Rightly Understanding God's Word
Part 1 of 2
by Craig S. Keener
PNEUMA REVIEW Winter 2004 (Volume 7, Number 1)
While it is important to read each passage in the context that immediately surrounds it, it is also important to read it in the context of the entire book in which it appears-whether John or Judges or James or other books of the Bible. Often the particular passage fits into the argument of the entire biblical book, or sometimes it connects with themes that run through that book. In some cases, the story runs over several books in our Bible that were once connected as extended narratives (for instance, the Moses story in Exodus carries over from the Joseph story in Genesis, and 1 Samuel through 2 Kings are one long story; so also is Luke plus Acts).
1. Jewish-Gentile Reconciliation in Romans
Many Christians urge non-Christians to be converted by believing in Jesus' resurrection with their heart and confessing with their mouth that Jesus is Lord. This summary of how to respond to the gospel is based on Romans 10:9-10. Romans 10 does in fact describe salvation in these terms. But have we ever stopped to examine why Paul specifically mentions the mouth and heart here (rather than in some other passages which describe salvation)? Would Paul deny that a deaf mute could be saved simply because they could not confess with their mouth? Or does Paul choose his particular words "heart" and "mouth" for more specific reasons?
We look first at the immediate context, as we did in the previous chapter of this study. Paul believes that we are saved by God's grace, not by our works. Contrary to the means of justification proposed by Paul's opponents (Rom. 10:1-5), Paul demonstrates from the law of Moses itself that the message of faith is the saving word (10:6-7). As Moses said, "the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (10:8); Moses was referring to the law (Deut 30:10-11, 14), but the principle was also applicable to the gospel, which was also God's word. In Moses' day one could not ascend to heaven to bring the law down from above; God in his mercy already gave it to Israel on Mount Sinai (30:12). Nor was it necessary to descend again into the sea (30:13); God had already redeemed his people and brought them through the sea. They could not save themselves; they had to depend on God's mighty grace (cf. Ex 20:2). In the same way, Paul says, we don't bring Christ up from the dead, or send him down from the Father; like the law and Israel's redemption, Christ's salvation is God's gift to us (Rom 10:6-7). Moses declared that this message was "in your mouth and in your heart" (Deut 30:14), i.e., already given to Israel by God's grace. Paul explains that likewise God's message was in your mouth when you confessed Christ with your mouth and in your heart when you believed in Him in your heart (Rom 10:9-10). Faith could come only from hearing this word, the gospel of Christ (10:17), as we noted above.
The immediate context explains why Paul mentions the "mouth" and the "heart" in this specific passage, but it also raises a new question. Why did Paul have to make an argument from the Old Testament that salvation was by grace through faith? Was there anyone who doubted this? Reading Romans as an entire book explains the reason for each passage within that book. Paul is addressing a controversy between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
Paul begins Romans by emphasizing that the Gentiles are lost (Rom 1:18-32); just as the Jewish Christian readers are applauding, Paul points out that religious people are also lost (Rom 2), and summarizes that everyone is lost (Rom 3). Paul establishes that all humanity is equally lost to remind us that all of us have to come to God on the same terms; none of us can boast against others.
But most Jewish people believed that they were chosen for salvation in Abraham; therefore Paul reminds his fellow Jewish Christians that it is spiritual rather than ethnic descent from Abraham that matters for salvation (Rom 4). Lest any of his Jewish readers continue to stress their genetic descent, he reminds them that all people-including themselves-descend from sinful Adam (5:12-21). Jewish people believed that most Jews kept all 613 commandments in the law (at least most of the time), whereas most Gentiles did not even keep the seven commandments many Jews believed God gave to Noah. So Paul argues that while the law is good, it never saved its practitioners, including Paul (Rom 7); only Jesus Christ could do that! And lest the Jewish Christians continue to insist on their chosenness in Abraham, Paul reminds them that not all Abraham's physical descendants were chosen, even in the first two generations (Rom 9:6-13). God was so sovereign, he was not bound to choosing people on the basis of their ethnicity (9:18-24); he could choose people on the basis of their faith in Christ.
