We’re just beginning a new series on the Gospel of John. Last week we did a bit of an overview of who John was, and his audience was, how John’s gospel fits in with the other three, and that the major theme is introducing and defending who Jesus really is. He’s writing decades after the other three gospels were written. The Apostle Paul had written his letters to all the churches many years before and had already died.
The people reading and hearing this book about Jesus were now 50 years away from when the actual events occurred. Many of them lived far away from Jerusalem, where they took place. And many of the people who saw the life, death and resurrection had already died, so the information about Jesus was almost all second-hand. But John hadn’t died, and when he was quite old, maybe 90 years old, the Holy Spirit compelled him to write his own eye-witness account of his experiences with Jesus, addressing not only the false-teachings about Him, but also giving another side to the story, another aspect that would complement the already existing gospels to give a much bigger, much clearer picture of Jesus so no one would be able to doubt who He really is.
Why Context is Important
You might be asking, why is all this context so important? Why not just jump into chapter 1 verse 1 and get going with what the book actually says instead of spending so much time on the background. My answer is because doing that leads to mistakes in interpretation. Context is critically important to our understanding of the Bible.
We sometimes have the unfortunate habit of actually disconnecting Bible verses from the Bible. Many of you likely have a bible verse on your phone, on a mug, a shirt, or your wall at home. And while that’s good to do, for the most part, it can sometimes lead to pretty serious misunderstandings of what God actually meant in that verse.
My favourite version of this, for example, is how many times you hear people quote Matthew 7:1 where Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” I’ve heard this used, most often, as the reason why everyone should mind their own business and never, ever, tell someone that something they are doing is wrong.
Is that what it means? No. That takes it out of the context. What about John 5:24 where Jesus says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” What about Luke 17:3 where Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him…” Obviously “Judge not” doesn’t mean “never judge”. So what does it mean? Well, let’s look at the context. In Matthew 7, Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount and is just about to say, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (7:5). In other words, Jesus isn’t saying, “Don’t ever judge”, He’s saying, “don’t judge like a hypocrite”. Don’t be unduly harsh or arrogant in how you look at other people’s sins, or God will do the same thing to you. In other words, when you judge, because you will absolutely need to judge right and wrong, good and evil, wise and foolish… do so with as much generosity and grace as God has given you.
That’s just one, obvious example of what is called “proof-texting”, and it comes from not understanding the context of the verse. And in not understanding it, we apply it wrong. And when we apply it wrong, sin isn’t confronted and people are left miserable in the clutches of the enemy. We don’t want to do that, so before we study any book of the Bible, before we start taking apart the chapters and verses and words, we always spend time talking about the background of the whole book.
Who wrote it? Who were they writing to? What genre of book is it? Why did they write it? Is it poetry, history, proverb, instructions, allegory, a letter addressing a certain topic? That will change how you read it, right? When was it written? Before the Babylonian exile or after? Before the destruction of the Temple or after? Before Jesus or after? That matters because it all helps in interpreting what God was saying to the people who originally heard the message and how we should be reading it today.
Context, CLRA, & the CBOQ
Let me give you another example, this time with a bit more contemporary controversy. Right now, in the CBOQ (our denomination, the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec) there are a few churches who are now accepting members, teachers, leaders, and elders who are actively part of the LGBTQ community. This all came to a head a few years ago when Danforth Baptist Church in Toronto, which is associated with the CBOQ, released a statement saying they will no longer consider “sexual orientation or gender identity” when choosing leaders for their church.
This has caused division in the churches of the denomination. Some are in favour it, others are against it, and some don’t know what to think. The more conservative churches that are against the idea of LGBTQ leadership in the church formed a coalition called CLRA or the “Covenant Life Renewal Association” and came to the leadership of the CBOQ demanding action be taken against Danforth and other churches that would follow their example. So, for about three years now the leadership of the CBOQ has been trying to figure out what to do – and stalling. They’ve refused to take a stand on the issue and it has frustrated the conservative wing greatly – to the point where some have left or are considering leaving the CBOQ altogether.
I’m actually headed to a meeting this coming Thursday where I’ll be part of something I’ve never heard of happening before. Two different denominational leaders, one from the CBOQ and the other from the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptists (FEB), will be giving separate presentations to the same group of pastors and church leaders. First, the president and former president of the CBOQ will give an update on how the committee is dealing with the LGBTQ issue (which I do not expect to go very well, considering I recently received an update email from the committee where they just kicked the can down the road a bit farther). Then, in the afternoon, Steve Jones, the National President of all of the whole Fellowship Baptist denomination will explain how they dealt with the LGBTQ issue and then give information to anyone who wants to transfer to their denomination. It is absolutely wild to me that two denominational presidents will be in the same room with the same pastors giving pitches about their denominational stances on this issue.
