Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Danger and Legalism of Unnecessary Sacrifices

Legalism can be so subtle.

We think of obvious types of legalism - the false gospel of works-based salvation Paul challenges in Galatians, the added rules of the Pharisees that burdened the people in Jesus' day. Recognizing those extremes is really not difficult when we have a working knowledge of the New Testament.

It's the subtle legalism that trips up so many of us. The idea that we can make God love us less or more. The pride that creeps in when we think we have something figured out that others are missing. The "ideal _______ (man, woman, marriage, child, pastor, church, etc.)" that goes beyond Biblical parameters to apply personal preferences. And ... unnecessary sacrifices.

This one took me a long time to see. I heard a pastor years ago say "Don't make any unnecessary sacrifices". I took it as an encouragement, but as I've grown in the Lord and in the understanding of His Word I realize how much wisdom is in that sentence. Unnecessary sacrifices can be dangerous and often have a root of legalism.

Of course, God asks us to bring spiritual sacrifices. The sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15), doing good and sharing with others (Hebrews 13:16), sacrificial giving (2 Corinthians 8:1-7), offering our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2), and even being willing to die for the sake of the call (Philippians 2:17) -- all these are right and good sacrifices for the Christian.

But unnecessary sacrifices? Those can be downright dangerous. Consider the example of Saul, when he asked his men to fast during a major battle: 
Now the men of Israel were pressed to exhaustion that day, because Saul had placed them under an oath, saying, "Let a curse fall on anyone who eats before evening--before I have full revenge on my enemies." So no one ate anything all day, even though they had all found honeycomb on the ground in the forest. They didn't dare touch the honey because they all feared the oath they had taken. But Jonathan had not heard his father's command, and he dipped the end of his stick into a piece of honeycomb and ate the honey. After he had eaten it, he felt refreshed. But one of the men saw him and said, "Your father made the army take a strict oath that anyone who eats food today will be cursed. That is why everyone is weary and faint." "My father has made trouble for us all!" Jonathan exclaimed. "A command like that only hurts us. See how refreshed I am now that I have eaten this little bit of honey. If the men had been allowed to eat freely from the food they found among our enemies, think how many more Philistines we could have killed!" They chased and killed the Philistines all day from Micmash to Aijalon, growing more and more faint. (1 Samuel 14:24-31 NLT)
By this point in the narrative we know that Saul acts irrationally. His request for an unnecessary fast - an act intended to be a sacrificing of food in order to draw close to God - put his soldiers at risk. God still gave them victory, but they were weaker than they had to be. Jonathan's strength is a direct contrast after he feasted on the honey God provided. Saul's example gives one factor that leads to unnecessary sacrifices - a false idea that we can earn God's favor by an extreme act of devotion.This is a key sign of legalism.

Another reason for unnecessary sacrifices is a lack of desire to do what God asks. Sometimes we simply just don't want to do what He's clearly said. A sacrifice of our own choosing, however hard, seems easier.
What can we bring to the LORD? What kind of offerings should we give him? Should we bow before God with offerings of yearling calves?Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8 NLT)

Sometimes unnecessary sacrifices are motivated by selfishness - trying to impress God while really pleasing ourselves.
'We have fasted before you!' they say. 'Why aren't you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don't even notice it!' "I will tell you why!" I respond. "It's because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me.You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD? No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. (Isaiah 58:3-7 NLT)
All of these unnecessary sacrifices - and many others - have a dangerous root of legalism.

So how can we know our sacrifices are genuine spiritual sacrifices? As we learn to walk with the Lord and hear His voice we will know when He is calling us to a hard thing. I see four principles in Scripture that help me recognize His call instead of my own subtle legalism:

1) The sacrifice is Biblical.This should be obvious but it can't be overstated: Make sure that what you think you are being asked to sacrifice is a Biblical request. One of the ways legalism creeps in is to ask for sacrifices that are outside the lines of Scripture. This is, frankly, spiritually abusive. For example, God doesn't ask you to sacrifice your marriage for the sake of ministry. He might ask you to give up some time you had planned to spend with your spouse or something similar (you should always seek for unity in such a decision), but He won't ask you to leave your spouse to have more time for ministry. Immerse yourself in the Word and sit under sound teaching, and you'll have good sense of Biblical parameters for sacrifices.