But lest the Gentile Christians look down on the Jewish Christians, Paul also reminds them that the heritage into which they had been grafted was, after all, Israel's (Rom 11). God had a Jewish remnant, and would one day turn the majority of Jewish people to faith in Christ (11:25-26). And at this point Paul gets very practical. Christians must serve one another (Rom 12); the heart of God's law is actually loving one another (13:8-10). Ancient literature shows that Roman Gentiles made fun of Roman Jews especially for their food laws and holy days; Paul argues that we should not look down on one another because of such minor differences of practice (Rom 14). He then provides examples of ethnic reconciliation: Jesus though Jewish ministered to the Gentiles (15:7-12) and Paul was bringing an offering from Gentile churches for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (15:25-31). In the midst of his closing greetings, he offers one final exhortation: Beware of those who cause division (16:17).
Getting the whole picture of Romans provides us a clearer understanding of the function of each particular passage in the work as a whole. It also suggests the sort of situation which the letter addresses. What we know of the "background" sheds more light on this situation: Rome earlier expelled the Jewish Christians (Acts 18:1-3), but now they have returned (Rom 16:3). This means that the Roman house churches, which had consisted completely of Gentiles for many years, now face conflict with Jewish Christians who had different cultural ways of doing things. Paul's letter to the Romans summons Christians to ethnic, cultural, tribal reconciliation with one another by reminding us that all of us came to God on the same terms, through Jesus Christ alone. (But we will turn to the issue of background more fully later.)
2. Justice for the Poor in James
Some people, reading the letter of James, have thought that the letter collects miscellaneous exhortations that do not fit together very well. But their view is unlikely: when one examines James carefully, most of the book actually fits together quite well.
In the "immediate context" section above, we asked how James expected us to resist the devil (4:7), and argued that he referred to resisting the world's values. This is a valid general principle, but were there any specific values that James was especially concerned about among his readers? Most likely, there were.
In the introduction to James' letter he introduces several themes which recur through the rest of the letter. By tracing these themes, we get a simple outline of the basic issues the letter addresses. (When I preach on James, I often like to preach from the introduction of the letter, which allows me to actually preach most of the letter using just one or two paragraphs as my outline.)
First of all, we see the problem James confronts: his readers encounter various trials (1:2). As one reads through the letter, one gathers that many of his readers are poor people who are being oppressed by the rich (1:9-11; 2:2-6; 5:1-6). (Background sheds even more light on this situation, which was very common in James's day. But for now we will continue to focus on whole-book context, since we will do more with background later.) Some of James' readers appear tempted to deal with their problem of various trials in the wrong way: with a violent (whether verbally or physically) response (1:19-20; 2:11; 3:9; 4:2).
So James offers a solution demanding from them three virtues: endurance (1:3-4), wisdom (1:5), and faith (1:6-8). They need God's wisdom to properly endure, and they need faith when they pray to God for this wisdom. James returns to each of these virtues later in his letter, explaining them in further detail. Thus he deals with endurance more fully near the end of his letter, using Job and the prophets as biblical examples of such endurance (5:7-11). He also demands sincere rather than merely passing faith (2:14-26). What he says about faith here is instructive. Some of the poor were tempted to lash out and kill their oppressors, and might think God would still be on their side so long as they had not committed sins like adultery. But James reminds them that murder is sin even if they do not commit adultery (2:11). The basic confession of Jewish faith was the oneness of God, but James reminds his friends that even the devil had "faith" that God was one, but this knowledge did not save the devil (2:19). Genuine faith means faith that is demonstrated by obedience (2:14-18). Thus if we pray "in faith" for wisdom, we must pray in the genuine faith that is willing to obey whatever wisdom God gives us! We must not be "double-minded" (1:8), which means trying to embrace both the world's perspective and God's at the same time (4:8).
