Three ways to live

Which is your way?

Biblical Interpretation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 4:04 am on Saturday, June 30, 2007

This is another topic I am currently studying to better understand the why and how of bible studies. My sources are a book by Grant Osborne, “The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation“, and a series of lectures by Robert Stein, a senior professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Biblical Interpretation concerns the study of the meaning of Biblical texts. It is important to see that there are two levels of meaning. The first is the meaning that the author intended to convey. The second is the implication of the intended meaning for the current situation or “contemporary significance”.

Consider a simple example, Ephesians 5:18 (NIV), “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”

What is the intended meaning of this verse? That we shouldn’t get drunk on wine? If yes, that means it’s OK if we get drunk on vodka, or beer. But the vodka wasn’t mentioned is simply because it didn’t exist then. Even if it did, what is the point mentioning every single alcoholic drink. So, was the original meaning not to get drunk on any alcohol? If we accept this meaning, then drugs are alright, which again doesn’t lie square. So, the most likely intended meaning was that we should not consume in large quantities any substance that can make us lose control of ourselves.

What does it mean to us today (what our today’s implications)? Not getting drunk on whiskey, cognac, or getting high on a drug or glue, or whatever else people invent to get “high”.

Note that intended meaning is independent of culture, while contemporary significance is highly dependent on it. The intended meaning is abstract, significance is very practical.

There are two common mistakes people make with regard to these two meanings:

1) Stop after discovering the intended meaning, assuming that implications are obvious. Nothing can be farther from the truth! Consider implications of the statements, “You cannot serve both God and material possessions” or “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Their implications are pretty much still a matter of many debates.

2) Bypassing the discovery of the original meaning. This posses several dangers. One is taking Bible too “literally”. The Bible was written to a particular culture, some aspects of which no longer exist today. Hence following commands explicitly may result in “blind obedience” that is often misguided, frustrating, and plainly wrong. Some examples include calls for women to wear head scarves or be silent in church. Another danger is limiting your obedience to only things explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Many things have changed in 2000 years, many new issues appeared that simply did not exist before. Wrongly responding to these situations is equivalent to disobeying God.


Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 11:12 pm on Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Our bible study group has just split into two and I will be leading one of the groups starting this August. In preparation, I am revisiting theological foundations of small group meetings and planning a series of posts on some of the things I learn on the way (in no particular order). In this post I cover the “hot” topic of contextualization.

Contextualization is typically defined as adapting communication in the body of Christianity to the culture by selecting some practices, some concepts, some words, as appropriate vehicles to convey your ideas. The reason this is a hot topic today is because many feel that this adaptation is equivalent to “selling out” or “dumbing down” to the culture and hence carrying a danger of losing the original truth and force of the message. A notable speaker in this camp is John MacArthur, who published numerous books on this topic, the latest being “Fool’s gold” (to my knowledge).

In the other camp is Rick Warren, the author of bestseller “Purpose Driven Life”, who insists that the Christian message in its original form is not relevant. Warren was heard saying: “I’ve heard pastors proudly say, We’re not here to entertain. Obviously they’re doing a good job at it. A Gallup poll a few years ago stated that, according to the unchurched, the church is the most boring place to be. . . . To the unchurched, dull preaching is unforgivable. Truth poorly delivered is ignored. On the other hand, the unchurched will listen to absolute foolishness if it is interesting. . . . When God’s Word is taught in an uninteresting way, people don’t just think the pastor is boring, they think God is boring!” Another supporter of this approach, William Hybels states, “Unchurched people today are the ultimate consumers. We may not like it, but for every sermon we preach, they’re asking, Am I interested in that subject or not? If they aren’t, it doesn’t matter how effective our delivery is; their minds will check out.”

First thing we must understand is that contextualization is inevitable. For example, translation the Bible from Greek to English is an example of contextualization. Pastor who choses an appropriate example, relevant to the audience, to illustrate his point is contextualizing. So the question should be not whether we should contextualize (we must!) but where to draw the line.

