(Lisa Robinson)

I have found one of the biggest differences between good Bible reading and Bible reading that is disjointed or otherwise skews what is being communicated, is how we understand the relationship between what is transpiring through the Bible’s narrative vs what we read as directed towards us.   It is understanding what is descriptive vs what is prescriptive.  In fact, I would include prophetic discourse in that as well.  Our understanding of how these two are related will depend, in large part on  instruction and training we receive with respect to how to understand each of the Bible’s 66 books.  This instruction would include understanding that each author is communicating to a particular audience, addressing particular situations or norms, what type of book it is (narrative, wisdom, letters), and how it correlates into God’s overarching narrative in salvation history.

Through my own personal experience and observation of many, there is an inverse relationship between the level of instruction and the tendency to personalize passages as being directed towards us.  What do I mean by that?  I have observed that without instruction, there is a tendency to read the Bible as if everything is being communicated directly to us.  I did just that for many years, especially related to the prophetic books and using that as an indicator of what God was communicating to me personally.  With a personalized focus, there will also the tendency to expect  what transpired through the pages of narrative to be replicated today, especially if it is believed as direct communication.

I believe it is of utmost importance for every Christian to understand how to read their bible, which starts from understanding what it is and how it was put together.  As long as we use language like “manual for living”, it will be nothing more than a self-help guide so that we can stay on track with our Christian life and abide by Christian living principles.  But I believe that is a misrepresentation of God’s self-revelation, which displayed throughout all 66 books.  And this must be considered according to the trajectory that is being laid out through the bible’s narrative.

Don’t get me wrong, there is instruction in there for us, particularly in the New Testament letters.  These were written to situations that were going on the Church, general exhortations to the Church and/or warnings and exhortations to individuals.  Even with the letters, they were addressing an historical and cultural reality that must be taken into consideration.  There are also general principles to glean from how God relates to his people.  The wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiates, Job)  provides timeless principles as well, although we must be aware of historic and cultural references.

As Christians, we want to understand what God is communicating to us through the pages of scripture.  If we start with the premise that He is communicating Himself as He intersected with human history, this will temper how much we understand is being directed to us personally vs what He is doing in the course of salvation history.  Thus, when an author is addressing a particular situation, or audience or providing prophetic discourse, it must be seen as what God is doing in that particular setting in relation to what he is doing overall.  In that discourse, there will be language and concepts used in a way that the original audience would understand.

But specifically when it comes to bible narrative, it is important to understand that the authors are explaining what happened.  And for that, I think a brief sketch is in order.  As the pages of the biblical narrative unfold, we see God’s intentional actions towards his creation, His calling out of a people to Himself,  His promise to them, His instruction to them and provision for their consecration to Him. This is why the first five books are classified as the Pentateuch, meaning Law.

Then the narrative continues.  They enter the land that was promised but reject God’s leadership.  They eventually get a king and a promise of eternal kingship.  But the earthly kings, generally did not do what was right and this eventually leads to the seemingly end of God’s promises.  Enter the prophets who spoke as direct communication from God to His people.   It is significant to note that the prophets as God’s spokespeople (see Hebrews 1:1), were addressing the situation that was going on with Israel.  That has to be at the forefront when we read the prophets.  In that, there is a prophetic foretelling of God’s promises and correction, especially related to the unveiling of His Son.

Thus, there must be a Christo-centric focus to how we read narrative.  The gospels are explaining of Christ’s fulfillment of the law and prophets (Matthew 5:17) and how he was establishing something new.  What is explained in the narratives must be reconciled to what God had accomplished and promised throughout the Old Testament narrative.   How he addresses the religious leaders and cultural norms is not necessarily a blanket prescription for us, though as Christ followers we do want to pay attention to how he deals with people and what exactly he is teaching.  He is revealing God to us, and thus we see the heart of God in His actions.  He is addressing cultural expectations and norms while all the while gradually unveiling how He has come with respect to God’s promises and what He has come to establish.

