Monday, April 28, 2008

"To Somebody Else"

This summer I will be guiding yet another trip to the Holy Land. Don't know how many this makes me; lost count. The timing is coincident with the re-printing of my book, Where Jesus Walked (Judson Press). I wrote the book some years ago to serve as a guide book and devotional resource for pilgrims and students traveling to the Holy Land. It will serve as our “textbook” of sorts for the trip (I know at least one college using it as well for the text for their travel-study experience this summer to Israel). We’ll spend most of our time learning about the history, culture, customs, language, and context of the New Testament. While I believe that the Bible speaks to us irrespective of whether or not we understand or appreciate the historical context and setting of the inspired author and his first readers, an appreciation of biblical history (including culture, language, politics, economics, religion, etc.) can open up the Scriptures in ways unavailable to those who ignore it.

For example, we all learned in Sunday School that Paul was a tent-maker. Luke (Acts 18) says that Paul supported himself while in Corinth by practicing his craft of tent-making along with Aquila and Priscilla, also tent-makers. But what kind of tents did he make? Were they pup tents? Boy Scout tents? Why did the Corinthians need tents? Some scholars point out that it was Luke, not Paul, who says that Paul was a tentmaker. Paul never mentions it. In this regard, is it significant that Paul uses the word “tent” (skenoo in Greek) only three times – in his second letter to the Corinthians? Now, of course you can understand something of Paul’s letters without ever asking any of these questions, but you will understand far more of who Paul was, what he was about, and what he was saying to believers (of both 1st and 21st centuries) with an understanding of and appreciation for his original context and situation. And that means that someone has to study Bible history; otherwise, the Bible’s just an inkblot in which you tend to find exactly what you’re looking for. Without knowledge of the original history of the biblical story we’re not really reading the Bible at all, we’re just reading ourselves into the Bible.

The late Clyde Francisco (who taught Old Testament at Southern Seminary for over 30 years) used to say: "We can never forget that the Bible was the Word of God to somebody else before it was the Word of God to us." That’s why, if you really love the Word of God you will take the time to ask the hard questions and do the hard work of trying to live yourself into the time, culture, and experience of biblical people. Only then will you hear the Voice of God speaking through the voice of the inspired biblical writer. And when you do, you’ll say: “You know, in what he said way back there to them, I think I heard a Word from God in there for me!”

You don’t have to travel to the Holy Land to do that (though it helps!). A good Bible dictionary or commentary or even a good Internet search engine will do just fine. While we can’t all be Bible scholars, as Christians we are all called to be Bible students.

But let’s give Paul the last word, shall we? “Study to show yourself approved to God, a workman unashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15)

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