In this respect, I find comments by Timothy J. Keller, a senior pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, very helpful. His definition is “Contextualization is not giving people what they want. It is giving God’s answers (which they probably do not want) to the questions they are asking and in forms they can comprehend.” This means that some parts of the culture you use and adapt, others you reject. It means becoming like culture in some ways, yet challenging it in other ways.

He proposes two basic principles that should guide contextualization:
1) Do not remove offensive essentials of the Bible (sin, repentance)
2) Do not bring any non-essentials that may confuse people

Contextualization is necessary and its correct implementation depends on how well we understand the gospel and the culture. It requires an ability to see the good things that the culture has to offer (something that MacArthur seems not to be able to do) as well as the things that need to be challenged. Finally, it requires a great deal of apologetics – ability to address difficult questions that the culture is asking.

Judging others

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 9:13 am on Saturday, June 23, 2007

I became quite familiar with this topic as I had to teach it twice over the last two months (for two different bible studies), so I thought I will share my findings in this blog.

The question is, Should we judge other people or not? Some people behave as if they are the only ones who’s got the truth; hence they can tell the rest of the world how to live and pass serious judgment on them if they don’t comply. Others say we should avoid passing judgment, learn to accept others as they are, let God judge. In support of this claim they often quote Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” or just point out how non-judgmental Jesus was.

The truth, as it often happens, is right in-between. Here are some important lessons that can be drawn from the Bible:

1) Christians must not judge others for something they are guilty of themselves (hypocritical judgment) – Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:37-42
2) Christians must not judge disputable matters that are not openly prohibited in the Bible – Romans 14:1-4, 1 Corinthians 8, Colossians 2:16, or are just a matter of opinion – 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
3) Christians are called to judge their fellow Christians when they sin – Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Corinthians 5:1-5,12
4) Christians are called to leave the judgment of non-Christians to God – 1 Corinthians 5:12-13

These conclusions imply that Christians churches should have a soft shell (be soft to non-Christians) and a hard interior (be tough on their own members). However, exactly the opposite is often the case. The churches are often trying to impose Christian values on people who do not share the same beliefs (abortion, homosexuality, etc.). Yet, when addressing their own congregations, there is often too much emphasis on God’s love and neglect of God’s judgment and His intolerance of sin.

What does the Bible say about Harry Potter?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:13 am on Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ever wondered what does the Bible say about Harry Potter? Or about the war in Iraq?

Now you can!

Take a look at this recent OpenBible project to create a new topical Bible. The basic idea is similar to that of Wikipedia. Any user can contribute a verse they think is relevant to the existing topic or start a new topic. Some standard of quality is maintained through a voting system, where the users are able to choose which verses they considered helpful.

I gave the system a try by searching for topic “Judging others”, which is missing from most topical Bibles. I was quite impressed with what I got – it practically coincided with the result of my own research, which took me more than one hour. I am really looking forward to see how this system will eventually evolve!

A word of warning, though. Some of the verses given are short and hence there is a danger of reading out of context (see one of my previous posts). So don’t be lazy to take out your own Bible, navigate to the verse and read a paragraph before and after. This is a very good discipline.

Jesus’s DVD

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 3:30 am on Friday, June 15, 2007

During our recent church camp, the speaker David Cook gave a description of judgement day to help explain how Christ saves us through faith, and not by our own works, on that day. The imagery he gave stuck in my mind…

He asked us to imagine that on judgement day, when all believers and non-believers will be called to account for our lives, we are standing in line with a dvd of our lifes waiting to play it before God. All the good and bad things we have done will be on the dvd, for all to see. And no one will be able to enter the gates of heaven unless his dvd is perfect, for God (being perfect) cannot accept sin. And when it comes to a Christian’s turn to play his dvd, Jesus will step in and allow us to play his dvd instead of our own so that when God sees us, He sees Jesus’s life and work and is able to accept us.

This concept of free and undeserving grace goes against everything we know. Since we were children, we have been taught that we only deserve to be rewarded if we have done something good or are deserving. While we can sometimes hide our true self to earn the reward and approval of others, only we ourselves know how sinful we are and how we almost always never do what we know is right. We can never pass God’s test with our own DVD…no matter how good we think we are.

