It’s mid September and Rosh Hashana (aka Yom Teruah) is right around the corner. Our community has begun making plans and preparing for parties, prayers, and even campouts!
I have never heard a single good reason for keeping the man-made holidays of Christmas & Easter instead of the God-made holidays of Yom Teruah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, etc.
Tradition, family and community, professional connections, personal memories… these are all powerful draws to the traditional Western holidays, but they aren’t good reasons to ignore God’s days altogether.
If you can’t bring yourself to give up the man-made replacements of God’s days, for whatever reason, you can still begin to keep the originals now. Even if you believe that Passover and Tabernacles are only memorials of things that have already happened, I promise that you will discover new meaning in keeping them.
Remember what has been in order to know what will be.
Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in Exodus 2-3 is structured as a chiasm that demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his people. Through persecution, they are refined and disciplined, but never destroyed. God always preserves a remnant of Israel. (See here for more information on chiasms.)
Here is the full text of the passage:
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”
When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them.
A1-v23 – People groaned because of slavery B1—-v23 – God heard their cry for rescue C1——–v24-25 – God heard their groaning. Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked on the Israelites and understood. D1————v1 – Led the flock to the mountan of God. E1—————-v2 – YHVH appeared in flames from within the Bush and Moses saw F1——————–v3 – Moses thought, Go over and see G————————v3 – Why the bush does not burn up? F2——————–v4 – God saw, Gone over to look E2—————-v4 – God called from within the bush and Moses replied D2————v5 – Come no closer. Standing on holy ground. C2——–v6-7 – God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw their misery and heard their crying. B2—-v8 – God came down to rescue them A2-v9 – God heard the cry of the people
This chiasm contains 6 levels on each side, with a 7th in the center. Each of these levels teaches truths about God’s relationship with mankind, and especially about his relationship with his people. Although we should always be cautious in formulating doctrine without explicit statements, at the very least, we can learn a lot about how the Biblical authors thought about their subjects.
In this case, we can make inferences from the connections that Moses laid out for us. In his mind, point A1 was connected to A2, B1 was connected to B2, and so on. Our job is to consider those connections and their implications in light of the rest of Scripture.
Level A: God hears the cries of his people
A1: 2:23 – The people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out
A2: 3:9 – God heard the cry of the people and saw their oppression
It might seem at times as though God isn’t listening, but he is never deaf to the cries of his people. He has not forgotten them, and cannot. He sees every wrong done to them. This ought to be a source of hope for all those whose faith is in him and a terror to those who have scorned and oppressed the people of Israel.
Level B: God will rescue his people
B1: 2:23 – Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.
B2: 3:8 – God came down to rescue them from Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land.
Periods of oppression are part of God’s plan, but they are temporary. Suffering is never a permanent state of being for the faithful. It is only a step in a process that inevitably leads to redemption and reward.
Level C: God honors his covenants
C1: 2:24-25 – God heard their groaning, and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He saw the people and understood.
C2: 3:6-7 – I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I have seen and heard the people’s affliction. I understand.
God is faithful. He keeps his promises.
Because of Abraham’s faithfulness, God made a covenant with him that was passed on to Isaac, then to Jacob, and to all of Israel. When the text says that he remembered the covenant and saw the people of Israel, it means that he looks past the current generation of Israel all the way back to Abraham, and saves them for the sake of that ancient covenant. Because Abraham believed in God and kept his commandments, God is faithful to Abraham throughout all the generations of Israel.
If God can forget his covenant with Abraham, then he will forget that Israel is his chosen people, but God never forgets or annuls a covenant. He is always faithful.
Level D: Moses can only bring you so far
D1: 3:1 – Moses led his flock to the mountan of God.
D2: 3:5 – Then God said, “Do not come near.”
Paul wrote that the Law of Moses is a guide to lead us to Messiah (Galatians 3:24) and that Messiah is the aim of the Law (Romans 10:4). Keeping the feasts and the Sabbath and obeying the commandments are good things, but if they never lead us to Messiah, then they are ultimately pointless.
Once Moses had arrived at the place of the burning bush, God told him to stop, then gave him instructions for existing in the divine presence. God is a raging fire that will destroy anyone who comes to close without authorization and the proper precautions. Se can never come to God on our own terms. He sets the rules, not us, and he has given us detailed instructions on how to live in his presence. The first and most important rule in approaching God is this:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
Moses leads us to Messiah Yeshua, and Messiah Yeshua leads us to the Father.
Level E: No one comes unless the Father calls him
E1: 3:2 – YHWH appeared in a flame out of the midst of a bush. Moses looked.
E2: 3:4 – God called to him out of the bush. Moses replied.
God revealed himself, and then Moses saw. God called out, and then Moses replied. This recalls Yeshua’s words:
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. John 6:44
God is beyond our understanding, and the natural inclination of our flesh is to rebel against him and worship things that have no power to save. Before a man can be saved from his sins and evil inclination, God must make himself known and call him. That revelation and calling can take any form: an evangelist, a Gideon Bible in a hotel room, or a still, small voice that can only be heard in the heart. Without that revelation, we are lost.
Level F: God requires an answer
F1: 3:3 – Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight.
F2: 3:4 – YHWH saw that he turned aside to see.
Although we can ever see the truth about God and our need for salvation unless he reveals it to us, God doesn’t force us to act on that revelation. He extends an offer of mercy, but it’s up to us to accept it.
