The Most Misunderstood Word In The Bible

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A Biblical fundamentalist, responding to my last blog, asked me to explain John 1:1-14.

Apparently he thought the picture (with the Bible telling a worshipper that it can’t save them) meant that I didn’t believe the Scripture and went on to declare the Bible as being “the only road map we have to salvation.”  Which, ironically enough, is in direct contradiction to what is actually recorded in Scripture.

Jesus said, according to the Gospel of John, that the “Spirit will teach you all things” and that he (not a book) was the only way to the Father.  It is a very clear pattern, throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters, that it is the Spirit that “quickens” (John 6:63, Romans 8:11) and that it was the Spirit that led Jesus (Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1), and this:

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. […] But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.  All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John 16:7‭, ‬13‭-‬15 NIV)

If you believe in the Spirit then you won’t settle for a road map.  If you believe that then you will receive the GPS—which is to say the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and the only thing that will make Scripture useful.  Because, lest we forget, those who rejected Jesus also believed in the Scripture and looked to it for their salvation:

And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.  You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37‭-‬40 NIV)

These people “diligently” studied the Scriptures yet did not have “his word” dwelling in them and rejected Jesus as Savior.  They were using Scripture as their “road map” and failed to recognize Jesus as Lord.

How can it be?

Well, it is simply this: The Bible, while “inspired by God” according to 2 Timothy 3:16, does not provide its own interpretation.  Scripture is written in human language, translated by human translators and requires the reader to correctly understand the words which it contains.

Peter warned the early church:

[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:16b)

Think about it.

Again, Scripture does not provide its own interpretation.  It can be misunderstood and distorted.  It did not lead those who diligently studied it to recognize Jesus as the source of life and the book itself testifies that we should expect something much greater than a book to lead us to all truth.

What is the most misunderstood word in the Bible?

There are many things in the Bible that are difficult to understand.  There are many words and phrases in it that are misunderstood and misused.  But there is one word that stands out above the rest.  It is the “Word” found in John 1:1-14:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […] The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1‭-‬5‭, ‬14 NIV)

First off, we should consider the intent and context.  John, in this dramatic introduction to his narrative, is making a thesis statement that establishes the divinity of Jesus.  He uses “Word” to create a link between the Spirit of God that was present from the beginning of time to the perfect incarnation in Jesus.

Second, John wrote in Greek, not English.

The “Word” used by John is “Logos” in the Greek.  It does not mean the same thing as the English word used by translators.  Logos is a word originally coined by Greek philosophers; it is a word used to describe the order of the cosmos, spiritual principles or divine reason.  John, borrowing the terminology of the Greeks, used “Logos” to describe God’s divine reasoning that created the universe, that is behind all events, and became flesh in Christ.  To reduce such a rich and powerful concept to merely written text is a crime against language.

Logos ≠ Bible

John says that the Logos “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” but he never claimed that it became text.  Nowhere in the Bible is “Logos” described as being synonymous with Scripture.  Many, their assumptions formed by an English translation and fundamentalist commentators, read “word of God” to mean Scripture.  However, there is no evidence in the Bible to support this assumption and an unbiased look at the descriptions of the “word of God” in Scripture would lead one to believe otherwise:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

Do an experiment: Take your Bible, set it on a shelf and don’t touch it for a week.  

Will it be “alive and active” if you do that?

No.

The book will not chase you or cause you to do anything unless you read it and that is quite different from what we read about God’s word.

The “word of God,” according to Scripture, is something that can’t be shelved.  Jesus once said that “the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40) if his disciples were to remain silent about his being Lord.  We read about Balaam’s donkey speaking in Numbers 22:22.  There is also the amazing conversion of Saul, whose vast knowledge of Scripture had prevented him from accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.  He was confronted on the road to Damascus by a light from above and a voice.  The “word of God” is clearly not a kind of word that is constrained to a page.

The “word of God” is something heard and obeyed, not read and studied.  Again, in John 5:37-40, we read where Jesus confronts those who diligently studied Scripture and yet never had “his word” dwell with in them nor did they “hear his voice.”  If the phrase “word of God” was synonymous with reading Scripture then Jesus would be contradicting himself by saying what he did.  Scripture is “inspired” by God, but it is not God.  God’s word, according to the book of Isaiah, does not “return void” and we can’t say that about the Scripture read by those who rejected Jesus.

The Word is God

This is where the rubber meets the road: To claim that Scripture is equivalent to the Logos of John 1:14 is to claim a book is God.  To do that is idolatrous.