Thankfully, Jesus willingly lends us his DVD to play before God. What can we do to thank him for this free gift of grace?

Click here to listen to David Cook’s sermons during the church camp.

Never quote a bible verse out of context

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 9:53 am on Thursday, June 14, 2007

We all heard many times that we should not quote Bible verses out of context. I must say I was personally guilty of this on several occasions, latest being misquoting Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” to mean that Jesus is always in the midst of our gatherings and prayer meetings. Looking at the context in verses 15-19 makes it apparent that Jesus didn’t mean this at all. Here he speaks on church discipline and the authority he gives to decide what’s right and wrong in terms of practical application, not some general presence in some random gathering. Another very common misquotation is “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” in Matthew 7:1 and parallel verse in Luke 6:37, which commonly mistaken to mean that we should avoid judging others. Looking at the broader context reveals that both verses apply only to hypocritical judgment. So there is nothing wrong with passing judgment on others when they sin, and we are told to do so in Matthew 18:15-18. See Never read a Bible verse article by Gregory Koukl for other common mistakes. Not sure if you agree with his conclusions regarding verse memorization and devotional reading, but at least we should all be aware of this problem and make a serious effort to avoid this kind of mistakes.

Will Christianity help me?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 3:18 am on Wednesday, June 6, 2007

But still – for intellectual honour has sunk very low in our age – I hear someone whimpering on with his question, “Will it help me? Will it make me happy? Do you think I’d be better if I became a Christian?” Well, if you must have it, my answer is “Yes.” But I don’t like giving an answer at all at this stage. Here is a door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either it is true, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal “sell”on record. Isn’t it obviously the job of every man to try to find out which, and then to devote his entire energies wither to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug? faced with such an issue, can you really remain wholly absorbed in your own blessed “moral development”?

All right, Christianity will do you good – a great deal more good than you ever wanted or expected. And the first bit of good it will do you is to hammer into your head (you won’t enjoy that!) the fact that what you have hitherto called “good” – all that about “leading a decent life” and “being kind” – isn’t quite the manificent and all-important affair you supposed. It will teach you that in fact you can’t be “good” (not for twenty-four hours) on your own moral efforts. And then it will teach you that even if you were, you still wouldn’t have achieved the purpose for which you were created. Mere morality is not the end of life. You were made for something quite different from that…

“Man or Rabbit?”
in God in the Dock

The Great Sin

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 6:26 am on Saturday, June 2, 2007

There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have evr heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice…

The vice I am talking about is Pride…According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison; it waas through pride that the devil became the devil; pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.

Does this seem to you exaggerated? If so, think it over. I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself,” How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronize me, or show off?” The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride…Pride is essentially competitive.

In God, you come up against something ehich is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that-and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison-you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you…

C.S Lewis
taken from Mere Christianity
Book III Chapter 8

People who had most impact on my Christian walk

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 9:09 am on Friday, June 1, 2007

There are two people who have had a profound impact on my Christian walk: C.S. Lewis, a famous British writer and apologists in 1950s, and Timothy J. Keller, a senior past at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City.

C.S. Lewis’s book “Mere Christianity” ended up in my hands (quite miraculously) during my first serious faith crisis. I was flying disillusioned by the church from Tokyo to New York with a stopover for a conference in Vancouver, having lost my glasses on the way and feeling totally helpless. I get off that plane a completely changed person. Since then I have probably bought and read every one of his books. Some of my favorites include “Abolition of Man”, “The Weight of Glory”, “Screwtape letters” and “The Great Divorce”.

Timothy Keller came into my life during my first spiritual stagnation. At that time I was happily attending a church, spending a lot of time with my newfound Christian friends. And yet, something within me was telling me there is a lot about Christianity that I don’t know or understand. That was the time I met my future wife, Su Ling, who introduced me to Tim’s teachings. From the very first sermon I heard I knew it was it – the missing piece I was looking for.

If C.S. Lewis was the one to whom I attribute my real conversion (although I was baptized a few months prior to that), Timothy Keller was the one who helped me start growing – the process that I can feel is still on-going. Hopefully, I will be able to share more of the insights from their teaching in this blog as time goes by.