2) The sacrifice is given freely and willingly. 2 Corinthian 9:7 tells us: "Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." While the immediate context speaks of financial giving, the passage applies the Old Testament principle of freewill offerings to the church. Money, time, fasting, our favorite shirt -- whatever we sacrifice should be given freely and willingly. 1 Peter 5:2 even goes so far as to apply this to church leaders! "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, watching over them--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve;"

So what about times God clearly calls you to sacrifice something that you struggle to hold on to? You know this sacrifice lines up with Scripture, and you know when God's asking something of you - but you are struggling with the 'freely and willingly' part.
Maybe you've heard it said that "God loves a cheerful giver but He'll take it from a grouch." I don't see that concept in Scripture. Sure, a "grouch" can hand over a sacrifice, but God looks on the heart. I've faced a few of those situations in my life (who hasn't) and here's what I've learned: The answer to get me to the point of "freely and willingly" is the same as anything in Scripture -- look to Jesus. Keep my eyes on Him, and ask the Holy Spirit to help me. As Christians we already know the power of God to change hearts, to make dead men live. If He can do that, then He can make unwilling hearts willing. Before giving the sacrifice, I take it to God and ask Him to change my heart, to bring it in line with His. Often I don't get the "feeling" until the moment I put my hand to the step of committing to the sacrifice (sending that email, writing that check, etc.) -- but inevitably, when God is behind a sacrifice, before it's actually made He makes me willing. I just have to seek Him more sometimes than others. :) 

3) The sacrifice is prompted by faith. 2 Thessalonians 1:11 says, "May God fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith." This is great encouragement for those times we aren't sure if something is a direct call from God or the good act of a Godward believer. Any good purpose -- and any sacrifice -- should be prompted by faith. This is crucial, because faith-prompted acts are not based on guilt ("I should do this") or manipulation ("You should do this"). They're not driven by fear or pride or selfishness. Instead. they are full of faith from the beginning. 

4) The sacrifice is motivated by Christ's love. Paul wrote to Corinth: "If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died." (2 Corinthians 5:13-14). Everything that Paul did was motivated by the love of Christ. The word "compels" literally means "controls" or "held together with restraints". It's used of prisoners being arrested and cattle being squeezed into a location to receive medication. Paul is essentially teaching us by His example that the only thing that should press any sacrifice or act of faith upon us is the love of Christ. The biggest danger of legalism is that it gives someone or something else a level of control over us that belongs only to Christ.

So there you have it - 3 examples of the danger and legalism of unnecessary sacrifices, and four Biblical guidelines for discerning the difference. May God give you grace for everything He calls you to do, and may He direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance when things get tough (2 Thessalonians 3:5).  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Bible 101, Question 5: Getting started: Approaches to reading the Bible

So far in this series we have established that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that the Bibles we hold in our hands are accurate texts of the words God inspired, that the differences in translations should not trouble us, and that the Bible should have a place of priority in the life of a believer. If you're with me this far, I assume you are ready to get started, or restarted, making the Bible prominent in your life.

But how? Where do you begin? You might have heard the old joke about the man who had a random approach to reading the Bible. The story is told here:
The first verse he happened to turn to was Matthew 27:5 which says Judas "went and hanged himself." Since he was not sure how this verse applied to himself, he flipped to another passage and the Bible fell open to Luke 10:37: "Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise." The man was quite upset and he did not know how he could ever obey that, so he decided to turn to one more place. Again he opened the Bible at random and to his horror his finger fell upon John 13:27: "Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly."
It's easy to see the pitfalls of that method! So what's a Christian to do instead? This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I've included some approaches to the Bible that I personally have found helpful over the years. I hope one or more of them works for you!

Reading through the Bible
My personal opinion is that every Christian benefits enormously by consistently working on a Bible read-through. It's the only way to be exposed to all of Scripture on a consistent basis, and God never fails to teach me something new every time I go through. There are so many ways to do this. Many Christians do a "through the Bible in a year plan"; your church might have a guideline for that. My grandfather's plan was two chapters of Old Testament and one of New Testament every day. Chronological Bibles set up daily readings across several books so you don't flip back and forth.