The Bible is inspired by God, a written testimony of his work throughout the ages, but it is written in human language and depends on our ability to interpret it correctly in order for it to be profitable.  Correct interpretation of the sacred text is virtually impossible without the “mind of Christ” or promised Spirit of truth.

The Logos is infallible.

All human language is fallible.

Human language is dependent on words and words are basically metaphors and never actually the same thing they describe.  Words are only an arrangement of sounds and symbolic representations that are assigned to or associated with meanings.  These sounds and symbols representing the sounds require proper use and interpretation—words are not always understood as originally intended.

Human language is fallible because it depends on humans for interpretation and we are fallible.  Our words fall empty and void of meaning unless our readers or listeners make the same assumptions of meaning that we intend for the representative sounds or letters we strung together.  How much we understand depends on both parties “being on the same page” or, in other words, sharing the same assumptions about their words.

So how do we get the correct assumptions about Biblical language?

Correct assumptions come from relationship with the writer or speaker.  The better we know a person the more likely we are to understand the language they are using and come to the correct conclusions.  However, since even close friends occasionally have moments of confusion, having absolutely correct understanding requires that author and receiver literally share the same mind.

That is essentially what Paul is trying to communicate:

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”—the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.  The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:6‭-‬16 NIV)

Paul emphasizes the need for the Spirit as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture, but Biblical fundamentalism gets that in reverse and tries to find God’s living word through diligent study of Scripture.  Yet no amount of study can help a person who stubbornly holds to an incorrect understanding of the words in the book—their study could be a path to destruction.

It is the Spirit that conveys the meaningful content of Scripture.  And we don’t receive the Spirit through our own diligent efforts.  It is a gift of God’s grace that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8) and if we aren’t “quickened” (made alive) by the Spirit we will remain dead in our sins and ignorant.  Our salvation is fully dependent on God’s grace and therefore is not a product of anything else we have done—that “anything else” including our own human ability to read and comprehend Scripture.

A person can’t understand Scripture without having God’s word dwelling in them first.  One must be brought to life through a work of the Spirit because it is humanly impossible to bridge the gap between God and man.  There is no theological or intellectual tower tall enough to reach God.  God must first reach us and that is something done through his own mysterious means.

Biblical fundamentalists get things in reverse and think they save themselves through their reading Scripture.  However, if they understood what they read they would know that Biblical language does not provide it’s own interpretation they might be more humble and give God all the credit for their conversion—afterall, we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by our human knowledge or abilities.

Bibliolatry: A modern bull calf of Yah?

Remember the story in the book of Exodus where Aaron, pressured by the people, helped to create a golden calf as an idol to worship?

What you might not know is that in the original Hebrew they used the proper name of God (Yhvh) to describe their idol.  In other words, their idol was a false representation of the true God and not necessarily made in honor of false gods.  Note what Exodus 32:5 tells us:

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord. (Exodus 32:5 NIV)

They were using the correct word for God (Lord = Yhvh) in their worship before their idol and it seems very likely that they realized the calf was an object constructed as a symbolic representation of God and not God.  But their worshiping this representation in an object was idoltarous because it diminished God—it did not truly bring honor to God.

Modern religious people may think it is absurd that people would worship a golden bull on a pedestal.  Sadly many today worship a symbolic representation of God constructed out of human language.  Unfortunately, for them, in the same way that Yahwah is not a gold bull, the true “word of God” is not merely language.  We are in grave danger of falsely representing God if we turn to written symbols as our path to salvation rather than rely on the Spirit of the living God to guide us.

A person who can’t see the absurdity of putting written text of the Bible on the same level as the one who inspired it doesn’t understand language or God.  The Bible does not save anyone and we should never settle for a “road map” when we were promised a navigation system.  We need to consider thay 2 Timothy 3:16 and other passages written for the benefit of believers who already had the Spirit—the Bible is only profitable for those who have already been made alive.

In conclusion, we dare not confuse a symbolic representation of God created in human language with God.  The Bible should be venerated as something inspired by God—but never worshipped or made equal to God and his Logos.  To reduce God’s Logos to the text of a book is idolatrous.  It is putting human comprehension first and God second.

The People Want a King…, Part 1

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I felt like the dog who finally caught the car.  I was perplexed with a question: Now what?

My goal in blogging is to make a difference with the ideas that I share.  I know ideas are powerful.  I want to share good ideas and debunk or discourage destructive ideas.  It has been my goal from the beginning to write things worthwhile in hope of creating dialogue.

It was exciting when Good Men Do Not Blame Women quickly surpassed my previously most viewed blog in a matter of hours.  It was also terrifying that my words were being read by hundreds of people rather than just the usual handful of friends and followers.

