Taking the Hand of God, Literally; How We Read the Bible

Heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool. What sort of house will you build for me? says the Lord, or what will be my resting place? Did not my hand make all these things?


Acts 7:49‭-‬50 CSB

I have thought and written about the fundamentalists and the atheists of the world who, ironically, approach the Bible in the same way. Both groups of people read the Bible in a wooden, inflexible, literal kind of way. (See Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism)

This passage above gets me thinking about these things again. The passage quoted above is from Steven’s address to the Jewish leaders who had him stoned after calling them stiff-necked like their ancestors in the desert (among other things).

Steven recited the Jewish history to them, including the Ark of the Covenant that was created for the Ten Commandments and Tent of Meeting that was carried through the desert. The Tabernacle with the Ark of the Covenant became the inner sanctum of the Tent of Meeting. These structures the people carried with them became the place they would meet with God.

David desired to build God a home, a permanent place for the Ark of the Covenant and Tabernacle, and Solomon accomplished David’s dream. David knew, however, that God does not live in a temple made by human hands. Solomon, David’s son who built the Temple, acknowledged this when he dedicated the Temple:

“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!

1 Kings 8:27

They understood that the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, and the Temple were symbolic. These physical structures and the activity organized around them and in them were meant to point to a metaphysical reality of much greater substance.

It’s ironic that David, a man after God’s own heart, knew these things, but the people of God generally often did not. David was a man after God’s own heart, but the Israelites on the whole were often stiff-necked, as Stephen said.

I find it ironic that people who try to interpret and apply the Bible in the most literal way fall on opposite ends of the spectrum. Fundamentalists and atheists both tend to interpret the Bible literally. They are the two sides of the same interpretive coin.

At the end of the passage quoted above, the Lord poses the rhetorical question, “Did not my hand make all of these things?” Does anyone literally believe that God’s hand made the universe? (Only one hand?)

I would venture to guess that nearly everyone understands this phrase to be allegorical. Yet, there are so many things in the Bible that people try to take and apply literally that are, perhaps, not as obviously allegorical.

I’ve heard the counter statement that we cannot pick and choose the things we believe out of the Bible. We must believe every word of it, or reject all of it. This is the literalist approach – all or nothing. Never mind that a verse like the one quoted above is clearly not intended to be taken literally!

Not to pick on “fundamentalists” (whatever that term might mean), but those people we tend to label with that term tend to push a very literal interpretation of Scripture. They, in a sense, double-down on the “facts” stated in the Bible and believe everything. Many atheists dig in on the same literal way of interpreting the Bible, but they believe none of it. They both approach the Bible the same way, but one believes 100% and the other believes 0%.

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Digging into the Accuracy and Inspiration of the Bible

I wrote recently on the character of Scripture, prompted by a statement made by Marty Solomon in Episode #82 of the BEMA Podcast, focusing on the question: Does inspiration mean accuracy? The idea that Scripture is inspired by God comes from 2 Timothy 3:16:

“All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness….” 

2 Timothy 3:16 (NASB)

This statement from Paul is one of the few comments on the character of Scripture in the Bible. In this article, I want to focus on other comments on Scripture in the New Testament.

You might be surprised to know that Peter cross-references Paul. Peter recognizes Paul’s letters and lumps them in with “other Scriptures”. (2 Peter 3:15-16 ESV) The recognition by Peter that Paul’s writings are “scripture” is highly significant because Jesus said Peter was the “rock” on which Jesus would build his church. (Matt. 16:18) If Peter considered Paul’s writings “scripture”, we should too.

Paul cross references Luke in his first letter to Timothy. Paul quotes “the Scripture”, saying “’Do not keep an ox from eating as it treads out the grain.’ And in another place, ‘Those who work deserve their pay!’” (1 Timothy 5:18 NLT) The first quotation is from Deuteronomy 25:4. The second is from Luke 10:7 (NRSV). Thus, Paul quotes Luke’s Gospel, as Scripture in the same vein as Deuteronomy.

