Today’s question is particularly long, so therefore I had to abbreviate it in the title. However, if you want the full, exact version, here it is:
“How do I answer when people who ask me about texts/themes in the Bible that even I have difficulty with? For example; God wiping out cities in the Old Testament.”
Whoever you are that asked that recently, if you’re reading this; I want to congratulate you on a brilliant and very applicable question.So here we go, let me tell you how I try to do it, and also, where I got the biggest help from.
1.The importance of knowing the Gospel, not just the Bible.
So one day in 2007, there I was; a second year full-time theological student at Vose Seminary. My grades were beginning to rise up past simply passing assignments but to my particular delight, I was also (after many high-stakes games) just starting to figure out how to ‘swing’ a ping-pong ball both ways using ferocious spin, both during service and return. This matters.
Anyway, life was pretty great until Dr Cohen gave me this assignment topic:
“Produce An exegesis with detailed engagement with the Biblical text and secondary texts followed by a theological reflection focusing on how God’s commandment to drive out the nations in the book of Deuteronomy coheres with a belief that he is a loving God and how this can be communicated to modern critical audience.”
In other words: explain the commands of God to Israel in Deuteronomy 7, to completely ‘devote to utter destruction, taking no prisoners’ the pagan cultures in the land that they were about to enter.
I simply had no idea where to start. Until another student recommended to me one of the best articles I have ever read: J.P.U. Lilly ‘Understanding the Herem’ Tyndale Bulletin (1993) 44.1 pg 169-179.
In case you’re wondering, ‘Herem’ is the Hebrew word for all that nasty ‘devote to destruction stuff. This single article shaped the way I answer difficult questions on ‘difficult texts’ for the rest of my life, for one reason alone: It showed me, that every difficult text cannot be answered without referencing the cross.
This is why it is so important that Christians know not simply the content but the flow of what they believe. The revelation of God is incarnational (down to earth) and therefore historical in nature. This history is going somewhere, it flows toward something (or more accurately someone) and both testaments are about the coming of Jesus (God with us). The Old Testament predicts his first arrival. The New Testament finishes with a description of his second.
It’s possible to know every chapter and verse in the Bible and yet have no idea of the Gospel. The Good news of God dwelling among us. In fact, we are even provided an example of this very mistake: in John 5:39, Jesus says to the religious scholars; “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!
I think it was Karl Barth who said “All the ‘difficult’ texts and doctrines of the bible have to be answered from the point of view of a suffering, dying messiah on the cross for our sake.”
Perhaps you’re reading this thinking “when is he going to get on with the actual answer/method?”Trust me, the worst thing I could do, is give you some method without encouraging you to think about and memorise the ‘grand story’ of the bible. (Creation, Fall, Salvation, New Creation.) Hopefully you can see a real time example of this thought-flow in a prior blog on a ‘tricky topic’: Homosexuality and Hell which you can read by clicking Here. You may not want to try and pick my thinking out of mountains of text so here is the method
2.The three steps I use.
- Simple, short immediate statement.
First of all, before getting to an explanation, most people asking about tricky texts/doctrines/topics want some sort of immediate response. This has to be well crafted because it is what is going to ‘buy you the time’ to actually explain it through a gospel framework.
Sometimes this is also the chance to identify with the person that is asking. For example; “I have wrestled with that question as well, but I have come to a place where I am happy to wait till I meet God in person for the answer. I do know that nowhere in the scriptures does God, ‘zap’ a person because they have an honest question.” To take the above question of God ‘wiping out cities’ I might open with a statement like: “I find it confusing as well, but I know God’s perspective is bigger than mine, maybe we can find out some sort of answer together?” Again, you may spot other simple opening statements in other past blogs.
- Explain utilising the Gospel story, and Jesus as it’s focal point.
If folks are still ready to listen, you have at this point an amazing evangelistic opportunity. That’s one of the best things about faith, it turns every conundrum into an opportunity of discovery. I often find that when folks are struggling with difficult texts,there’s a pretty good chance they also have never had the broad-strokes gospel narrative explained to them. Therefore, if you can frame the ‘tough text’ into a gospel framework, you can not only answer the question but also lead someone to faith.
Here’s a summary how I used a Gospel framework to tackle that ‘God wiping out cities’ question.
CREATION: Explain that these people living in these cities were just much a part of God’s creation that Israel was. However, the purpose of all creation is to proclaim the glory of God. God is interested in the redemption of all creation and Israel is the focus of that effort in this area of Scripture, so in one sense, when you ‘zoom out’ the opportunity of our salvation today, in part relies in this happening.
SIN: This is of course because Sin is not only ‘doing wrong things’ but as we can gather from the the rest of Scripture, it seems to spread like a virus among the cultures of the earth. It is worth remembering that these folks that got clobbered were doing things like sacrificing their own living children in the fire. God is heartbroken by this. Sin demands justice, we always agree with this when we are the victims of it. IT’s also worth noting that similar curses backfired against God’s own people later on when they started similar practices. God is fair, no one get’s away with injustice in the long run.
SALVATION: Except that God’s not ‘fair’ at all. He’s gracious. God, in Christ allows the very same horrific judgement hinted at in the Old Testament to fall full-force upon himself for no other reason than that he would rather have a loving relationship with us that judge. However, if we never had no picture of the sort of judgement we would fall under, how could we really understand the depth of the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf? Gratitude is fuel of joy.
NEW CREATION: Jesus has saved humanity from a far worse death that mere physical death. Because of the cross, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more the process has been reversed because only love is powerful enough to change the heart of a race.
- Reference that back to their lives.
Sometimes, one of the most powerful statements is: “imagine for a moment if you were in God’s shoes.” or “his people’s shoes.” Hollywood obviously had a bit of fun with this in ‘Bruce Almighty’, later ‘Evan Almighty’.
3. Trust in the Spirit = not being afraid to say what it says!
Remember, one key evidence that the Gospel really is not a product of human culture but of God is that there is and has been always some part of it that was controversial no matter what age and culture. If you were living in Medieval England it would have seemed far, far too liberal and disturbing to the correct ‘order of things.’ But now people complain that Scripture is too, ‘cramped and restrictive.’ Not one age, culture, or philosophy on earth has been able to say….we reckon this is ‘just right’. There’s always going to be a stumbling block somewhere, God cannot be known via the wisdom of the world.
Therefore, it’s so important to ultimately leave how they receive the answer in God’s hands. Only the Spirit can create faith in a person. I have come to think that we can really know how much we really rely on the Holy Spirit by how temped we are to ‘water down’ the basis truths of Scripture. But at the end of the day, God’s word is his word and it never returns to him empty. Even the really difficult bits.