Personal confession: I've read through the Bible 6 times, working on 7th, but I've never read through the Bible in a year. I'm so task-oriented that I get focused on "checking off my list" and the words zip past me. Instead, I read a chapter a day, or occasionally two because when I'm in Psalms I typically continue in my other reading as well. It takes me 3 years to read the 1189 chapters of the Old and New Testaments; if I didn't double up on Psalms it would take about 3 1/4 years.

Each time I read through the Bible I try to use a different translation, or one I haven't used in a while. This gives a different "flavor" to the familiar words and forces me to slow down and pay more attention. I also keep notes of what God teaches me in each chapter. Some read-throughs I have challenged myself to focus on different things: Chronology of event, Attributes of God, Jesus in the text, and my personal favorite challenge was a personal application from every chapter of the Bible. Boy, was that fun in Chronicles and Leviticus! I still remember one lesson from the detailed description of priest sacrificial offering requirements: "Ministry is messy."

I also take a break from my read through every Holy Week (Palm Sunday through Easter) to read the Passion Week accounts in my Harmony of the Gospels. On Palm Sunday I read the Palm Sunday events; Monday the Monday events; and so forth. It focuses my attention on that week in a way nothing else does.

Devotionals are short readings, often from Bible teachers or pastors (but not always), typically arranged in some sort of thematic fashion. Devotionals can be a helpful tool in establishing a daily quiet time, and provide a great resource for those whose time is truly limited (moms of toddlers come to mind!). Devotionals are most helpful when used in conjunction with the recommended reading for each day. If there is not a suggested reading, then reading the chapter from which the devotional passage is taken is a helpful tool.

Personally, I find devotionals of most value as a supplement to my Bible reading and study. My husband and I read a daily devotional together at breakfast, after we have each had our quiet times. It often reinforces what God is speaking to each of us individually.

In-Depth Study
By "in-depth study" I don't mean a particular method, but any intentional, systematic study of a portion of God's word. This can be an inductive study of a book; a topical study; a character study; and much more. There is a wealth of options for guided in-depth Bible studies, some with video and audio components plus a workbook; others with workbooks alone. I have done many such studies and typically always have one going that I do each day in addition to my Bible read-through. If you choose to do an in-depth study, I recommend that you talk to your pastor or Bible teacher at church for suggestions to start with. Then, as you continue you can branch out to other authors. At some point you will encounter teachings that might be different from what your pastor teaches. I would encourage you to talk to him about those differences. You will find that in the vast majority of cases the differences are on non-essential aspects of the faith.

Another way to do an in-depth study is to learn how to study the Bible inductively on your own. I'll go into more details on Biblical interpretation in the next post, but for now I will just recommend Kay Arthur's "How to Study Your Bible" as a starting point. The companion "Inductive Study Bible" has been an invaluable resource for me for almost 20 years; my notes fill its pages and I've learned so many things through my own studies.
Memorizing Scripture
I wasn't raised on Scripture memory. I tucked away John 3:16 and Psalm 23, and that was about it, until I started doing in-depth Bible study. One study challenged me to memorize a verse a week. Other verses stuck in my mind simply from continual contact with them in the course of a week's study. A few years ago, though, God prompted me to become more intentional about Scripture memory. I memorized some longer passages and an entire chapter (Isaiah 58). It was after memorizing the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) that I was hooked. I find that I learn so much from the repetition. As I consider the verse for the purpose of memorization, I understand the meaning more. Remember, our books were initially read aloud, so reading or memorizing out loud gives a cadence that we often miss in reading silently. Now I am always working on some significant chunk of memory work.

There are as many ways to memorize as there are learners. I'm a tactile-kinesthetic learner. I have to take notes to remember anything from a sermon; I have to write things down; etc. The way that translates to my scripture memory is that I write out the verses on spiral note cards, then learn them while walking our dog (I joke that she knows more scripture than any dog alive!). I review them while driving, swimming, anything that involves movement. I review them when falling asleep, usually not getting very far but often waking up during the night and picking up the next verse. The passage really becomes part of me in a unique way.

So there you go - four different approaches to being in the Word. Each of these are part of my life on a daily or almost daily basis. As you begin or continue your journey in God's Word, I hope that my experience can help you grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bible 101, Question 4: Why is the Bible important?

