Thursday, July 28, 2005

Biblical Interpretation: A Tale of Two Sermons

As Christians we often hear from non-Christians that the Bible is subject to whatever interpretation the believer wants to see there. There is some grain of truth in this - many Bible verses are subject to mulitple readings. Certainly the divisions within Christianity are a testimony to this. C.S. Lewis pointed out:

"that brings us right up against the real snag . . . Most of us are not really approaching. the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or--a Judge" -- Mere Christianity
That is one problem with interpretation - we want it to say what we want it to say - not what God wants to say. Another problem is . . .

. . . that we are supposed to employ the Holy Spirit to give us understanding of the Word (John 16:13, 1 Cor 2:11-12). Do I always pray for the Holy Spirit to help my understanding before I read and/or quote scripture? No, in fact I just didn't. At least the Spirit is in me though, and probably helped me without being asked.

Christians who rely on Scripture for leadership struggle to understand and apply God's word. It was greatly appreciated by me when Dr. Daniel Lockwood, President of Multnomah Bible College and Seminary preached not one, but two (for the price of one), sermons last Sunday at my church on this passage:

Luke 9:57 As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, "I will follow You wherever You go." 58 And Jesus said to him, "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." 59 And He said to another, "Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father." 60 But He said to him, "Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God." 61 Another also said, "I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home." 62 But Jesus said to him, "No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."
Sermon #1: A Few Good Men

Sermons seem to have to have three points. The three points here all start with this sentence:
Jesus: "To follow Me you must deny ___________"
1. To follow Me you must deny earthly security: I promise you no comfort and no security like a place to even sleep.

2. To follow Me you must deny human obligations: I accept no excuses like burying your father.

3. To follow Me you must deny family relationships: I will allow no defections. Keep your hand to the plow if you wish to be fit for Kingdom service.

As Dan pointed out this fits with such verses as:
Matthew 16: 24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me."
Luke 14: 26 "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. 27 "Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple." (For that matter verses 12 - 25 fall here too.)
Dan presented that we almost must assume that these three men turned and walked away - dejected and unworthy to serve - from a Jesus with a stern, unbending contenence on His face. Jesus, like the Marines, just wanted "A Few Good Men"

There are some reasons not to accept this interpretation:
  1. Luke 10 is about the 70 being sent out in twos. So obviously a number of people did respond to this message.
  2. This stern direction wasn't practiced by Jesus or His closest disciples:
    • Jesus attended weddings and funerals and even wept at hearing of Lazerus's death.
    • Jesus worried about His mother from the cross; asking John to take her and care for her
    • Two of the disciples left their father behind - but mom was there to ask Jesus to sit her sons on either side of him
    • We know Matthew and Peter both owned houses; and that Peter was married
    • Every disciple turned their hand from the plow; yet remained fit for Kingdom service.

Sermon #2: The Adventure of Discipleship

Again, the three points. Now the sentence we will fill in is:
Jesus: "Enjoy the Adventure of _____________"
1. Enjoy the adventure of partnering with the Son of Man: It is unpredictable - you may not know where you will sleep next.

2. Enjoy the adventure of promulgating a life giving message: Let those organizing the funeral deal with burying the dead. You go [to the funeral] and give a message of life.

3. Enjoy the adventure of preparing for Kingdom service: I know you are not ready now - no one is - but come with me and prepare for that service. Begin your training now.

Now we can imagine the 3 men, and the 70, did join in this adventure. Dan imagines this was said not with a stern look; but with a smile on Jesus's face and a twinkle in His eye.

You may choose the interpretation you like.


  1. Bonhoeffer (I guess he's my C.S. Lewis) writes about this passage in The Cost of Discipleship. He focuses on whether Christ is doing the asking (the second person) or whether it is the person asking Christ (the first and third). His point was that discipleship could not be sought, and that anyone seeking it is seeking some version of his/her own desire for righteousness. Another perspective.

  2. JCH:

    Off topic, I wanted to respond to you concerning our debate at Evangelical Outpost, but Joe has closed the comments. Drop me an e-mail ( if you're interested in continuing the discussion.

  3. The "allow the dead to bury their own dead" must be understood in the context of the time when it was customary to allow the dead to lie above ground for a year and then place the remaining bones in a different place.
    As to interpretations, I prefer a third. That Jesus is simply doing a heart check for the young men. If the 70 of Luke 10 had just come back, following Jesus might have seemed quite exciting. By telling them with a kind face what their lives will be like if they choose to follow Him, Jesus shows them their hearts. I do not think that He rejects them though they may reject themselves.


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly