dynamic equivalence methods of translation. HCSB’s default method of translation is formal equivalence. But in some instances, formal translation sounds unnatural or contrived. For example, in Amos 4:6, God says, “I gave you cleanness of teeth” (ESV). This sounds like God is punishing people by brushing their teeth! But it is actually an Hebrew idiom describing the conditions of a famine. Now, I am all for doing the hard work of closing cultural gaps in interpretation, but it is also helpful when a translation takes steps to remove such unnecessary colloquialisms without reverting to a paraphrase. HCSB seems to strike this balance, by employing a dynamic equivalence method only when the original rendering feels too awkward. And where a dynamic equivalence is required, HCSB does so sparingly, even including extensive footnotes to show the literal translation. In the earlier case, the HCSB renders that verse in Amos, “I gave you absolutely nothing to eat.” And down in the bottom margin, it gives the literal translation, “Lit you cleanness of teeth.” So HCSB marries both fine methods of translation, and calls it “optimal equivalence.”
- The English syntax flows naturally and beautifully. Some will miss the “poetic” flow of older translations, and I don’t blame them; those “wooden” English sentences are attempting to capture a particular emphasis that the author had in mind (To its credit, this is my favorite thing about the NASB). But it is sometimes refreshing to read a literal translation with modern English word placement.
- This is a bonus: the technology behind the HCSB is overwhelming. Their mobile app is wonderful (and a bargain at $10). Not only does it offer a pleasant user experience and interface, but the programmers somehow managed to include a grip of study features into their little app, too! I’m talking about Greek/Hebrew word studies (just click on an English word for a Strong’s definition). If HCSB ever includes the full text, not just lexical values (e.g., BlueLetterBible.com), this app will be unparalleled. Oh, and check out their desktop version. It looks like candy. Just, wow.
The point is not to read what I’m reading, but to know why you’re reading what you’re reading, and to do so with good reason.
This is the Word of the living God we’re talking about! We want to make sure we get what He actually said. You can start by checking out different versions (including the HCSB), and find at least one translation that is…
- faithful to the method of interpretation it claims to bring to the text
- brings your heart to life
- shows you Jesus!
What version do you use, and why?
If you want to study the topic of Bible Translations and their differences on a deeper level, I recommend Which Bible Translation Should I Use, by Kostenberger, Croteau, and Stowell.
What imagery does “bible-study” conjure up for you?
An uncomfortably intimate group of five or six people gathered around a semi-circle of plastic fold-up chairs, eating brownies and feigning accountability while the extroverted person in the group asks probing questions from a bible verse that seem to careen into a wall of silence before dying expectedly. Was this what they meant when they told me they were “going deep”?
A college lake trip (if you’ve gone with us) conjures up a different scene.
It brings thoughts of wake-boarding, tri-tip, laughing with people who make things worth laughing about, late nights, transformation, early mornings, renewal, coffee by the waterfront, suntans, new friends, watermelon games, the presence of Jesus, the only time you’ll ever get 70 of your friends to an In-N-Out, community meals, worship, pancakes, new friends, baptisms, finding new ways to patch up Sea Doo wounds, turning ordinary things into extraordinary experiences, finding God in a different way than you did back at home, crying and smiling at the same time, mixing the best of both worlds, eternal and material. Plainly, you come back home with a story.
A “college lake trip,” then, conjures a story from the archives that is forever sealed in your memory because it’s one you never want to forget.
Our problem with Bible study is that we lack imagination. We don’t get pulled into the story enough to live the story.
The difference between the first example and the last example I gave are both staggering and depressing, if only because the former is often how we view and treat any written revelation of knowing God.
Our concept of “Scripture” is often rigid, uncreative, and uninvolved.
Do not forget that the Scriptures are a divinely authored testimony of the living Word, Jesus Christ.
Both of them are dynamic, especially when applied to life shared in community. Consider Paul’s famous exhortation on corporate worship to the Colossian church,
Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts (Colossians 3:16, NLT).
Paul sounds like he’s describing a college lake trip more than a cheesy semi-circle. It’s a scene that’s dynamic, real, and applied. The scriptures are a story, after all; and the best stories engage you. They animate your thought life, and perforate your normal conversations, while causing you to empathize with its main characters in all the subtle, yet meaningful details of your life. They transform you via supernatural revelation from God to mere human being.
Must the Word of God be so uneventful unless spoken of on a Sunday morning?
Is the Word of God transforming your life?
- Missional Millennials: Worship through Identity (Part 1) (christopherlazo.com)
- Corporate Worship and the Sacraments [beware of tangents] (christopherlazo.com)
George Gallup Jr. concluded from his studies and polls that Americans are among the loneliest people in the world. (Randy Frazee, The Connecting Church. 16)
The quote above is startling considering the massive networks of communication that we all have. From the personal touch of a cellphone call, the convenient tap of an email, and the intricate relational rhythms of social media, we are a generation that has the ability to stay un-lonely. As if that weren’t enough, the gathering church pulls out all the stops with its prized relational weapon: community groups! (or whatever 12 monikers it’s also known under: small groups, home groups, cell groups, etc).
But are these actually creating real community?
I think many of you have some worthwhile things to say about community groups. This is a safe place to be real, and for whatever it’s worth, I really would like to know…
What are YOUR honest thoughts on your community group experiences? Are they creating community for you?