Once we have established the authenticity and inspiration of Scripture, and determine the best translation for our purposes, often we still need motivation to make Scripture prominent in our lives. Let's face it: It takes time to read the Bible, listen to a sermon, work on a study. Why is it important that we carve out some of our valuable time to spend in the word of God? Here are 10 answers, straight from Scripture. I pray they will encourage you to press forward in your Bible reading and study. (All passages English Standard Version.)

The Bible is God's means to guide us through life.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)

The Bible gives us hope as we learn from the lives of others.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:14)

The Bible is living and active, and reveals what is really in our hearts.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

The word of God is at work in believers.
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.(1 Thessalonians 2:13)

The word of God tells us about Jesus.
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me (John 5:39)

God's word is essential for true life.
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life (John 6:63).

God promises that His word always accomplishes His purpose.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

God's word has a sanctifying effect in our lives.
I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:11)

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.(2 Peter 1:3-4)

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21)

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.(John 17:17)

God's words keep us free of shame and full of joy.
Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.(Psalm 119:6)

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:7-11)

The word of God will outlast anything on this earth.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.(Isaiah 40:8)

Friday, July 31, 2015

Bible 101, Question 3: Why are there differences in translations?

Many of the questions I get about the Bible are related to translations:
  • "What translation do you use?"
  • "What is the most accurate translation?"
  • "What's your opinion about ______ translation?" 
  • "Why is there a difference in this translation? 
Along with the spiritual gift of teaching comes a heavy responsibility, so I don't take these questions lightly. Translation differences have caused too much division in the body of Christ, and the simple fact is that this is an area where it's easy for people deeply committed to the authority of Scripture to jump to conclusions. I saw a recent post on social media about a translation that "leaves out the following scriptures", followed by a list and exhortation to check it out. Of course there was a grain of truth in that post, but there was absolutely no context to explain why some verses are disputed, nor was there an acknowledgment that any solid translation that omits those verses will include them in a footnote. And we've all heard the joke about the woman who, when asked about her Bible translation, emphatically declared that if her traditional English translation was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it was good enough for her!

With all this in mind, I have a little bit of the feeling that with this post I am jumping into the deep end without a life jacket. I realize many of you reading this will have firm opinions one way or another. I only ask that you receive this post in the spirit I intend it: As information that I have gathered in my own journey, that I'm sharing in the hopes it will be helpful to someone else. As always, if anything I say contradicts your pastor, please talk to him and do your own research. My overall goal in this series is to make Bible study more accessible and approachable by de-mystifying some of the big questions that sometimes cause us to keep the Word of God at a distance. If this series results in you picking up the Bible and studying it for yourself, then I have accomplished my goal.

Ok, are you ready? Let's climb up on that 10 foot ladder together and take a leap!

Textual Criticism
First, a word about textual criticism. The word "criticism" can throw people off but it is really an academic term that refers to the study of ancient documents to determine the accuracy of a word choice. It's a necessary step in the translation process when the originals are not available, as is the case with the Bible. From the first translation textual criticism has been part of the church's approach to the Bible.

Note: there is a branch of textual criticism with the goal of breaking down the Bible into parts that the researchers deem "authentic" and parts deemed "inauthentic". This is called "higher criticism" and its practitioners frequently approach the Bible more as literature than the inspired word of God. Thus, this type of criticism has bred unbelief and the elimination of many passages as "inauthentic", despite their presence in the ancient manuscripts. A summary of higher criticism is found here, but in this post I use the phrase "textual criticism" to refer to the necessary task of studying ancient documents for accuracy in translation of the inspired word of God. The phraseology is unfortunate and I use it sparingly. Please understand that "textual criticism" as used in some of the links I provide is not criticism in a negative sense, but simple applying critical thinking skills to evaluating the word of God.

Textual criticism is invaluable because of the vast number of copies of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. This summary is rather technical (this is, after all, a science) but even a quick scroll down the page will show you why there needs to be rhyme or reason to the decision-making process. We could have no faith in a translation that depended on the translator's personal whims!