Level G: The bush doesn’t burn up
“Why the bush is not burned” in 3:3 is at the center of the chiasm.
Did the fire leave the bush unburned merely to catch Moses’ attention? Or did God have a specific reason for choosing this sign rather than a floating boulder or a talking goat? What is significant about vegetation?
The bush itself isn’t God. Rather God appears and speaks from within the bush. So what is the bush?
The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. Psalms 104:16
Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. Jeremiah 24:5
Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. Hosea 10:1a
For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. Romans 11:24
Throughout its text, the Bible portrays Israel as a tree, a vine, a field of barley or wheat, etc., and God appeared to Moses on Mount Horeb to send him to rescue Israel from Egypt. The bush is Israel and the fire is the sign of God’s presence among them, just like the pillar of cloud and fire that would accompany them through their wilderness travels.
Over the next few chapters in Exodus, Israel was protected from the brunt of the plagues, while Egypt was consumed around them. The fire burned the air around the bush, but not the bush itself.
This same pattern played out over and over throughout Israel’s history: God destroys Israel’s oppressors along with the wicked, fruitless branches within Israel, but always preserves a remnant for himself.
Following the Chiasm to its Axis: God Preserves a Remnant of Israel
God is a consuming fire, hotter and more terrible than any star in the universe, yet he holds and protects those he loves. He has perfect control of his power, and will use it to refine his people and destroy their enemies. It scorches everything that approaches, burning away the dross of uncleanness, leaving only those who have placed their faith in him and in the righteousness imputed through the Covenant of the Redeemer.
This is the point of the Exodus and the focus of the chiasm: Because of Abraham’s faithfulness, God is faithful to keep the covenant that he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, particularly that aspect which promised a new covenant mediated by a Savior. He reveals himself to his people and draws them to himself, and those who respond in humility and obedience are rewarded with salvation, not only from enslavement and oppression of the body, but from the fire of eternal damnation.
I’m probably about to offend you. I don’t mean to, it’s just that there are things that need to be said, and those things won’t set easily on many. Everyone has beliefs that they hold so strongly that they get angry when they are challenged, that they will fight to protect. This is especially true when it comes to beliefs about the things that give our lives meaning.
Although the idea that religion is the cause of most wars is a myth invented by atheists who held propaganda value higher than factuality, religion has always been a contentious topic. People have been fighting over religion and doctrine since the very beginning, even to the point of being willing to snuff out millions of lives to promote one belief over another.
Jews killed Christians. Roman pagans killed Christians and Jews. Christians have even killed fellow Christians over esoteric theologies that were based more on human imagination than any divine revelation. In fact, the very first murder was over a religious difference. Abel’s offering was accepted by God and Cain’s wasn’t, so Cain killed Abel.
But few beliefs are all that important. Even among beliefs that we would never commit murder over, some matter more than others, and some hardly matter at all.
Let me propose a rule of thumb for judging the relative importance of a religious belief: Does it change what you do, how you live, or how you treat other people? If not, then you need to seriously consider whether it’s worth getting into an argument or an emotional bind over.
I want to give you a few examples of beliefs that don’t matter very much and some that matter somewhat more, but I need to ask you to set your ego aside first. Don’t rush to judgment, don’t assume more than what I have written, and accept the undeniable fact that you might be wrong about a whole lot of stuff.
Here’s why I want you to slow down while you read this:
I know that you believe the Bible is crystal clear on some of these issues. The problem is that people who strongly disagree with you believe the same thing. You can’t both be right, so please consider the possibility that two perfectly reasonable–and Spirit-filled!–people can read the exact same passage and draw completely different conclusions from it. The Bible is ambiguous about a lot of issues, and living at peace with your neighbors often requires living at peace with that fact.
I’m not saying that you’re wrong about anything in particular. Your belief about some esoteric point of doctrine might be correct in every respect…and still not be very important.
I’m not saying that the facts of various mystical truths aren’t vitally important in many ways or that the truth doesn’t matter. Some spiritual truths are monumentally important to the mechanics of the spiritual universe, but they will go on functioning as they always have whether you are aware of them or not. What goes on at the center of the sun is really important for the entire solar system. What you believe about what goes on in there? Eh. Not so much. On a spiritual level the same thing is true about the internal structure of God.
What Bible Beliefs Don’t Matter?
Here are a couple of beliefs that are unlikely to have much impact on how you behave toward God, your neighbor, or even yourself:
The Trinity or No? Is God a single, indivisible entity, or is he three distinct persons in one being? People have been excommunicated, disfellowshipped, tortured, and killed over this question, but–other than how unbalanced people react to disagreement–I can’t even imagine how believing one or the other can have any real affect on your life. The anatomy of God is hinted at in Scripture, but is never spelled out clearly. Ultimately, we have less hope of understanding the structure of God as an ant does of becoming a neurosurgeon.
Does being a Trinitarian help you care for your elderly neighbor? Does being a Unitarian help you feed anyone? Probably not. No matter what you believe, it doesn’t change you, your relationship to God, or how you treat your neighbor.
Predestination or Free Will? Calvinism vs Arminianism is the soap opera of theological debates. There’s a new episode every day. Probably thousands of them. Forever. Those aren’t the only two camps, of course, and the extent and nature of predestination held in each camp varies significantly, depending on who you ask.