This discussion, though, begs the question: what is Scripture? Obviously Peter thought Paul’s letters were Scripture, and Paul thought Luke was Scripture. Most of Scripture in that time would have been what we call the Old Testament. There was no “New Testament”, so what else is Scripture?

Many misconceptions abound. People claim that books were removed from the Bible. People claim that a group of church fathers got together and determined what should be in the New Testament. These claims are false. They have no basis in the historical record.

The truth is more complicated, and the NT canon developed more organically than what is popularly believed. The writings of the NT developed from the texts that were considered authoritative throughout the early church.

We may think of Christianity being controlled centrally from Rome, but that didn’t happen until the 4th Century. Before that, churches were scattered all over the Roman Empire and beyond. Various centers of influence existed, including Rome, Alexandria (Northern Africa), Caesarea (the Levant), Antioch (Syria), Lyons (France) and other places, but the top down authority of Rome (and Constantinople) developed much later.

The writings that make up the existing New Testament were shared and circulated throughout a wide area, wherever churches took root. Opinions were shared, and a consensus grew based primarily on the authorship (apostolic connection) and message (consistency with the teachings of Jesus).

Many of those writings were accepted very early by a majority of people, and others gained acceptance later by consensus. (See The Formation of the New Testament Canon) Many other writings were considered helpful, but not Scripture, and some writings were considered heretical. Late writings (turning up after the apostles were gone in the 2nd Century and later) were categorically excluded.

Eusebius of Caesarea was one of the first people to attempt a summary of authoritative writings. The 22 “books” he identified in the 3rd Century are nearly identical to the canon we have today, minus a few and plus a few. The consensus was close to settled at that time.

The first person to name all 27 writings exactly as they are known today was Athanasius in Northern Africa in his Festal Letter written A.D. 367. The same canon was accepted by the rest of Christendom at the African synods of Hippo Regius (A.D. 393) and Carthage (A.D. 397 and 419). (Not the Council of Nicaea as the popular myth goes!)

In between the 1st Century and the early 5th Century when the canon was officially settled, other lists were offered by various sources. Bruce Metzger, the Princeton Theologian, says, “The slowness of determining the final limits of the canon is testimony to the care and vigilance of early Christians in receiving books purporting to be apostolic.”

Metzger notes that “the chief criterion for acceptance of particular writings as sacred, authoritative, and worthy of being read in services of worship was apostolic authorship”. The early church focused on the source or authority – connection to the apostles who knew Jesus. They also measured them by the known message of Jesus, as preserved by those apostles.

Keep in mind that the apostles lived on after Jesus. Peter died in 64 AD during the reign of Nero in Rome according to contemporary, extra-biblical sources. John, the Apostle, died in 100 AD according to reports preserved from multiple sources.

Thus, the apostles, the closest people to Jesus, lived on 30 to 70 years after Jesus died. They were the standard by which the authority of contemporary writings were judged.

Determining (or accepting) what is Scripture is only a beginning, though. How we view Scripture and interact with it is where the real rubber meets the road. In my last article, I wrestled with what it means that Scripture is inspired, suggesting that accuracy is not necessarily the key component. I will dig a little deeper in the rest of this article.

Continue reading “Digging into the Accuracy and Inspiration of the Bible”

Does God Throw Wildflowers into a Furnace?

The title to this piece seems like a silly question, right? But Jesus said,

“Consider how the wildflowers grow: They don’t labor or spin thread. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these. If that’s how God clothes the grass, which is in the field today and is thrown into the furnace tomorrow, how much more will he do for you — you of little faith?”
 
Luke 12:27‭-‬28 CSB

So, we need to ask again, “Does God throw wildflowers into a furnace?” I think it’s pretty safe to say that He doesn’t, right? Jesus is speaking allegorically here.

Jesus is saying in flowery terms that flowers are here today and gone tomorrow. They are beautiful, but only for a short time. No one reads this passage to mean that has a furnace where He throws all the wildflowers in the world. A wildflower furnace.

In the context of this little parable, Jesus is saying that wildflowers are magnificent in their splendor, though they last only a short time. The fact that God makes such temporary things as wildflowers beautiful in splendor is meant to give us hope and faith that He has much more splendor in store for us, the creatures He made in His own image!