When all the variations in manuscripts are compiled, four major "families" emerge (Holman 104-105 & this link):

1. Byzantine (or Majority Witness) - comprise 80% of the available texts. These texts stem from the Byzantine Empire and flourished throughout the Middle Ages. Geographically these came primarily from the Eastern Mediterranean. The earliest documents in this family are from the mid to late fourth century. While this family has the most representation, many of them are from later years and where differences in other texts occur, most of these texts agree only with each other. This is the text captured in the first printed Greek New Testament (Erasmus in 1516), and on which the King James Bible and New King James Bibles are based. While there is an understandable "majority rules" tendency among many, there are also highly legitimate reasons to question these texts. These reasons include the likelihood that earlier versions copied closer to the original were less likely to include errors, and the demonstrated tendency of scribes to incorporate any questionable passage out of a reluctance to accidentally omit a verse of legitimate Scripture.As a result this group has the most texts that are in question based on their absence in other families.

2. Alexandrian manuscripts are primarily out of Egypt and represent about 5-10% of the available texts. Most modern translations, includes NASB, NIV, and RSV, are based on these manuscripts. The earliest of these manuscripts dates to about 180 A.D. Many of its readings that vary from other texts are supported by internal evidence within the manuscripts. These texts are less consistent with each other than the Byzantine. These texts are more likely to not have the questioned texts commonly found in the Byzantine.

3. Western manuscripts, comprising about 5% of texts, were found in the Western Mediterranean. These commonly have the questionable texts. No entire translation is based on Western manuscripts, but they are used as a reference point.

4. Some scholars also recognize a "Caesarean" manuscript stemming from Caesarean but this classification is disputed.

It is important to note that, while many variants in the passages do exist, most are simple spelling or grammatical matters, word order, etc. Only about 2-5% of the text is seriously debated. No major doctrines are affected, because the Bible has a "built in redundancy" where every major doctrine is repeated throughout many chapters, books, and even testaments. For example, one disputed verse is 1 John 5:7-8. The Byzantine text as translated by the King James Version reads: For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. Most modern translations, based on the Alexandrian, read: For there are three that testify:the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. Although the verses differ because of the underlying source text, the doctrine that is in the disputed passage - the Trinity - is reflected throughout Scripture, from the first chapter of the Bible. Also, no entire books or even chapters are disputed; the largest sections are 12 verses in Mark (16:9-20) and 12 verses in John (7:53-8:11). If you are learning about these textual differences for the first time, there is absolutely no need for your faith to be shaken! 

Translation Theory
When scholars approach the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek texts, they have to draw some conclusions. Some of their questions they ask in developing their theories include:
  • Should we trust the older texts or the texts with the most copies?
  • Does a literal word-for-word translation, or a thought-for-thought approach, or even a paraphrase, most accurately reflect the meaning of the original language? 
  • Where there are textual differences, is there internal evidence indicating why the change occurred? 
  • Is one reading more difficult to explain,  (such as an apparent contradiction) and therefore possibly something that a scribe would have tried to "fix"? 
  • Does one reading best explain the origin of the others? 
There is no one "right" answer to these questions. There are legitimate reasons for the different translation theories. For example, let's look at the "word for word" vs "thought for thought" question. Anyone who has learned a second language knows that sentence structure and word order varies between even similar languages. A literal "word for word" translation would be unreadable for anything other than scholarly purposes. Don't take my word for it. Check it out yourself in the Interlinear version of Genesis 1:1-2. The English translation appears in its most literal form possible under the Hebrew.

Obviously, then, even the most literal translations do some sort of "thought for thought"- type approach, because as you proceed through Scripture judgment calls have to be made about where certain words are placed. For example, different versions of Revelation 13:8 exist, not because of any textual differences but because of different approaches to the placement of the phrase "before the foundation of the world." Does it modify "lamb slain" or "names written in the book of life"? Or is it one of John's famous "double meaning" words, intended to apply to both? This is a decision translators make.

You and I are not Bible translators. We cannot be expected to determine our own translation theory. So what's a Bible-believing Christian to do?

Choosing a Translation
First, be aware of the translation theory behind your preferred version of the Bible. Most of the time that is found in the front matter of the Bible. Before buying a new translation, I always read the translation notes. This will explain which text family they used, or whether they looked all all the available text families. It will tell whether the translators leaned toward a word-for-word, thought-for-thought, or paraphrase approach. These notes will also tell how disputed passages are handled. Any legitimate translation will include the disputed passages in some way, either in the footnotes or in brackets within the primary text.