If one person believes he has no choice in whether he is eternally saved or not, he behaves as if he does. He studies, he considers, and he makes decisions. If a second person believes he is able to choose to accept salvation, he behaves exactly as the first, whether he actually has that ability or not. He studies, he considers, and he makes decisions.
Some people will choose (or not) a thoroughly immoral life and blame it on destiny. If we are automatons, then I can do whatever I want, because I have no control anyway. Other people do the exact same thing, while claiming they’re exercising their freedom to rebel against God.
I don’t think I have ever encountered a person whose life was change in any significant way because he believed in either predestination or free will. People appear to be moved to act or to choose to act in exactly the same manner, regardless.
There are many other such questions, but I think you understand my point, so I don’t need to see how many more angels I can cram onto it. (Bonus points if you understood that reference!)
What Bible Beliefs Matter?
On the other hand, there are many beliefs that do have a direct impact on how we live. If you hold one of these beliefs, then your life is different than if you did not hold it. You think differently and serve God differently; you are kinder or meaner to that irritating neighbor who talks too much. These are the beliefs on which we act.
Is the weekly Sabbath on the first day of the week or the seventh?Does the Sabbath apply to believers in Yeshua at all? These might seem like relatively unimportant questions, but you can’t deny that what you believe about them will have a real–and sometimes dramatic–impact on how you live. You will keep the Sabbath or you won’t. You will keep it with a holiness church on Sunday or you will keep it with a Messianic synagogue on Saturday or some other congregation. If you believe contrary to the majority opinion in your society, you will quickly discover how strongly you believe it.
Is the earth a sphere or a relatively flat disk? Amazingly enough, belief in a flat earth is on the rise in recent years. I have seen–and sometimes joined–numerous “debates” on this topic in online forums, and almost inevitably, some well-meaning soul will attempt to make peace between the sides by pointing out that whether the earth is flat or round has no significant impact on how anyone lives and no impact at all on anyone’s salvation. So why fight about it?
Before the advent of modern geometry, astronomy, physics, geology, cartography, and aeronautics, I would wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. Unfortunately the proponents of a flat earth must also believe that uncountable millions of people are actively involved in a conspiracy to hide the shape of the earth from the rest of humanity. Scientists and engineers in numerous disciplines provide fake, computer-generated evidence of a spherical earth and a vast universe beyond the atmosphere. Shipping and airline crews, business people, and athletes who cross the South Pacific every day are all lying about it. Travel agents advertise impossible flights. The United Nations maintains an enormous fleet to keep anyone from approaching the great ice wall that circles the world.
A person might be paranoid if he believes the earth is a sphere, but he would have to be paranoid, delusional, or both to believe it’s a disk. He would be guilty of false witness on a grand scale, or else he would have to be egotistical enough to believe he exists in a world like Truman Burbank‘s. I know that’s harsh, but I cannot see any way around the fact of it, and I have witnessed the truth of it many times. Flat-earthism has a profound negative impact on the social and spiritual lives of people who adopt it.
The tithe is mandatory or a good example to follow or a total waste of time. Whatever you believe about it, that belief will affect how you use your resources. Will you give to your local church or synagogue or some other charity? Will you share your garden produce with the Cohen family down the street? Your beliefs about the tithe will change how you see what God has given you and what you decide to do with it.
Humans bear the Image of God. If you believe that every single person you meet is a shadow of the Creator, you will look at the toothless beggar behind the dumpster and see God somewhere beneath the crud, and you will treat him differently than if you did not believe it.
What does it mean to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind? If you have some idea of an answer, then your behavior will be measurably different than if you didn’t. You might spend more time in prayer, you might talk to people about God, or you might make an effort to keep his rules for living. You will certainly express more love for your neighbor. How you believe you are to love God is a profound matter that will impact every aspect of your life.
If I haven’t stepped on your virtual toes at some point in this essay, I will be surprised. As I wrote at the start, I haven’t set out to offend anyone, but offense is inevitable when discussing those religious beliefs around which people tend to build their identities.
Dogma as Identity
Perhaps that is the ultimate problem: we have identified with our dogmas rather than with our Creator and his people, Israel. On some level, the truth always matters. All truth is from God or else within God who is infinite. For that very reason, we also have to recognize that most of the truth in the universe is probably unknowable.
The secret things belong to YHWH our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law. Deuteronomy 29:29
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares YHWH. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9
It’s fine to talk about and even to debate almost any topic in the right circumstances, but we need to be careful about what we allow to disrupt our relationships. Whenever we feel the tension rising in a doctrinal discussion, we need to ask ourselves what Bible beliefs really matter relative to others? We need to keep all things in good perspective, weighing the value of establishing a particular truth with the value of the relationships and impact on our lives.
Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Fear God and keep his commandments. All else is debatable.
For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness.
At face value, this verse seems to be saying that some old commandment was weak and useless, so God threw it out, but which commandment? It is generally assumed that it’s talking about the Old Covenant, including the Law of Moses. Most people believe it’s only the ceremonial laws pertaining to the Levitical priesthood that were weak and useless, while others believe it was the entire Law of Moses.
But is that really what this verse is saying? If we look at the context of the whole Letter to the Hebrews, it seems like a plausible explanation.