Consequently, this could be a very important week in the life of our church. Why? Because in our church we believe that as much as we love people in the LGBTQ community, as welcome as they are in our church and ministries, and as much grace and generosity we want to give them, we must draw the line where God draws it. And that means that people who live and promote an LGBTQ lifestyle cannot be members, leaders, or teachers in our church.
We don’t say this because we believe that we are better than the people in the LGBTQ community. We don’t hate them or think they are undeserving of God’s love. We hold to this standard because this is what the Bible teaches and no matter what culture says or what pressures we face, “We must obey God…” (Acts 5:29)
What does all this have to do with context? Well, it goes back to that statement made by the Danforth church and what brought about the big split in the CBOQ. I want to read part of it to you so you can see how it went down.
It begins, “Because God has welcomed us into his family through faith in Jesus Christ and calls us to pursue love and justice for all, Danforth Church is welcoming and inclusive of all people regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, family makeup, social status, income, ability, or physical or mental health.” With that, we wholeheartedly agree. Everyone is welcome at our church and at the feet of Jesus.
Then they get into their statements and they need to be read very carefully. Statement 1 is, “We share and uphold the values of love, justice and equal rights for all people, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, family makeup, social status, income, ability, or physical or mental health; and we desire to reflect the heart of God and the attitude of Jesus Christ towards those who have been marginalized”. That sounds good, and upon first glance seems right on, but it really needs some clarification.
We totally agree with the idea of everyone being worthy of love and justice and that we should love the marginalized like Jesus does – but what do they mean by “equal rights for all people”? For example, they say that they believe that people of any “age” should have “equal rights”. Does that mean a 3-year-old should have the same right to vote as a 21-year-old? Should a 3-year-old be allowed to borrow money, get a tattoo, or quit school if they want to? Probably not, so “equal rights” sounds nice, but really needs some clarification.
Statements numbers 2, 3 and 4 is where things really become problematic. Number 2 says, “We find our agreement in the core and primary beliefs of the Christian faith reflected, for example, in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds; and we accept a diversity of views among us on many other theological and/or disputable matters….”. Certainly, those creeds give the basic outline of the Christian faith. I’ve taught both of them here. But they are certainly not comprehensive statements of everything we believe. For example, neither creed covers murder or greed or lying. It doesn’t say they’re right or wrong. Is murder one of those “disputable matters” we should “accept a diversity of views” about? Probably not. But it’s not in the Apostles Creed, so…. In the same way, why would we say that something as foundational as human sexuality and gender, which are also not covered in the creeds, are “disputable”?
The third statement goes even farther saying, “We acknowledge that the cultural, social and religious contexts of the scriptures are significant in our interpretation of biblical passages and that humility is required in holding positions on secondary and/or disputable matters…” There’s our word for today: “context”, except it’s using it the exact opposite way we are using it today. What they are saying is that because the bible was written in a different culture, with different social norms, and different religious contexts, it must therefore no longer be applicable to today – and we can, therefore, dismiss much of what the Bible says and interpret it much more broadly because it was written for a different people at a different time.
These are the same people who argue that the Bible doesn’t have anything to say to contemporary audiences about human sexuality and gender because it was written to a bunch of backwards people in ancient times. I hear the argument all the time that if Christians believe homosexuality is wrong, then they shouldn’t be eating shellfish or wearing polyester-cotton blends either because the Bible forbids those too – and we’re hypocrites for picking and choosing which verses we obey.
They grab verse like Leviticus 19:19 which prohibits wearing cloth of two kinds of material and equate it to verses in 1 Corinthians and Romans and 1 Timothy that teach homosexuality is a sin. But that’s terrible biblical interpretation! That’s worse than the “judge not” proof-texting we were talking about before. It’s a non-argument for anyone who knows anything about the Bible.
The laws about not eating shellfish or wearing mixed cloths or all the other ones about how to treat menstruating women or not boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk were laws given specifically to the nation of Israel, not everyone. It was partly to make them look weird and different from the rest of the nations around them – to show their holiness, their set-apartness. In fact, many of the food laws specifically say that they are for the Israelites and not everyone.
I don’t want to get into the whole thing right now, but in the Bible, you will see three different kinds of laws: Civil Laws given specifically to the Israelites, Ceremonial Laws that defined how they practiced worship, and Moral Laws based which are universal for all people.
When Jesus came, He expanded the kingdom to include gentiles who don’t have to follow the Civil Laws of Israel, and He fulfilled all the Ceremonial Laws, creating a new way to worship God that wasn’t based around the Temple anymore. The only Laws left, and which are universal for all people, for all time because they are based on God’s nature and not one group of people, are God’s Moral Laws. Part of Biblical interpretation is understanding these different kinds of laws and which ones are applicable to believers today.
So, are blending cloths on the same interpretive level human sexuality and gender? No. Not even close.
But are the fact that these laws were written to an ancient culture significant? Yes, as is the fact that they are being taught to and interpreted by people who live thousands of years later in different cultures all over the world. So yes, culture is significant. Part of my job as a preacher is to grapple with the texts so I can “understand the principles and imperatives within” and then present them to a contemporary audience in an understandable way. That’s my job. That’s been the job of Bible preachers and teachers forever. Figure out what God was saying and then sharing the meaning and application for today.