Second, see who was on the translation team. Some paraphrases are written by one individual; this should be clearly noted, as well as whether the individual is paraphrasing from an English translation or attempting to translate from the original language. Personally I am wary of translations by only one individual. There is too much at stake; the collective wisdom of solid believers can protect a well-meaning individual from errors. See what you can learn about the team. Are they all from the same denomination? That doesn't mean the translation will be bad, but you will want to be aware of any theological biases that might appear in their translation choices. Make sure the team includes language scholars as well as pastors or theologians. (Be wary of translations used solely by cults, however. Some of these were translated by one individual with limited knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. Often these translations will have no notes or insist theirs is the only correct one.)

Third, don't feel like you have to be a one-translation person. There are so many resources online. You can own a primary translation but consult many others for study or where your translation calls a passage into question. Remember that God inspired the original text but every translation is done by humans who are imperfect. I know some people question the need for more translations - and I agree there is a point where it is unnecessary - but since language changes, it is important that we are communicating God's eternal word in a way that people can understand at the heart level. (Just try reading Wyliffe's first English translation and you will understand why updates have to occur!)

Fourth, whatever translation you choose, please be respectful of others who prefer different translations. Individuals with high views of the inspired word of God do not intentionally "leave out" or "add to" Scripture by their translation choices. Many factors go into the decision, including familiarity with the text, the person's reading level, and much more. My father prefers the King James not because he thinks it's the best translation, but because he wants to honor the many men who died in order to bring an English translation to fruition. Please apply Romans 14 and give liberty to others in their translation choices.

Finally, always, always remember that God's word is eternal, written in the heavens. He inspired His word, He protects it, and most importantly, He wants you to understand it. You don't have to know a single bit of this information for God's word to speak to you. He is looking at your heart, whatever translation you choose.

My Preferred Translations
I hesitate to include these, because I want you to follow the Holy Spirit's leading. Also I don't want to challenge the authority of your pastor in your church's translation selection. However, since I'm asked so frequently, I will include my thoughts on translations for myself.

I lean toward the "older versions" school of thought, so the translations I use most frequently have this bent. Also, I am a big proponent of using a wide variety of translations. Each time I've read through the Bible I've used a different translation. When I prepare a lesson if I am struggling with a verse my first stop is never a Greek or Hebrew dictionary; instead, I simply google the verse and look at it in as many translations as I can find.

With that in mind, here are the translations on my shelf:

English Standard Version (ESV): The Bible my pastor uses, so I take this one to church and use it as a default when preparing lessons for our women's study.

New American Standard Bible (NASB): The study Bible I cut my teeth on. It's the one most marked up and the one I use for inductive studies.

New International Version 1984 (NIV 1984): The Bible I use for memorization. While it's less literal than ESV or NASB, it has the great benefit of being very readable and primarily in Active Voice, so it's easier to memorize.

King James Version (KJV): The first Bible I read through and the one I grew up on. Besides being a great reference because it's based on a different translation theory, it also has the great benefit of using "ye" making the plural "you" obvious in the New Testament, and also contains passages that my mind defaults to such as the Christmas Story in Luke 2.

Amplified Bible (AMP): Based on the Byzantine text, this Bible is a great quick look at the range of Greek or Hebrew meanings in a passage.

New English Translation (NET):  I love this Bible - it's my current read-through text. It contains over 10,000 translators notes that explain why they made the choices they did. They utilized all the textual families so it is pretty detailed. It's available online for free but I love my hard copy. The only thing I don't like is that it really isn't very poetic in some of the places where poetry is called for, so it's less readable in some portions. But this translation has challenged me in many areas by putting translations I'm less familiar with (and explaining the choices). In my opinion it's a must-have for any serious Bible student, at least as a reference point.

The Living Bible: This is a complete paraphrase, but it's the Bible I use when preparing Bible stories, because it really does read just like a story. I don't teach from it, but it makes telling the story as a story rather than a series of verses a lot easier.

Finally, if I could add one translation, it would be the New Living Translation (NLT). So often when I refer to this one online it brings out some of the heart meaning of the text. For example, its translation of Isaiah 53:12 speaks deeply to me, accurately translating the word most commonly translated "transgressors" as "rebels".

