Month: June 2014

Taking Off Our Thinking Glasses

A few weeks ago I wrote a series on Pentecost that talked about parts of the story that we miss.  I wrote a little bit about why I think we miss these parts of the story, but in my next two posts I want to explore that further.

One of the things we must recognize when we are reading the New Testament (I’ll be focusing on the Gospels specifically) is that we have a different way of thinking than the writers who authored these books and letters.  We are “Western Thinkers” reading texts written by “Eastern Thinkers.”  One isn’t right or wrong, they are just very distinct and unless you make an attempt to understand the writer within his context, you may miss something the author is saying or, worse, misinterpret something the author is saying.

Before I get into this, let me defend authorial intent for a moment.  Without this key pillar of basic biblical hermeneutics, we are quickly sliding down a slippery slope.  We must do our best to attempt to understand what the author meant to convey to the people he was writing to when he put pen to paper instead of the feelings circle we sometimes call “Bible Study.”  (“Well how does this verse make you feel?”  “What does this verse mean to you?”).  All the deconstructionists that write about how we can’t understand the intent or meaning of the Biblical authors seem pretty sure that you understood their intent and expect you not to divorce it from their intended meaning.  I simply don’t understand why the same courtesy can’t be extended to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and all the rest right on down the line.  If you and I mean something specific when we write to someone and get our panties in a bundle when it’s misunderstood or misinterpreted (“That’s not what I meant!”), then why can’t the same be said for the New Testament writers?

Reading Glasses Resting on a BibleSo if we are going to attempt to understand the authors the way they intended, we must first realize that we are looking at the world through a certain pair of glasses and the Gospel writers are looking at the same world through a different pair of glasses.  I’m going to call our glasses “Western Thinking” and the Gospel writers glasses “Eastern Thinking.”  The rest of this post will be devoted to differentiating the two and then my next one will take and apply these principles to the text potentially revealing pieces of the text you have never noticed before simply because you were looking through the wrong glasses.

Western Thinking

I call it “Western” but it could also be deemed Greek thinking.  Western is simply a catch-all for the plethora of cultures in the west that stemmed from the birthplace of Greece.  Now, Western thinking is marked by a few things.

  1. Logic reigns supreme
  2. Value proposition, definition, organization, systematic explanation
  3. Abstract thinkers extracting truth from it’s context
  4. Illustrations are used to clarify a point

Eastern Thinking

I call it “Eastern” but it applies not only to the far east but to the near or middle east as well.  While there are variations within Eastern thought, these principles still ring true.

  1. Story reigns supreme
  2. Value word pictures, dramatic action, and concrete images
  3. Metaphorical thinkers observing truth within it’s context
  4. Illustrations are the point

Examples

  • Words
    • Western thinkers express truth abstractly using words, ideas, and logical definitions.  They prefer prose, outlines, lists, and bullet points
      • Ask a Westerner, “Who or what is God?” and they will answer, “Love.  Truth.  Righteousness.  Eternal.  Almighty.”  Very external, abstract, and logic based definitions.
    • Eastern thinkers express truth concretely using word pictures and stories.  They prefer poetry, imagery and symbolism.
      • Ask an Easterner, “Who or what is God?” and they will answer, “My shepherd.  My living water.  My bread.  My father.”  Very personal, concrete, and picture based definitions.
  • Numbers
    • Western thinkers see numbers as purely quantitative
    • Eastern thinkers see numbers as primarily qualitative or symbolic
      • Think back to the 3,000 referenced in Pentecost that I wrote about previously.  I’ll get to this more in my next post.
  • Life
    • Western thinkers focus on the individual
    • Eastern thinkers focus on community
  • Sin and Repentance
    • Western thinkers see sin as a wrong belief or incorrect thinking.  Repentance, then, is changing your mind.
    • Eastern thinkers see sin as a wrong behavior.  Repentance, then, is engaging in the opposite positive behavior.
      • Not just ceasing to do “bad,” but completing the opposite “good.”
  • Faith
    • Western thinkers focus on the intellectual.  They express faith in creeds, doctrines, and proof texts.
    • Eastern thinkers focus on the relational and personal.  They express faith as relationship rather than rationalization.
  • Truth
    • For Western thinkers, truth is rational and logical and abstract.  They like to take things apart, learn how they work, and extract the underlying principles.
      • Every high school has their students dissect a frog at one point in time.  This is a very Western way of learning.  When they dissect the frog, students can look inside and learn many truths.  How it’s heart works.  How it’s lungs work.  How similar the human and frog digestive systems are.
        • When Western thinkers look at Scripture, they focus on how and why things are done asking, “Why did this happen?”  “Why is the writer telling me this story?”
    • For Eastern thinkers, truth is experiential and story-bound.  They like to observe things, watch how they work, and take that as truth.
      •  A more Eastern way of studying the frog is to take the class to the pond and watch the frog for an unspecified number of days.  In doing this, students will  learn about his family, his habits, his personality.
        • When Eastern thinkers look at Scripture, they focus on what was done and who did it asking, “Who did this happen to?”  “Why is the writer telling me this story in this way?”