But, when I’m looking at a verse I do not have the right to contradict what God is saying because it disagrees with my current, contemporary context. Regardless of how much our society wants to reinterpret morality, humans do not get to dismiss something that God plainly teaches as truth-for-all-time just because they don’t want to believe it anymore.
I was reading another pastor’s interpretation of the Danforth Statement and he pointed out how ironic it is that Danforth would say that Christians must come by our interpretation of biblical passages with “humility” – because they’re not using the word in a biblical way. What they mean is that a humble person should never think they really know what the Bible means. That somehow, as Michael Krueger said, “To be uncertain is to be humble. To be certain is to be arrogant.”
But that’s not biblical humility. Biblical humility says, “God has been crystal clear about some things and I’m going to believe it and obey it regardless of what I feel about it or what pressures I face from society.” In the words of Isaiah 66:2, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” Or 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commands.” That means that Jesus has clearly commanded us to do specific things. In Luke 11:28 Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
That means we study, study, study, using all the resources at our disposal to figure out the clear meaning of what God is saying in any given passage and then work hard to do what He says. That’s biblical humility. If you can make a good, biblical argument for something – then Christians should teach and obey it. If you want us to support LGBTQ, don’t appeal to culture or feelings, appeal to scripture. Let God’s Word be the final voice to speak on the issue.
That’s not what Danforth is doing. Let me read statement 4 so you can see how they believe people should interpret the will and word of God. “We hold that people have the right and responsibility to seek and hear God for themselves, and to determine and respond to God’s will for their lives within the context of the Biblical values of love, faithfulness, monogamy, respect and integrity, and within a community of accountability…”
Again, on the surface, this seems to be something we can agree with. God does meet people as individuals, and each believer does have access to the same Word and the same Spirit, and each is invited to pray and be led by God. But the context and application of this statement are dangerous. The implication here is that a person’s “seeking and hearing” can be divorced from proper, biblical interpretation. They cherry-pick words like “love, faithfulness, respect, and accountability”, but they neglect to say that every believer’s interpretation of God’s will must come under the authority of His revealed Word. We can’t just go off and make up a god of our own design, or pick and choose the biblical values we like while getting rid of the ones that make us uncomfortable.
And that’s what Danforth and the other churches like them are doing, and that’s why Jason and I are headed off to a meeting in Hamilton this week. Because clear biblical interpretation and obedience to God’s word are critically important – and we only want to be associated with groups that hold to that standard.
We weren’t able to get much into John today, because of this discussion of the context and the meeting on Thursday, but we’ll get into it more next week, and then I hope to start in chapter 1 verse 1 the week after. But before I close this message I want to read a passage of scripture that perfectly summarizes the issue that we’ve been talking about today: interpretation, misinterpretation, contextualization, and pressures that preachers, and really all Christians, face when it comes to obeying God’s word. It comes from 2 Timothy 3-4.
2 Timothy is from the Apostle Paul to his protégé Timothy as Paul was sitting in a Roman prison, awaiting death. He’s writing to Timothy about persevering in the gospel and care for the churches, even in spite of great suffering from outside and within. Paul figures this may be the last message he may ever give to young Timothy and tells him to keep on fighting for the faith. Paul speaks of many who used to call themselves faithful followers of Jesus, but who have abandoned him and the gospel because of persecution and compromise.
He writes to Timothy about suffering being normal for all believers and how the only way to persevere is by God’s power. He says the only way to access God’s power is to know God’s Word and to believe the true and only Gospel of Jesus Christ. He says that the only way to know the Gospel is through the scriptures. He says that those who believe those scriptures will persevere, but those who do not will show themselves by leaving the faith. So he entreats Timothy to keep preaching, keep teaching, keep studying, and to deal with all false teaching as though it is deadly cancer that needs to be cut out or the church will die.
Even at the close of the letter, Paul asks Timothy to come and visit him one last time and to bring his books with him so Paul can keep studying and writing until the very end. The gospel, the Word of God, is constantly under attack and Paul wants to keep helping believers to rightly interpret the scriptures so they won’t believe lies and lose their connection to God.
In truth, I want to read the whole of the book, because it is one, solid argument from front to back about what we are talking about today – the importance of rightly studying God’s word – but we don’t have time. So, as I read, listen to how Paul speaks of the dangers of misinterpretation and the importance of studying so we can know the truth.
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.
You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
That’s what I want to do, and what I want for each of you as well. I don’t want you seeking out people to tell you what you want to hear. I want you to know the truth about by that truth be set free. I want all of us to stand on the firm foundation of the Word of God, to preach and teach His Word, to be sober-minded, endure whatever suffering comes as a result of our beliefs and to fulfil the ministries and good works God has given us to do.