Tag Archives: Hermeneutics

Should Christians “Lift Jesus Higher” in Their Worship?

I will quote one of my favorite Scripture songs that I learned as a young believer in the 1980’s:

Lift Jesus higher.  Lift Jesus higher. Lift him up for the world to see.  He said, “If I be lifted up from the earth I will draw all men unto me.”

Written by an American song writer, it has been exported all over the world, and sung perhaps millions of times. Of course, we should lift up the name of Jesus, as He is worthy to be praised. The problem is that this song is largely taken from a single verse, John 12:32 (KJV), in a passage that few Christians bother to read carefully.

If you read that verse in context, this particular passage does not say what most Christians think it means. Look at the verse, and then read the very next verse:

(v.32) And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.

(v.33) This he said, signifying what death he should die.

When we sing “Life Jesus Higher,” what are we really singing about?

As New Testament scholar Craig Keener demonstrates, John explicitly tells us what this text actually means, or signifies, as Jesus is prophetically saying that he would be physically lifted up on a cross, in order to die.

In other words, when we sing this song, it is like shouting out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Oooops….

Ponder that for a moment….

To borrow from that great philosopher, Inigo Montoya, in The Princess Bride, this verse does not mean what most Christians think it means.

Mmmph!!…..

But there is more to the difficulty concerning this verse: When we read that Jesus’ being lifted up “will draw all men unto me,” what does that mean?

Some have suggested that this verse is a prooftext for universalism, the belief that all people will be saved in the end …. as in every human being. Former evangelical megachurch pastor, Rob Bell, hinted at it in his wildly controversial 2011 book, Love Wins. Well known theologian, David Bentley Hart, has made this very case, quite explicitly and forcefully in recent years, culminating in his 2019 book, That All Shall Be Saved. For if “all men” are “drawn” to Jesus, would this not suggest that everyone… as in every single human person….. will come to know Jesus?

There are a couple of issues to consider, in an effort to clear things up:

First, the word “draw“, as in “draw all men unto me,” requires further consideration.  In John 6:44, we see another reference to “draw,” where we read, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day“(ESV). This would suggest that not everyone is necessarily “drawn” to Jesus.

This leads us into the thicket of the Calvinist/Arminian controversy, whereby advocates of limited atonement (Calvinist), those who believe that Jesus dies only for the elect, might say that John 6:44 teaches about God drawing the elect toward salvation. John 6:44 would thus restrict the scope of “all” in John 12:32, to only include “all of the elect.” Advocates of unlimited atonement (Arminian), those who believe that Jesus dies for every human person, might insist that the “draw” in John 12:32 is about Jesus’ death for all persons, but only in the sense of allowing for the potential of everyone’s salvation.

Secondly, it bears taking a closer look at who the “all” is about in this verse, from a different, hopefully more productive angle. Jesus’ speech takes place during a festival, where some “Greeks” (or Gentiles) had arrived (John 12:20). This has led many scholars to conclude that the “all” described by Jesus is not about all individuals, but rather it is about all kinds of people, including both Jews and Gentiles. In other words, Jesus’ death is not for Jews alone, but for Gentiles as well.

This does not resolve the Calvinist/Arminian controversy, but it refocuses our attention on a constant theme throughout the New Testament, regarding the relationship between Jew and Gentile, that does not receive as much attention as it should. It is very easy to get caught up theological debates that have raged throughout the evangelical movement over the past few hundred years, including the Calvinist/Arminian controversy, as well as the occasional interest in universalism. But a closer reexamination of the Jewish/Gentile conflict, that captivated the attention of the first century readers and writers of the New Testament, is a more responsible way of reading passages like this in John’s Gospel. A few modern study Bibles, such as the ESV Study Bible and the Zondervan NIV Study Bible, contend for this interpretation in their study notes, concerning John 12:32.

For years, I have sung this song, thinking that we are celebrating the glory of God, as Jesus is lifted up. The song has a very “happy-clappy” feel to it. But “lifting up Jesus,” in the context of this verse, is about how human sin drove Jesus to the cross, which should engender in believers a sense of sobriety, in view of how much we have rebelled against a holy and righteous God. In the most immediate sense, this is not very “happy-clappy.”

