Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Accuracy and Credibility as a Teacher

I’m currently reading the introduction to David A. deSilva’s volume on Galatians in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series (Eerdmans, 2018). In an excursus on rhetoric and letter-writing in antiquity, he writes, “Speakers must have our trust and confidence if they are to persuade us to do anything; conversely, doubts about credibility prove the quickest and most effective means to undermining a particular speaker’s message” (p. 68).

I have often noted in the past that if a teacher or preacher can’t get the raw facts (characters, locations, basic order of events) of a biblical story correct, then it becomes much more difficult for those hearing the message to accept the speaker’s interpretation and application of that text.

For example, I recently heard a podcast where a preacher summarized a biblical story, but got some significant factual points wrong. He then went on to make a case for a certain doctrine, based on the way he had just (inaccurately) summarized the narrative. It was almost as if he was counting on his listeners not actually knowing the biblical text, and just taking his paraphrase as a true representation of Scripture.

On another podcast, the host was reading a segment from a book that mentioned “Baxter’s Interlinear,” at which point the host commented, “Must be some sort of fancy commentary.” Honestly, if you’re going to be podcasting on theological matters, you should research the meanings of terms you don’t know (or that your audience may not know) during your show preparation, so you can properly explain them, rather than making an off-hand comment that will keep anyone who does know the terms from taking you seriously.

This is the age of smart phones, where people in the congregation can check your facts with a quick search while you’re still speaking. More and more lay people are starting to do deeper study of the Bible and theology, thanks to all the resources now available that allow one to get a decent theological education without investing tens of thousands of dollars and several years of their lives in a seminary degree.

As a pastor, preacher, or teacher: Research well. Know your material. Speak carefully and with precision. Your credibility and influence depend on it.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Looking at a broader context when studying Scripture

This post continues our focus on the importance of reading Scripture in its context.

I was recently reading a book by a popular Christian author (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty).The writer cites Deuteronomy 1:1-8, which reads:

1 These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the wilderness east of the Jordan—that is, in the Arabah—opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab. 2 (It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.)
3 In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses proclaimed to the Israelites all that the Lord had commanded him concerning them. 4 This was after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, and at Edrei had defeated Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth.
5 East of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound this law, saying:
6  The Lord our God said to us at Horeb, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. 7 Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighboring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the Euphrates. 8 See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them.”

The writer says that Moses pointed out to the Israelites that what should have been an eleven-day journey had taken them forty years (v. 2), and goes on to say that in verse 6  Moses tells them they have stayed at this mountain long enough. The author then directs a question to the reader: Have you stayed long enough at the same mountain? Has it taken you forty years to make an eleven-day journey?

Three paragraphs later, the author says that God showed them the Israelites had remained in the desert because they had a “desert mentality;”— certain types of wrong thoughts that had kept them in bondage.

A “desert mentality” wasn’t the reason the Israelites spent forty years wandering in the desert. It had nothing to do with an attitude of, “Well, I guess this dryness is just our lot in life. We’ll never get anywhere better.”

The real problem was that the generation that left Egypt in the book of Exodus had failed to trust God. In Numbers 13, twelve spies went to inspect the land of Canaan. Ten brought back a negative report, saying that Israel was not capable of overcoming the inhabitants and taking the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants. Only two of the twelve (Joshua and Caleb) gave a positive evaluation, saying that Israel could take the land. The people chose to believe the negative report, doubting that God would give them victory. As punishment for their rebellion, God determined that none of the generation that left Egypt in the Exodus—save Joshua and Caleb—would enter the Promised Land. They would roam the desert as wandering shepherds for forty years (Numbers 14:33). Their children, however, would be allowed to enter and take possession of Canaan (Numbers 14:31).

Clearly, the crowd Moses is speaking to in the first chapter of Deuteronomy had not been stuck in the wilderness because of a “desert mentality” in their own minds, but because all the rebellious previous generation who had failed to believe God had to die off before the nation could enter the Promised Land.

In a similar manner, when one reads past the first few verses of the first chapter of Deuteronomy, one realizes that when God said at Horeb—Horeb being another name for Mount Sinai, where Moses received the law from God—“You have stayed at this mountain long enough,” that this was just the beginning of their journey.

  • ·       In Deut. 1:9, Moses says, “At that time I said to you, ‘You are too heavy a burden for me to carry alone.’ ” The words “at that time” indicate something further back in the past. Here Moses is referring back to the events of Exodus 18:17–26.
  • ·       In Deuteronomy 1:19–46, Moses reminds the people how the spies had been sent out, but the people had rebelled (Numbers 13 discussed above).
  • ·       Deuteronomy 2:1–3:20 gives an overview of the desert wanderings (which are also summarized in Numbers 33), including the Israelite conquest of territories east of the Jordan, where Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh settle, with the stipulation that their fighting men must accompany the other tribes to help them conquer and possess their inheritance west of the Jordan.

So by the time Deuteronomy 1 is taking place, and Moses is summarizing the last forty years for his listeners, the “desert wandering” has already stopped. The Israelites are now “east of the Jordan” (Deut. 1:1), not at Mount Sinai/Horeb. They had not been “at the same mountain” for forty years, as this popular author asserts. Deuteronomy 1:6 is not referring to where they are at this point in the story, but where they were a generation before. Yet the writer goes on to develop arguments about people being kept from entering into God’s plan for them because of a “desert mentality.”

But when we take these few verses the author uses, and look at them in their context within the overall storyline, we see that this text cannot be saying what the author claims. While the author’s general premise—that how we think affects our actions and therefore how our life goes—is not necessarily wrong, it can’t be supported using the Scripture passage chosen.