Jesus is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, to whom Abraham gave a tenth, and by whom he was blessed, and Levi through the loins of Abraham gave a tenth to Melchizedek. Perfection is unattainable through the Levitical priesthood, so we needed a a priest like Melchizedek instead of like Aaron, and if the priest changes, the law has to change too, because Jesus, who is like Melchizedek, came from Judah, not Levi.
So a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness, because the law can’t make anything perfect.
Former priests died, made daily sacrifices, and were weak in themselves. But Jesus guarantees a better covenant, because his priesthood was established by an oath from God, he lives forever, and sacrificed himself once for all time.
Now, that summary might seem a little confusing, but I honestly think the original is even harder to understand.
The writer of Hebrews assumed that his readers already possessed substantial knowledge of Jewish tradition and Levitical law, something that very few Christians in any age could claim to have. I’m a decently intelligent guy who’s been studied Torah for nearly 20 years, yet I still struggle to make sense of much of this book.
Anyone who tells you that Hebrews is straightforward is selling snake oil.
At no point does the writer spell out exactly what he means by “the former commandment” in verse 18, though it seems clear it must have something to do with the Levitical priesthood. What does he mean by “weak and useless”? Didn’t the divine presence rest in the Tabernacle while Aaron and his sons offered their sacrifices there? Surely God wouldn’t give the Israelites weak and useless rules for his personal house in Israel! Paul himself wrote that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). God isn’t a politician to make useless laws to appease the masses.
The third fundamental rule of interpreting the Bible is this: the clear interprets the obscure, and never the other way around. If one or more passages makes a very clear statement about a topic, while another passage makes a convoluted or ambiguous statement about it, the clearer passage should normally take precedence.
(In practice, we also have to take into account the context, format, and intent of each statement. For example, we can expect a legal judgement to be quite clear, while a personal conversation might involve hyperbole and sarcasm which doesn’t always translate well across in print and across languages. Such personal communications are usually much easier to take out of context and misinterpret. Poetry must be treated as even further removed from the literal.)
Are there clear passages that talk about the strength and usefulness of the Levitical priesthood or its durability?
28:43 And [the priestly garments] shall be on Aaron and on his sons
when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar
to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall
be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him.
29:9 And you shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on
them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever. Thus you
shall ordain Aaron and his sons.
6:22 The priest from among Aaron’s sons, who is anointed to succeed
him, shall offer it to the LORD as decreed forever. The whole of it
shall be burned.
9:6 And Moses said, “This [the initial offerings made by Aaron in the
Tabernacle] is the thing that the LORD commanded you to do, that the
glory of the LORD may appear to you.”
16:34 And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may
be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their
sins.” And Aaron did as the LORD commanded Moses.
24:3 Outside the veil of the testimony, in the tent of meeting, Aaron
shall arrange it from evening to morning before the LORD regularly. It
shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.
1:7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according
to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it
to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success
wherever you go.
Psalms 19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple…
5:17-18 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the
Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For
truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a
dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
There are many, many more statements like these scattered all throughout Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments. According to hundreds of passages, the Law is personally and nationally transformative and enriching, the rituals of the priesthood and the priesthood itself are enduring, as well as preserving the lives of the priests, atoning for the sins of the priests, the nation, and the individual, and enabling God’s presence among the people.
There is nothing about the Law of Moses that is weak or useless!
What does Hebrews 7:18 mean, then?
If it doesn’t mean that the Law or the Levitical Priesthood were weak and useless, it seems to me that there is only one reasonable interpretation that doesn’t make the text hopelessly convoluted.
Hebrews 7:18 means that the Levitical Priesthood and the sacrificial system of that law was weak and useless for attaining eternal salvation. That was never its purpose! For this, we need a better covenant with a different kind of priest to mediate it. We can’t earn eternal salvation through the blood of bulls and goats, but we can through the blood of the perfect Son of God! There is one law that pertains to the daily sacrifices, Yom Kippur, and the appointing of the sons of Aaron, and there is another law that pertains to the one, eternal sacrifice for all our souls, and the appointing of the ultimate High Priest in Heaven.
So like setting aside a hammer, which is a weak and useless tool for driving screws, when working on this eternal task, we set aside the Covenant and Law of Sinai and pick up the Covenant and Law of Calvary.
The Sinai Covenant isn’t thrown in the dustbin because we have a new covenant. Paul wrote that “Even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified (Galatians 3:15).” It’s merely relegated to its proper place, which is as a witness against sin, a judge of sinners, and a guide for righteous behavior.
The Clear Interprets the Obscure
Sometimes this rule is given as “The Explicit Interprets the Implicit.”
A great many passages in the Bible can be confusing or deceptively simple when taken on their own, but no passage exists alone. Every word must be understood in light of every other word, and the obscure must always be subordinate to the clear.
I can rob banks without getting caught, jump off cliffs without getting hurt, and run through traffic without getting hit by a truck because I can do all things through him who strengthens me!
Right!? It says so right there in Philippians 4:13, just plain as day.
Of course, only the mentally unstable and the most virulent atheists would insist that Paul meant we could literally do anything at all. Yet people still quote that verse in all kinds of situations as if they did. If you are in this group, you are likely already a serious Bible student, and you know what Paul really meant. It probably seems silly to you that Paul meant we can do stupid, harmful things. But how do we know he didn’t?
Because Scripture interprets Scripture.
We know that Paul didn’t mean that we can commit sin through the power of Christ without penalty, because in 1 Corinthians 6:9, he also wrote, “Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?”
