I have been asked to address the question, ‘why do different people understand the Bible so differently?’ Well, it’s really quite simple; it is because they wear different spectacles to read the Bible.
One set of ‘spectacles’ we often wear is Tradition. Those who have been in a particular church tradition for a long time tend to ‘read’ the scriptures through the lens of that tradition. The approach to preaching, the liturgies, teachings, and practices of the tradition create a sort of spiritual optical prescription. Methodists will ‘see’ differently to how, say, Baptists will. Our traditions constitute spectacles that many have fashioned over long periods of time. They are thick-lens spectacles that are really quite heavy.
Another set of spectacles is Dogma. Church dogma forms a strongly tinted lens through which we view the Bible. Five Point Calvinism, for instance, is a pervasive dogma that strongly influences how people interpret the biblical text. Dispensationalism is another dogma that tints the spectacle lenses. If Calvinism forms a blue lens, then those wearing such spectacles will not be able to read anything printed with light blue ink. If Wesleyan dogma forms a red lens then light red print will be invisible… and so on.
Our presuppositions are another reason we see things differently. We all wear spiritual spectacles of some sort; no one can claim to read the Bible from a totally unbiased and objective perspective. We come to the Bible with an existing set of assumptions that we have built over our lifetimes. Assumptions concerning the authority of the scriptures, what constitutes truth, and so on. If my starting assumptions are different from yours then we will undoubtedly differ in the way we understand scripture.
The last set of spectacles I will touch on is Exegesis. Some people wear very tiny spectacles that only allow them to see one verse at a time. As a result they build doctrine on words and phrases taken out of the context of the passage, the book, and indeed the whole of the Bible. Others wear very narrow yet wide spectacles that allow them to see only the horizontal humanist dimension of the text.
So then, its all a matter of what spectacles we wear. I believe we could resolve a lot of the difference between Christians if we all chose to wear cross-shaped spectacles. If we focused our interpretation of scripture on what Jesus said and did, then we would soon find ourselves largely in agreement with one another (or am I looking through rose-tinted glasses?). Christ-centred spectacles are of course biblical spectacles. If we insist on viewing the Bible through the lens of current culture, then we will continue to divide over issues such as the role of women in the church, same sex marriage and so on.
I am writing this on the day after Resurrection Sunday. I don’t like to call it Easter Sunday – why should we give the pagan goddess Ishtar any credit. Friday embodies the glorious truth that Jesus settled the penalty clause of the violated covenant between God and humanity. I guess that is why some call it ‘good’ Friday. Sunday represents the equally awesome truth that through Jesus we can be born-again of the Spirit. On the cross of Calvary Jesus Christ brought to an end the line of Adam’s sin. As He walked out of the tomb, He started a new spiritual lineage for all who will believe. ‘So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.’ (1 Corinthians 15:45)
The message of Friday is clear. The truth that Sunday conveys is equally obvious. What, though, is the significance of Saturday?
According to the Apostles Creed, as we now have it, after dying on the cross Jesus ‘descended into hell’. However, the earliest versions of that creed do not contain this clause. When Rufinus introduced it in 390AD it seems that he understood the word ‘hell’ simply to mean ‘grave’. Notwithstanding this, some theologians have developed a complex doctrine of Christ’s decent into the devil’s abode. The primary texts they use are Acts 2:27, Romans 10:6-7, Ephesians 4:8-9, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:6. Wayne Grudem has an excellent section on this topic in his ‘Systematic Theology’ (pages 586 – 594). His concluding sentence reads, ‘concerning the doctrinal question of whether Christ did descend into hell after he died, the answer from several passages of Scripture seems clearly to be no.’
From the descent into Hell doctrine has come the teaching that Jesus had to die both physically on the cross and spiritually in Hell. Saturday, for those who believe this, stands for Jesus’ torment in Hades and his eventual victory, as He was ‘born again’ from the devil’s dungeon. There are plenty of problems with this view. Was Jesus then less than ’God’ that He could be tortured by the devil? Was His death on the cross less than adequate for our salvation? (See 1 Corinthians 1:17)
Colossians 2:13(b)-15 contains a more satisfactory explanation of what Passover Saturday represents. ‘He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.’ The language used in this passage evokes the scene of a military court-martial. They bring the offending officer to stand before his troops. The supreme commander then strips him of the symbols of his authority and expels him. Jesus settled the death penalty of the ancient covenant and proceeded to the heavenly throne room of God the Father. There Satan stood in shame before all the angels of heaven. Jesus stripped him of his authority and expelled him from heaven. The accuser of the brethren no longer has access to the presence of God. Hallelujah! This is what the Saturday between Crucifixion Friday and Resurrection Sunday stands for.
So, instead of descending into Hell, Jesus ascended into Heaven! Instead of the devil tormenting Him, He expelled the devil! How could some get it so wrong? Part of the answer lies in how we interpret the Bible. I deal with this in the second half of my latest book ‘Truth is the Word – restoring a lost focus’.
A couple in our church went through terrible emotional pain when their son was arrested and incarcerated in a South American jail. They tried everything they could to have him properly represented but it was a slow and heart-breaking process.
At that time we were holding quarterly celebration meetings in any venue big enough to accommodate our five or so congregations. There is a large prison in our vicinity and on one occasion we hired their hall for our combined Sunday service. It was a wonderful occasion, but a high point for me was when this distressed mother and father stood up during the service and announced that the Lord was calling them into a prison ministry. Right there in the heart of a prison the Holy Spirit turned their heartbreak into a passion for helping those, like their son, who were in jail.
Many years have passed now. Their son was eventually released because he was terminally ill and they sent him home to die. But the prison ministry didn’t die! It has flourished and now impacts prisoners throughout South Africa. In fact it has expanded to include the rehabilitation of released offenders, care for the children affected, and prevention training among high risk teens. From prison to powerful ministry indeed!
‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ Romans 8:28