I want to clearly emphasize that there is no right and wrong here.  The are just different.  And we need to recognize that they are different.

The Bible was written by Easterners to Easterners.  The exception you could take are the writings of Paul who was an Easterner writing to a more Western audience (which is probably why we Western thinkers like Paul so much.  He’s very organized and didactic and we like that).  Once we realize that the Bible was written by Easterners for Easterners and admit that we don’t approach things the same way, we will be better able to take off our Western glasses and attempt to put on Eastern glasses thereby opening up portions of Scripture that we may have never seen before or never understood properly.

Next week, I’ll go into some specific examples in each of the Gospels hopefully causing your love and appreciation for God’s word to grow.

Pentecost Connections: Are You Watching Closely?

Some of my favorite movies are ones that leave you guessing until the end.  Or ones that lull you into a false sense that leads you to believe you have it all figured out and then when the end comes you are blown away.  What makes a truly great movie is when you can watch it again and still appreciate the amazing ride the story takes you on and catch tiny nuances that you missed the first, second, or third time you watched it.  That’s a good movie.

If we have grown to expect something like that from The Nolan Brothers or Stephen King or Billy Wilder, why haven’t we expected something similar yet far greater from God, the Master Storyteller?  Why do we treat Scripture as a disjointed, disconnected, boring, story that we’ve “heard already?”  Maybe because you’re not really looking.  

In the rest of this post, allow me the opportunity to reveal the connections in certain stories and events that have been there all along…that the author intended to put there…that you may have missed in the past.

Are you watching closely?

Are you watching closely?

Let me set this up by referring back to my two previous posts this week.  Monday, I posted about the historical and Biblical significance of Shavuot (Pentecost).  You can read that here.  Wednesday, I posted about the importance of the location of the events recorded in Acts 2. You can read that here.  Keeping in the same vein, I want to reveal the connections that Pentecost has to what God had been doing throughout Biblical history.  While this event was unexpected, it wasn’t uncharacteristic.  The set up was complete.  This is just the brilliant “twist” ending that no one saw coming.

Connection 1 – Harvest

Shavuot was a celebration of the harvest.  It was celebrated with grain.

“You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest,” (Ex. 34:22).  

If you read the parables of Jesus, you can’t help but miss his frequent references to the “harvest” referencing people who were going to join the Kingdom (Matt. 9:37-38, 13:24-29, 36-43; Luke 10:1-2; John 4:34-38). 

In Acts 2, the disciples were celebrating Shavuot, celebrating the harvest, and thousands believed and joined the Kingdom of God.

Connection 2 – Commission

As stated previously, the Jews of Jesus’ day believed that Shavuot was celebrated around the time God gave the gift of Torah to Moses.  So, in the mind of the participant, the writer, and the reader, these two events would have already been linked.  Look carefully at what Luke does in Acts.

The initial things are obvious.  Both events involved similar sounds and symbols, such as wind, fire, and voices (Ex. 19:16-19; Acts 2:1-3).  Both events involved the presence of God (Ex. 19:18, 20; Acts 2:4). 

But there is one thing that may not seem as obvious.  Recall for a moment what God is doing at Sinai.  Recall what God is doing when he gives the Israelites the Torah.  Recall the commandment that ties the commandments in the Torah together.  “Be holy for I am holy,” (Leviticus 11:44, 45, 19:2, 20:7, 26, 21:8).  God’s giving of the Torah at Sinai served to commission Israel into the world as a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) charged with representing God as his people.  He gives them the Law so that they can reflect his holiness showing the world what He is like.  

(Sidebar: At Shavuot, it was a tradition established before Jesus’ time [and continued today] to read Ezekiel 1-2 during the service as well.  Recall the events of Ezekiel’s vision in chapters 1-2.  

“I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north — an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light… The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it.” (Ezekiel 1:4, 13)

Recall what God is doing when he calls Ezekiel.  Ezekiel experienced these visions for a purpose.  God is commissioning him as a prophet to proclaim his Word to a wayward people.)

