If you have been reading through my series on the Teachings of Jesus, you may have noticed that I sometimes read the text rather narrowly compared to other commentators.
You see, when I read the Bible, I find it is absolutely critical that we as Christians understand the context of the text and are VERY careful when we apply the text to new topics. Very few things bother me as much as when I see a pastor take a single verse from the middle of a proverb about heaven and use it to teach people about raising their children. I want to scream in the church, "That is not what Jesus is even talking about here!" Not only is this common, but this is the goal of many pastors.
Far too many preachers fall into this trap. Part of it comes from a bad approach to Scriptural exegesis, which I shall try to correct below. But some of it is due to their desire to reach the crowds of unchurched--a worthy goal, but one which is often taken to extremes that destroy the Word. Some pastors, for example, wish to avoid detailed exegesis in sermons and instead teach only "topical", "practical" sermons--because that way people can take home what they learn and apply it to their lives. And I say, Great! That is a wonderful thing--as long as your 'simplification' of the text does not apply it in a way that it was not meant to be applied! Combine this with the fact that most churches wish to keep their Bible points simple and digestible to the non-Christian, and you find yourself in a strange position in which just one or two verses is ripped completely out of context.
I have spoken about this "buffet" approach to exegesis before. Do not forget what you are holding in your hand when you read a Bible! It is the inspired revelation of God as told through the Spirit to dozens of men, across thousands of years, in varying countries, and differing eras, with different cultural worldviews, written in various languages, and pulled together to share with you!
So it is the height of arrogance, then, to re-write the Bible to say what you want, by choosing a verse here, and a verse there, and skipping the context or connections. We all (rightly) are appalled by the Jefferson Bible, yet our preachers today do precisely the same thing: slicing out the individual verses that they want to use and rebuilding them into a new Bible with little resemblance to its predecessor.
If you are going to choose a single pithy saying and write a half-hour sermon about modern culture as a result, you do not need the Bible. A fortune cookie will do just fine.
No, instead, we must be very very careful that we are learning what the Bible actually says. Sometimes it is as simple as answering, "Who, what, when, where, why, and how" about a passage of Scripture. Following the natural questions of each of those to the answers gives a good understanding of what a Scripture means.
But in general, I want to introduce you to an ancient Jewish concept that you should always keep in mind when listening to a sermon, or reading a passage of Scripture: the difference between Halakha and Aggadah.
Halakha and Aggadah
Ancient Jewish rabbis used to divide every teaching regarding the Old Testament Scriptures into two types (Jesus, as a first-century Jewish rabbi, would have agreed): halakha and aggadah.
Halakha, or "the walk", describes the life of the believer. These are sections of laws or commands or advice that tell you how you should live your life. Consider these the practical theologies of the Scripture: it is the practical application of how the Jew is supposed to live according to the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, outlined in the Old Testament Law. There is no central source of halakha, but it is the word used to describe any teaching or writing which deals with how one should live practically in order to be pleasing to God.
Opposed to the halakha is the Aggadah. The aggadah is, for lack of a better term, "everything else" in the Scriptures: the stories, the mysticisms, the parables, the histories, the genealogies, the folklore, etc.
So to the ancient Jews, all teaching or thinking or Scriptural exegesis naturally fell into one of these two camps: it was either a commandment of God, or it was a story about something historical which happened to God's people.
What is critical for us as Christians is that we apply the same logic as our ancestors did. Next time you hear a sermon, have a look at the passage from which it comes: is it a story, or is it a command/teaching? Because if it is a story, be careful about drawing commands from it or you might over-reach the text.
For example, consider Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. This is a clear example of an historical story: the Bible is recording what happened on the amazing day that Jesus raised a man from the grave. Yet an evangelical might take this story and talk about us being raised from the grave of our bad habits, or about how we are to "walk out" immediately when Jesus calls our name, or about how to achieve God's purpose we must be patient, or a thousand other interpretations.
And that is wrong. Even if the advice they give you is good, you are not hearing a Scriptural sermon. Because this passage of scripture is aggadah, not halakha--it is story, not commandment.
This will be hard for many of you at first. You will feel like you are "limiting" the Bible. But what you will ultimately discover is a freedom to engage the text as it was meant to be engaged. When we read a text about Jesus healing a blind man--that is an amazing text! Let us celebrate the miracle that it performs. How insulting it must be to the mighty God who did miracles, only to have His followers find the miracles so boring that we instead use them as a bridge to talk about how much television your children should watch, or some other random modern topic.
Take the stories of Elijah and Elisha, for example. It is interesting to consider and speculate on the role of depression in Elijah's life--it is a fascinating part of the story. But the preacher is going too far when he takes the actions of Elijah as being God's commands for how to deal with depression. This is not a section of command, but story: this is what historically happened to Elijah, not God's topical sermon on how to battle depression. Elijah's story is a great, amazing story of his historical life events--which at one point included suicidal depression. From that we can gain some good insights: depression happens even to the spiritually strong, it is okay to talk about depression, etc. But when you start turning the story of Elijah into a five-step process for healing depression, you have made a mistake, by turning a "story" passage into a "commandment" passage.
Likewise, I once heard a preacher use the story of Elisha taking on the mantle of Elijah as a justification for avoiding whatever change the church was debating at that moment. He spun the use of Elisha's mantle as "continuing the old path" that Elijah had done. Which of course is absurd. But on top of being absurd, it is another example of taking a Biblical story and changing it into a commandment.
Another good example is Song of Solomon, which is a beautiful love song and which has some good practical applications for marriage--it is okay to have joy in your wife's body, etc., etc. But then some preachers go much too far, and turn it from how it is intended (a story with some practical applications) into a how-to manual listing what types of sexual activities are permissible and how to romance your bride.
Michael Horton, over at White Horse Inn (if you don't read him, you should), says that our conclusions from Scripture must be both good AND necessary. Horton says that Jesus came to be a "savior, not a life coach or therapist". He is dead-on right. There is nothing at all wrong with making sermons practical to our lives--in fact, I encourage it! But the preacher is doing a grave injustice when he twists the Scripture or adds to the Scripture or uses the Scripture to say something that it wasn't meant to say.
So any time you read a passage of Scripture, whether for Bible study or along with a sermon, I ask you to keep it clear in your head--is this a teaching/commandment, or a story? And is the person teaching framing it in that way, or are they doing a modern-day interpretation of Thomas Jefferson, cutting up the Biblical verses to make their own Scripture?