But what about soccer games? Can we win every game through Christ who strengthens us? Apart from the logical conundrum of both teams claiming that God is going to help them win, we have to use the same principle of Bible study here too. Does Scripture say that Philippians 4:13 means we can win every soccer game through the power of Jesus?
Understand the Greater Context
In order to understand what any particular passage means, we have to understand what it meant to the person who wrote it and to the people to whom he wrote.
Paul was the penultimate Bible scholar. He probably had the first five books of the Bible (aka Torah) memorized in Hebrew and much of the rest of the Bible too. He spent decades studying with the greatest Jewish scholars of the first century. So in order to be confident that we understand what Paul meant by anything he wrote, we also have to be very familiar with the rest of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.
Next, we have to understand the world and circumstances in which Paul wrote the Epistle to the Philippians. From chapter 1, we know that Paul was writing to fellow believers who lived in Philippi (v1), that he knew the intended recipients well and considered himself to be their spiritual mentor (v3-11), and that he wrote from a Roman prison (v12-14).
Understand the Immediate Context
In chapter 1 and the first half of chapter 2 Paul discussed the purpose of suffering for the sake of the Gospel and what a great witness it is to suffer without resentment and to keep working for the Kingdom of God despite persecution. He then praised Timothy and Epaphroditus for their hard work and perseverance despite their own hardships. In chapter 3, he continued the theme of rejoicing through suffering, adding a few words of condemnation for those who had turned away from the faith.
In chapter 4, Paul first told the Philippians to set aside their personal differences and join with their fellows who have worked to further the gospel. He thanked them for their concern over his plight and for the financial assistance they had provided for his ministry. This is where we find the verse in question, but no verse exists in isolation. Every line is written as part of a greater whole.
Understand the Genre and Structure of the Passage
Here is the structure of the passage, Philippians 4:10-20:
v10 – Gratitude for concern
v11 – Contentment in whatever situation
v12 – Low and high, any and every, plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
v13 – I can do all things through him who strengthens me
v14 – Gratitude for concern
vs15-20 – Gratitude for financial assistance
If you are familiar with the concept of chiasms, you might have noticed something interesting in this outline. A theme in verse 10 (gratitude) is repeated in verse 14, a theme in verse 11 (whatever situtation) is repeated in verse 13 (all things), and verse 12 contains what almost reads like a poetic Hebrew parallelism.
To make it more plain:
If verse 14 reflects verse 10 and the four clauses of verse 12 all echo each other, it follows that verse 13 reflects verse 11. In other words, Paul meant “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” to mean essentially the same thing as “I have learned to be content any situation.”
Put It All Together, Letting Scripture Interpret Scripture
The overarching theme of the Epistle to the Philippians is perseverance through suffering, a theme which is carried through the trials of Abraham, the slavery of the Hebrews, the testing of Job, and all the other writings of the Old Testament, not to mention the sufferings of Christ himself.
The context of the letter, the structure of the passage, and the testimony of the rest of Scripture all tell us that Philippians 4:13 means “I know that I can persevere in the faith through good times and bad because God is with me.”
Does that mean God won’t help you win your soccer game or survive jumping from a cliff on a dare? Nope. Maybe he will. It only means that this verse doesn’t apply to those situations.
I chose this passage because it was relatively easy to parse, so it served as a good example to demonstrate Scripture interpreting Scripture. In general, you will want to follow this plan:
Be familiar with the whole Bible before being too confident in your ability to interpret any particular difficult passage.Know the historical context and the genre (letter, history, poetry, etc.) of the book or passage you are studying.
Know the contents and purpose of the book (or passage for long books with distinct divisions).
Dissect the passage to be sure you know the theme and structure.
If there are uncertain words, check to see how the same Hebrew and Greek words are used elsewhere in Scripture.
This should work for most passages, but be flexible. Be prepared for ambiguity, hyperbole, and even sarcasm. Although every book in the Bible was inspired by God, the authors were still humans communicating with humans, and they wrote like it.
Three principles of Biblical interpretation are absolutely foundational to helping you understand the Bible. Without grasping these three rules, you will be blown around by doctrinal winds and fall prey to theological pied pipers.
Principle #1: The Bible was written to be understood.
Every sane person who publishes a book or writes a letter does so to communicate with other people. He writes in such a way that his intended audience will understand his message.
If he only wanted to work out personal frustrations or ensure he didn’t forget something, he could write it in a journal and use whatever obscure code he wanted. He could make up his own alphabet or use nicknames to hide his true meaning from snoops.
But there’s nothing like that in the Scriptures. Everything in the Bible was written to be understood by someone other than the author. Some passages are obscure due to linguistic or cultural differences and others were written using veiled language for political or prophetic reasons. Those factors certainly complicate the process of interpretation, but you will never need a secret decoder ring to work it out.
If you understand who the author was, the cultural, linguistic, and historical context in which he wrote, and who his intended audience was, then the meaning shouldn’t be too difficult to tease out.
The author won’t have invented his own words or new meanings for words that were already commonly used. He would write with words that were already familiar to his audience, and he would primarily use them in the context his audience would expect. He might use idioms or religious jargon, but only if he thought his audience would know what he meant. If he used a word in an unexpected way, you can expect him to explain it or give some kind of hint in the text.