But, amid worries about if I had proofread enough and given fair treatment to a complex topic, I enjoyed my new found popularity.  I enjoyed it so much that I worried that I enjoyed it too much.

I worried that maybe I was ‘going negative’ instead of sharing something helpful and constructive.  Just a week or so prior I had remarked to a friend that people who criticize other people (not like them) seemed to build a fan club quicker than those who shared good ideas.

I had to think there’s a danger of becoming a different version of what we preach most passionately against.  I do not want to contribute in an overreaction in the opposite direction and abandon what is good in proper order or at the right priority level.

I had a taste of power that I both liked and that I did not like.  It provoked many questions in my mind about what would happen if I gained a following.  Would I be an example of the ideals in my mind of leadership?  Or would I insulate myself from criticism and become arrogant?

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”  (Lord Action)

The good news is that my blogger stardom was very short lived and—besides a few new friends—I’m back to blogging to my usual small audience.  It means less pressure.  I feel I can share again without worrying as much about my imperfections being amplified over a large audience.

The people want a king to lead them…

In the beginning God was sufficient to lead his people.  The patriarchy of Abraham gave way to tribal elders and officers.  Later Moses acted as a prophet and arbitrator in disputes. However, eventually it was too much for Moses, the task was taking all of his time from “morning to evening,” which led to his visiting father-in-law to ask him why:

“Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”  Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out.  The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.  Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him.  Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave.  But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.  Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves.  That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you.  If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”  (Exodus 18:15-23)

Moses took the advice, he delegated the task of settling disputes to other capable men and that became the system for hundreds of years. 

It was a sort of anarcho-theocracy.  The prophet was the liaison between God and the people, the messenger of God, but not a ruler per se.  The laws handed down by Moses were the standard for judgment.  Enforcement of the law was carried out by the people rather than delegated to a few people and judges a final arbitrator between parties as needed…

“At that time the Israelites left that place and went home to their tribes and clans, each to his own inheritance.  In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”  (Judges 21:24-25)

There was a time after the Exodus of freedom from oppression and obligation.  Judges came and went as heroes who did God’s work to save the people from captivity.  Judges were representatives and deliverers of the people, but not rulers like a king.  However, eventually, when a worthy successor could not be found for Samuel amongst his sons, the elders of the people made a fateful demand:

“So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”  But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord . And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”  (1 Samuel 8:4-9)

Samuel went on to warn how kings would take their sons for wars and daughters as workers.  He spoke of how the future kings would take the best of their possessions for themselves and for their own purposes.  Still, despite the warning, he did not persuade them, the chapter continues:

“But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said.  “We want a king over us.  Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”  (1 Samuel 8-19-20)

The people were delusional just like their forefathers who begged Moses for a return to slavery and Egypt.  Despite Samuel’s warning of conscription, they apparently had an idea a king could miraculously do all the fighting for them and they ignored all rational concern.

A couple of the kings were good, David and Solomon notable examples, but a majority were more concerned with themselves, they all took special privileges for themselves and loaded the people down with increased burdens.  The prophecy of Samuel became reality—the people traded their greater freedom for a false security and eventual rule of tyrants.  Instead of protecting against oppression the kings became oppressors themselves.

Consequence #1: Increased Burden

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”  (Gerald R. Ford)

Kings and government leaders promise big things to their people.  But what often is forgotten by the enthusiastic crowds is that nothing is free.  When a Pharaoh promised a pyramid for the glory of Egypt Pharaoh, he wasn’t planning to build it on his own time with godlike powers.  No, the people paid the price of a king’s grandeur with their own backs and we still bear the weight of the audacious promises of our leaders. 

The burdens never seems to be lightened either. Consider when Rehoboam took over after his father Solomon and was confronted by the people:

“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” … The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, he followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier.  My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”  (1 King 12:4-14)

King Reheboam was more concerned with pleasing his young peers than he was in listening to the people or the elders.  As a result some did not accept his rule over them and the nation was divided.  It is interesting to see this same pattern play out today.  Leaders pursue their own vision, they increase the burden on the people without ever easing up, which leads to division and eventual rebellion.