James especially treats in more detail the matter of wisdom. He is concerned about inflammatory rhetoric-the sort of speech that stirs people to anger against others (1:19-20; 3:1-12). This does not mean that he remains silent toward rich oppressors; he prophesies God's judgment against them (5:1-6)! But he does not approve of stirring people to violence against them. James notes that there are two kinds of wisdom. One kind involves strife and selfishness and is worldly and demonic (3:14); this is the sort of view and attitude which tempts his readers. James instead advocates God's way of wisdom, which is gentle (3:13); it is pure-unmixed with other kinds of wisdom-and peaceable, gentle, easily entreated, full of mercy and the fruit of righteousness which is sown in peace (3:17-18). His readers were tempted to use violence (4:2) and desire the world's way of doing things (4:4). But rather than taking matters into their own hands, they should submit to God (4:7).
James is calling us to keep peace with one another. And if he calls the oppressed not to seek to kill their oppressors, how much more does he summon all of us to love and remain gentle toward those closest to us, even those who are unkind to us? "Resisting the devil" may involve more work than some people think!
3. David's Judgment in 2 Samuel 12:11
Sometimes we think that David's punishment ended with his son's death (12:18). But because David was a leader in God's household, his behavior affected many others and required strict judgment (12:14); God takes sin very seriously, especially when it leads others to misunderstand his holiness. In 12:11, Nathan prophesies against David judgment from within his household, including the rape of some his wives (as he committed immorality with another man's wife) by a friend of his, in public. This prophecy provides almost an outline for the rest of 2 Samuel!
In chapter 13, David's son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar. Tamar's full brother Absalom avenges his sister's honor by killing Amnon-who also happens to be the brother immediately his elder, meaning that-if Chileab is uninvolved in politics (he is nowhere mentioned)-Absalom is also next in line for the throne by birthright (2 Sam 3:2-3). Absalom returns from exile (ch. 14), and then leads a revolt that nearly destroyed David and his allies (chs. 15-18)-and broke his father's heart. Absalom slept with his father's concubines in the sight of Israel (16:21), despite the fact that this was against the law (Lev 20:11). Once this revolt was quelled and David returned to Jerusalem in peace (ch. 19), he had to deal with another revolt in the wake of the previous one, by a Benjamite usurper (ch. 20). By the opening of 1 Kings, the son immediately younger than Absalom is plotting to seize the throne (1 Kgs 1). Though forgiven by God and restored to his throne, David suffered the consequences of his pattern of sin for the rest of his life. This story provides a harsh warning for spiritual leaders today who forget their responsibility to live holy lives.
4. The "least of these" in Matt 25:40
Many people today emphasize the importance of caring for the poor by reminding us that Jesus warned us we would be judged by how we treat "the least of these" Jesus' brothers (25:40, 45). While it is true that God will judge us according to how we treat the poor, is the "poor" what Jesus means here by his "brothers"? Will the nations be judged (25:32) only for this? The immediate context does not settle the issue, but the broader context of the Gospel tradition may help more. What does Jesus mean elsewhere by "brothers" and by the "least"?
Because ancient readers would unwind a scroll from the beginning, the first readers would have already read the preceding chapters before coming to Matthew 25. Thus they would know that Jesus' brothers and sisters included all those who did his will (Matt 12:48-50), that all Jesus' disciples are brothers and sisters (23:8), and, before they finished the Gospel, would know that Jesus' disciples remained his brothers after his resurrection (28:10). (Because of the way the Greek language works, "brothers" often can include "sisters" as well, but in 28:10 the women disciples are addressing specifically the men disciples.) When Jesus speaks of the "least" in the kingdom, he sometimes also refers to some disciples (11:11).
Who then are the least of these disciples of Jesus that the nations accepted or rejected? It is at least possible that these are messengers of the gospel, "missionaries," who bring the gospel to all unreached people groups before the day of judgment; certainly the message about the kingdom would be spread among all those people groups before the kingdom would come (24:14). These messengers might be hungry and thirsty because of the comforts they sacrificed to bring others the gospel; they might be imprisoned because of persecution; they might even be worn down to sickness by their efforts (like Epaphroditus in Phil 2:27-30). But those who received such messengers would receive Jesus who sent them, even if all they had to give them was a cup of cold water to drink-as Jesus had taught earlier (10:11-14, 40-42). It is possible, then, in light of the entire Gospel of Matthew, that these "least brothers and sisters" are the lowliest of the missionaries sent to the nations; the nations will be judged according to how they respond to Jesus' emissaries.
