When We Miss the Forest of the Scripture for the Trees of Expository One-Upmanship

Longer Than Normal Blog Alert!

I can remember my trek through seminary many, many moons ago, when in my homiletics class, I was told in a Jeremiad-like tone from my professor to preach topically once a year and then afterwards, I should quickly repent! Needless to say, I have sense abandoned that directive for reasons that will hopefully be obvious to you as you both read this blog, and then more importantly; go and search the scriptures mentioned here for your own self-understanding.

Now though I do preach in an expository manner still, I endeavor to do so with the whole of scripture in mind, while simultaneously seeking to prove my point from the text in question from other scripture.  Nonetheless, I am also attempting to proportionately allow other scriptures (not always fitting neatly into the narrative I’m projecting to my audience) to also be given honorable mention and consideration.  I find many in the church at large have trouble with this however, simply because; as this blog hopes to shine a little light on, it doesn’t wrap up everything nice and pretty with a bow for them within their preferred systematic theological framework.  Nonetheless, my purpose through any exposition I attempt is to allow other “students of the book” in the audience to both receive some manna they can fill their hungry souls with, but that also gives them more work to do when the preaching party is over.  This of course requires thinking, which most evangelicals would rather die than do (Mark Knoll) I’m afraid.  Having said that, as a result of these observations over the years, I’ve wanted to at least write briefly about this topic.

Tools for the Expedition

 In fact, I often thought about calling my talk in this direction something akin to Biblioidolatry, which I believe aptly fits.  However, I then also realized that this is a term more liberal-leaning theologians seem to use for a diatribe against those who take everything in the Bible literally; even though they might use affectionate terms like “Bible thumpers” as they do so.  But in their defense, that indictment in itself is a problem on steroids, admittedly.  Yet as I see it, though there are many times we “in fact” are to take the bible literally, the important thing to understand is the different genres of the biblical writing employed throughout the forest of scripture (historical narrative, poetry, wisdom, apocalyptic, prophecy, gospels, letters, etc.), which many in the Christian community simply fail or refuse to do.  I would also add that a proper hermeneutical understanding would be a breath of fresh air, especially at this hour as lone-wolf voices are in no short supply mass-produced into the electromagnetic waves of our living rooms and not so smart phones!  And also, quite contrary to popular “Churchianity” thinking, this hermeneutical thoughtfulness does not require a seminary education, nor a secular one for that matter.  Instead, it simply must have the consistent application of the West’s gift of logic and reason (now fallen on hard times), and perhaps more Berean-like individual study of the scriptures periodically divorced from our favorite teacher’s tutelage.  And then if we add to that a thing called “The Spirit of the Living God”, we can then mix it all together like the “Candyman”, and it is then that the word of the Lord starts to taste very, very good and almost ready for prime time!  But wait.  Not so fast.  We haven’t solved the riddle yet.  And here’s a newsflash: until the eschaton, it will still be seen through a glass I’m told is often murky and dark (I Cor. 13:12).

Jesus Drops the Mic!

And so to introduce the perplexity of arriving at biblical and theological certainty, the most learned “people of the book” in the world’s history introduce our “elephant in the room” point for us.  In fact, in verse 39 of the 5th chapter of John, Jesus says this, “You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me, but you are not willing to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:29 NET).  So in other words, the ones who should have known better missed the forest for trees of legalistic minutiae unable to save anyone, including themselves.

Moment of silence please!

But wait.  There’s more to the story.  Jesus will later explain to these scribes and pharisees that besides missing the real life He offers, while an insignificant “woman at the well” drank deeply of a chapter previously, in Matthew 23:15 He explains the result of their lifetime of foregone conclusions when He writes, “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites!  You cross land and see to make one convert, and when you get one, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.  In other words, not only do you have it wrong continually, but you have the audacity to procreate for goodness sakes!

And there it is: the mic-drop front and center!

Paul Expands on Jesus’ Narrative

You know I’ve oft thought that Paul and the other apostles explain what Jesus said, and I think that will preach.  And so, for our next text for consideration, Paul reminds a young Timothy of how this wrongful thought process can creep in and catch hold of the sincerest of hearts and minds, and so he writes, “Remind people of these things and solemnly charge them before the Lord not to wrangle over words. This is of no benefit; it just brings ruin on those who listen. Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately.  But avoid profane chatter, because those occupied with it will stray further into ungodliness, and their message will spread its infection like gangrene” (II Tim. 2:14-17a NET).  And then to conclude at least for now with other Pauline guidance on this vastly important issue, he addresses the Corinthian church; who being the most gifted (at least in their mind’s eye), still says to them, “I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written, so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other” (I Cor. 4:6 NET).

