Biblical Narrative Is Ambiguous (and Why That’s a Good Thing)

This might make your toes curl up inside your shoes, but the narratives of the Bible are ambiguous. Just to be clear, I am not saying that the Bible is false, untrue, misleading, or culturally confined. But its stories are ambiguous. Perhaps you remember being introduced to literary tools in your high school English class–simile, metaphor, figurative language, rhyme, rhythm, analogy, etc. Think of ambiguity as a literary tool.

An Invitation into the Story.

Biblical authors use ambiguity as a way of inviting you to the party.  If you are reading a story that lays everything out plain and simple, with the moral overtly stated and the villains and heroes clearly labelled, there is not much work left for you, the reader, to do. However, the Bible is not interested in disinterested readers. The God of the Bible wants to suck you in.

Take Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for instance. The play was written to be performed with no set and minimal props. And why? Because we are meant to imagine not a particular town but rather our town. Without specific details to create distance between the events and our own experience, the narrative unfolding becomes proximate, immediate, real.

Intentional ambiguity also allows for multiple, overlapping interpretations. A good author is not content to tell you how he thinks about the characters, the plot, or the outcome. Part of the delight of reading is being able to draw your own conclusions and make your own inferences. What fun is a connect-the-dot when all the dots have been connected for you?

The Bible Is Not a 19th Century British Novel.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein. You know the ones I’m talking about: Introspective tomes with a decidedly omniscient narrator. They’re great novels. But the Bible is not one of them. We hardly ever get to hear the inner thoughts of the characters. We hardly ever get a blunt description of a character’s motives.

This might be unsettling at first. We are so used to being made privy to a character’s intimate thoughts and motives. In contrast, the Bible can seem impersonal and the characters distant. Additionally frustrating is the fact that we know the biblical Narrator is omnipotent. God himself knows exactly why characters act the way they do. On rare occasion, the Spirit gives us a brief peek into a protagonist’s mind–take note when he does! He knows the minds of his characters. By choice, he keeps them hidden from us most of the time.

Biblical Authors Withhold.

Which brings us to our final point. The narrators of the Bible–particularly Old Testament authors–withhold. They don’t tell us everything. They don’t conclude each story with a succinct nugget of truth like one of Aesop’s fables. Often we’re left bewildered as to who the true heroes and villains actually were.

Certainly, there is a difference between intentional and unintentional ambiguity.  Unintentional ambiguity is sloppy writing and poor communication. In contrast, intentional ambiguity is an author’s prerogative. When an author intentionally withholds information, he does it because the story is actually better without it. Ambiguity is the biblical author’s way of winking at his readers. When you and I are able to read between the lines and discern motives, connections, and desires without that information being overtly stated, it’s a win-win for both the author and us.

The Bible Reads Like Real Life.

imagination_and_biblical_narrative_515455426Does any event in life have just one meaning? Can the experiences in our lives be boiled down to heroes and villains? Do we ever fully comprehend the inner desires and motives of the people we interact with? Do we even fully comprehend our own thoughts and motives?

Biblical narrative reads like real life. There are multiple correct ways to understand the story. The narratives of the Bible refuse to be boiled down to a “moral of the story”.  The line between hero and villain is often blurry. Inner desires are questionable; motives are a guessing game. Ambiguity makes all of this biblical beauty possible.

I believe this is why nearly 75% of the Bible is narrative. Do we ever fully comprehend the tapestry of God’s sovereignty that hangs behind the events of our lives or the lives of others? Biblical narratives will never be fully exhausted. There is always room for more exploration. There is always a place for another angle.  I would argue that narrative is actually more applicable to life than strict directives.

In a society increasingly divided, many want to draw God’s Word into their own interpretive universe. They will fail every time. Intentional ambiguity is a gravitational force that draws us into orbit around God’s Word, never vice-versa. 

In some sense, the ambiguity of Biblical narrative shows us who God is–a God who will never be fully comprehended. He is a God who will forever be explored, who has new mercies tucked around every corner, and who has new joys for us every morning. After all, isn’t it the chief end of man to glorify God and enjoy him forever?

The next time you get frustrated with those biblical authors for making their stories so hard to understand, remember: God did it for a reason. Who is a better author than God?  Not only is he writing history, but he wrote the most perfectly accurate–and at times beautifully ambiguous–account of that history in His Word.

For more intense study and a host of examples, see Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative.  I do not endorse everything Alter espouses, but when it comes to analyzing the Biblical narrative of the OT, he is tops!