We must always be careful to let the text say what the text says, whether we are preaching a sermon, teaching a class, leading a family devotional, or doing personal Bible study.

Context. Context. Context.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15, NIV).

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Importance of Context in Biblical Interpretation / La Importancia del Contexto en la Interpretación de la Biblia

Proverbs 23:7 is a very famous verse. It is most commonly quoted by English speakers from the King James Version: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.”  

This verse is frequently used to support some version of the power of positive thinking. “If you think negative thoughts all the time, then bad things are going to happen to you, because that’s what you’re expecting. But if you think good, positive thoughts, then good things will come your way. There’s power in your thoughts and in your words.” 

While there is some truth to the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies (it you’re always putting yourself down, you’re likely to live down to those low expectations), this verse does not support that idea.

The first rule in correct use and interpretation of the Bible is context. Let’s look at more of the passage in Proverbs, starting with verse 6:

6 Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye,
Neither desire thou his dainty meats:
7 For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he:
Eat and drink, saith he to thee;
But his heart is not with thee.
8 The morsel which thou hast eaten shalt thou vomit up,
And lose thy sweet words.

Looking at the context shows that this fragment of a verse (notice people usually quote only the first part of verse 7) has nothing to do with the thoughts of your heart determining how your life turns out. Rather, it is saying that how a person thinks in their heart reveals their true inner character. They may put on a good show of being friendly and generous, and even fool other into thinking they’re a nice person, but if inwardly they are only thinking of how to use you for their own benefit, then THAT is the real them.

More modern translations have changed the wording from what has been so easily misunderstood and misappropriated, making sure the intent of both God and the human writer of Proverbs comes through.

The English Standard Version renders these verses:
6 Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy;
do not desire his delicacies,
7 for he is like one who is inwardly calculating.
“Eat and drink!” he says to you,
but his heart is not with you.
8 You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten,
and waste your pleasant words.

The 2011 edition of the New International Version says:
6 Do not eat the food of a begrudging host,
do not crave his delicacies;
7 for he is the kind of person who is always thinking about the cost.
“Eat and drink,” he says to you,
but his heart is not with you.
8 You will vomit up the little you have eaten
and will have wasted your compliments.

So my challenge to my brothers and sisters is: make sure you check the context of a verse, whether you are listening to a preacher, reading an author, or using it yourself. Read what comes before and after. You don’t have to know Greek or Hebrew to spot obvious cases of a verse taken out of context.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15, NIV)


Proverbios 23:7 es un versículo muy famoso. Es más conocido entre los que hablan español en la forma que aparece en la traducción Reina-Valera 1960: “Porque cual es su pensamiento en su corazón, tal es él.”

Este versículo con frecuencia se usa para apoyar alguna versión del poder del pensamiento positivo. “Si tienes pensamientos nagativos todo el tiempo, cosas malas te sucederán, porque es lo que estás esperando. Pero si tienes pensamientos buenos y positivos, entonces cosas buenas aparecerán en tu camino. Hay poder en tus pensamientos y tus palabras.”

Mientras hay algo de verdad en el concepto de profecías auto-cumplidoras (si siempre estás pensando negativamente acerca de ti mismo, a lo mejor no vas a superar esas espectativas bajas con tus acciones), este versículo no apoya esa idea.

La primera regla en usar e interpretar correctaments la Bibla es el contexto. Vamos a mirar más del pasaje, comenzando con el versículo 6:

6 No comas pan con el avaro,
Ni codicies sus manjares;
7 Porque cual es su pensamiento en su corazón, tal es él.
Come y bebe, te dirá;
Mas su corazón no está contigo.
8 Vomitarás la parte que comiste,
Y perderás tus suaves palabras.

Mirar al contexto muestra que esta porción de un versículo (nota que la gente usualmente cita solamente la primera parte del versículo 7) no tiene nada que ver con la idea de que los pensamientos de tu corazón determinan como va tu vida.A cambio, está diciendo que la manera en que una persona piensa en su corazón revela su verdadero carácter interior. Puede ponerse una máscara de amabilidad y generosidad, y hasta engañar a todos que es una beuna persona, pero si en su interior solo está pensando en como usarte a ti para su propio beneficio, entonces ESO es la verdadera persona.

Traducciones más modernas han cambiado las palabras usadas, de algo que puede ser malinterpretada y mal aplicada, a otras palabras que aseguran que el intento de Dios del escritor humano sea entendido.

La Nueva Versión Internacional dice así:
6 No te sientes a la mesa de un tacaño,
ni codicies sus manjares,
7 que son como un pelo en la garganta.
«Come y bebe», te dirá,
pero no te lo dirá de corazón.
8 Acabarás vomitando lo que hayas comido,
y tus cumplidos no habrán servido de nada.

La Traducción en Lenguaje Actual lo presente:
6 Nunca comas con gente tacaña,
ni dejes que sus platillos te despierten el apetito.
7 Esa gente te invita a comer,
pero su invitación no es sincera;
esa gente es tan tacaña que se fija en cuánto comes.
8 Al fin de cuentas vomitarás todo lo que hayas comido,
y todos tus halagos no habrán servido de nada.
Así que mi desafío para mis hermanos y hermanas es: asegúrate de checar el contexto de un versículo, sea que estés escuchando a un predicador, leyendo a un autor, o usándolo tú mismo en tus devocionales diarios o para dar una clase. Lee lo que viene antes y después. No tienes que saber hebreo y griego para darte cuenta de los casos óbvios de tomar un versículo fuera de su contexto.

Esfuérzate por presentarte a Dios aprobado, como obrero que no tiene de qué avergonzarse y que interpreta rectamente la palabra de verdad.  (2 Timoteo 2:15, NVI)