He calls eyewitnesses so that they can teach others what this all means for them.  Thus, right before his ascension, he tells these eyewitnesses what the must do – be his witnesses (Acts 1:8).  So the book of Acts is explaining what happened with the establishment of the Church, the shift from an external manifestation of God’s glory to the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit – Christ in us the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).  We see the conflict between the old establishment and the new inclusion of Gentiles as the people of God, even though this had been promised through the Abrahamic covenant.   Acts explains how all this unfolded, as thus the transition from a Jewish orientation towards the establishment of churches in the Gentile world, replete with the cultural conflicts that church faced.

So based on this brief sketch, I wanted to cite some examples of passages that have been used as a personally directed reference but not  rightly correlated with what is going on in the biblical text.   It should demonstrate the caution we should use when examining what God was doing then vs. what is directed for us now as a direct communication or prescription for our Christian life.

Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

What is going on?  The Israelites have been taken into Babylonian captivity.  They were removed from the land that God had promised them, the kingship was gone and all seemed lost.  Jeremiah is sent to them to remind them that God was not done with them yet according to what He had promised them.  Thus, in vs 14 He indicates “I will bring you back from captivity.  I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you.”  This is the plan God was referring to and if you keep reading he talks about some unfavorable plans he has for them as well.  While I don’t think it is wrong to say that God has plans for us, this verse is referencing a particular promise made that have nothing to do with us.

John 14:26 – “but the helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”

 What’s going on?  Jesus has gathered the apostles one last time to give them instructions before His sacrificial death, resurrection and departure.  They had learned of the Father’s plan related to the Son, from Jesus directly.  Now Jesus is bringing in the force of God’s Trinitarian outworking to let them know that what they have learned from him directly, the Holy Spirit will bring that back to their attention as they go out to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) and be his witnesses (Acts 1:4-8).  Personalizing indicates that the Holy Spirit will make us remember things.  Extreme examples including espousing a lack of preparation for a test or sermon or that we don’t need teachers because the Holy Spirit will give us the information.  But that is not what this verse is referencing.

Genesis 8:22 – “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter,  day and night will never cease.”

What is going on?  God is making a promise after the flood that he will never destroy life again.  He is indicating that life will continue to regenerate itself and there will always be seasons.   This is not a principle to be used for our personal harvest.  Unfortunately, there has been a philosophy of sowing and reaping that has been built around this one passage that I think is dishonest to what is being communicated and should probably do that in a separate post.

These are just a few examples and I could cite many more, such as 2 Chronicles 7:14.  Personalizing is bound to happen when we lift a verse out of its original context.   This is why it is really important to understand the situation the narrative is addressing before making applications to what it means for us personally.  A couple of links that I highly recommend.

Greg Koukl’s article Never Read a Bible Verse

Michael Patton’s article Bible Interpretation in a Nutshell

 

 

 


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    14 replies to "You Talking To Me?: Personalizing Biblical Narrative and Prophetic Discourse"

    • Chris Echols

      Lisa,

      Thanks for this post, but before I continue with my thoughts, can you give examples of verses that we can and should “personalize”?

      And could you share what was the last thing that the indwelling Holy Spirit taught you, if its not too personal?

      Thanks.

    • LCK

      I had to smile when I read this because I JUST had this conversation with someone. I recently heard two local Bible teachers use Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise to all believers. My complaint in this situation was not only that it’s bad exegesis, but that it models bad Bible reading for the people in the audience who then think that’s how the Bible should be read.

      Thanks for the post

    • Lisa Robinson

      Chris,

      The Holy Spirit’s role in bible reading is critical. He illuminates our understanding of what is going on in the passage and the relevancy to us. In this way, it is personal as God deals with us where we are. For instance, I’m at the tail end of Numbers in my reading and there have been places of conviction that speak to me personally in my own areas of rebellion. The difference is that I’m not taking Numbers as a direct communication to me. But I learn of the character and actions of God as he deals with His rebellious people. So what I mean by personal is directly applicable in the sense that I can make it prescriptive.

    • Chris Echols

      Thanks Lisa,

      Will you still give us, say, three passages of scripture that we and should “personalize”?