On Shavuot in Acts 2, God was publicly commissioning Jesus’ disciples to take the Gospel to the world, to be his representative.  And the very first thing that Peter does is to preach to the crowds and God saved thousands of people that day.  On the first Shavuot at Sinai, God celebrated by shaking the earth with voice as he commissioned his people.  In Acts 2,  God was celebrating Shavuot again by shaking the earth with his voice, but this time he filled his people with his voice empowering them to preach the Gospel of redemption to the whole world.

Connection 3 – Death and Life, Law and Spirit

(I tell you this while affirming the inspiration of Scripture.)

Many of us have read Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians. “[O]ur sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  We may think Paul to be a little harsh here or, to be honest, we don’t really understand what he’s getting at or what the relationship is between death as a result of the Old Covenant or life that results from the New Covenant.

There is something very interesting that occurs in Luke’s recording of the Pentecost account.  I think Luke is intentionally trying to draw our attention to the events at Sinai and if we were eastern thinkers and not western thinkers (a topic I’ll have to write about at a different time) we wouldn’t have needed Paul to tell us what he did in 2 Corinthians.  We would have gotten it before the end of Acts 2.  Luke uses language that would have immediately struck chords with his Jewish readers.

Let’s go back to Exodus 32.  Moses is on the “mountain of God” (Sinai, Ex. 24:13) and has received the Torah from God.  As he is descending the mountain, he hears singing in the camp.  Joshua thinks it’s the sound of a war, so it must have been some type of thrasher death metal.  Moses enters the camp, sees that they’re worshiping a golden calf and asks Aaron what is going on.  Aaron says, “I dunno.  I put all this gold into the fire and this calf came out.  It was weird.”  So, Moses calls all the priests (the sons of Levi) to himself and tells them to kill those responsible for this grievous idolatry.  Look at verse 28.  “And that day about three thousand men of the people fell.”

Acts 2.  The disciples are on the “mountain of God” (Temple, Micah 4:2) celebrating the giving of the Law.  Suddenly, the Spirit falls upon them sealing the New Covenant Jesus made with his blood.  Peter rises to tell the people of the significance of these events and after revealing to them their sin and redemption made available in Christ…look at verse 41.  “[A]nd there were added that day about three thousand souls.”

The Law kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Connection 4 – The Poor

The requirements for the celebration of Shavuot are given in 4 places around the Old Testament, but one of them has something that none of the others do.

In Leviticus 23, God gives Moses the specifics of this celebration with regards to the sacrifice, time of year, etc.  All of that matches the other accounts.  But before moving on to the Feast of Trumpets, there is a somewhat strange verse included with the requirements for Shavuot.  Verse 22.

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”

This is echoing a command God gave back in Leviticus 19:9.  This is the “Love Your Neighbor” section of the commandment and verse 9 is the first example given of how that’s done.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.”

Now we know that this is a festival that celebrates the harvest, so this law isn’t completely out of place.  And we know that this was adhered to by faithful Jews like Boaz.  And we know that the poor took advantage like Ruth and Naomi.  Also notice that there is no requirement for how far away from the edge you had to be.  So, you could look out across the fields in Israel and know who was being obedient and generous and who was just being obedient.

So in the mind of a Jew, Shavuot is just as much about serving and helping the poor as it is about the Torah and the harvest.

Look again and Luke’s construction of the story in Acts 2.

The Spirit falls.  Language barriers are broken down causing the Gospel to be heard by everyone.  Peter preaches, people repent and the Kingdom expands.  But that’s not where the story ends.  Luke makes it a point to tie something else in (TWICE).  I’m not suggesting it didn’t happen, but I’m suggesting that Luke’s inclusion of it should make you clearly see a line connecting the Old and New Testaments.

“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts… Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-46, 4:32-35)

The early believers, who were filled with the Spirit, held everything in common and shared with everyone who had need. These people who had experienced the bounty of God’s great “harvest” could not help but be concerned for others, who, in turn, learned about what God was like through the believers’ acts of generosity.

This was a true Pentecost.  It wasn’t about tongues or an upper room or jumping and shouting.  It was about breaking down ever possible human erected barrier with the Gospel.  It was about caring for the poor because God has cared for them.  It was about being commissioned by Him to show the world what He’s like.  It was about reaping a great harvest, by His grace.  And it’s still about all those things.  But it’s also about recognizing that God has been orchestrating a masterful story since the beginning of time.  Our responsibility, then, is to take our time to read it, know it, love it, and find our place in it.