I hope this quick overview has been helpful. Remember, God wants to reveal Himself to you through His Word. If this post has helped you in some way with that, then praise be to Him. If it has overwhelmed or confused you, then I haven't been a very good teacher and you can ignore this post. His word never returns void. I pray it accomplishes His purposes in your life.
Dockery, David. Holman Bible Handbook. Holman Bible Publishers, 1992.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Bible 101, Question 2: What texts should be considered Scripture?

When I first began to read the Bible as an adult, while still in the research phase of determining the validity of its claim to be inspired by God, I had this idea that its books were selected by a group of men sitting around a table deciding what stayed and what went. Frankly, that was a sticking point for me. It was only when I decided to research how we got our Bible that I realized the 66 books commonly comprising the Bible came to be accepted as authoritative by the church as a whole before they were officially compiled into a compilation called the canon. Let’s take a look at that process. (Note: I highly recommend’s excellent article and encourage you to read that entire piece in conjunction with my blog post.)

What is the canon?
The word “canon” comes from a Greek word that means “a straight rod or bar” and came to be used for anything providing a “rule or standard for testing straightness.” When we use the word “canon” to refer to Scripture, it means those books that have been proven to be part of the collection considered the inspired word of God. It is important to note that contrary to my early preconceptions, no books became Scripture because a council voted to make it so. Rather, formal acceptance of a book into the canon occurred as a result of the people of God widely receiving that book as the inspired word of God. Furthermore, the books were inspired by God the moment they were written; they did not become inspired because of people’s acceptance of them.

The role of the religious communities, however, was crucial in forming the generally accepted canons of the Old Testament and New Testament. A number of scrolls circulated – additional letters, prophecies, collections of sayings, “gospels” containing biographies of Jesus’ life, and so on. You’ve probably heard the saying, “The cream rises to the top.” When it comes to the canon, that’s a great picture. While there was sporadic acceptance of some books, the books that came to be considered the Bible had widespread acceptance. As the councils began to formalize the canon, they looked at those books with less acceptance, evaluated them in comparison to the other texts, and realized that the churches had largely rejected them for very good reasons.

Old Testament Canon. The canon of the Old Testament was recognized by the time of the New Testament. The books of Moses (the Torah or Law) had long been recognized in Judaism. Other works, such as the psalms, the historical texts, and prophets were also seen as the word of the Lord. During the Babylonian Captivity, Daniel references a collection of books. But it was after the return to Jerusalem that the books were formally put into a collection, most likely by Ezra the priest. By the time the New Testament opens, the formal collection was kept in the temple, according to the Jewish historian Josephus.

The New Testament recognizes the common three-fold division of the Old Testament canon as Law, Prophets, and Psalms (Luke 24:44). Paul’s reference to “The Sacred Writings” (2 Timothy 3:15) also alludes to a formal collection. After the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., the Council of Jamnia publicly recognized what we call the “Old Testament” as the canon of Jewish scripture. However, this was not the first recognition, according to

Laird Harris (R. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1969, pp. 62-65), traces the continuity of recognition: Moses was recognized as writing under the authority of God (Ex. 17:14; 34:27; cf. Josh. 8:31; 23:6). The criterion for acknowledging the Pentateuch was whether it was from God’s servant, Moses. Following Moses, God raised up the institution of prophecy to continue revealing Himself to His people (cf. Deut. 18:15-19; Jer. 26:8-15). The prophets to whom God spoke also recorded their revelation (cf. Josh. 24:26; 1 Sam. 10:25; Isa. 8:1; Ezek. 43:11). Harris concludes, “The law was accorded the respect of the author, and he was known as God’s messenger. Similarly, succeeding prophets were received upon due authentication, and their written works were received with the same respect, being received therefore as the Word of God. As far as the witness contained in the books themselves is concerned, this reception was immediate.” (Ibid., p. 167).