5. What it means to Believe in John 3:16
John 3:16 does refer to salvation from sin through faith in Jesus, as we usually expect. But we do not catch the full meaning of this verse unless we read the Gospel of John the whole way through. The rest of the Gospel sheds light on what this verse means about the "world" (for instance, it includes Samaritans-see 4:42 in context), on how God expressed his love (by describing the cross), and other issues. We focus here on what John 3:16 means by saving faith. Someone may say he believes in Jesus, yet this person may attend church once a year and continue to live in unrepentant sin (let us say this person murders people every other weekend). Is this person really a Christian? What does it really mean to "believe" in Jesus?
The rest of the Gospel of John clarifies what Jesus means here by saving faith. Just before the conversation in which Jesus speaks 3:16, John tells us about some inadequate believers. Many people were impressed with Jesus' miracles and "believed" in him, but Jesus refused to put his faith in them because he knew what was really inside them (2:23-25). They had some sort of faith, but it was not saving faith.
What would happen if someone professed faith in Christ, then later renounced Christ and became a Muslim or worshiped old Yoruba gods? Would their earlier profession of faith be enough to save them in the end? The question is not hard to answer in light of the rest of John's Gospel, though some of us may not like the answer. Later in the Gospel of John, some of Jesus' hearers "believed" in him, but he warned them that they must continue in his word, so proving to be his disciples and learning the truth which would free them (8:30-32). By the end of the chapter, however, these hearers have already proved unfaithful: they actually want to kill Jesus (8:59). Jesus later warns that those who fail to continue in him will be cast away (15:4, 6). In John's Gospel, genuine saving faith is the kind of faith that perseveres to the end.
The purpose of John's Gospel was to record some of his signs for Christian readers who had never seen Jesus in person, that they might come to a deeper level of faith, the kind of faith that would be strong enough to persevere in following Jesus to the end (20:30-31). John makes this comment right after narrating the climactic confession of faith in this Gospel. Jesus summons Thomas to "believe," and Thomas expresses his faith by calling Jesus, "My Lord and my God" (20:27-28). Jesus' deity is an emphasis in John's Gospel (1:1, 18; 8:58), so of all the other confessions about Jesus' identity in this Gospel (1:29, 36, 49; 6:69), this is the climactic one: He is God. The content of Thomas's faith is correct, but John wants more from his own readers. Correct information about Jesus is necessary, but by itself correct information is not necessarily strong faith. Thomas believed because he saw, but Jesus says that he wants greater faith that can believe even before it sees (20:29). John's readers believe because he narrates his eyewitness testimony to them (20:30-31), confirmed by the power of the Holy Spirit (15:26-16:15).
In John 3:16, saving faith is not just praying a single prayer, then going on our way and forgetting about Jesus for the rest of our lives. Saving faith is embracing Jesus with such radical dependence on his work for us that we stake our lives on the truth of his claims.
6. Under the Law in Romans 7
Earlier we noted the importance of the entire structure of Romans, which teaches us about ethnic reconciliation. In this context, the specific function of Romans 7 is significant: Paul notes that believers are no longer "under the law" (7:1-6). But he also notes that the problem is not with the law itself (7:7, 12, 14), but with humans as creatures of "flesh." Many people take this chapter as also depicting Paul's present enslavement to sin, and some even use it to justify living sinfully, saying, "If Paul could not keep from living in sin, how can we?" Is that really Paul's point?
In 7:14, Paul declares that he is "fleshly, sold into slavery to sin." In surrounding chapters, however, he declares that all believers in Jesus have been freed from sin and made slaves to God and righteousness (6:18-22). In 7:18, Paul complains that "nothing good dwells" in him, but in 8:9 he explains that the Spirit of Christ dwells in all true believers. In 7:25 he confesses that he serves with his body the "law of sin"; but in 8:2 he declares that Jesus has freed believers from "the law of sin and death."