(photo credit)

2.7 — John G. Paton and Steeled Conviction & Courage

In the mid 1850s, a call went out to the ministers of the Scottish Reformed Presbyterian Church for a new missionary to be sent to a chain of islands off the coast of Australia. John Inglis pleaded for another to be sent to help him, claiming that on his island alone “3,500 savages [had thrown] away their idols, renouncing their heathen customs and avowing themselves to be worshippers of the true Jehovah God.” None was found to answer the call. Their hesitation was understandable. Just a few years before, John Williams and James Harris, the first two missionaries to the New Hebrides Islands, had been eaten by cannibals only minutes after coming ashore.

News of the missionary call came to a young inner city church planter in Glasgow by the name of John G. Paton…

Resources:

John G. Paton and the Death of a Young Boy

One of the great things about studying missionaries from the past is the treasury of public domain books to be had free online either at Archive.org or Google Books written by those very missionaries. Recently while reading John G. Paton’s autobiography, I was struck by an account from his years as an inner city missionary in Glasgow.

Paton left a thriving ministry to drunks, prostitutes, and the urban poor to take the gospel to the cannibals in New Hebrides. Even forty years later, his accounts of that time glow with tender-hearted fondness.

This passage about the passing of an eight-year old boy named John Sims was particularly moving. Paton writes,

In my Mission district, I was the witness of many joyful departures to be with Jesus,—I do not like to name them “deaths” at all. Even now, at the distance of nearly forty years, many instances, especially amongst the young men and women who attended my classes, rise up before my mind. They left us, rejoicing in the bright assurance that nothing present or to come “could ever separate them or us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Several of them, by their conversation even on their death-bed, were known to have done much good. Many examples might be given; but I can find room for only one. John Sim, a dear little boy, was carried away by consumption [tuberculosis]. His childish heart seemed to be filled with joy about seeing Jesus. His simple prattle, mingled with deep questionings, arrested not only his young companions, but pierced the hearts of some careless sinners who heard him, and greatly refreshed the faith of God’s dear people. It was the very pathos of song incarnated to hear the weak quaver of his dying voice sing out,—

“I lay my sins on Jesus,
The spotless Lamb of God.”

Shortly before his decease he said to his parents, “I am going soon to be with Jesus; but I some times fear that I may not see you there.”

“Why so, my child?” said his weeping mother.

“Because,” he answered, “if you were set upon going to heaven and seeing Jesus there, you would pray about it, and sing about it; you would talk about Jesus to others, and tell them of that happy meeting with Him in Glory. All this my dear Sabbath school teacher taught me, and she will meet me there. Now why did not you, my father and mother, tell me all these things about Jesus, if you are going to meet Him too?”

Their tears fell fast over their dying child; and he little knew, in his unthinking eighth year, what a message from God had pierced their souls through his innocent words. One day an aunt from the country visited his mother, and their talk had run in channels for which the child no longer felt any interest. On my sitting down beside him, he said,—

“Sit you down and talk with me about Jesus; I am tired hearing so much talk about everything else but Jesus; I am going soon to be with Him. Oh, do tell me everything you know or have ever heard about Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God!”

At last the child literally longed to be away, not for rest, or freedom from pain—for of that he had very little—but, as he himself always put it, “to see Jesus.” And, after all, that was the wisdom of the heart, however he learned it. Eternal life, here or hereafter, is just the vision of Jesus.

-pp. 75-77 John G. Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides: An Autobiography

What If I Miss the Rapture?

So, I did a bad thing this past week.

I googled “what if I miss the rapture?”

For those who are not familiar with what I’m talking about, “the rapture” is a central piece of a dispensational reading of Revelation. The idea goes that when Jesus returns, he will come back secretly first and take all Christians up to heaven (i.e., “the rapture”). All non-Christians and Christian posers who missed the rapture would then be “left behind” to suffer through what people call “the tribulation”–a seven year period of pandemonium and earthquakes and bloodshed.

So, as I said, I made the unwise choice of googling “what if I miss the rapture?”

One of the hits was a 70 minute message by Benny Hinn by that very title, but I wasn’t worried enough to pay the $8 to find out his advice. Another top result was a 2017 article at Charisma News by Dr. Dave Williams titled: “What To Do If You Miss the Rapture.” It begins: “If you are reading this after the rapture has occurred, it’s because you weren’t ready.”

Williams then proceeds to give his best 20 pieces of advice for surviving in a left behind scenario. Here are some of the highlights: #2 Get rid of your cell phone (he recommends chucking it into a river or lake, mafia-style), #3 Do not kill yourself, #8 Don’t Go to church (think about it, only false teachers will be left behind), #9 Get a small, self-powered radio, and (the obvious one) #13 Refuse to take a mark, a name, a number, or a chip in your right hand or your forehead: “Once you get it, you will belong to Satan forever.”