However, it is the Resurrection, in which Jesus had victory over sin and death, that should cause us to celebrate. So, yes, we are to lift up the name of Jesus, and it is in this way that we can joyfully sing praise to the Lord, thanking him for giving up his life, so that we as believers might receive new life. Furthermore, this new life is for everyone…. all kinds of people,….. whether they be Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, black or white.

Though I still like the song, it makes me think twice about what we think and do as Christians, in our worship. Sometimes, we as Christians get the right lesson to be learned from the wrong text!


The Bible is Reliable… or Is That Just “Your” Interpretation?

Several churches in our community have been working through Explore God, a series of questions that seek to spark conversations about God. This past week’s question has been: “Is the Bible Reliable?” Lurking behind this question is often a different question, “Should we really take the Bible literally?”

My typical response is to ask a person, “What do you mean by literally?” Often, to take something “literally” means to read something in a very “plain” sense way. But “plain” according to whom?

Often the pushback I get is that the Bible is simply just a matter of one’s own interpretation. “That is just your interpretation, so why should I believe what you think about the Bible?

Here is the problem with that: It concedes the point that getting at the “plain” sense of the Bible is at least sometimes easier said than done. But it does not follow that Bible interpretation is always simply up for grabs, and therefore the Bible is necessarily unreliable.

What we need to be able to do is to understand the original context in which a particular text was written. It is the purpose and meaning that the original author had in mind, and not our own context, that should govern the interpretation of the Bible. As a result, the possibilities of how to interpret a text are necessarily limited to a certain range of potential meanings: a singular sense for a very clear text, and multiple senses for a difficult text. But with hard work and study, we can come to even a much clearer understanding of the most difficult texts.

Here is a good example of a difficult text, that cause some people to question the reliability of the Bible:

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40 ESV).

Here Jesus is drawing upon the story of Jonah and the great fish to explain His future crucifixion and ultimate resurrection. A plain, supposedly “literal” reading of the text reveals a problem.  If you take “three days and three nights” in a “plain” sense, it gives you 72 hours. But the standard understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that He died on Good Friday and then rose on Sunday, about a 36 hour time period. Measured in hours, that timing is way off!

Well, there you go. The Bible is wrong here, and therefore is unreliable, and can not be trusted…. But is that a correct interpretation?

Now, there are folks who go to great lengths to show that the traditional interpretation of Jesus dying on Friday has been miscalculated by the church. Some contend that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday. Others contend that Jesus was crucified on Thursday.  Sure, you can pull all sorts of evidence together to try to support one of these alternative views, to make the “three days and three nights” work, as a way to defend and prove that the Bible is “literally true.”

But what if you are not convinced?

There is a much simpler solution to consider: Some scholars, like Andreas Köstenberger, suggest that we have evidence to demonstrate that the phrase “three days and three nights” is actually an old Semitic idiomatic expression, that is simply unfamiliar to modern English readers. Any portion of a 24-hour period of time could constitute “a day and a night.” So if Jesus died on a Friday and then rose from the grave on Sunday, that would give you “three days and three nights:” part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday. Just because this idiom would be unusual to us does not rule out the possibility that Jesus and/or the biblical writers would have known about such idioms, or metaphors, and used them freely in the Bible.

In other words, when the original Scriptural writer employed so-called “literal” language to describe something, without metaphor or embellishment, we today should cling to interpreting the Bible in the same manner. But when the writer does intentionally use metaphorical or figurative language, to express God’s truth in Scripture, we should cling to interpreting the Bible, again, in the same manner, as in the original.

So, to say that “the Bible is reliable,” is not just a pious excuse for appealing to one’s own interpretation of the Bible. We can appeal to the evidence to build a strong case that the Bible, rightly interpreted, is indeed reliable…. and therefore, trustworthy.

Additional Resources:

Some say that the Bible is unreliable, because they argue that the copying process of the New Testament had so many errors, that we really do not know what the original New Testament even said! The following clip from the documentary “Fragments of Truth,” shows that such claims are wildly exaggerated, as one learns the story of one famous, 3rd century New Testament fragment, P45, which was discovered in Egypt, and currently now on display in Dublin, Ireland (Go here for a critical, yet fair review of the documentary).