      While the tail end of Numbers wasn’t written to you directly, you say that it speaks to you personally in your own areas of rebellion (btw, join the club 🙂 ). But you say the difference is that you don’t take Numbers as a direct communication to you. Now I can read that and say, “you’re reading it wrong”, but I don’t know what you and Holy Spirit have been talking about, so I would be out of order to speak on that, right?

      So I want to tell you where I was when I first ran across Jeremiah 29:11, way before I ever heard of any type of “Word of Faith” movement. I know that Jer 29:11 wasn’t a direct communication to me, but the Holy Spirit directly communicated to me using that passage.

      Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

      What is going on? Chris had been taken into satanic captivity, just like Israel was in Babylonian captivity. Israel was removed from the land that God had promised them, the kingship was gone and all seemed lost, while Chris on the other-hand was in a situation where he felt lost not being able to live with his parents from age 7-16. Jeremiah is sent to them to remind them that God was not done with them yet according to what He had promised them, while God told me that he had something for me to do as well. Thus, in vs 14 He indicates “I will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you.”

      God brought me back to the place where I belonged as well, as taking me to places I never dreamed!

      So while I knew full well that my name wasn’t “Israel”, I believe that “He sent out his word and healed [me], and delivered [me] from [my] destruction.” —Psa 107:20 ESV

      Now even though I believe that, experienced that, was comforted by that, you say that this is not why God put that scripture there? Is this not the Word that he sent to heal me? Because He did it again when I went through a divorce a few years ago.

      I was depressed and dejected because by this time, I’m a Christian and I had been told all my life that “God hates divorce”, so I was really hurt that my wife at the time wanted a divorce. Being a Christian man, I refused to sign divorce papers, although I was indeed a miserable wretch undone during that time.

      But I’m telling you that God used scripture that on the surface had nothing to do with me to tell me what I needed to do, and by God’s Sovereign grace I was healed… but others would tell me that it can’t be!

      I just believe that we need to be careful presupposing what the Sovereign God of the Universe uses just because it doesn’t fit the “systematics” we’ve been taught.

      “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.” —Rom 14:22

    • Lisa Robinson

      Chris,

      Please know that what I’m addressing here is not directed towards or against the WoF movement. Also, I would say that systematics have little or nothing to do with it. What I’m addressing is how we read and understand scripture. It is about hermeneutics not systematics.

      Now, I wholeheartedly affirm that God will use whatever is in his word or anything else for that matter, to communicate to us according to what He wants us to know. I’m not denying that Jeremiah 29:11 or any other passage can be used personally. What I’m referencing it understanding it as a blanket prescription for us when it was addressing a particular people in a particular situation.

      I do believe that God will give us personal metaphors. But I also think we have to sift what is going on in the OT through a Christological lens. It is a foreshadow of what Christ will accomplish. He is the one who releases from captivity, so I can look to passages in the NT (such as Colossians 1:13-14; Romans 8:1-4) and know that my position in Him releases me. So in wrestling with situations that divert my attention from who I am and whose I am, I can go to passages that remind me of this. Even in the OT narrative, I can be deeply edified by God’s faithfulness to his promises, plans and people as a reminder also of the one who called me to be His own.

      What I’m cautioning against is reading narrative and especially OT narrative in a way that makes things prescriptive. And yeah, Psalm 107:20 is directed to us because he has sent his Word to heal us, did he not?

      Also, to answer your question about direct communication, I was struck by this verse this morning while reading John 6, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (vs 35). In my wrestling with deep disappointment and subsequent dissatisfaction, this verse hit me dead in the eyes. I can certainly emphathize with the disintegration of plans, hopes and dreams. I am always encouraged when I hear of our Lord’s healing and restoration in the lives of others. Glad to see that he is doing just that in your life.

    • Brad

      Lisa- thanks for the post, this is something I often consider (especially with the Jeremiah verse). The first article you linked was fantastic also.