Was the author a king, farmer, or priest? Did he live in times of peace or of foreign subjugation? Did he live in the shadow of the Temple or did he live in a distant land? Did his intended audience consist of relatively new converts or people who had grown up in the synagogue, attending every festival in Jerusalem? All of these circumstances and more will have profound impacts on the language and imagery he uses in his writing.
Yes, you can understand the Bible. You don’t need any secret algorithms, mystical diagrams, or urim and thummim. The only secret decoder ring you need is sufficient background information.
Up next… Foundational Principle #2: Scripture Interprets Scripture.
Bad things happen. It rains on the just and the unjust alike, and fellow believers will come on hard times. We’ve all known someone (and probably know someone still today!) who is so poor that he can’t afford the basic necessities of life. He’s homeless, wears worn out clothes, or can’t afford to buy food for his family.
How much should I help? At what point does help stop being helpful? How should I give charity? Should I donate to an organization? Should I give charity at all?
These are hard questions, and probably can’t even be answered thoroughly without an intimate knowledge of the person’s specific circumstances, but the Bible does give us some basic guidelines on how to help someone in need. Leviticus 25 gives one of the clearest sets of instructions.
“If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger [ger: a foreigner living in Israel, whether a naturalized Israelite or a temporary visitor, such as a migrant laborer] and a sojourner [toshav: an Israelite who is temporarily landless], and he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.
“If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God.”
This passage isn’t talking about someone who can’t afford a new television or a nice car. It’s good to be generous to all people, especially to those less fortunate than yourself, but that’s not the issue at hand here. These instructions concern someone who is truly destitute, in desperate need of food, clothing, and shelter for himself or his family.
The basic rules for dealing with a destitute brother can be summarized as below.
The Treatment of a Poor Israelite
Support him like a ger and a toshav. See the Leviticus quote above for more detail on what ger and toshav mean. There are a number of rules given for how to treat a ger, and only a few about a toshav, but all of the rules for the toshav are included with the ger, so we only need to talk about the ger. I’ll go into more detail below on exactly how we are supposed to support them.
Do not lend to him interest. If he asks to borrow money or material, give it to him if you can spare it, and don’t demand any interest. Elsewhere, we are told to lend to our brothers on the honor system, without expecting repayment. (See also Deuteronomy 15:7-11.)
Sell food to him at cost. God has additional rules on providing the poor with food, but, at the very least, we are forbidden from selling food to the destitute for a profit. This doesn’t mean we have to give every person who claims to be poor a steep discount at the grocery store. Remember that these rules apply to the truly destitute, to those who can’t afford to buy even the most basic foods, not to people who can afford rice and beans, but prefer pizza and ice cream.
If you buy him as a slave, treat him as a hired worker, and release him in the 7th year with generous gifts. Slavery is nominally illegal in the United States today (except as punishment for a crime), so this law doesn’t apply directly. A person could certainly borrow his way into a very bad situation, especially with non-dischargeable debt, like student loans, but even in those cases, he only has the threat of slavery (prison) hanging over his head, and strictly speaking hasn’t sold himself. (See also Deuteronomy 15:12-18.)
The first rule is meaningless without further explanation, so I’ll go into that more below, and the fourth rule doesn’t apply in today’s United States. However, rules two and three apply, but are followed so rarely as to be almost unheard of.
The only people who give interest free loans to the poor are close family members, but God says that everyone who has the money to lend should be ready to do it. Not only should we lend freely, but we must be ready to forgive the loan in the shemitah year no matter how much he has repaid. How bizarre and revolting that feels to American sensibilities!
Yet this is how God wants his people to treat one another.
There are many places where you can buy new clothing at (or near) wholesale prices and used clothing at far below retail, but there aren’t many places where you can buy food at cost. Grocery stores will often reduce the price of goods that are near the end of the shelf lives, but they don’t reserve those products for the destitute. They are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis, just like the rest of their stock.
Some restaurants and grocery stores will donate old or excess products to charities, but that’s not exactly the same thing. Giving away food is fine–and even commanded–to an extent, but that shouldn’t be the only option available to the poor. Handouts and government welfare programs shouldn’t be the primary means of supporting the poor. Jobs and low-cost necessities promote better habits while maintaining self-respect.
So what about the ger?
The Treatment of a Ger
Remember that a ger is a foreigner who has joined himself to Israel, but has no land of his own, or else a foreigner who is temporarily living with Israel. Some of these commandments also include the toshav, who is a temporarily landless or itinerant Israelite, but there are no rules for a toshav that do not also apply to a ger.
May celebrate some feasts and must celebrate others. (Exodus 12:48-49, Leviticus 16:29, Deuteronomy 16:1-17, 26:1-19)
Required to keep the weekly Sabbath. (Exodus 20:10, 23:12, Deuteronomy 5:14)
Not to be treated like a slave…unless he is a slave. (Exodus 22:21, 23:9)
Not allowed to eat blood. (Leviticus 17:12)
May eat animals that died of natural causes or was killed by another animal. (Leviticus 17:15, Deuteronomy 14:21)
Abstain from sexual immorality. (Leviticus 18:26)
May glean the corners and leavings of the fields. (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22, Deuteronomy 24:19-21)
Love him as yourself. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Must not blaspheme the name of God. (Leviticus 24:16)
May worship and bring offerings. (Numbers 15:14-16, Numbers 19:10, )
Must keep and be protected by the same standards of justice as the native-born. (Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 15:26, 35:15, Deuteronomy 1:15-16, 24:17, 27:19)
Give him food and clothing if he needs it. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19, 14:29)
Must keep all the commandments (Deuteronomy 31:9-13)
How Charity Works in God’s Kingdom
There are times for outright charity, times to make things available to whomever is willing to do the labor, and times to hire and offer produce at a discount. Which option is appropriate in any given circumstances will depend on the individuals involved, and nobody can know that except those individuals. There is no one-size-fits-all solution that can be dictated from thousands of miles away. Charity should be local and almost always voluntary. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give to people far away, only that you should start near at home.)