It was all a bit too familiar.

Left Behind.

In some ways, those two words sum up the angst of a millennial growing up in youth group around Y2K. End Times everything was so hot back then. The world was supposed to end in the year 2000–something about all the computers exploding at midnight. Nineties Christian subculture did a good job of harnessing that fear as Revelation charts fluttered in church lobbies, and the Left Behind novels flew up the New York Times Bestsellers lists.

Tribulation-themed movies, messages, and Judgment Houses were all the rage. It was the wild west of “by-any-means-necessary” evangelism. DC Talk’s rendition of “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” still haunts my youth group memories to this day.

Rather than preaching that Christ–not the sincerity of a person’s faith–was the foundation of eternal assurance, youth speakers leaned heavy on this terrifying notion: “What if you’re not ready? What if you get left behind?” In moments of emotional distress, many of us made yet another decision for Christ–just in case we weren’t sincere the first dozen times. And we all know how sincere promises in moments of emotional distress can be.

I mean, really, who wants to be left behind?

An Ancient Fear.

All of this flooded back as I was studying Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians this past week. I was surprised to find that this fear of somehow missing the return of Jesus–of being left behind–is actually a very old phobia. 1 and 2 Thessalonians are the earliest New Testament books, written only fifteen or twenty years after Jesus’s ascension. Apparently, apocalyptic hysteria was already creeping into the church: Is it possible to miss the return of Jesus? What if the day of the Lord has already happened–or what if it happens, and I get left behind?

Paul addresses this fear in no uncertain terms:

“Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.”

2 Thessalonians 2:1-2

Paul does not feed fear. He confronts falsehood and flattens it. Regardless of the source, whether a popular preacher or revered set of novels or even a wrong-headed fervor passing through the churches, “…we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed” (2:2). What if I miss the rapture? Paul’s response is, “You can’t, you haven’t, and you won’t.”

Essentially, Chapter 2 begins: “…per my last email.” Paul has already explained this in his first letter. What the Thessalonians need—and what you and I need—is to stand firm in the truth he’s already taught us. Do not be easily shaken.

Just one or two pages back in your Bibles, or a few swipes up on your phone, you’ll find 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, particularly verses 16-18, where Paul explains,

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

1 Thessalonians 4:16-18

When fears of missing the return of Jesus creep into our minds, whatever the source, these words from 1 Thessalonians 4 are the ones we are supposed to cling to.

No, we do not know when Jesus will return, but when he returns we will all know it. The sound of Christ’s return will be like a bull in a china shop, like the blue angels at a Nascar race, like a toddler when you shush him: “…a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (4:16). No one in all of the universe will miss the return of Jesus.

When the Jesus who was hung on a cross and put in the ground, when the Jesus who was raised from the dead and exalted to the throne of the Father in Heaven returns in his glory, every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Stand in Hope and Fight for Holiness.

Friends, do not be so quickly shaken. Any sermon, any book, any preacher, any “Christian” resource that causes you to fear that maybe you could miss the return of Jesus and our gathering to be with him is false. It is an attempt of Satan to rob you of your hope. Paul warns in his next words to the Thessalonians: “Let no one deceive you in any way” (2 Thess. 2:3).

The Apostle John concurs in his first epistle:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”

1 John 3:2-3

This is why Satan wants to shake us. If he can rob us of our hope, he can rob us of our holiness. According to John, hope for tomorrow ought to motivate us to holiness today. Our battle against sin today depends on our unshakeable faith that when Jesus returns, we know that we will behold him.

Put those fears aside about being left behind or missing the day of his return. Instead, fill your minds with the fight for purity and holiness. Do not be easily shaken about tomorrow, so that you can fight with courage and boldness today.

(photo credit)

God Is Fair

My children are the fairness police in our home–and most violations have to do with snacks. Here’s how it plays out. One child comes to me and asks for an apple or a string cheese or a cookie, and if they get it, what do they do? Immediately, they go into the other room and parade around in front of their siblings. Without fail, one by one each of them comes into the kitchen, “Hey, that’s not fair. She has a cookie. I want one, too!”

Fairness is wanting one standard for everyone. A child’s mind assumes a fair universe: “If one of us gets a cookie, we all get a cookie.” The same standard for every kid. The good news—and bad news depending—is that we do live in a universe governed by absolute fairness. God’s justice is quite fair:

“…since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”

2 Thessalonians 1:6-8

A Just Repayment.