And though it won’t be my purpose to do a proper “deep-dive” into these passages (which is also virtually impossible to do in a blog), I want to at least give some cursory points for our further contemplation before the Lord.  But the first thing I find that leaps off the page here, without it actually being said at all, is that the church closest to the events of the resurrection are already experiencing these problems we still all face.  So with all the chatter about being a “New Testament Church” as the preferred archetype, perhaps we should have some new nomenclature.  Point being: They were human like us; and so outside of the apostle’s influence, they had the ability to botch the whole thing up quite well before we ever showed up on the scene!  So perhaps we can give ourselves a pass here.

The next thing that actually does jump off the literal page at me is this issue of “wrangling over words”, which at surface level is having wars over words.  And to me that can be the meaningless wrangling over word tenses and “more correct” translations to the debates over our systems of theology that we have apparently been more baptized into rather than our actual faith in Christ that will share no other allegiances.  And Paul’s point seems quite clear: Arguing over any doctrinal point other than the essentials (Apostle’s Creed/Nicene Creed/historic church non-negotiables), and how we are to be more like Jesus, is nothing more than “profane chatter” that ruins everyone participating.  In addition, this practice is akin to “ungodliness” and actually; you guessed it, also procreates!  The result is of course the destruction of people’s faith in the end, having no roots of protection against it; and also destroys the church in the process.  This is not to mention the numerous scriptures that tell us that this bad behavior causes the world to both yawn, as well as continue to search for other options on the god superhighway.  And they are legion!

But the point from these two passages is summed up when Paul says in our Corinthian passage, that we should not go “beyond what is written”.  I take this to mean that when we spend so much time digesting a vast array of teaching that is not centered on some ecumenical focal point for all followers of Christ (the essentials I mentioned earlier), it only causes argumentation and debates over peripheral issues that simply do not matter in the overarching narrative of scripture.  Add to this what results in a good dose of spiritual-theological pride, and you’ve got a recipe for rampant division, and yet one more reason why the lost decide we are more a part of the problem than any solution that would cause them any more than a passing glance other than for sheer entertainment purposes, as they then rightfully exit stage-left.

Peter Chimes In

And then if that brief dialogue were not enough to get our interpretive juices flowing in the right direction, we get equally enlightening guidance from another pillar of the faith (Peter) speaking coincidentally (or maybe not) about his brother Paul’s writings when he says, “Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures.  Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard that you do not get led astray by the error of these unprincipled men and fall from your grasp on the truth.  But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  To him be the honor both now and on that eternal day” (2 Pet. 3:16b-18 NET).  So then, let’s break it down, hammer-time!

The first thing I notice from the pen of Peter is that Paul’s letters, and Peter’s for that matter, can be both “misunderstood”, and “hard to understand” without painstaking study.  That of course begs the question that “the rest of the scriptures” as a whole require meticulous mining to find its glorious pearls often purposefully hidden until we can better comprehend it or have been kicked in the teeth enough to finally allow its timely message to not return void in us.  For if not, it is so easy to “lose our grasp on the truth”.  And as an equally substantial icing on the cake, these treasures are often best kept in our prayer closet until a later broken and humble follower can graciously communicate its revelatory message to others with a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down (Julie Andrews).  For as our text opines, “grace” and helpful “knowledge” bestowed to others is something we “grow into”.  Subliminal Alert!  It’s just that some of us are trying to do a rush job on what the Lord has committed to a much longer tenure for us at His cruciform potter’s wheel.  And I for one get it.  I have no stones in my pocket, and neither does our Master.

Battle-Weary Lessons

But in conclusion, the point that Jesus, Paul and Peter are outlining for us; and that the rest of scriptures teach as well, is that God’s ways and purposes in this life are sometimes “past finding out” (Job 9:10; Rom. 11:33; Psalms 139:6; 145:3; Isa. 40:28; 55:8,9), and the mysterious things that are not revealed belong to the Lord until we both know in finality, and then and only then, are fully known (Deut. 29:9; 1 Cor. 13:12).  We have to hold this dichotomy between true revelation and ambiguity until such a time that obscurity is either lifted, or, until we see Him face to face!  And, I might add, we need to be able to live “faithfully” with God’s help in that ongoing contrast.  For it is that “center of biblical tension” (Robertson McQuilkin) that lives equally faithful when God is saying “Both/and” and not always “either/or”.  This is why the task of the preacher is indeed a hard one, juxtaposing between being a true spiritual director to hungry souls, and likewise as one making sure that what we dish out comes back to sit on our plate as well.  Or better yet, we are so much the wiser when it has already been worked out in us so we can give a little glimpse of what it looks like currently beyond some of our brothers and sisters reach; all the while reminding ourselves that “there by the grace of God go I’.  This is to be our address.  This is where we live.  Somewhere indeed between the forest and trees!

Selah