Additional confirmation of the 39 books of the Old Testament as authoritative comes from the fact that the New Testament quotes 36 of them in more than 250 references. Only Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon are not referenced. Finally, Jesus Himself referred to the fulfillment of “the Law and the Prophets” (a phrase used in Jewish thought to refer to all of Scripture) (Matthew 5:17-18), and referred to guilt stemming “from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar” (Matthew 23:35) – a statement providing chronological hinges to the Old Testament, which is how the Hebrew books are arranged. (Our structure of Law/History/Wisdom/Prophets follows the Septuagint’s order.)
Because of the extreme care the Jewish scribes took and because of the witness of the New Testament, we know with a high degree of certainty that the 39 books recognized as the Old Testament today are the same books that were considered authoritative by the New Testament writers.

New Testament Canon. Contrary to the order of books in our New Testaments, the earliest writings were not the gospels but the epistles. As the Gospel spread and churches formed, the apostles, particularly Paul, were careful to write back to the churches to provide instructions since they only had the Old Testament and were still learning what it meant to live in light of the truth of the resurrection. These letters were read and circulated among the churches. Later, oral histories of the life of Jesus were compiled and written into the Gospels; while Luke the physician wrote a chronological account of the life of Christ and the development of the church. (A general order of books can be found here, though dates are imprecise.)

From the earliest days after Jesus’ death, the community of believers placed a strong emphasis on apostolic authority. In replacing Judas the betrayer, they defined an apostle as one who had walked with Jesus and witnessed the resurrected Lord (Acts 1:12-26). These men had heard Jesus pray not only for them but for those “who would believe on Me through their words” (Luke 17:20), so there was an expectation that God would give them an authoritative message. As a result, one of the defining characteristics of authentic Scripture was that it came from an apostle or was authorized by an apostle (such as Mark’s association with Peter or Luke’s with Paul). In fact, Paul had to defend his apostleship since he was not part of the original 12 but instead was the apostle to the Gentiles (2 Corinthians 11-12).

The churches then had one natural means for determining authenticity of anything claiming to be Scripture. Another means was the existence of the Old Testament. Since Jesus had stated He did not come to abolish, but to fulfill, the Old Testament, any teaching that was contradictory could be eliminated. And the apostles recognized each other’s works, such as Peter’s statement in 2 Peter 3:15-16 in which he places Paul’s writings on par with Scripture.

Over the course of the first century when these books were written, and into the second and third centuries, churches weeded out a lot of spurious works. By the fourth century the 27 books that comprise the New Testament had been commonly accepted by the vast majority of the churches, and mentioned in the writings of the early church fathers. In the late fourth century, three separate councils formalized the 27-book canon: The Council of Laodicea; the Council of Hippo; and the Council of Carthage.

What about the Apocrypha?
The Apocrypha is a special collection of books written in the last four centuries before Christ. This was the time after Ezra organized the 39 books of the Old Testament. Because God had spoken of a “famine of the word of the Lord”, and because these books are not quoted in the New Testament, they are not recognized as canonical. Generally speaking, most Christians believe that after Malachi there was no prophetic word until the angel spoke to Zechariah in the temple to tell him he would have a son, John the Baptist.

Because the Apocrypha is commonly recognized by the Catholic and Anglican communities, a special word much be said about it. First, it’s important to note that these communities do not place the Apocrypha on par with Scripture. While it appears in their Bibles, it is considered deuterocanonical, or a second (separate) canon. Jerome, one of the early church fathers described its benefit this way: “The other books which the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine”. (Brenton, Apocrypha, p. i). In other words, there are important examples in these writings, but we should not base doctrine on them. For this reason, they are eliminated from Protestant Bibles.

However, the Apocryphal books are not without value. They are an important source of history for the silent years between the testaments, including the story behind Hannukah, the “feast of lights” Jesus attended in John 7. One of the earliest hymns of the church comes from the “Song of the three children”, one of the additions to Daniel. Although the Apocrypha is not doctrinally authoritative and as such should not be studied in the same way we approach Scripture, it is beneficial and can be used effectively as a research tool.

The canon of Scripture consists of 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament which are consistent with what was recognized at the time of Christ, and 27 in the New Testament which are consistent with what was recognized by the early churches and formalized in the 4th century A.D. These works were recognized because of their apostolic authority and their consistency with the existing Scriptures, as well as the recognition by the majority of the churches. Other spurious works can be rejected as authoritative because of the process these 27 books went through to be compiled into the canon.
Brenton, Sir Lancelot C.L. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English. Hendrickson Publishers, 2005.