These words give us great hope when life seems to be taking us down. No one interprets what Jesus says here as a lesson in the way God disposes of wildflowers. It’s a lesson about putting our faith in God.

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How Do We Demand Signs and Miss What God is Doing in the World?

The Gospel records a three year period of time in which Jesus seemingly performed miracles, signs and wonders everywhere he went. Perhaps, the accounts in the Gospels give us an impression that doesn’t correspond to the reality because they recount the many miraculous things he did, but they don’t describe all the times in between.

It seems strange, given all the miracles, signs and wonders that Jesus did that the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus one day to test him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. (Matt. 16:1) Perhaps, they wanted him to do it on command, like a science experiment to prove himself.

Perhaps, they had only heard of the things Jesus did, but they hadn’t actually seen him do anything. Perhaps, they didn’t trust the accounts of the common people Jesus seemed to prefer to hang out with. They were more gullible and less discerning.

Attitudes like that haven’t changed much in 2000 years. The Sadducees and Pharisees were more learned. The Sadducees didn’t believe in supernatural occurrences, miracles or demons. The Pharisees did believe in those things, but they were skeptical. The two groups had very different worldviews, but they were aligned in their skepticism.

When these elite religious leaders asked Jesus for a private performance – “a sign from heaven” – he refused. And, he said this:

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign[i]; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” 

(Matthew 16:4)

The fact that these two groups, one that believed in the supernatural and one that didn’t, were aligned in their skepticism suggests that their “problem” with Jesus was that he challenged their dogmas. They doubted the fact that he did miracles, signs and wonders because of the content of what he was saying.

And, Jesus seemed to revel in provoking them on those differences!

The Pharisees (who believed in the supernatural) determined that healing on the Sabbath is work and is, therefore, prohibited by the Law of Moses. They demanded that Jesus not heal on the Sabbath, but Jesus did it anyway. (Matt. 12:1-14)

Ironically, this healing that was done right in the Pharisees’ presence occurred four chapters before they came to Jesus and demanded a sign from heaven. They had seen a sign from heaven already and dismissed it out of hand because it went against their beliefs.

Jesus challenged their preconceived ideas and expectations. He challenged their authority to determine what is work in violation of the Sabbath and what isn’t. They watched Jesus heal a man with a shriveled hand, but they dismissed it because of what he taught that was contrary to what they believed.

God showed the Pharisees a sign (the healing of a man with a shriveled hand), but they were too focused on his violation of their understanding of Scripture and religious dogma to notice it for what it was.

This story illustrates the danger of our religious dogmas and preconceived ideas of what God should do and not do. Even when the evidence is staring us in the face, we can be tempted to ignore it, gloss over it, and explain it away in favor of how we interpret and understand Scripture.

Continue reading “How Do We Demand Signs and Miss What God is Doing in the World?”

Why Did God Subject the World to Futility?

Photo by Ken Gortowski

I want to focus on the following statements Paul made in his letter to the Romans:

“[T]he mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject[i] itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so…. 

Romans 8:7

“[C]reation was subjected[ii] to futility[iii], not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free ….”

Romans 8: 20-21

Life and death, the universe and all the “stuff” that is, ever was and ever will be are “in God’s hands”. That is another way of saying that God created everything. God is timeless and immaterial and has created all that is material out of nothing, including us.

But the material world, the world as we know it, is passing away (1 John 2:17), even from the moment it was created! That’s what science (the second law of thermodynamics) tells us also. The world has been has been “winding down” since the “Big Bang”.

Paul’s statement about the “futility” to which the world has been subjected suggests that futility is part of God’s ultimate plan, because it was done “in hope”.

If that doesn’t add up for you, I don’t think you are alone. I have been puzzling on it for awhile. What possibly could be the plan?

The trite response that “God’s ways are not our ways” falls short. We want to know, though perhaps it’s true that we may never completely understand. Still, I have some ideas that are informed by Scripture that I will try to lay out in this article.

Continue reading “Why Did God Subject the World to Futility?”