Dr. Bill Mounce, a leading English Bible translator, for the ESV and NIV, makes the point that many people, including many Christians, misuse the word “literal” when it comes to describing Bible translations (see the following 7-minute video). For an in-depth look at what Dr. Mounce is saying, listen to this talk he gave recently at Liberty University (you will need to adjust your audio level).

The Gospel Coalition has a bunch of interesting videos that explore this common objection, “That’s Just Your Interpretation” (Don Carson, Al Mohler, Robert Smith Jr., Ligon Duncan, and a panel discussion, with Russell Moore, Mika Edmondson, and Ligon Duncan).

 

 


The Power of Context

Why is understanding the context so important when it comes to interpreting the Bible? Because it is very easy to think the Bible is saying something that is completely alien to what the original author had in mind. Here is a short but sweet video (less than 4 minutes) by Alan Shlemon at Stand to Reason ministries that helps to explain context.

Here are the Bible verses that Alan is talking about from John 14:  John 14:16 and John 14:26. For more detail regarding why Muslims see Muhammad as being predicted by the Bible, look here. Interpreting the Bible is all about understanding the basic concepts of hermeneutics, which is a fancy word that simply refers to the study of the interpretation of texts.

If you are not sure what the big deal is regarding context, see this earlier Veracity post on Taking the Bible “Literally.

HT: Josh Shoemaker at DiscovertheBible.wordpress.com.


Lesson in Hermeneutics: Paris Reidhead

Paris Reidhead 1990

Paris Reidhead, 1990 (courtesy of Marjorie Reidhead)

When you get right down to it, most of us are timid about sharing our faith.

Among the thousands of people I’ve ever met, only a handful have had the character to put their faith out there without first running it through a popularity filter. The world is full of hard-edged egocentrics who feel it incumbent upon themselves to “tell it like it is,” but listening to most of them is painful.  I’m not referring to people like that.

Gary Carter and Paris Reidhead had the courage of their convictions.  One was a superstar athlete who, by the time I met him, didn’t have to prove anything. The other was a fire-and-brimstone preacher who could crush all distractions with his empowered delivery.

I had breakfast with Paris Reidhead 23 years ago at a men’s retreat.  I still remember much of what he said.  When he asked what I did for a living and I told him, he immediately asked if I could design a pump motor for use on a well that could “sustain 1,800 rpm when driven by oxen.”  As an engineer, this sort of question rarely comes up at breakfast.  Trust me.  (For the purposes of this blog I won’t go into why 1,800 rpm is important—let’s just say he knew what he was talking about.)

That weekend Paris Reidhead preached on the ‘S’ word.  A lot.  It helped me get over the idea that Christians are “holier than thou.”  Or that all our problems are solved when we come to faith.  He helped me understand how God has a plan to deal with ‘S’, and that he bankrupted heaven to pay for that plan.

In a world full of self centeredness, where prosperity theology is a ubiquitous salve, Paris Reidhead’s classic sermon Ten Shekels and a Shirt is a hard, cool rain on a scorched worldview. This teaching isn’t for beginners. He uses the ‘S’ word. He yells and slams the pulpit. He convicts every listener. And he reminds me of what Jesus said in John 8:32, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

So the next time you have 50 minutes to yourself, give a listen to this classic, masterful sermon. It ends up on the bottom line of why we are here. 

The transcript is available online at his family’s ministry site, and you can listen to many of his fine sermons here.

As an amateur mechanic, I appreciate when real mechanics talk about the “old school” way of doing things.  It’s a reverent term referring to doing things the tried and proven way—because it works.  The old school approach is based upon real craftsmanship, with an elegance that cannot be cheaply replicated. In the best sense of the term, Paris Reidhead’s hermeneutics were old school. And he was obvously a master of homiletics.

A very special thank you to Mrs. Marjorie Reidhead for providing the above photograph of her husband.  I hope I have framed his work in a way that honors his memory.


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