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Occasional Letters - The Wood and the Trees

D Newell, Glasgow

Seeing a retired colleague early one morning labouring his way up University Avenue I made haste to join him, and fell into synchronised puffing alongside. He was going, he told me, to attend a meeting of the Piers Plowman Reading Group. For those who are interested, Piers Plowman is a lengthy Middle English allegorical poem from the 14th century, written by a minor cleric called William Langland. I inquired politely about the progress of the reading group. He sighed. "It’s dreadfully slow. People will spend ages looking at individual words in such minute detail that we only get through a few lines of verse each time we meet. As a result we fail to see the wood for the trees. You can only really understand a single line of poetry when you see it in the wider context of the whole poem." And I thought to myself (but I did not say it out loud), "How true; many an assembly Bible reading has exactly the same problem!" Microscopic examination of any verse of Scripture must always be counterbalanced by an accurate working knowledge of the purpose and the structural pattern of the book from which that verse is taken.

But the best way to make the point is to cite some examples. Let’s take a couple from the marvellous final chapter of Philippians. First, here is what many take as a general pledge of God’s unconditional provision for His saints: "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (4.7). Certainly, it is a lovely promise that the tranquillity of soul which can only come from God Himself, a serenity beyond human comprehension, will garrison the minds of His people in Christ. Whatever my circumstances the Lord can settle my heart. But wait a moment. Are there no conditions? The verse significantly begins, "And", which conjunction makes us look back to what precedes. And what precedes is a clear command that we avoid anxious care and instead consciously commit ourselves and our concerns into the hand of the God who cannot fail. "Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God" (4.6). It is only as we obey the command that we shall enjoy the promise. And when you think about it, it makes sense. Once we are taken up in prayer with the things of God, giving thanks for our blessings in Christ, we rise above the worries of this world and find our minds occupied with the heavenly and eternal. Here is another simple example from the same chapter: "But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus" (4.19). Is this a guarantee of earthly prosperity? The conjunction this time is "But" (although the lexicons explain that it can be "either adversative or continuative", meaning either "But" or "And"). Whatever the case, and Bible translations differ, it again forces us to look back to the earlier verse. "I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God" (4.18). Here it helps to know the background to the letter. Paul, imprisoned at Rome, had received a material gift from the assembly at Philippi, delivered to him by Epaphroditus, for which he was writing a formal but earnest acknowledgment. Philippians is, among other things, a "thank you" letter. This not only explains earlier verses like 1.5 and 2.17, but also makes our key verse come alive. Far from a blanket assurance that the Lord will automatically meet our needs, Paul is saying to believers who have sacrificially given to his support that they will not lose out. Just as they have been used of God to supply his needs in Rome, so "my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus" (4.19). In the first example, the immediate context interprets a verse; in the second, the wider context of the letter as a whole assists our understanding.

Let’s move to Hebrews. Chapter 8 devotes several verses (8.8-12) to Jeremiah’s promise about a new covenant yet to be established with Israel and Judah. But why? Here we have to keep in mind the controlling purpose of the letter. It was to remind recently converted Jews, who might be tempted to revert to Judaism, that what they had in Christ was far better than what they had given up. Part of the point, then, is to show these saved Hebrews that even the Old Testament confessed the insufficiency of the Sinai covenant, because it spoke of another, a new covenant, to be inaugurated in the future. That is, the Mosaic system was never meant to be God’s final word. But that can hardly be all. It may have been of theoretical interest for saved Jews in the first century to know that a future repentant remnant of their nation would one day come into the astonishing blessings of regeneration (8.10-11) and remission of sins (8.12), but what about them? Were they missing out on these benefits? In other words, do believers of the church age have any relationship with the new covenant? Answer: yes! After all, every time we remember the Lord Jesus at the breaking of bread we are linked with that covenant (1 Cor 11.25). One of the contributors to Mal Couch’s excellent Dictionary of Premillennial Theology makes this assertion: "God may do more than He promised, but He cannot do less". I find that very helpful. In matchless grace God has chosen to bring believers of the present era into the spiritual benefits of the new covenant, even though this extension was not specified in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, just as Jeremiah predicted, a future generation of Israel will assuredly enter the full national, spiritual and physical blessings of that covenant. We (like those first-century Jewish saints) are simply enjoying a foretaste of what is to come.

In 1 Corinthians you often need to read further to comprehend Paul’s argument. The letter is about the Lordship of Christ as it is to be reflected in the conduct of a local assembly. Now, in chapter 3 it sounds at first glance as though the Corinthians were dividing up into rival parties loyal to Paul or Apollos. "For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?" (3.4-5). But in the following chapter we discover that Paul was in fact being very tactful: "these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another" (4.6). Instead of naming the local leaders of assembly factions Paul kindly used the names of Apollos and himself, and in so doing undermined any glorying in man. If it was wrong to glory in great teachers of the Word like Paul and Apollos, how much more inappropriate it was to form parties around the little men at Corinth! Chapter 3 therefore needs to be read in the light of chapter 4. Similarly, chapter 11 alone may give the impression that it is all right for women to participate audibly in the gatherings of the saints as long their heads are covered: "every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head" (11.5). But once we remember that Paul did not write in water-tight chapter units and that his argument continues into chapter 14, we shall be alert for further information. The first section of chapter 11 deals with the symbolic testimony to headship in assembly gatherings, not with the practical matter of who should be taking part audibly. That is left until Paul has explained in chapter 12 the nature and purpose of spiritual gifts. Only in chapter 14 do we learn that, for example, not more than three gifted men should be teaching at any one meeting (14.29-32), and that the women should remain silent (14.34-35). It can hardly be accidental that the apostle underlines this prohibition with one of his most direct claims to divine inspiration: "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" (14.37). Lesson: we must always read in context.

There are good helps available to give us a bird’s-eye view of each book of Scripture, with the aid of structural diagrams and charts. Robert Lee’s old Outlined Bible is rather basic, but of greater assistance is the Nelson Complete Book of Bible Maps and Charts. Unquestionably best of all are the two superb volumes by Irving L Jensen: Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament and Survey of the New Testament. Have them on your shelf, consult them, and you will not easily become guilty of failing to see the wood for the trees.

To be continued.

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