Note also that Biblical charity comes with some strings attached. Everyone in Israel is expected to keep God’s commandments, and those who refuse are to be cut off. In some cases that might mean exile or shunning, and in some it might mean death. I’m not saying that charity should be dependent on perfect behavior or that anyone should keep a score sheet to determine eligibility. What I mean is that no Israelite should ever be expected to support financially an enemy of God or Israel.
To be eligible for charity from Israel, one must be eligible to live among Israel, which primarily means keeping God’s appointed times and Sabbaths, and abstaining from sexual immorality, idolatry, and blood. Interestingly enough, the three prohibitions are the exact same requirements that James and the council of Jerusalem gave for new converts to come into fellowship in Acts 15.
God requires his people to give charity generously. Although he didn’t specify any penalty for not giving to the poor, he commanded it multiple times. The Prophets, Yeshua, and the Apostles all repeated those instructions.
Give to people you know personally. Give to charities that uphold God’s standards. Give to the poor, widows, orphans, and sick. Charity is not an option for God’s people, but charity shouldn’t be indiscriminate and irresponsible, either. Whenever possible, it should be local, personal, and relational.
Let’s pretend for a moment that there’s a newspaper out there that employs unbiased reporters and never confuses reporting with opining. I know that’s a stretch, but let’s pretend anyway. We’ll call it The Daily Truth.
If you want to know what’s been going on in Congress you have four choices:
Read the Congressional Record, which is a play-by-play created by people who were there and participating.
Read the Politics section of The Daily Truth, which may or may not include reporting by people who were present at the events, but certainly includes narrative based on the Congressional Record.
Read the Opinion page of The Daily Truth, which includes personal opinions about the news reported in the Politics section written by people who definitely weren’t there.
Check Facebook, which is like the Opinion page in the junior high student newspaper. You’ll be lucky if anyone even knows The Daily Truth exists, because it’s not allowed on Facebook.
Now, the Opinion page will certainly have content relevant to current events and even to specific and important political issues, but opinions aren’t facts. If you want to know what actually happened as opposed to what some pundit thinks about what happened, you only have two reasonable options: the Congressional Record and the Politics section of The Daily Truth, and most of the Politics section is probably written by people who don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the events they’re reporting.
So, if you want to get the bare facts–or as close to the facts as possible–then you have to go to the primary sources.
What is a primary source?
A primary source is a record of events by someone with first-hand knowledge. Examples include meeting minutes, personal diaries and letters, and first-hand accounts of historic events.
A secondary source is opinion about a primary source. Examples include most news articles, history books (not written by witnesses), academic papers, documentary videos, and commentary.
A Facebook post is a quip about headlines about opinions about primary sources.
Secondary sources can be interesting and informative, but they will never be anything more than opinion about someone else’s reporting of the facts. If you want to know the actual facts, and not opinions, you have to go to a primary source.
Of course, that doesn’t mean secondary sources are useless.
All translations of primary sources are, to a great extent, secondary sources, because translations are always affected by the knowledge and biases of the translator. Many words in one language have no direct equivalents in other languages, and sometimes the same word can have multiple meanings. If you were to translate a personal letter from Russian to English, you would have to make some guesses about what the author meant by some phrases. You would have an even harder time with translating across very different cultures in different eras.
Dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries, etc., are almost always secondary sources and can have huge disparities in their reliability.
The solution is to consult primary sources whenever possible and to consult several secondary sources when necessary. Make it your habit to compare Bible translations, Hebrew and Greek dictionaries, and commentaries. Over time, you will cultivate a good feel for which of these resources are reliable, which are interesting, and which are safe to ignore completely.
Even then, remember that the most reliable secondary source is still someone’s opinions about a primary source. They might be excellent opinions, but they’re still just opinions.
That’s not a bad thing in itself. We have experiences and we’ve been taught things about the world, and we use this information from our past to help us understand what we experience in the present and what we expect from the future. We will never know everything there is to know about any event in our lives or that we read about, but we make assumptions about things that we can’t see based on what we have seen in similar circumstances before.
If you see a masked figure running from a bank, the movies you’ve watched, the news you’ve read, and your personal experiences with masks and banks will probably lead you to assume that the person has just robbed the bank. You’d probably be right.
Without assumptions, we’d be paralyzed by every new event. We would never be able to make decisions about anything because we’d have to analyze every detail and every detail about those details.
Unfortunately, our assumptions aren’t always right. Maybe there’s an employee costume party going on at the bank or the running figure was a horribly disfigured man late for an appointment with his plastic surgeon. Neither explanation seems likely, but they’re both possible.
The farther a situation is from our personal experiences, the more likely it is that our assumptions about it will be wrong. The passing of only a few decades or a few thousand miles can mean dramatic cultural changes.