“God considers it just to repay.” When Jesus returns, everyone will be repaid according to what he has done in this life. Paul puts it this way in Romans:

“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”

Romans 2:6-8

Let’s say you were to invest your money–month after month, year after year putting it into a mutual fund. After decades of investing, you call up your portfolio manager as you roll out of your retirement party to find out what’s waiting in your account. Your broker responds: “Great news! After all your money-saving, here’s what I’ve secured for you: a lifetime supply of hotdogs! But wait, there’s a bonus–a warehouse full of cotton candy!”  You would be unhappy, to say the least. You have invested money. You expect to be repaid in money–not hotdogs…or cotton candy.

So, what return should human beings expect on all of the sin we keep investing, day after day? For the evil thoughts of our minds? For the evil intentions of our hearts? For the evil words of our mouths? For the evil actions of our hands?

What is the fair market going to return to you on the Last Day for my sin? Paul writes, “Indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict…” I can’t think of a more fair repayment than affliction for affliction. Why should God have regard for me if I have had no regard for him? This is not God being petty; this is God being fair. It is my just repayment. I have had no regard for God. I have not obeyed his King. God will have no regard for me nor will he allow me into his Kingdom (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

But, brothers and sisters, this is the good news for those of us who follow Jesus Christ and suffer for the sake of his Kingdom. When we suffer unjustly, when we are treated unfairly, when we are afflicted for Christ’s sake, God’s fairness guarantees us a just repayment: “…and [He will] grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us” (2 Thessalonians 1:7).

Are you tired of suffering? Are you weary of affliction? Cry out for the return of Jesus! The rest is coming with Him. Our just repayment for affliction in this life will be eternal, satisfying rest in the next. On that day, all accounts will be settled by just repayment.

A Fair Standard for All.

On the Day of Judgment, no one will be able to accuse God of being unfair. Each of us will get exactly what we have cried out for. The standard will be the same for everyone. For the rich and the poor. For the oppressed and the oppressor. For the black and the white and the brown and every other color. For the old and the young. For the Christian and the non-Christian. This shall be the fair standard for us all: the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the fair standard. He is the measuring stick. Each of us will be measured against his perfect righteousness.

But none of us can measure up to Jesus. Exactly. That’s the fairness of God’s justice. He does not bend his standard for the rich and powerful–or even for the religious. Our inability to measure up is the reason why Jesus preaching this message: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). This is not a suggestion, this is not even an offer. This is a command. Paul says, “…obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Every human being who does not obey the gospel call of Jesus Christ, will suffering the vengeance for the sins we’ve been stockpiling against a Holy God all our lives.

The Gospel of Fairness.

The fairness of God is good news to those of us who have obeyed the gospel. The gospel of our Lord Jesus says that for those who have repented and believed, our faith is “counted to us” as righteousness (Romans 4:22-25). The very righteousness of Jesus himself—every good deed, every act of obedience, every submission to the Father’s will—is given to us by faith as a gift (Romans 3:22-24).

This is why the fairness of God’s justice is such good news: There is nothing we can add. The standard by which all men and women will be judged before God is the righteousness of Jesus Christ–and we who have obeyed the Gospel have been clothed with that very righteousness. The God who set the standard has satisfied that standard–completely–in us through Christ.

What remains for us is not a life of trying to measure up or to improve our standing before God, but to live and rejoice in the righteousness of Christ. Trusting in the power of God to make us worthy to enter his Kingdom, we enter into “every resolve for good and every work of faith by His power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in [us]” (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12).

Today’s culture tells us what we need more than anything else is fairness. Fair pay, fair treatment, fair laws. Fairness will reign one day–if not in this life then in the next. What you and I need now more than ever is not fairness but forgiveness. May we trust that one day just repayment will be meted out for every affliction, sin, and injustice. May we believe that all will be judged by the same standard in the courtroom of God. And may it drive us to the feet of King Jesus pleading for his mercy.

(photo credit)

The Blessing of “And”

Preparing a new sermon on 2 Thessalonians last week, I carried a photocopy of the Greek text into the gym with me (as I often do). For about an hour, I couldn’t make it past the first two words of the letter:

“Paul and…”

2 Thessalonians 1:1

And. Such a seemingly insignificant word. The ESV replaces it with a comma–it’s not proper English to say “Paul and Silas and Timothy.” But I couldn’t get over the meaning invested in that second word of Paul’s letter: Paul…and.

This is actually a quite common way for Paul to begin a letter. Both 1 and 2 Thessalonians begin this way: “Paul and Silas and Timothy.” In fact, of his 10 letters written to churches, 7 of them begin Paul and… They aren’t merely addressed from Paul alone, but from Paul and: Paul and a co-laborer, Paul and a partner in the gospel, Paul and a fellow minister of the gospel.