Why this apparent confusion? Probably only because we have missed the primary issue. Although Paul speaks graphically about life under the law in Romans 7, he is not implying that this is his typical daily Christian life. He says that when believers "were" in the flesh (probably meaning, ruled by their own desires), their sinful passions stirred by the law were producing death in them. By contrast, Paul says, "But now" believers have been "freed from the law," serving instead by the Spirit (7:5-6). That is, most of Romans 7 depicts the frustration of trying to achieve righteousness by the works of the law, that is, by human effort (Rom 7 speaks of "I," "me," "my" and "mine" over forty times). When we accept the righteousness of God as a free gift in Jesus Christ, however, we become able to walk in newness of life, and the rest of the Christian life is daring to trust the finished work of Christ enough to live like it is so (6:11). To the extent that our lives resemble Romans 7 at all, it is because we are trying to make ourselves good enough for God instead of accepting His gracious love for us.
7. Reproving Loveless Christians in 1 Corinthians 13
We often quote 1 Corinthians 13 as if it is an all-purpose description of love, for weddings, marriage counseling, friendships, and so forth. The principles in this chapter are in fact universal enough to apply to those situations, but Paul originally wrote them to address a specific situation which many of us today miss. Paul was addressing the appropriate use of spiritual gifts.
The Corinthian church was divided over a variety of issues. One such issue, addressed in chapters 12-14, was the use of some spiritual gifts. Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that the purpose of all publicly used gifts is to build up the body of Christ. In chapter 14, he emphasizes that prophecy is more important in public worship than tongues, because it builds up the church better (unless the tongues is interpreted). Between these two chapters is chapter 13, revealing love as the key virtue that moves us to use all our gifts to build up Christ's church.
Paul emphasizes that even if we have the greatest gifts, we are nothing without love (13:1-3). He points out that the gifts are temporary, due to pass away at Christ's return when we see him face to face (13:8-10); love, however, is eternal (13:11-13). Between these two points he describes the characteristics of love-characteristics which, in the context of the entire book, directly address what the Corinthian Christians lack (13:4-8). Love is not jealous or arrogant or boastful (13:4), but the Corinthian Christians certainly were jealous (3:3) and arrogant (4:6, 18-19; 5:2; 8:1) and boastful (cf. 1:29; 3:21; 4:7; 5:6). In short, everything Paul says love is, he has already told the Corinthians they are not! Paul's praise of love is simultaneously a gentle rebuke!
But just as love is our first priority, love tells us which gifts to seek most for the building up of Christ's body. The verses immediately surrounding 1 Corinthians 13 remind us that we should seek from God for public worship especially the "greater" gifts, those like prophecy which build up others (12:31; 14:1).
Coming in Next Issue:
Whole-Book Context, Part 2
8. The Spirit-baptized life in Mk 1:8-13
9. How to Make Disciples in Matthew 28:18-20
10. Loyalty to the Death in John 13:34-35
11. Judah's Punishment in Genesis 38
12. Rivers of Living Water in John 7:37-38
13. Moses' Character in Exodus 6:10-30
14. Rebekah's Deceit (Gen 27:5-10)
15. Casting Lots in Acts 1:26
Whole book interpretation principles
Professor Keener originally designed this course on Hermeneutics for use in Nigeria and not for traditional publication. Desiring to make it available to a wider audience, he has granted permission to publish this course in the Pneuma Review
. These lessons will also be made available on the www.PneumaFoundation.org website. Dr. Keener grants permission for others to make use of this material as long as it is offered without cost or obligation and that users acknowledge the source.
Portions of this course follows these recommended works: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart (Zondervan). Revelation, NIV Application Commentary
by Craig S. Keener (Zondervan, 1999).
Craig S. Keener, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament at Eastern Seminary. He is the author of ten books, including Gift & Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today (Baker Academic, 2001), and is married to Dr. Medine Moussounga Keener.
As appearing in Pneuma Review Winter 2004. The Pneuma Review is a quarterly printed journal of ministry resources and theology for Pentecostal/charismatic ministries and leaders.