Consequence # 2: Increased Corruption

“Our country is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation [of power] first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence.”  (Thomas Jefferson)

Kings and government leaders represent a consolidation of power and with consolidation of power comes increased opportunity for corruption.  Many leaders rise to power on their idealistic vision, but once they have power the vision fades and the desire to hold or increase power becomes the bigger priority.  We may call it “special interests” and political pandering today, but here’s how the Bible describes it:

“See how the faithful city has become a prostitute!  She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers!   Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water.  Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts.  They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”  (Isaiah 1:21-23)

Described above is the chipping away of principles.  Many institutions of men are founded with good intentions but become corrupted over time.  Corruption is a natural product of consolidation of power.  When power is given to one person (or a small body of people) they seem to inevitably try to use that power to secure more power for themselves.  There is no system of external controls that seems to be able to keep it in check.  Those in power have the tools to manipulate the rules for their own gain.

Consequence #3 Loss Without Gain

“If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.”  (Barack Obama)

Kings and government leaders are established to protect the people against harm.  But, not only do they fail to be able to protect a people from harm, they themselves often another source of harm.

The strength of a king is not in themselves as much as it is in the strength of their people.  As Samuel had warned, a king takes and can only give back what is taken and thus a corrupted people produce corrupt leaders:

“You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.  Where is your king, that he may save you?  Where are your rulers in all your towns, of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’?  So in my anger I gave you a king, and in my wrath I took him away.”  (Hosea 13:9-11)

Installing a king ultimately did not solve anything.  The people still ended up taken captive by other nations as they had before, they also endured the abuses of power hungry and corrupt leaders when not in captivity.  They gave away freedom for security and got captivity because they were corrupted themselves.

People want a king to blame…

The paradox of kings is that kings need strong people to maintain power—but strong people don’t need kings.  Weak people turn to leaders to do their work for them, but a man wearing a fancy crown and holding a scepter is only empowered by those who do his bidding.

It feeds a vicious cycle.  When things go wrong people blame the king.  As a result the king is driven to take more power upon themselves or risk losing power they already have.  Of course, since their power is derived from other people this means taking more from the people who are able to give.  It can only last so long as their are enough strong people to take from—when the weight of dependents comes closer to outweighing those able (or willing) to provide there is nothing a king can do but manage the decline.

Only, it is worse than that, because as already mentioned, consolidation of power is like a petri dish for corruption.  So, not only do these kings give a convenient scapegoat, they also are too often the goats among the sheep and motivated by their own gain rather the good of all in the herd.  In other words, if a couple sheep get thrown to the wolves and it saves a goat from an undesirable outcome and nobody notices, what sheep, right?

It is exactly what king David did to Uriah.  David goofed, he got Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba) pregnant.  He evidently didn’t want to suffer the political repercussions and attempted to hide the adultery.  So plan ‘A’ was urge Uriah to spend some quality time with Bathsheba and thus disguise the origin of the pregnancy.  Unfortunately Uriah, a true warrior, would not go home to his wife while his comrades were still fighting and David needed another plan.  Plan ‘B’ was to deliberately set Uriah up to be killed in battle.  It worked, except the prophet Nathan knew and he confronted the king with a story about a wealthy man who killed a neighbor’s pet sheep.

And David was one of the good kings and probably mostly because he could admit his sins…

This post is about faith, not kings…

My point here is not purely political or just historical.  I am using kings and government leaders as a metaphor for anything (be it an institution, a system of philosophy or theology, a man, etc) that replaces our own obedience to God. 

We cannot expect the world to be good if we continually delegate the tasks of our own conscience to others.  Faith is about being the solution ourselves and not sending others (who we can conveniently blame for the eventual failure) to do what is impossible for them to do alone.  We cannot expect the fullness of God’s blessing when we look to men to lead us.  If God is alive in us then we must be the agents of good in the world with our own abilities and be faithful to our calling.

This is not a call for a return to anarcho-theocracy and judges either.  Kings and governments rise in prominence because the people aren’t doing their jobs.  Therefore, the solution is not to reform government, the solution is to reform people and make government irrelevant.  If we were taking care of the widows and fatherless as we ought, for example, what need would there be for corrupt welfare programs?  If fathers weren’t leaving their sons to be raised by the brutal streets, what need would their be for police as brutal?

“Every country has the government it deserves.”  (Joseph de Maistre)

It is a collective problem when the people demand a king.  It becomes an individual problem when the people finally empower a man to do their dirty work.  There is always someone all too willing to seize power—those with an appetite for power—who will take the glory for themselves and then delegate responsibility for failure to others, exploits position, etc. 

It is a spiritual problem.  It is often only our own sloth, envy, pride, mistrust, fears, poor judgments and overreactions that are reflected back to us in the immoral whims of our leaders.  We delude ourselves when we abandon accountability to God for kings that are no better than us.

Now, enough said for now, back to chasing cars for me…