Just a few thoughts that I hope might serve as an encouragement to prayer: I ran across some news a few days ago that showed me how God has been working to answer some prayers that I prayed seventeen years ago. Sometimes it takes years for prayers to be answered and for Kingdom-seeds to grow, but remember in the meantime that none of those labors are in vain. Nearly two decades ago, I went to do mission service in Sudan, which at that time was under a violent Islamist regime that was fighting genocidal wars against Christians and indigenous peoples in the south and west of the country. I was there to help launch the development of some basic linguistic tools for Sudanese Arabic, which, it was hoped, would enable other programs and missionaries to come in and do their work. While I was living there in Khartoum, I walked through the city and prayed every day for God to change that country dramatically for the sake of the gospel. I didn't see any immediate results of those prayers. But now, nearly two decades later, I can look back and see a Sudan where the Islamist regime has fallen, where its wars against its own people have largely ended, and where Christians can, at least for now, worship openly instead of in secret. All those things are breathtaking answers to prayer, and dramatic changes from the Sudan I knew. But there's more: earlier this week, I ran across this article, which says that Sudanese Arabic is now being used as a Bible-translation "hub language" to provide Scripture for 80 unreached people groups in that country--and it's a pretty good bet that they're using some of the very linguistic tools that I helped to develop back in 2004. It's hard to fully explain just what a delight this is for me--more than any of the books I've written or academic projects I've done, this work for Sudan is close to my heart, and to see that my work and my prayers are being used as part of something extraordinary--it feels almost unbelievable. But friends, unbelievable things are what happen when we pray and work for the Kingdom. We may not see the answers immediately, but that doesn't mean that God isn't moving behind the scenes. What seeds are you planting right now, in prayer and in work, that God might use to raise a harvest in the years to come?
Friday, September 24, 2021
Thursday, September 23, 2021
Question: What is the best way to interpret the Bible? As a literal, historical account of God’s relationship with his people? As an allegory, in which the Holy Spirit put hidden and symbolic meanings into the text? Or some combination of these two?
While we evangelical Christians usually opt for the first option (a literal, historical reading which prefers to look for the clear message of the author to the original audience), much of the early church preferred the allegorical method. They accepted the historical significance of the Bible stories as true, but saw that as simply a surface element—the deeper meaning was allegorical. So, for instance, while they believed that the parting of the Red Sea actually happened, they thought that the text as a whole was intended by God to point towards an allegorical meaning: salvation through the waters (i.e., baptism).
New Testament uses of the Old Testament
In the NT itself, OT passages are usually treated under the literal-historical method. However, in some instances, they are also interpreted as allegories in the primary sense—Jesus seems to treat the Jonah story as an allegorical foreshadowing of the resurrection (Matt. 12:39-41), Paul treats the story of Hagar and Ishmael in this way (Gal. 4:21-31), and Peter treats Noah’s flood as a symbol of baptism (1 Pet. 3:18-22).
Driven by a NT that not only treated the OT as allegory, but also included allegorical texts itself (such as Revelation), the earliest Christians took the allegorical method to its extreme. They wrote their own allegories, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, and began allegorizing the OT Law (the early document Epistle of Barnabas, for example, tries to turn the Jewish dietary laws into a symbolic, moral warning against associating with the wrong kinds of people).
Origen and the Alexandrian School
By the 3rd century, the rules for interpretation of Scripture (“hermeneutics”) became increasingly clarified. The great scholar and theologian Origen (184-254 AD) laid the groundwork for an understanding of three senses of Scripture, levels of meaning that have been divinely structured into the text:
1.) Literal: The plain, historical meaning of the text
2.) Moral: Principles on how to live a good life
3.) Spiritual: Hidden meanings that teach about Christ, the Church, or the Christian life. For Origen, this was the primary meaning of Scripture, often only discerned through allegorical interpretation.
Example: the story of the brass serpent in Numbers 21 can be read in three different ways, all complementary: as a story of something that happened to Israel during its wanderings (literal), as a lesson illustrating the importance of obedience (moral), and as a parable of salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross (spiritual/allegorical). Note that the most important meaning, in the eyes of the NT and the early church, is the spiritual one, but that’s one that you can’t find explicitly in the text of Numbers 21—it only comes out from a Christian, Spirit-inspired reading.
The Antiochene School
After Origen’s method was picked up by the dominant school of theology of Alexandria, some obvious abuses started to appear. People started applying the allegorical method anywhere they wanted, and it often degenerated into people making up fanciful symbols that correlated to every nitpicked aspect of a text. For example, some interpreters pulled apart the parable of the Good Samaritan and made it an allegory—thus the beaten man represented the state of fallen mankind, the priest and Levite represented the ineffective efforts of human morality and religion, the Samaritan represented the unexpected grace of God revealed in the incarnation of Jesus, the donkey represented the Holy Spirit, the inn was the church, etc., etc. Clearly, as creative as this is, it’s mostly made-up. So a rival school of interpretation developed at Antioch, and they emphasized a return to a more cautious, literal-historical method.
Lectio Divina: the devotional practice of exploring the Bible’s layers of meaning
“Lectio Divina” (holy reading) is a devotional practice of reading Scripture, developed by early medieval monks, and it helps to open our hearts and minds to whatever the Holy Spirit wants to say through a text.
Step 1 – Read: After preparing yourself through prayer, simply read through the passage. Don’t try to assign a meaning to it yet.
Step 2 – Meditate: Read it through a second time, now inviting the Holy Spirit to speak to you through the words of the passage. Pause and linger over the words as you go, ponder the phrases that jump out at you.
Step 3 – Pray: Take the message that you heard the Holy Spirit speaking to you, and use it to begin praying—for example, asking God to make that revealed message a regular part of your life.
Step 4 – Contemplate: With the Scripture passage still in front of you, spend a few more minutes just in silence, focusing your mind and heart on God’s presence with you. Let go of all your words and desires, all the thoughts that crowd your head, and just rest in his presence.
Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Monday, September 20, 2021
Monday, September 13, 2021
I'm not going to be doing my regular schedule of blog posts this week, as I'll be working on some book launch activities. That's right, my new book is officially available! You can find it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher's website (northwindpublishing.com). It's a devotional memoir of a trip to the Holy Land, with lots of reflections on the life of Christ. Some of you may have read my earlier draft which was posted on this blog, but the book represents a significantly expanded version. If you happen to order it, please consider leaving a review or rating on Amazon, since I'm told this really helps to get the book into more hands. You can click the cover image below to be taken to the book's Amazon page:
Saturday, September 11, 2021
Be with me, and prepare me for all the smiles of prosperity, the frowns of adversity, the losses of substance, the death of friends, the days of darkness, the changes of life, and the last great change of all. May I find Your grace sufficient for all my needs.
- a prayer from the Puritan tradition