Consider the differing experiences of farmers across the world in the same year. The work of a coffee grower in Indonesia, a Chinese rice farmer, a corn farmer in Iowa, and a greenhouse grower in Massachusetts has significant similarities. They plant, cultivate, harvest, and sell, but the differences are also significant. One might be a technician with an advanced degree in botany or biology, while another might be an illiterate slave. They speak different languages, use different tools and methods, have different values, follow different growing seasons and development cycles. They would not use the same vocabulary to record their life stories, nor the same metaphors to communicate their thoughts about God.
War, mass migrations, changes in language, economic conditions, technology… the potential complications can get…um…complicated. Now, extend that across thousands of years, a hundred generations and dozens of genocides, the rise and fall of empires and religions.
Welcome to Bible study.
The Bible was written over the course of 1500+ years, in multiple languages, by people with vastly different personal experiences and assumptions about the world. When you read it, you need to be aware of the historical, cultural, linguistic, and personal context of the original text, and even more aware of your own presuppositions.
If you approach the Bible wearing your modern American assumptions over your eyes, you are going to see much that isn’t there, and you will miss much that is. Your study will tend to reinforce what you think you already “know” rather than reveal what actually is.
The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, (2) “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. (3) For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, (4) but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (5) You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. (6) The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, (7) and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food. Leviticus 25:1-7
And if you say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ (21) I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years. (22) When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating some of the old crop; you shall eat the old until the ninth year, when its crop arrives. Leviticus 25:20-22
Every seventh year, called the Shemitah, God wants the land to rest from laboring for mankind. He promised that if his people allow the land to rest in that year–no sowing or reaping–then he would provide a triple harvest in the sixth year, enough to still be eating it in the ninth year.
This can all be a little hard to grasp when you don’t live in an agrarian culture, so I charted it out to see why we would need a triple harvest in the sixth year when we are only supposed to skip planting and harvesting in one year.
The GREEN BARS represent the time from planting until harvest.
The YELLOW BARS represent the harvest period.
The BLUE BARS represent the time in which that year’s grain harvest is stored and used.
The GRAY BARS represent the periods in which the fields are left fallow or are growing other crops.
The barley crop is in a darker shade than the wheat.
As you can see, the barley and wheat crops are planted beginning around the month of Cheshvan, roughly around October, and grow for 4-8 months before harvesting. The barley begins to ripen around the end of Adar and the beginning of Nisan, which is around March or April.
According to Leviticus 23:10-14, no barley from the new harvest may be eaten until after the wave offering that is done a few days after Passover. This wave offering is sometimes called Early Firstfruits.
The wheat harvest begins almost two months later at the beginning of the month of Sivan, just before the holiday known as Pentecost, Shavuot, or Later Firstfruits.
Each of these harvest periods lasts from one to two months, and that grain has to last until after Passover the next year. The crops from year 5 are stored and eaten up until the harvest of year 6.
Barley and wheat were the primary staple crops of the ancient Near East, including Israel. They were the main source of calories for almost everyone. Although God allows the people to eat what grows of its own in the 7th year, he does not allow mass harvesting for sale or storage, and there wouldn’t be a lot of grain growing on its own. Since there is no planting or harvesting in year 7, the harvest from year 6 has to last at least two full years or people will begin to starve.
If the people follow this plan, God promised that there would be a triple harvest in the 6th year. Why triple if only two years are required to get through the Shemitah year? Because a double harvest is the bare minimum to survive, and God wants to reward his people for their faithfulness. He doesn’t want us to barely get by.
In its plainest sense, this law only applies to those living in the land of Israel, and it requires that you leave your fields fallow in the 7th year and only eat what you have stored up and what grows on its own without cultivation. Don’t buy fresh produce at the grocery store. Don’t import avocados and tomatoes from Mexico. Just trust divine Providence.
However, the principle applies more broadly: God rewards those who trust in him and demonstrate their trust by keeping his commandments, even when they don’t make sense.
The rewards of the Kingdom of God are not stored up for the religious, the popular, the powerful, or even for those who suffer the most. There is nothing virtuous about self flagellation. No, the rewards of the Kingdom are stored up for those who trust in God.
I’m not saying that you will always be rich. Sometimes God makes you poor, like in the seventh year, so you’ll learn to trust in him more. Sometimes he makes you sick or takes away everything you have, like Job, but he only does it so that you will have the opportunity to grow into the great man or woman of God that he knows you can be.
Consider Joseph. When he was young, he was tactless and possibly a bit foolish, but he trusted God. Despite that trust, his brothers betrayed him and sold him into slavery. In Egypt, he was abused, slandered, and imprisoned.
He thought he would become the patriarch of a large and wealthy family. Instead he became the top prisoner in a dungeon, and a servant to white-color criminals. Despite many years of injustice and misery, Joseph kept his faith that God was in control and that justice would ultimately prevail.
But then Pharaoh had a nightmare that no one could interpret, and one of those criminals remembered the young Hebrew seer who worked in the prison. Joseph was brought up from the pit and–after thirteen years!–rewarded with status and wealth beyond anything he had ever dreamed.
It’s hard to see the finish line when your course is through valleys, jungles, and swamps, but if we could always see exactly what reward lay at the end, we’d have no need for faith.
Great trials build great faith, and great faith brings great rewards, but the timing and the forms of trial and reward are God’s to decide, not ours.