      Chris- What I think Lisa is saying is that God CAN use verses in ways that speak very, very specifically to our lives, but that that should not be our basic mindset as we read the Bible. For example, I was just reading Isaiah 32:9-10, which basically says that in a year, those who feel secure will be brought to trembling. It is absolutely possible that in a year my complacency will have lead to my downfall (and this verse will have spoken specifically to me). But in general, it would seem wiser to take away that God humbles the proud, and I should therefore repent of any pride, complacency, and laziness, just as the audience of this prophecy were to.

      I too have had specific verses apply eerily well to my life at certain moments, but I don’t think that is what I should be searching for every time I read. However, I am often tempted to expect this, which can lead to some confusion.

    • Chris Echols

      Thanks Lisa and Brad,

      I hope I didn’t come off as a “defender of WoF” 🙂 but I can admit that I hardly ever read the bible for entertainment like I just finished reading the book about Steve Jobs. When I was really struggling, I heard some of God’s people say that the bible was God speaking to men. When I would ask how God speaks, people would always say, “God speaks through His Word”. So that’s why I guess many people turn to the bible to see what God has to say to them.

      When I read the bible (which I don’t read it now as much as I used to, because I find myself studying it more than just reading through it) I acknowledge and take into account who’s talking, what they talk about, etc…

      But let me ask you this: I’ve heard liberal bible scholars talk about reading the bible with the understanding of the author, the time and place, and the audience. What is the difference between what you’re saying here and what liberal bible scholars point out about how different authors wrote their respective letters and book for differing reasons?

    • Lisa Robinson

      Chris,

      The liberal, generally speaking, would say that God doesn’t speak through his word or that it is a recording of his interaction. They would see it as merely a guide for how God interacted then. That is different than saying the bible is the word of God and is his self-revelation. Yes, God does speak through His word. But even then we still have to accommodate the fact that he is intersecting within a particular culture at a particular time. When the human authors are writing about what happened, they for sure are being guided by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21), but that doesn’t mean we can ignore general rules of reading. The bible is divinely inspired (2 Timothy 2:16) but it is also a literary device as well.

      How would you like it if you wrote a letter to someone, then have them lift a sentence out of its context to apply it in a way you didn’t mean? But that is the danger of reading verses a direct communication divorced from its context.

    • Paul M

      Lisa,

      I’ve been enjoying reading your posts (as well as C Michael’s, et al.) A quote from Miles Coverdale kept popping into my head while reading (which I might guess you are already familiar) that harmonizes well with your post and has helped me: “It shall greatly help ye to understand Scripture if thou mark not only what is spoken or wrythen, but of whom and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth after.”

      Second, has anyone a thought on the use of applying a “Gideon’s fleece” especially within the context of this discussion?

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      You Talking to Me?

      The title reminds me of Robert DeNiro’s monologue from a movie he made a long time ago.

      BTW, good post.

    • Lisa Robinson

      Truth, I thought the exact same thing as I was coming up with the title. I actually thought of putting up DeNiro’s pic 🙂

    • Marv

      Lisa, a very fine post as always. I have a quibble–as always (LOL). Or perhaps more than a quibble with one of your examples.

      In regard to John 14:26, if someone takes it about remembering things, then that is more than taking it directly, it’s a poor interpretation. As far as remembering is concerned, sure, it really can only apply to the eleven there, or them plus others who may have heard Him in person. I don’t see why it wouldn’t apply to other disciples, for example, such as some of the eyewitnesses used by Luke.

      But the verse does have general application–i.e. Jesus didn’t mean it just for the eleven. We know this since 1 John 2:27 cites it. There John is quoting John quoting Jesus. He is obviously citing this verse:

      But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him. (1 John 2:27 ESV)

    • Lisa Robinson

      Marv,

      You with a quibble? Surprise :/. I don’t mean to imply that the Holy Spirit will not direct us. Of course He will. But I have seen this verse get relied on to insist that we don’t need preparation or study because its seen as direct mandate for us. Does that make sense?

    • […] what Jeremiah tells a different story than how the verse has been claimed. It’s why I wrote here that we have to careful when turning narrative or prophetic discourse into a personal prescription […]

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