This isn’t coincidental. Beginning with his earliest letters Paul knows and wants us to know the blessing of “and.”

Not Alone.

Perhaps you know what Paul experienced just before he planted the Thessalonian church. He and Silas and Timothy were just up the valley in a city called Philippi. After casting a demon out of a little girl, rioters attacked them, stripped them naked, beat them with nightsticks, and threw them in jail (Acts 16:22-23). Bloody and black-eyed, Paul found himself spending a sore night in a Philippian jail.

But when the midnight watchmen took their post, they heard a strange noise rising from the dungeon. A voice. Paul was singing. And then a second voice. Paul and Silas were singing. Bruised ribs heaved as fat lips formed the joyful praises of risen Savior. Hymn after hymn floated from the jail cell as Paul leaned into the blessing of “and.” He was not alone. A fellow minister of the gospel, a friend, a co-laborer was shackled to the wall next to him.

“Paul and Silas…” The opening three words of 2 Thessalonians remind us of that prison cell. It’s a beautiful illustration of the blessing of “and.”

One man can sing just fine by himself, but it took two men in that jail cell to harmonize. One eye can see just fine by itself, but it takes two eyes to see with three-dimensional depth. This is the beauty Paul is communicating in the opening words of 2 Thessalonians. It’s the beauty of men working together to lead the churches of God. The harmony, the sharing of authority, the mutual recognition, the protection, the camaraderie, the friendship of co-laborers in the gospel ministry.

From his earliest endeavors, Paul wanted fledgling churches to know that they hadn’t joined a personality cult. Paul and…indicated to the Thessalonians that Paul is one of many ambassadors and co-laborers in the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.

First and 2 Thessalonians are the first letters of Paul and the earliest Christian writings in the New Testament. In them, he uses the pronoun “I” only eight times. Compare that with a whopping seventy-four occurrences (!) of the word “we.” Furthermore, consider how even in his very first epistle, he is encouraging believers to honor and respect the ministers of the gospel in their local church (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). Paul was spreading the blessing of “and” to every church he planted.

Co-laborers.

Brothers and sisters, if we will receive Paul’s instruction and example, every one of us ought to be pleading:

Lord, give us the blessing of “and.” One man preaching the gospel alone is good, but we want “Paul and Silas and Timothy.” In the church, we want the most full-orbed, well-rounded, beautiful gospel proclamation possible, resounding in every prison cell in this town, finding its way into the dorm rooms and nursing homes and houses, echoing off the walls of classrooms and in the streets. We want the harmonic gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed by a plurality of elders and pastors uniting their voices to sing the praises of the one Shepherd.

We are all shaped by different passions and experiences and opportunities and spiritual gifts, and the most beautiful gospel is going to be sung from the pulpit week after week by different men, not the same voice every week–as good as that voice may be. Different voices provide different emphases. Different voices demonstrate gospel plurality—that men and women from different ages and backgrounds and colors are all saved by the same Jesus and draw into the diverse body of Christ. Men old (like Paul and Silas), men young (like Timothy).

Let us pray for the blessing of “and”. The loneliness and dejection are palpable when as an old man Paul writes, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:16). Brothers and sisters, if the Apostle Paul desperately needed co-laborers and fellow ministers, every pastor does. No pastor is meant to preach the gospel alone.

May each of our churches be filled with fellow prisoners of the Cross, men in chains harmonizing in beautiful plurality to the glory of Christ!

(photo by Martina Flor)

2.6 — David Brainerd and Power in Weakness

On March 20, 1747, a twenty-nine year old David Brainerd said goodbye to his congregation of Delaware Indians for the last time. His long battle with tuberculosis ended in Northhampton, Massachusetts, on a bed in the home of Jonathan Edwards. He passed away October 9, 1747.

Brainerd had been a missionary for only four years.

He’d only seen a handful of converts.

He had only been a believer for eight years.

During the two years following his death, Jonathan Edwards compiled Brainerd’s diaries and journal and published them as An Account of the Life of the Late Rev. David Brainerd. It has been in print ever since. John Wesley insisted it was a must read for every preacher.  William Carey called it “almost a second Bible.” Robert Murray M’Cheyne would write: “Oh, to have Brainerd’s heart for perfect holiness.” The book would become the best-selling religious book in 19th century America and Jonathan Edwards’s most read work.

Learn why this man’s weakness has demonstrated the power of God to generation after generation of missionaries, pastors, and Christians.

Here are some further resources: