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by Jacob Ninan
“I see your face as one sees the face of God” (Gen.33:10). This was what Jacob told his brother Esau when they met many years after Jacob had cheated him from his birth right and his father’s blessing. Jacob was absolutely scared of this meeting, fearing what harm Esau might do in revenge towards him and his family. And so, shrewd man that he was, he had taken steps to send a large gift to his brother in advance to appease him and also to separate his family into two groups to minimise possible damage! I tend to think that the words of Jacob, quoted above, were words of flattery aimed at appeasing Esau. But there are those who take them literally, interpreting them as a sign of great respect Jacob had developed for Esau and the forgiveness and reconciliation that had taken place between them, and even to say that Esau’s face must have shone like the face of God at that time! Why do people interpret these words in this way?
In another place, where Jacob mentions that he has seen God face to face and survived (Gen.32:30), some people wonder how this can be true when God says no one can see Him and live (Exo.33:20). What God says is true, and so we must conclude that what Jacob said was just his impression of what happened and not literally true.
This kind of interpretation, which many people make, comes from their conviction that the Bible is the word of God inspired by God and that every word in it is therefore attested by God. Therefore, they wrongly conclude that if the Bible says Jacob saw the face of Esau as the face of God it must be true, and if he said he had seen God face to face that must be true also. What they do not think about is that these statements were not made by God Himself, but a true representation of what a man said. They are still given to us from God and therefore ‘the word of God’, but they are not words which God has said.
When God inspired the human authors to write down the different books of the Bible, He did not dictate His words to them. He gave them enough freedom to use their own words, vocabulary and style. The Bible also contains different types of material. There are narratives of history about what God said and did, and also about what people said and did. There are also poems, proverbs, prophecies, visions of the future, etc., all of which are not to be understood literally as words that tell us the truths of God. We may be familiar with the quotation from the Bible that says, “There is no God” where the full passage says, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psa.14:1). Bible teachers use this example to illustrate that merely because a sentence or phrase is in the Bible, we must not straightaway assume it is true!
Why is it that people fall into this kind of mistake as they read the Bible? I suppose it is because they have been taught strongly by ‘evangelical’ Christians, quoting 2 Timothy 3:16,17, that all scripture is inspired by God, without explaining further what is meant by inspiration. People are not taught, for example, that this inspired word of God uses different genre (literary styles) which have to be interpreted differently according to each style. By overemphasising the fact that the Bible is the word of God to the extent of eliminating all the effects of human authors writing with their finite knowledge, understanding, vocabulary and limitations due to their cultural, educational and spiritual backgrounds, teachers have failed to give people a realistic understanding of how to read the Bible. Even Jesus used hyperbole or exaggeration to make a point, such as when He said it would be easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Jesus, or when He asked us to pluck off the eye, or cut off the hand that might cause us to sin. If we read such words with understanding, we can easily see that they were not meant to be understood literally. Sometimes the gospel writers used their colloquial language in describing certain events such as when they reported that ‘all Jerusalem rose up’ even though it was not meant to convey ‘all’. If only we look at the context of such passages more closely, we can easily avoid misunderstanding them.
As a result of a lack of this understanding, many people are creating many types of doctrines (teaching) based on wrong interpretations of passages or even pieces of sentences! Their argument is that their teachings are based on the word of God! We need only to look around a little to see the types of heresies being passed around as the truths of God.
One particular wrong teaching that has swept across the world in the recent past is called ‘the word of faith’ which teaches in essence that our words have a power of their own and so what we speak will happen, or we can make things happen by speaking. This is ridiculous, and this can easily be tested out by speaking what we wish for! But people base this on the ‘word of God’ which says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Prov.18:21). Is this the word of God? Yes. Does it mean literally what it says? No. This belongs to the literary genre called ‘proverbs’ which stands for pithy statements of things that are generally true. Proverbs usually come from general observations of life which usually hold true but which could have exceptions. Consider Proverbs 22:6 about training children which is a general fact, but which is not always true because there are influences a child gets other than the training by his parents. Another fact about proverbs is that sometimes they use figurative language to convey some meaning in an emphatic or easy-to-remember way. When we look at the above proverb in that way what we see is that it is not a statement of fact which states that words have some inherent power in themselves, but it is a warning to be careful with our words because, if we use them carelessly, they can cause big problems! But once people believe that this is the ‘word of God’, they may wrongly attribute a literary meaning to it!
Another common example is in the third letter of John, verse 2. “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.” Once we remember that this was a personal letter which John wrote to a brother called Gaius, we should be able to see that this sentence is a way of greeting and not meant to state a truth of God that can be taken as a promise for all believers.
Many wrong teachings are based on single sentences. Someone teaches that God’s promises will be fulfilled in mathematical proportion to our faith. But what about the other statement which says that He will give us a good measure – pressed down, shaken together, and running over? One man preaches that Jesus never prays for unbelievers but only for His disciples, based on John 17:9! How then could He have come down looking for sinners in the first place? Some people claim that physical healing is included in the atonement for all God’s people based on “By His stripes we are healed,” in spite of the context of Isaiah 53 where ‘spiritual healing’ is what is referred to, and the evidence, contrary to this teaching in the Bible itself and contemporary life. We all know so many examples like this. This kind of error comes because people do not look at the meaning of words within their local and global (what is taught in the rest of the Bible) context.
We praise God for giving us His word with opportunities for everyone to read and understand. It is a living word in that God speaks to us individually as we read it and wait on Him. This is the major way God communicates to us in these days, and it is also our benchmark against which we can check all teachings and experiences. At the same time, we must be able to ‘divide the word of truth rightly’ (2Tim.2:15 KJV) or accurately handle the word of truth. This is a major responsibility for all those who teach from the Bible because, even though every believer should personally check whether what they hear is according to God (Acts17:11), many tend to believe all that their pastor or teacher tells them.
-- Editorial in the Light of Life magazine, December 2017
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